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 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.
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.
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 next article I will bring up a few important points on which the self-defense education for women should differ from the self-defense typically taught to males and mixed groups, and we will arrive at our conclusion.
A student mainly of Hardy Holm's (Chief instructor at Students of Goju Ryu) multifaceted system of self defense, Lars has studied and practiced self defense martial arts since 1997, and taught it regularly since 2007. Lars holds belted ranks and/or experience in other forms of martial arts as well.
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