The idea of having girls and women participate in self-defense classes to reduce their risk of rape is highly debated. “Teach men not to rape” is a common response from survivors and advocates who feel that the burden of rape prevention is unfairly placed on the victims.
Writing in The Guardian, Jessica Valenti echoed this concern: “In a world where rape victims are routinely blamed for violence perpetrated against them, sending the message that stopping rape is women’s work is a slippery slope.” In this post, we dissect how promoting self-defense classes as rape prevention can be harmful and problematic.
Self-defense is not rape prevention
Self-defense classes are considered risk reduction, not prevention. Risk reduction programs focus on helping individuals gain skills to reduce their risk for being victims of sexual violence and changing behaviors that might put them at risk.
Additional examples of risk reduction programs include:
- “Watch your drink” campaigns
- Teaching “Good Touch/Bad Touch to children
- Internet safety classes
- Rape avoidance devices, such as whistles, mace and Tasers
- Teaching bystander intervention strategies to interrupt a potential assault
Primary prevention is about getting to the root of the problem and changing our culture to one that promotes safety, equality and respect.
Although risk reduction programs have some benefit for helping increase an individual’s safety in certain situations, these programs are not considered primary prevention for the following reasons:
- They are not focused on addressing the root causes or the risk factors of sexual violence.
- They make the potential victim responsible for their own safety without making the community responsible for changing the factors that lead to sexual violence and without helping potential perpetrators change. This perpetuates victim-blaming, stigma, and shame which further harms victims and does nothing to prevent or reduce rates of sexual violence.
- They may help reduce the likelihood that someone at the party can slip a drug into someone else’s drink and sexually assault them; however, a person who is looking to commit a drug facilitated sexual assault that night would be likely to target someone else. The probability of any sexual assault being committed has not necessarily changed.
Do self-defense classes work?
It is important to note that some individuals feel more empowered to navigate their daily lives after having completed self-defense training. Nonetheless, there are psychological and neurobiological impacts of trauma that may affect the victim’s ability to physically “fight back” during an assault. Traumatic experiences cause responses of fight, flight or freeze, which often override self-defense skills. For every news story about a woman fighting off her attacker, there are thousands of survivors who didn’t have that option. The best self-defense classes respect the philosophy that, regardless of whether a person chooses to use force to fight back, they are never to blame for being assaulted.
The benefits of self-defense classes
At STAR, many sexual assault survivors that we work with often express interest in learning self-defense skills. Self-defense classes can help survivors regain a sense of power and control over their own bodies after an assault. Attending a class given by an instructor who is sensitive to the needs of people who have experienced sexual violence can be an empowering experience that helps to restore a sense of real and perceived safety and play a part in the healing process in the aftermath of sexual trauma.
Research indicates certain positive outcomes resulting from self-defense training; these include:
- Increased assertiveness
- Improved self-esteem
- Decreased anxiety
- Increased sense of perceived control
- Decreased fear of sexual assault
- Enhanced self-efficacy
- Improved physical competence/skills in self-defense
- Decreased avoidance behaviors (restricting activities such as walking alone)
- Increased participatory behaviors (behaviors demonstrating freedom of action)
There is also some preliminary evidence to suggest that self-defense programs can decrease symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and increase self-efficacy among those who have already been sexually assaulted.
Suggestions for choosing a self-defense course
If you are interested in participating in a self-defense course, consider doing the following:
- Before choosing a self-defense course, research the program carefully. Programs vary in their approach, duration and cost. To research a course you may be able to observe a class, ask for written materials on the course content and philosophy, and possibly interview former students if it does not impede with confidentiality considerations.
- Find out a program’s philosophy. Questions might include: How does the program address violence against women? What is its perspective on non-stranger sexual assault? What is the program’s history? What are the standards for instructor training and background? How are emotions handled in the course – do instructors have training or background in working with assault survivors? What procedures are in place for student safety? What precautionary measures are taken to reduce chance of injury? Does the instructor allow participation and contribution at the level to which students are comfortable?
- Understand the program’s method. Many sexual assault perpetrators work by disrespecting non-physical boundaries first. Therefore, a strong self-defense program will focus on defining and protecting personal boundaries on multiple levels – not just physical. It will also help build mental and verbal skills in addition to physical techniques for averting assault. These subtleties are very important in the context of sexual assault.
- Look for an instructor who respects your right to choose. It’s important to remember that decisions about personal safety are just that…personal. Only that individual can decide what strategies will work best in any given situation. It is best-practice for an instructor to provide a viable set of options to choose from, not instruct what should be done in any particular situation.
 Brecklin, L.R. (2007). Evaluation outcomes of self-defense training for women: A review. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 13, 60-76
 David, Wendy S., et al. “Taking Charge.” Journal of Interpersonal Violence, vol. 21, no. 4, 2006, pp. 555–565., doi:10.1177/0886260505285723.
 Sexual Assault Advocacy & Crisis Line Training Guide developed by the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault. Retrieved from: http://www.ccasa.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/sexual-assault-advocacy-and-crisis-line-training-guide.pdf