The Box Exercise is vital to Home Alive’s curriculum. It highlights the false assumptions at the core of conventional views on violence and safety, and helps us establish a broader and deeper framework for thinking about self defense.
A whiteboard or big paper and markers. One instructor facilitating and writing and another instructor just writing. Draw a stick figure in the middle of the board. 8-15 minutes.
Ask: What are some messages you’ve heard about self defense, about avoiding violence, about how to stay safe? Just call out anything you’ve ever heard, from family, friends, TV, whatever. Whether you personally agree with it or not.
Take anywhere from 15-40 contributions, and write them on the paper around the stick figure as they’re offered. Ask questions to stimulate thoughts if it’s moving slowly: What have you heard about staying safe in the home/car? Anything you should wear/not wear? Any places you should go/not go? What have you heard about carrying weapons?
Ask participants to close their eyes while you read out the entire list.
Ask the group, “How do you feel?” Affirm the feelings that people name — usually, fear, frustration, a desire to hide away. Ask, “What themes do you notice here?”
Key Points About Mainstream Social Messaging Around Violence:
– Lots of DON’Ts. You will probably have listed many examples such as “Don’t walk alone at night,” “Don’t wear revealing clothes,” “Don’t use headphones,” “Don’t talk to strangers,” etc. In order to be safe, according to this messaging, we must lead very restricted lives.
– Lots of contradictions. “Make eye contact/Don’t make eye contact,” “Carry a weapon/A weapon could be used against you,” “Carry keys/Carry a cellphone/Have your hands free,” etc. It’s not physically possible to do all these things at once.
– Victim blaming. If you get attacked, it’s somehow your fault — there’s always going to be something on this list that you didn’t do. Also there’s very little social messaging about the importance of respecting people’s boundaries, about how no means no. The responsibility for avoiding violence gets put on the person victimized by it.
– Focuses almost entirely on stranger danger and invisibilizes intimate partner violence and acquaintance rape – which are much more common forms of violence, especially for women. If an important safety message we receive is to “lock your doors,” we may be actually locking ourselves in with someone who will harm us. Over 80% of physical attacks on women are by people they know on at least a first-name basis. For men it’s around 50%.
– Often contains many classist/racist/ableist assumptions (depending on your group, of course). “Stay out of ‘bad’ neighborhoods,” etc. The dominant society’s broadstroke idea about violence, subtly promoted in the media, is that it’s generally perpetrated by crazed dark men jumping out of the bushes attacking demure white women, who need to be protected/controlled for their own good. This is not a realistic picture of social violence. In actuality, people of color, people with disabilities, gender variant people, sex workers, and homeless folks are disproportionately more likely to be subjected to violence.
– Leaves state/institutional violence virtually untouched. Police brutality, abuse of elders and disabled folks in institutional settings, violence done to Native youth in boarding schools, sanctioned sexual violence in correctional institutions — these and other abuses perpetrated by established systems often go unaddressed.
– Essentially ignores violence against youth. For example, sexual abuse of children, most often perpetrated within the family, is disturbingly common, and yet hasn’t really made it into our public conversation about violence and safety.
Some Closing Thoughts:
This is called the Box Exercise because it illustrates how common myths about self defense can actually serve to box us in, rather than make us safer. [Draw a box around the stick figure, for visual drama.] But we’re not saying that everything on this list is bad advice. If there’s something on the list that works for you, please do use it. We believe in tools, not rules, for self defense, and we want to encourage you to add as many tools to your toolbox as possible. We also believe that self defense is a community responsibility, and we are working to shift away from oppressive, inaccurate ideas about violence toward a liberatory skill-building approach that transforms our whole society.