Challenging gender norms: Women and men react to women's self-defense

Catherine McDermott-Coffin (2003)

The research presented in this dissertation used an interpretative approach to a qualitative analysis of interviews with fifty-nine women and six of the intimate male partners of some of those women. It was designed to understand the subjective experiences of the women graduates of a violence prevention program called Model Mugging (MM)--an intensive, full-force self-defense course for women that teaches self-defense skills and promotes empowerment. Using a social constructionist view of gender, the literature review drew from gender studies research in relation to violence against women. Specifically, this study examined the women's experiences as changes in their attitude and behavior challenged the traditional gender stereotype of women as weak, vulnerable and unable to protect themselves. Moreover, it examined how these changes are perceived and reacted to by the women's male social network--husbands, partners, brothers, fathers, uncles, sons, friends, bosses, and acquaintances--before, during and after completion of the program. Additionally, the study examined the reactions of six male intimates of some of the graduates during the same time frame--not to verify or validate the women's experiences but rather to understand the men's experience as a separate phenomenon. The effect of participation in MM resulted in the women's experiencing a strong resistance as they stepped outside of society's defined role for women. The overarching male reaction experienced by the women graduates was skepticism, which manifested itself as questioning, challenging, demeaning, and trivializing the women's experience. Similarly, the men reported their initial reactions as skeptical and cynical. For both groups, positive reactions were experienced and expressed after witnessing the actual physical demonstration of the women's self-defense skills, thereby implying a culture so steeped in gender stereotype that the very idea of strong women able to defend themselves must be seen to be believed. Results of this study may contribute to our understanding of how changes in women's attitude and behavior around vulnerability and violence against women impact the power dynamics between men and women.