Self-Defense Seminars Aren’t Preparing Women For The Violence They’re Most Likely To Face

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Those of us who have attended a self-defense seminar have probably seen this formula before: a muscular male martial arts instructor teaches a room full of women who have never done more than a couple kickboxing classes how to throw each other over their shoulders, knee each other in the face, and kick each other in the groin. It’s all under the assumption, of course, that this is what they’d have to do if they were confronted in an alley by a rapist, mugger, or murderer.

The problem is, statistically speaking, this isn’t the scenario in which women are most likely to have to defend themselves.

In fact, you’re better off being a woman if your biggest fear is walking down the street and having someone point a gun to your head to demand you hand over all your valuables — the Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that in 2012, nearly 48 percent of robberies of male victims were committed by strangers, and only 13 percent of robberies of female victims were committed by strangers.

Let’s contrast that with the actual dangers and violence women face: The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence reports that 1 in 7 women will be “severely injured” by an intimate partner in their lifetime. 40 percent of female murder victims are killed by intimate partners. 66 percent of female stalking victims are stalked by a current or former intimate partner. 1 in 3 female murder victims are killed by intimate partners, 72 percent of all murder-suicides are committed by intimate partners, 25 percent of all rapes are committed by a current or former intimate partner (with 45 percent being committed by an acquaintance), and do you see a trend here?

While, yes, women are absolutely attacked in parking garages and in dark alleyways by complete strangers who come up behind them and hold a knife to their throat, and yes, we absolutely need to teach people how to defend against that kind of “random” violence, we are also doing a massive disservice to women by pretending like this is the type of violence they’re most likely to face. We’re also ignoring the fact that these instances rarely happen out of the blue. Abusers groom their victims to build trust. In the same way a frog thrown into a pot of boiling water would immediately jump out, no one would stay with a partner who hit them on the first date. But if you gradually increase the temperature of the water, or an abuser slowly starts employing manipulation tactics to get their victim to stay, the frog adjusts its body temperature, the abuse victim adjusts their view of reality, and before they know it, both are on death’s door.

The kind of trust that is often built up between an abuser and victim is a big reason many women don’t realize they’re in trouble until it’s too late. The last thing anyone wants to believe is that their partner or spouse or friend or coworker or friendly Tinder date would actually want to hurt them. So many abuse survivors tell stories of disbelief, of thinking that even though their friend was being a little too handsy, even though he was a little too insistent on staying the night because “you’re drunk and I want to make sure you’re okay”, even though he swore that he knew they “secretly wanted it”, he wouldn’t actually rape them. For them, the threat of danger didn’t register when their attacker was ten feet away, but when he had already taken advantage of the personal space he felt entitled to because of the trust established between them.

This is a factor that many self-defense programs leave out. They consider situations that immediately set off alarm bells, like an arm going around your throat while you’re walking home from work. They don’t tell you about the warning signs that someone you trusted enough to have in your home or even marry is mere seconds away from causing you harm. They don’t tell you about ominous body language (for example, blocking your exit from a room with their body) or the many, many signs that your partner may become violent if they haven’t become violent already (for example, punching a wall in anger). They don’t tell you about how a person who ignores your “No, I don’t want to dance with you” is more likely to ignore your “No, I don’t want to have sex with you.”

It’s easy to dismiss this stuff as being out of place in a seminar based on martial arts. But it’s almost dishonest to leave these things out and focus on street defense and claim that what you’re teaching is “women’s self-defense.” If you want to make a quick buck teaching the same old stuff, carry on. If you want to actually help women defend themselves, consider implementing these factors into your self-defense seminars:

Teach jiu-jitsu. I’m biased, I know. But as a 5’2”, 130-lb woman who’s used jiu-jitsu to defend herself, there’s a reason I’m biased. Jiu-jitsu is good for the close-quarter situations many women find themselves in when faced with danger from an intimate partner. Abusers know that physically trapping a victim in a small space such as a corner or a bathroom decreases the likelihood that their victim will be able to escape. Yes, of course the striking and eye-gouging that is taught in many self-defense courses is useful, but the ability to render a large, angry person unconscious when he’s already closed the space between you can be crucial in matters of life and death.

Set a concrete finish line. A broken arm might be enough to deter a mugger from chasing after you, but when you’re faced with the fact that the person who’s supposed to love and protect you is now trying to cause you serious physical harm, it needs to be assumed that you have only two options for survival: escape, or render the attacker physically unable to touch you by making them unconscious or dead. Escape is obviously ideal, but again, once an abusive partner has reached the point of being a serious physical threat, he’s going to do everything in his power to not let his victim get away, and your students should know what to do in that scenario as well.

Give simple instructions. Most of your self-defense students aren’t going to be experienced martial artists. Many of them might have never played any kind of sport in their life. When you know how to box or grapple, it’s easy to forget just how difficult it is to teach your body to perform movements that you now consider basic. The techniques you’re teaching must not only be effective, but easy to remember. Your students will not remember how to do a seven-step submission when they’re fighting for their lives, and if you teach ten techniques in the span of an hour, they’re not going to get enough drilling time to be able to do those techniques instinctively. Keep the movements simple and the number of techniques low; even if they have the best of intentions, most of them aren’t going to go home and drill every technique as often as they should.

Teach the warning signs of abuse. Before there is a broken orbital bone and crushed windpipe, there is often isolation from friends and family members, complete controlling of finances, and violence towards inanimate objects or animals. Before there is rape, there is often the insistence upon being alone together, invasion of personal space, and the ignoring of spoken boundaries. Before there is someone telling me, “I’m a martial arts instructor. I teach martial arts. They can learn this somewhere else,” there is me asking you, “Where else are they going to learn it?” No, you aren’t under any obligation to tell your students about these things, but they are rarely going to find themselves in another situation that specifically addresses how they can spot danger before it even happens. You don’t have to be a specialist in domestic or sexual violence to do a bit of research and spend twenty minutes before or after your class talking about these risk factors. 

Practice in inconvenient spaces. Your average female victim isn’t going to have to defend herself in a wide open space where she can execute a judo throw and top things off with an armbar. She’s going to be against the wall or in a corner, or on a bed or a couch — places inside a home, hotel room, or office where she would be with someone she once trusted. There’s likely going to be furniture around the room that will further limit available space to move, and there may or may not be enough lighting for her to see what she’s doing. Teach your students movements that are built for these situations. Make them practice in the dark, and encourage them to practice with each other in these situations once the class is over.

In an ideal world, women wouldn’t need to protect themselves from people they trust in places they should feel comfortable. But that’s not the world we live in. If you really want to market your seminar or class as “women’s self-defense” instead of “street self-defense”, you owe it to your students to ensure that the things being taught are actually preparing them for the violence they’re most likely to encounter.


  1. I train in Krav Maga regularly and half the students in our classes are women. We also combine it with Jujitsu for ground work. In a fight, the last place you want to be is in the ground, but unfortunately that’s where many fights end up and so one must learn what to do when on the ground. Ground work is actually a lot more exhausting so one must build stamina as well.


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