Real Knockouts: An Interview with
    Martha McCaughey


An annotated review of Martha McCaughey's new book, "Real Knockouts: The Physical Feminism of Women's Self-Defense" (New York University Press, 1997)
Annotations by the author.

JCP: I'm somewhat annoyed with Martha McCaughey, even though I love her new book, "Real Knockouts: The Physical Feminism of Women's Self-Defense". It started early, with the first sentence of the introduction: "I was once a frightened feminist."

Reading, I wondered what she meant...that she was what Naomi Wolf calls a "victim feminist"?

She goes on to say she was "psychologically crippled" by the stories that she heard from victims and rapists. Did she mean she was frightened at having to face -- if she were to reveal her feminism to others, and thus her true self -- their negative, misinformed, and just plain mean reactions?

MM: The work of Naomi Wolf doesn't exactly form the theoretical backbone of my book. As you'll see in the preface to the book, I cite Elizabeth Grosz, whose work on "corporeal feminism" I think best captures what I'm trying to accomplish. In that preface, I also explain that I am definitely *not* a Katie Roiphe or a Camille Paglia. In fact, I even take the somewhat unpopular position that the work of so-called "victim feminists" like Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin has often been severely misunderstood, and is helpful and important. So what I meant by the line "I was once a frightened feminist" is that I'm still very much a feminist, but no longer as frightened or as 'crippled psychologically'--by which I meant that I was literally anxiety-ridden, as I explain in the introduction of the book.

My point in Real Knockouts is that reporting the fact that we've been victimized doesn't go far enough as an activist strategy because it can lead to the solidifying of the very discourses of sexed embodiment that we should ultimately deconstruct. And, such reports certainly don't disrupt the sense of power some men feel they have over women.

JCP: McCaughey seems to have some qualms about feminism and feminists in general. She claims that feminists don't agree with her about the necessity of self-defense. I wish she had talked to me. And just what are these "victim feminism" accusations that are so popular lately, anyway? As I understand it, Naomi Wolf and others believe that concentrating on the wrongs done to women and men in society results in the type of psychological crippling McCaughey refers to, and that therefore women are better off concentrating on all the good things in their lives. In a way, this is Martha McCaughey's approach. However, she limits her criticism of feminism to one arena -- self-defense.

MM: Had my approach and intent really been to focus on all the good things in women's lives, I would've written a book about all the 'good things' women have going in their lives, not Real Knockouts, a book about rape culture and a feminist approach to bodily transformation through self-defense. I don't think there's a simple dichotomy between harping on victimization and harping on the good things in our lives. Real Knockouts argues that women can't choose agency *over* victimization; instead, women's victimization and agency must be understood as operating simultaneously in women's lives. Given that perspective, looking at the self-defense movement and how it helps women and possibly helps subvert rape culture does not mean that we're not also still talking about women as oppressed and victimized. That victim vs. agent dichotomy you present does not exist. Therefore, I don't think my book, by looking at women's agency and empowerment in self-defense, is in danger of undermining women's legitimate claims of being victimized or oppressed.

JCP: McCaughey at times seems to be implying that women are so frequently attacked because they let themselves be. She does address this argument in the early part of her book, but I still felt that she believes that if women take more self-defense classes, they won't be attacked; and I find this awfully simplistic. Women are most often attacked by a friend, acquaintance, or loved one as a result of anger or thwarted power. I do doubt that these perpetrators would be swayed by the knowledge that their wives or girlfriends had taken Model Mugging.

MM: You suggest that a man who's going to assault his friend/lover/spouse would not be swayed if he thought he might face violent consequences for his violent actions. What do you think would sway that man? Are you suggesting that we live in a world doomed to this kind of violence against women? What, then, would the point of feminist struggle be, unless you advocate separatism?

Real Knockouts argues that challenging the sense of impunity with which many men attack women requires challenging the discourse of sexed embodiment--in which women are discursively positioned as 'rapeable' and 'beatable' and men are positioned as unstoppable and impenetrable. If Catharine MacKinnon, Andrea Dworkin, Susan Brownmiller, Sharon Marcus, etc. are correct, then the idea that men and women naturally differ in these terms is part of a culture that rationalizes, and even celebrates, men's attacks on women. So any effort to remove women from that position--at the level of cultural fantasy and discourse--might change the terms by which men can rationalize their attacks on women.

This perspective assumes that attacks on women come from a culture that makes "vocabularies of motive" readily available to men, who can then excuse and rationalize their violence toward women. (For example, "a-woman-in-a-short-skirt-wants-it" is a vocabulary of motive that is culturally generated and can serve as a rationalization for a man to attack. I suggest that women's embrace of self-defense might/could have an impact on rape culture and by extension the rape rate.

Of course, all of us in the anti-gender violence movement want to challenge rape culture precisely because we think that challenging rape culture will challenge the rape rate, so my approach is completely standard in this regard. My approach is different only in that I suggest self-defense and a new understanding of the body would affect rape culture.

Maybe I'm not addressing what you're really concerned with. You seem to have trouble believing that trained women could thwart attacks, at least attacks by acquaintances. I don't know how to convince you other than by providing the data from studies which show that most women who fight back thwart attacks successfully. The data were in my book and they obviously didn't convince you. I wonder why you believe that women could not fight back and win. Saying that women can fight back and often win the battle does not imply that an attack is ok or morally good. The attack is still wrong and bad. You seem most worried that self-defense training will weaken a woman's claim to oppression. I don't think it should, and I don't think it has to.

JCP: McCaughey states that not all men are capable of rape. She means - of course - physically. In this she is sadly wrong. She neglects the other aspects of male power and gender role training that often prevent women from struggling against men. Given the right circumstances, the "right" victim (nearly any one of us), and the opportunity, any man is capable of rape. Many men (according to studies of high school students) are in fact would-be rapists.

MM: I think you misunderstand the overall scope of my book. Real Knockouts is about all those "other aspects of gender-role training" that make women easy, and easily rationalized, targets for men's violence (see esp. Chap 1, "Balls vs. Ovaries"). I say in the book that most attacks against women don't even get to the point where a physical fight takes place. Self-defense training challenges the gender-role training you're talking about and gets women to question the culture of male power over women. What amazed me was the way training in self-defense helped women feel more confident in all sorts of situations with men, in which an attack and a response of self-defense wasn't even the issue. This shouldn't surprise anyone who believes that rape culture keeps women in line and keeps all men privileged, whether or not an individual woman in the rape culture gets attacked and whether to not an individual man attacks a woman.

I hope Real Knockouts gets feminists to think about and discuss why so many feminists are so wedded to the idea that men have all this physical and other power over us. I'm not saying structural, institutionalized sex inequality does not exist. Of course it does. But it seems that you, like many others, are wedded to the idea that women can't challenge men, as if that's foundational to (your version of) feminist politics.

JCP: The good news is that by reading "Real Knockouts" I learned that with the proper training, I stand a good chance of fighting away, knocking out, or wounding an attacker sufficiently to escape. I wish all women knew this and were prepared to do so. However, they aren't. And, with the cost of self-defense courses (according to McCaughey, and in my own experience) hovering around $425.00, they aren't likely to be.

MM: Not all self-defense courses are that expensive. Some instructors charge on a sliding-scale. Others offer free courses. But the expense of some kinds of self-defense trainng is another reason the women's movement needs to embrace women's self-defense training. That way, self-defense would reach far more women. Many women can't afford to leave their batterers, but thanks to the efforts of feminist activists, some of those women have the chance to go to shelters (though there still aren't enough shelters). Many women survivors of sexual assault can't afford to go to counseling for high fees, but thanks to the women's movement there are some counselors available at rape crisis centers.

Martha McCaughey is Assistant Professor of Women's Studies in the Center
for Interdisciplinary Studies at Virginia Tech.
A third-wave feminist active in anti-sexual assault education since 1989,
she developed, with colleague Neal King, an alternative method for such
education using images of women verbally and physically overpowering men.
McCaughey's scholarly work examines the embodied discourses of gender,
sexuality, and aggression.  Focusing on scientific narratives, popular
culture, and feminist theory, her work has been published in Hypatia,
Science as Culture, GLQ, masculinities, Teaching Sociology, and in
No Angels: Women Who Commit Violence, edited by Alice Myers and
Sarah Wright (Pandora, 1996).  She is currently coediting a book on violent
women in film and teaches courses in women's studies, science and
technology studies, and sociology.

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