Illustration by Ash Ramirez of a person in an empowerment self-defense class
Empowerment self-defense challenges violence in more ways than one. (Illustration by Ash Ramirez, Humboldt State University)

Empowerment Self-Defense: Defending Ourselves From Our Own Fear

New feminist safety classes not only teach women how to defend themselves in real-life scenarios, but also interrogate society’s response to violence.

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Illustration by Ash Ramirez of a person in an empowerment self-defense class

New feminist safety classes not only teach women how to defend themselves in real-life scenarios, but also interrogate society’s response to violence.

As a female college student living alone in an off-campus apartment, several people have encouraged me to consider taking a self-defense course. No stranger to the panic that accompanies a long trek home alone in the pitch black of night, I can acknowledge the wisdom in this sentiment. And so, with the concerned voices of family and friends echoing in my mind, I have recently begun to research self-defense courses.

What I’ve found has been a treasure trove of new information. I learned that traditional self-defense courses tend to fall short in several ways when it comes to actually protecting women against violence. In the first place, they attempt to teach in a few weeks skills that really take years to master, which are therefore unlikely to serve women in actual scenarios where they are attacked.

Furthermore, the scenario that self-defense classes usually center on — the ambush on the street — is actually the least likely scenario that women will have to defend themselves against. But where traditional self-defense falls short, new feminist empowerment self-defense classes pick up the slack.

Empowerment self-defense classes shift the focus from purely physical skills and unlikely scenarios to solutions that stop violence before it starts. They are more effective than traditional self-defense courses at protecting women from gender-based violence and provide a host of other benefits. But further, empowerment self-defense could mark the beginning of a shift in the way we as a culture traditionally think about violence, and how to respond to it.

Where Traditional Self-Defense Falls Short

At first glance, asking whether women should learn physical skills that will help them stand a chance against an attacker is a no-brainer. However, in an interview with The Rocky Mountain Collegian, professional fighter Steve Peters cautions against placing confidence in the skills taught in self-defense classes, saying that it takes 10,000 hours to really master any of them.

Peters posits that what women are able to do in controlled class settings is no real indication of what they will be able to do in the whirlwind, heart-racing scenario of an attack. It is unrealistic to expect women to remember which strike is appropriate in a given situation and how to do that strike in a non-controlled setting after one self-defense course.

Even if women are able to strike their attackers, there is no guarantee that this would stop the attack. According to Peters, the types of skills taught in self-defense courses — groin kicks, eye jabs, etc. — could actually make things worse for us. Far from scaring off an offender, such moves could provoke them further. Nor will these moves effectively incapacitate offenders who are likely able to work through any pain that a gut punch can inflict.

But perhaps the most difficult criticism for traditional courses to defend against is the fact that they teach primarily for scenarios that only rarely happen. Only 38% of non-fatal attacks are done by strangers, while 70% of homicides are committed by people the victims knew. Furthermore, 90% of sexual assaults are committed by people known to the victims.

In traditional self-defense courses, women are taught to be prepared (whether adequately or not) for the hooded stranger in the alleyway. They are left woefully unprepared, however, for the scenarios in which they are most likely to be victimized.

Enter Empowerment Self-Defense

Empowerment self-defense is different. As an evidence-based approach, it responds to the reality that women are most likely to be victims of violence in the context of relationships they already have.

According to Lauren Taylor, the director of Defend Yourself — an empowerment self-defense organization headquartered in Washington D.C. — her program focuses on all gender-based violence “from workplace micro-aggressions to trafficking, from street harassment to sexual assault, from emotional abuse to stalking.” Empowerment self-defense classes prepare women to defend themselves in scenarios that they are likely to encounter on a daily basis.

Many empowerment self-defense courses therefore focus on verbal skills such as boundary setting and assertiveness. In a Washingtonian article, Caroline Cunningham describes her experience in an empowerment self-defense course practicing walking assertively and learning de-escalation tactics through role-playing different scenarios.

She and her classmates were challenged to “deflect the advances of a creepy coworker at the end of a night shift” or “explain that they weren’t interested in having sex right then” or talk their way “out of being cornered by a drunk guy at a party.”

The idea is that learning verbal self-defense skills will stop physical attacks both as they progress and before they even happen. And there is evidence that this approach is effective. According to a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, taking an empowerment self-defense course lowers the risk of sexual assault by 46% and the risk of attempted sexual assault by 63%.

Despite the demonstrated effectiveness of verbal skills, empowerment self-defense classes still teach physical skills to women. The skills they teach focus on women’s strengths and emphasize using legs rather than arms to attack. Taylor also describes “figuring out how to break someone’s nose while you’re holding a toddler on your hip.” By teaching skills that are catered more to realistic scenarios and that play on women’s instincts, empowerment self-defense courses continue to set themselves apart from the unrealistic expectations of traditional self-defense courses.

Using Our Words

Even though empowerment self-defense courses acknowledge the necessity of physical skills, they still emphasize that the best way to prevent assaults is through verbal de-escalation. And this insight is seemingly obvious: How many times have we been told by our parents to “use your words, not your fists”? It seems obvious even despite the fact that instinctively and often culturally, we respond to violence or perceived violence with more violence.

Oftentimes, these violent responses are based in fear — case in point being traditional self-defense courses, which teach violent tactics to women who fear being attacked by strangers.

However, empowerment self-defense courses flip the script on our fear-based responses. The verbal de-escalation tactics they teach are proven to be effective. But besides their efficacy, they also provide a host of other benefits. Taylor expounds on the “lower fear and anxiety; increased self-esteem, assertiveness and confidence” that her students gain from her classes. With more confidence, fear is no longer the main driver of their responses.

More than anything, the women in these classes are learning that they don’t need to let fear run their lives. Empowerment self-defense courses empower societies more generally by offering a microcosmic example of what might happen when we re-imagine how we relate to violence.

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