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Context On Self Defense for Women

Since laws begun to change regarding the sexual integrity of women in the 19th century, female self-protection classes have come increasingly into fashion, some politically driven, some started by instructors of existing martial arts schools, and in some places they have even become part of the public school curriculum. In this article on self defense for women, I will attempt to offer some educated perspective on the matter, and make an argument for why women should not be taught self-defense separately from men, or with the instructor as the only man present.

The most common argument for why women should be taught self-defense in special, female-only classes is the following: Women may feel more comfortable working with other women than they would with men, especially if they have violent past experiences with men.

The statement can be true, but when it is, it says more about the training than about the women. I have personally trained very hard, intimately and violently with female rape-survivors and female survivors of other physical abuse, without any problems, and seen them train with other men, again without problems. I have also seen big, fit men with no history of abuse completely panic when put in a relaxed chokehold, even outside of sparring. It’s not about “men” and “women”; it’s about intensity, and about increasing intensity gradually, from a point of comfort to a point of realism, in a pace that the student can handle.

Yes, in a class with only women, intensity can sometimes be increased quicker without discomfort, than in a mixed group. However, in my experience and to the best of my knowledge, women can, as a rule, never learn to defend themselves successfully against men by merely practicing against women, just as men can never learn to fight bigger opponents by only fighting opponents of the same size, and a boxer cannot learn to defeat other boxers by fighting wrestlers. You have to train against what you expect to meet. If a woman finds it especially difficult to act when being held or confronted by a man, that is all the more reason for her to practice with men, albeit perhaps not immediately, and perhaps not with just anyone. To apply judgement when pairing students up with each other is the role of every instructor.

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The importance of intensity is also why the instructor should not be the only man. At the end of the day, the instructor is selling his techniques, and therefore he has a personal interest in the women getting a feeling of succeeding with the them, and may well be tempted to not respond to the them in a realistic fashion (consciously or subconsciously), leaving the women unprepared, no matter how much they practice the techniques.

The same applies even if there are several instructors, both male and female, if the students never get to practice against anyone else. The instructor needs to be able to make the techniques work between students, and if the techniques require cooperation to work in the beginning, that should be explained to the students, so that they don’t end up gaining false confidence.

What Men and Women Face

Another reason sometimes cited against women and men training together is that the violence differs. Regular self-defense classes and martial arts schools won’t teach you how to defend yourself against a sexual assault, or against being pulled into a vehicle. However, while it may be true that these specific scenarios will not be explicitly addressed in many martial arts schools, even those with a strong focus on self-defense, the tools to handle them should still be a part of their systems (I can of course not actually speak for any school or instructor that I am not familiar with).

Women are more likely to face assaults sexual in nature than men. But what is a sexual assault, from a perspective of violence? It is grappling and/or impact. Same as any other form of assault. No grabs, holds, positions or strikes are unique to a rape, an abduction, a beating, or to any other physical altercation, and the body’s mechanics do not change with the context or the intent of the perpetrator. Hair-pulls, wrist- and arm-grabs, slaps, mounts, these are all things that are covered in any self- defense school with self-respect. Here are some examples:

Neither are the risk-scenarios different, from a perspective of pre-emptive self-protection, because the behaviour of the perpetrator remains largely the same towards the target, in terms of setting up a situation. Regardless of the type of assault, perpetrators will first attempt to isolate the target (getting him/her alone), eliminate the risk of escape, not uncommonly by ambushing the target, locking a door, or by surrounding/cornering the target, whereupon an initial attack will follow. The basic principles of avoiding becoming a target, and avoiding being assaulted in the case you have become a target, remain essentially the same for men and women. See this article and the follow-up to it.

In the first part of this article, I (Lars Fidler) pointed out the ways in which self defense for women is no different from the self-defense typically taught to males and mixed groups, and made an argument for why women and men should be taught self-defense together.

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So, “just take karate classes” is your self defense advice for women?

Observe that we so far have only talked about the physical content and pre-emptive self-protection. These are things that are covered just as well in a more multifaceted self-defense for women school, where you will also get the repetition you need to actually put things into practice.

What can be vastly different between the violence perpetrated against women and the violence that men commonly face are the social and psychological circumstances surrounding it. For adults, the social contexts and behaviour of the perpetrator, the relationships between perpetrator and victim, the locations where the assaults take place, and the physical intensity of the initial attack can all be significantly different between men and women.

self defense for women

For women, relationships with perpetrators are often closer, and assaults develop gradually over a longer period, or seem to come out of nowhere, and as opposed to most assaults between men, many sexual assaults begin with and develop from a seemingly non-confrontational social interaction, such as an attempted or pretended seduction, that either very gradually or very quickly turns degrading and more or less violent.

Where men often have a clear line between what is a self-defense situation and what is not, women more often find themselves in situations where there are no good decisions. Due to their lack of intensity, and their context, initial attacks in sexual assaults cannot always be easily identified as attacks, before it’s too late. Add to this that it takes more before you resort to violently defending yourself against a romantic partner, a relative, or someone you thought of as a friend, than it does against a stranger in the street, and it’s easy to find yourself in significantly more difficult positions, that there are no shortcuts getting out of.

True is also that a woman can be faced, sometimes explicitly, with the decision to face the devil she knows, versus something potentially more serious. Does she really want to rake the man who obviously has no qualms about hurting her, in the face? Might that not make matters worse? After the first hard slap across the face and tightened grip for trying to escape, would you try again? Should you?

Furthermore, even a successful defense against a sexual assault can be devastating. Having just “violently assaulted” a friend, your boyfriend, your uncle, or someone even more taboo, can cause social ripples that never truly stop. Suddenly you’re at fault, and the only chance you have at explaining yourself is to tell everybody what happened, which does not only mean throwing very serious accusations at someone who is trusted and loved by your family and/or friends, but will also be extremely personal and unpleasant to talk about.

All this with no guarantee that it will even make a difference. Not being taken seriously, or being outright blamed for the whole thing, are all too real risks. Easier to just let it happen, and then trying to forget about it, isn’t it?

These are all issues that are very important to talk about in self defense for women, and to have tools to handle; overcoming external expectations, knowing how to set up clear boundaries to make it easier to identify when they have been crossed, knowing when to listen to your fear and when to act in spite of it, and so on, and these are things that are more easily addressed in special courses, but regarding whether this should be done in an environment with only women, or together with men, you’ll find that the argumentation above applies to this just as well as to physical confrontation.


As a woman seeking to learn to defend yourself, special courses can help you with the social and psychological factors surrounding assaults, but take the exercises you (hopefully) learn at those courses, and bring them to a self-defense oriented martial arts school if you can, or at the very least find men you feel comfortable with, and try the exercises with them, increasing intensity gradually.

If you are looking to learn escape techniques that just might save your life someday click here. Science of Skill has published a 20 minute mini course of escaping bondage- this material is perfect to learn for those who fear kidnapping or sexual assault.

John Bishop

Category Tactical

Type article

Duration 6 mins
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