Jill Cermele C’92 never imagined she’d teach young women to defend themselves. But her seminar on gender violence has become a big hit.
By Leslie Garisto Pfaff
The video is unsettling: A young woman, a Drew student dressed in a black T-shirt and loose-fitting yoga pants, confronts a man whose size and bulk lend him the appearance of a superhuman adversary in some particularly violent video game. As he moves in closer, the woman throws up her arms, elbows bent, forearms shielding her face. “I don’t want to talk to you,” she says, and then, shouting as he takes another step: “You need to leave me alone.” But the man lunges toward her. She screams “No!” as she pushes his chin upward and back with the palm of her hand. “No!” again as she kicks him in the groin. He doubles over, affording her a chance to get in another kick. She takes it—“No!”—and he’s down. To the resounding applause of bystanders, the young woman steps back, beaming.
This may not be your idea of a typical college seminar, but over the past decade the course, “Gender Violence and Women’s Resistance,” has become a popular offering—with a perpetual waiting list—from Drew’s psychology department. It delivers the potentially subversive message that women confronted with violence can and should resist. “People talk about how women can prevent and avoid violence and what to do after it’s occurred,” says Jill Cermele, professor of psychology and the course’s instructor. “But until recently, there hasn’t been much said about what to do when violence is in the moment.”
Cermele’s office in Hannan House is filled with “No Whining” signs, along with emblems of female empowerment like a Rosie the Riveter doll and a plaque inscribed, “She believed she could so she did.” Cermele is a petite blonde with delicate features, but her passion for the class and what it communicates lends her an aura of no-nonsense determination. She radiates spunk.
Maybe that’s because she’s been through the self-defense training herself or because she’s been consumed with the idea of women’s resistance since she worked as a trauma therapist at the Center for Family Resources in Metuchen, N.J., in the mid ’90s. One of her supervisors at the center first introduced her to Prepare, a New York City–based group teaching physical and verbal techniques for resisting violence. Cermele and her colleagues eventually incorporated the techniques into a group-therapy intervention. At the time, she never imagined it would one day become the focus of what she calls “the most important thing I teach.”
In fact, as an undergraduate at Drew, living in Foster Hall and majoring in psychology—and even later, after she’d gone on to graduate school at the University of Delaware—Cermele never envisioned herself teaching. “I’d always intended to be in private practice,” she says. “And then midway through graduate school, I started teaching, and I loved it.” When a position in Drew’s psychology department opened in 1997, she jumped at it. She was teaching abnormal psychology and research methods, and with her clinical background in trauma, she often talked to her students about violence. After she took a self-defense class in 1998, the idea of offering one to students, along with an academic component examining the literature on violence and resistance, was, in a word, irresistible. The course, she says, is predicated on research—including a 10-year study published in 2007 in the journal Criminal Justice and Behavior—showing that “fighting back significantly reduces the likelihood that an assault will be completed,” something many people, including her students, find hard to accept, at least initially.
That intellectual resistance stems in part from traditional messages delivered to women about violence: Don’t resist, give your attacker what he wants and you’ll have a better chance of surviving. Cermele’s message also flies in the face of conventional visions of femininity. Cayley Barlow C’10 enrolled in the course in fall 2009 and even though she’d studied Tae Kwon Do for 12 years, she wasn’t convinced that she could defend herself in a real-life attack. “You’re taught that women are the weaker sex,” she says, and that women should not fight back. The course convinced her otherwise, not so much through reading and analyzing the data, though there was plenty of that, but through the physical training itself. Barlow cried the first time she had to confront her mock attacker, but she emerged from the class with a sense of empowerment. “I’d never been more proud of myself,” she says.
The course is composed of two distinct segments, the first 20 hours focused primarily on full-contact self-defense training. Students are expected to get physical from day one. If you’ve never been faced with two helmeted, super-padded instructors spewing obscenities, it’s hard to imagine just how difficult that can be. “So there you are in your yoga clothes, wondering what’s going to happen, and the adrenaline is building, and you’re thinking, ‘What if I can’t do this?’” says Rachel Moore- Beitler C’06, who took the course in 2005. What gives the training its power is that every student in the class discovers that, yes, she can.
The program, known as IMPACT and taught by Prepare, was developed by male and female martial artists who, having been assaulted, found that their skills didn’t translate to a real-life attack. So there are no lessons about pressure points or specialized kicks. Students learn which parts of the body can be used to inflict the most pain; where, on their attackers, that pain can most easily be inflicted (generally, the face and groin); and how to fight and think when they’re adrenalized, frightened, maybe even crying.
While the goal is to fight to the point of disabling an attacker, students learn that they don’t necessarily have to go that far. Research shows that when you’re the target of an assault, one aggressive response generally ends the attack because most attackers aren’t in it for the fight. Often an attack can be avoided altogether, which is why the second part of the IMPACT approach involves verbal strategies. You’d think that would come as a relief after the in-your-face physical training, but many students find verbal confrontation particularly tough. Frequently, Cermele notes, “They’ll start out saying, ‘Can’t I just hit him?’”
Two graduates of the course, Cermele says, have actually used their skills to fend off date rape. But even those who don’t face physical violence may experience other forms of aggression. “If someone at a party puts his arm around you and you don’t want him to, kneeing him in the groin isn’t the next step,” Cermele says. “The next step is saying, ‘Take your arm off me, now.’”
An important element of the program, she says, is teaching students how to assess a situation, determine risk and figure out which tactics will allow them to emerge safely. In fact, Cermele’s students emerge knowing a great deal more than how to respond to an attack. This isn’t just a self-defense course; it’s a college seminar. “We look at the theory and data from a lot of disciplines—psychology, sociology, women’s studies, criminal justice,” Cermele says. That means examining not just what’s known about women’s resistance, but also what’s assumed about it, often erroneously. A textbook for the course is The Gift of Fear by Gavin De Becker, a leading authority on self-defense. Last year De Becker co-authored an article in the Huffington Post bemoaning the “physical illiteracy” of most incoming college first-year students and advising parents to ask whether a prospective college offers “adrenaline-based, realistic-scenario self-defense training.”
“When I read that,” Cermele recalls, “I said, ‘Yes! We’re here!’” But while she isn’t alone—a small but increasing number of colleges do offer classes in self-defense—few offer them for credit or with an academic component. Martha McCaughey, a professor of sociology at Appalachian State University and author of Real Knockouts: The Physical Feminism of Women’s Self-Defense, calls the class “unique and innovative.”
“The combination of the intellectual with the physical is so effective,” McCaughey says. “When you get women to engage these issues at the bodily level, a whole new set of intellectual challenges comes to the surface.”
Cermele’s graduates seem to agree. “So much of what you’re doing in the beginning of the course is so physical that you’re almost not processing it,” Barlow says. For many students, the physical engagement enhances the academic engagement: “You can read about violence and not really think it can happen to you,” Barlow says. “But after you’ve been in such an adrenalized state, you really can understand it a lot better.”
Last year Cermele’s gender-violence seminar went beyond academia into the community, which, for Barlow, added another level of understanding. Instead of writing a traditional research paper, students were offered opportunities for civic engagement. Barlow and a group of classmates worked at the Morris County Sexual Assault Center, revamping the center’s PowerPoint presentations on rape and sexual awareness. Denise Lang, the center’s coordinator, was particularly impressed with their passion to understand the dynamics of sexual assault. “Every single one,” Lang says, “came here with a dedication to find out more about violence against women and children in particular, and sexual violence as a whole.”
It’s a dedication that isn’t likely to dissipate after the course is over. When she signed up, Barlow remembers, “I had the feeling that this would be the kind of course that would make you see the world in a different way, and I was right.” Cermele has stayed in touch with many of her former students, and she sees what she calls a “spillover effect” in their everyday lives. “Once you’ve fought back in a simulated assault scenario,” she says, “other things aren’t as hard. Because if you can do that, then you can ask for a raise, you can ask your mother to stop calling you every day, you can tell your roommate you don’t like it when she brings her boyfriend in.” Even if you never have to face an attacker, Cermele says, the experience of the course “changes the way you move through the world.”
That may be why Drew’s administration has been so supportive of it. It’s an expensive class to run: The IMPACT training alone costs about $25 an hour per student, so funding has always been an issue. After Cermele’s initial grant expired, she made her case to outgoing university president Tom Kean. Just before he left, Kean personally endowed the course. “I had talked to some of the students in the class, and they told me it changed their lives,” Kean says. “You couldn’t ignore something like that.” The endowment allows Cermele to offer the course every other year, in off years holding workshops for faculty and staff (the next one is scheduled for June). While some might question the academic value of a class in women’s self-defense, Kean clearly didn’t, and when you hear Cermele make her case for it, you can understand why.
“I think of a liberal arts education as a way to empower students to go out into the world so that they can say what they need to say and accomplish what they need to and maintain their integrity,” she says. “And I feel that this course does that. Having that physical experience changes the way you think, and it changes your assumptions about what’s possible.”
The philosophy that drives the IMPACT self-defense program is that people can—and should—learn to defend themselves against potential violence. The program is as much about defusing violence as using it against an attacker. Based on her experience with IMPACT and with Prepare, psychology professor Jill Cermele offers the following strategies for maintaining personal safety:
1. Trust your instincts. Before an attack, victims of violence usually have a sense that “something isn’t right.”
2. Learn about the strategies used by predators; an excellent resource is Gavin De Becker’s The Gift of Fear.
3. Never forget that you’re entitled to act in your own best interest, even if that goes against the interests or desires of others. It sounds simple, but many of us don’t stop to consider what our best interests really are.
4. Get training in physical and verbal personal safety skills. The techniques are simple, but to master them, Cermele says, you need to learn them in a simulated assault situation. For more, go to prepareinc.com.—L.G.P.
—Drew Magazine, Spring 2010