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“I Can Take Care of Myself”: The Impact of Self-Defense Training on Women’s Lives


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Feminist self-defense classes teach skills for preventing and responding to violence. However, self-defense training has many other positive effects on women’s lives—effects that themselvesmay reduce women’s risk of assault. In this article the author offers evidence of these effects drawn from a longitudinal study of self-defense training. In addition to increased confidence in potentially dangerous situations, self-defense students reported more comfortable interactions with strangers, acquaintances, and intimates; more positive feelings about their bodies; increased self-confidence; and transformed beliefs about women, men, and gender. The author suggests that self-defense classes are life transforming because they address three issues central to women’s lives: fear of sexual assault, self, and gender.
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“I Can Take Care of Myself”
The Impact of Self-Defense Training on Women’s Lives
University of Oregon
Feminist self-defense classes teach skills for preventing and responding to violence. How
ever, self-defense training has many other positive effects on women’s lives—effects that
themselves may reduce women’s risk of assault. In thisarticle the author offers evidence of
these effects drawn from a longitudinal study of self-defense training. In addition to
increased confidence in potentially dangerous situations, self-defense students reported
more comfortable interactions with strangers, acquaintances, and intimates; more posi
tive feelings about their bodies; increased self-confidence; and transformed beliefs about
women, men, and gender. The author suggests that self-defense classes are life transform-
ing because they address three issues central to women’s lives: fear of sexual assault, self,
and gender.
fear; gender; resistance; self-defense
The goal of feminist self-defense classes is to teach women the skills
they need to prevent and respond to violence. These classes are
distinguished by their attention to two related dimensions of
women’s experience. First, the specific focus of these classes
is sexual violence against women, including rape and sexual
AUTHOR’S NOTE: I owe thanks to many people for their support of this project. First,
my thanks to the self-defense students, instructors, and facilitators for their willingness to
share their experiences with me. I am also grateful to the participants in the 2000 and 2001
Nag’s Heart conferences on violence against women for their advice and enthusiasm in the
early stages of the research. The Center for the Study of Women in Society and the College
of Arts and Sciences at the University of Oregon provided financial support. Thanks to
Rachel Einwohner, Lynn Fujiwara, Linda Fuller, Mimi Goldman, Patty Gwartney, Judy
Howard, Ken Hudson, Ellen McWhirter, Sandi Morgen, Ellen Scott, Jean Stockard, and
Nadia Telsey for support and feedback at various stages of this project. Thanks also to my
research assistant, Emerald Bogue, for excellent literature reviews. Finally, I am deeply
grateful to Chris Halaska for survey design, endless technical support, and most impor
tant, believing in this project.
VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN, Vol. 10 No. 3, March 2004 205-235
DOI: 10.1177/1077801203256202
© 2004 Sage Publications
assault, although the lessons learned may also be applicable to
other types of violence, from sexual harassment to nonsexual
assault to relationship violence. Classes are generally limited to
female students, because women are far more likely than men to
experience sexual violence, and the physical skills taught are
well-suited for women’s bodies (i.e., they tend to rely on lower
rather than upper body strength), for rapid learning, and for sex
ual assault situations. These classes contrast with traditional mar
tial arts training (generally a long-term course of study where
defensive skills may take years to develop) and much traditional
self-defense training (which, like martial arts training, is not gen
erally focused on sexual assault situations or physical techniques
adapted to women’s bodies).
Second, feminist self-defense classes address the gender social
ization and inequalities that make physical and verbal self-defense
challenging for many women. As Searles and Follansbee (1984)
Traditionally, women have been socialized to believe that they are
the “weaker sex.” Females socialized into the conventional femi-
nine role have been taught to be passive, dependent, emotional,
helpless, inadequate, ladylike, inactive, and incapable of protect-
ing themselves. In order to avoid being victimized, they have been
encouraged to limit their mobility and to rely for protection on
men—fathers, boyfriends, husbands, police officers—or other
external agents such as large barking dogs or burglar alarms. The
emphasis on being soft, gentle, and ladylike has further hampered
women as it has discouraged them from developing their physical
potential and from expressing anger or aggression in any active or
physical way. Taught not to rely on themselves and discouraged
from developing the capabilities to be able to do so, females have
thus been trained to be good victims. (p. 66)
Feminist classes address these issues head-on by including sub
stantial training in assertiveness (verbal self-defense) and discus
sion of psychological and emotional issues surrounding both vio
lence against women and self-defense. This contrasts with both
martial arts training and nonfeminist self-defense classes, which
may not recognize or address the psychological and emotional
issues at stake for women.
Self-defense classes are only one of many possible strategies for
preventing violence against women; others include rape educa
tion programs instituted in many high schools and colleges,
escort services on college campuses, security devices such as per
sonal alarms, chemical sprays, safety precautions (e.g., locking
doors or using the “buddy system” when out alone at night), legal
reform, and increased police presence. However, unlike most
other safety measures, self-defense classes begin with the
assumption that women have the ability to protect themselves,
rather than relying on others for protection.
Conventional safety
advice and many traditional self-defense classes teach women to
present a “profaned self” characterized by ineptness, fear, and
incompetence (Gardner, 1990). In contrast, feminist self-defense
classes facilitate the development of a self-presentation that is
strong and competent.
Does self-defense training reduce violence against women?
There is as yet no research that clearly answers this question,
although there is a host of circumstantial evidence that suggests
that self-defense training should be effective. First, it is clear that
resistance reduces the risk of sexual assault for women. Experts
estimate that fewer than 25% of rape attempts are completed
(Gordon & Riger, 1989). In the majority of attempts, then, the
intended victim escapes or fends off the attacker. Summarizing
the small but consistent body of research on resistance to sexual
assault, Ullman (1997) concluded that forceful physical resistance
(fighting), nonforceful physical resistance (e.g., fleeing or pulling
away), and forceful verbal resistance (e.g., yelling or threatening)
are consistently associated with rape avoidance (see also Bart &
O’Brien, 1985; Kleck & Sayles, 1990; Siegel, Sorenson, Golding,
Burnam, & Stein, 1989; Ullman & Knight, 1991, 1992). Moreover,
recent research (Ullman, 1998; Ullman & Knight, 1992) has dem
onstrated that resisting assault does not increase women’s risk of
serious injury, countering a long-standing myth. It is not yet clear,
however, whether self-defense training enhances women’s resis
tance to threatened violence. As Madden and Sokol (1997) wrote,
It is not likely that many of the women reflected in the [research]
studies had any self-defense training, yet they were effective. . . .
Imagine how much more effective they might have been—how
much more quickly they might have ended the assaults—had they
had some training about what works best. (pp. 135-136)
Second, although there has been no research on the relation
ship between self-defense training and subsequent victimization,
learning self-defense has been shown to affect women in ways
that are consistent with reduced victimization. For example, im
mediately after taking a self-defense class, women report lower
levels of fear and greater confidence in their ability to defend
themselves (Cohn, Kidder, & Harvey, 1978; McCaughey, 1997;
McDaniel, 1993; Ozer & Bandura, 1990; Weitlauf, Smith, &
Cervone, 2000) and are judged to have effective fighting skills in
mock attack scenarios (Ozer & Bandura, 1990). These changes
occurred in both survivors of sexual assault and women who had
never experienced violence (Ozer & Bandura, 1990). There is also
anecdotal evidence about the real-world utility of self-defense
training: Many self-defense organizations collect success stories
from their graduates, who contribute narratives of how they have
used their training in real-life situations (e.g., Bay Area Model
Mugging, n.d.; FullPower, n.d.; see also Caignon & Groves, 1987).
In this article, I argue that feminist self-defense training may
also reduce women’s risk of assault by changing their sense of
self, their beliefs about women, and their interactions with the
world around them. These interactions include but extend far
beyond their responses to stereotypically dangerous situations.
Indeed, these changes pervade every aspect of women’s lives:
their feelings about themselves; their feelings about others; their
interactions with strangers, acquaintances, employers, and teach-
ers; and their relationships with intimates. Although other
research has suggested these effects (e.g., McCaughey, 1997), we
have as yet no systematic evidence of how self-defense training
affects women’s everyday lives.
In this article, I offer evidence of these changes, drawn from the
first phase of a longitudinal study of self-defense training. When
complete, this study will address the question of whether self-
defense training helps women to prevent or resist subsequent vio
lence. However, even the short-term results provide evidence of
the pervasive changes that self-defense training effects in women
students’ lives. These changes are consistent with a reduced risk
of violence and an increased likelihood of resistance to assault.
These results suggest that feminist self-defense training changes
students’ understanding of both self and gender—changes that
may make them less vulnerable to violence.
The data presented here are drawn from surveys of women
who enrolled in two feminist self-defense classes taught at a
major state university in the western United States.
This class has
been taught at the university by the same (female) instructor for
over 10 years, and in the surrounding community for over 20
years. The class is currently offered through the Women’s Studies
Program for academic credit.
The class includes 45 hours of instruction over the 10-week aca
demic quarter: 3 hours per week of physical and verbal self-
defense training plus required weekly 1.5-hour discussion sec
tions. The class includes instruction and practice in physical and
verbal self-defense skills, as well as awareness and prevention
strategies and information about violence against women. Physi-
cal techniques are practiced in slow motion against other class
members and full force against pads held by the instructor and
her several assistants; unlike “model mugging”-type classes,
padded “attackers” are not used. There is extensive time for dis-
cussion and attention to the psychological and emotional aspects
of violence against women and self-defense. The class fits the cri-
teria for effective self-defense classes laid out by the National
Coalition Against Sexual Assault (NCASA) (n.d.) and other writ-
ers (e.g., Madden & Sokol, 1997; Searles & Follansbee, 1984) and is
similar to other feminist self-defense classes offered around the
nation (e.g., see Cummings, 1992; Rentschler, 1999).
Thirty-six of the 60 women enrolled in the two classes volun
teered to participate in this research. Each participant completed
a survey at the beginning and end of the self-defense class. The
surveys were written and self-administered in a private room;
each took an average of 45 minutes to complete. The first survey
included questions about previous experiences of violence, fear
of violence, beliefs about violence (including rape myths), percep
tions of danger, use of safety strategies, physical activities, body
perceptions, previous self-defense training, media exposure,
beliefs about women and gender, and demographic information.
The second survey repeated many of these measures and in addi
tion asked about women’s experiences in the self-defense class
and about experiences of danger and violence since beginning the
class. The surveys included both closed- and open-ended ques
tions, and both original measures and preexisting scales, includ
ing the Sexual Experiences Survey (Koss, Gidycz, & Wisniewski,
1987), a modified version of the Self-Defense Self-Efficacy Scale
(Weitlauf et al., 2000), the Rape Myths Acceptance Scale (Payne,
Lonsway, & Fitzgerald, 1999), the Physical Self-Efficacy Scale
(Ryckman, Robbins, Thornton, & Cantrell, 1982), and the short
form of the Liberal Feminism Ideology Scale (Morgan, 1996).
Prior sexual victimization was assessed through a two-stage pro
cess, including behaviorally specific screen questions followed by
incident reports that gathered detailed information on specific
episodes of sexual violence, similar to the methods used in the
recent National College Women Sexual Victimization study
(Fisher, Cullen, & Turner, 2000).
The 36 participants ranged in age from 19 to 25, with a mean
age of 21. Most had junior or senior class standing, although 1 was
a freshman, 1 was a sophomore, and 2 were graduate students. Of
the 35 who answered the question about race, 28 identified them-
selves as White, 3 as Asian or Pacific Islander, 1 as Latina, 1 as
Arab American, and 2 as mixed race. Four self-identified as les-
bian and 3 as bisexual; the remainder said they were heterosexual.
Although other writers have reported that sexual assault survi-
vors are more likely than other women to enroll in self-defense
classes (Huddleston, 1991), this did not seem to be true for the
present sample: There were no significant differences in the rate
of prior victimization between these self-defense students and the
128 other students not enrolled in a self-defense class who were
surveyed during the same quarters.
Among the self-defense stu
dents, 9 women reported prior experiences that met the legal defi
nition of rape, whereas 5 additional women (as well as 8 of the
women who also reported rape) reported an attempted rape. In
most of these incidents, known others gave the women alcohol or
drugs to try to induce sexual compliance; only 8 of these 22 cases
involved force, and no cases involved strangers. As with Koss’s
(1985) studies of college women, most of these were “unacknowl
edged rapes”: Only 3 participants answered yes to the question,
“Have you ever been raped?” Finally, 26 women (including all
but 1 of those who reported an attempted or completed rape)
reported experiences of unwanted sexual contact or coercion
did not meet the legal definition of rape; again, the proportion of
women reporting these experiences was similar in the larger non-
self-defense sample. Altogether, only 9 women in the self-defense
sample unequivocally reported no unwanted sexual experiences.
This group is, of course, a limited sample of self-defense stu
dents. In addition to the small sample size, the location of the
study (a midsized town in the Pacific Northwest) means that the
participants, reflecting the larger state population, are mostly
White. Moreover, the fact that the self-defense class was offered
through the university means that the sample is limited to young
women with higher than average educational attainment and
class status. Results, therefore, are not generalizable beyond uni
versity populations.
Despite these limitations, the results described below are still
useful. First, university students are one of the major groups of
women who enroll in feminist self-defense classes. Typically, such
classes are offered in two locations: in educational settings such as
universities and in community settings, usually through non-
profit organizations; thus university students are an important
constituency for self-defense training nationwide. Moreover, it is
appropriate to focus on college-aged women because younger
women are at a particularly high risk of sexual assault (Fisher
et al., 2000; Koss et al., 1987). According to the National Women’s
Study, 22.2% of sexual assaults occur between the ages of 18 and
24 (National Victim Center, 1992). Moreover, many current sexual
assault prevention programs are aimed at college populations.
Recent studies have found that these rape prevention programs,
which often focus on changing knowledge and attitudes about
rape and teaching women safety precautions, do not reduce the
incidence of sexual assault (Breitenbecher & Gidycz, 1998;
Breitenbecher & Scarce, 1999). The efficacy of self-defense train
ing programs, in contrast, has not yet been assessed. Although the
sample employed here has limitations, it provides a useful start
ing point that can be the basis for later work on other types of pop
What was most striking about responses to the second survey
(administered at the end of the self-defense class) was how deeply
the class had affected the students lives, as well as how consistent
these effects were across the 36 students. Some effects were felt in
situations the participants perceived to be potentially dangerous—
in other words, in the kinds of situations self-defense classes are
explicitly designed to address. Below, I begin by describing two
types of such changes: in the strategies the students use to keep
themselves safe and in their responses to potentially dangerous
situations. However, the effects of self-defense training were not
limited to these dangerous situations but also affected many other
aspects of the students’ everyday lives. I focus on five areas in
which changes were most salient: interactions with strangers,
interactions with known others (acquaintances, friends, employ
ers, teachers, and intimates), feelings about one’s body, perceived
self-confidence, and beliefs about women, men, and gender. In
the conclusion of the article, I discuss how these changes them
selves may make women less vulnerable to male violence.
Not surprisingly, many participants (31) claimed that the self-
defense class had changed their daily practices intended to
prevent or avoid dangerous situations. Some of these changes
involved implementing simple, commonsense precautions, such
as locking doors more often, leaving a porch light on, checking the
identification of those who come to the door, or getting one’s keys
out before approaching one’s home or car. Others, however,
involved heightened awareness, as these comments reflect
“Mainly my changes have been in my habits. I try to be aware of
my surroundings and have confident body language.” “I avoid
walking home at night as much as possible. I keep aware of my
physical surroundings.” “I use my intuition.”
It is important to note that changes in safety precautions were
probably the least salient of all the changes participants reported
in the follow-up surveys. This is notable because of the heavy
attention to such strategies in other, nonfeminist self-defense
classes and in safety advice offered to women by police and other
authorities (Stanko, 1996). This kind of advice is problematic in
several ways. First, most women already have a well-developed
sense of fear and an elaborate set of precautions they take to keep
themselves safe (Gordon & Riger, 1989; Rozee & Koss, 2001;
Stanko, 1996). There is also evidence that employing such precau
tions does not reduce the risk of victimization (Kaniasty & Norris,
1992), perhaps because most sexual assaults are committed by
acquaintances, whereas nearly all safety strategies (including
those described by these participants) are intended to repel
strangers. These kinds of safety precautions also place the respon
sibility for preventing sexual assault on women’s shoulders,
while letting perpetrators off the hook (McCaughey, 1997).
Finally, most safety strategies limit women’s activities and free
dom, keep them from fully using public space and citizenship,
and encourage their dependence on men for protection (Burton,
1998; Riger & Gordon, 1981; Stanko, 1990).
Feminist self-defense classes avoid some of these pitfalls—
while not encouraging women to be foolhardy—by directly con
fronting the consequences (both positive and negative) of using
such precautions. For example, an assignment for this class asked
students to assess the preventative measures they currently
employ. The assignment begins by addressing the social context
of such precautions:
Taking preventative measures is a matter of individual choice. At
some point there are diminishing returns for steps you take—you
give up too much freedom or trust for the additional amount of
safety you gain. What is important is that you are aware of the tips,
aware of your choices, aware of the risks you take. We shouldn’t
HAVE TO do any of these, yet circumstances dictate doing at least
some is in our interest.
With this framing of the issue, the students are able to make a con
scious choice about whether and when to use such strategies, as
suggested by this student’s comment: “I know that there are pre
cautions I can take that won’t drastically change my lifestyle (like
keeping doors and windows locked when I’m home or away).”
This student clearly recognizes the trade-off between safety pre
cautions and freedom and has made deliberate choices to increase
her safety. This is a very different approach to safety than the fear-
driven “more is always better” approach to safety precautions
encouraged by many authorities and purveyors of commercial
safety devices.
The time between the initial and follow-up survey was only 10
weeks; unsurprisingly, few women had experienced any kind of
threatened or actual assault during that period. A number of
respondents, however, described using their new skills in situa
tions they perceived to be potentially dangerous; it is conceivable
that their use of these strategies prevented violence that might
otherwise have occurred. Some of these situations were stereo
typical assault situations in which women were approached out
side at night:
I was walking in an alley with a female friend at 2 a.m. A man
approached us using ploys, testing, lying. I told him to leave so we
could walk home without him.
I was followed one night by this old drunk guy. He started asking
me a question—“Do you want to hear a story?” I looked him in the
eye and said no. Then he said, “Don’t be scared, little girl.” I looked
at him and said, “I’m not scared.” And I kept walking. He left me
alone after I told him I wasn’t scared.
I was walking to a bar to meet some friends. Some of them were
already in the bar....Amanwhowasstrungoutonsomething
passed us and said to me, “You dykes are going to get your asses
kicked out here.” I felt threatened. He followed us back to the bicy-
cle rack in front of the car. He tried talking to me and started yelling
“What’s your problem?” I told him to leave me alone. He left.
In each of these cases, the writer successfully used newly learned
assertiveness strategies to manage a potentially threatening situ
ation. Other stories involved strangers in more public situations,
such as football games:
I was at a football game, and some boys (strangers) were making
very crude and inappropriate names toward me. I tried to ignore
them at first, but then I felt like they went too far—so I turned
around and confronted them and used the three-part statement
express my feelings. They were dumbfounded and were silent, so I
said, “Thank-you, hope you enjoyed the game,” and walked away.
I attended a game a few weeks back and a drunk man put his arm
around me, so I looked him straight in the eye and said “excuse
me” in a stern voice. It worked!
Thirty-five of the 36 participants indicated that taking the self-
defense class had increased their perceived safety; the same num
ber said the class had increased their confidence in their ability to
defend themselves from violence:
I feel more in control of situations and I am no longer terrified
when walking alone at night; I trust my intuition and I feel as if the
chance I would be chosen as a victim is low due to my attitude and
my energy/confidence.
I haven’t been in a situation where I was attacked, but I feel much
safer and more confident. I can take care of myself and handle situ
ations as they come.
I feel that now I present myself with more confidence which may
deter attackers. I also feel I have the tools to defend myself if
need be.
I have way more confidence in my ability to stop a potential
assault, and I’m not scared as much any more. I was followed one
night, and I used some strategies that made the man stop following
me. I feel much safer in my skin now.
It is clear from these comments that two parallel changes have
taken place here: Women have developed confidence in their
physical ability to defend themselves and have also developed a
more general confidence in themselves—in their ability to recog-
nize a dangerous situation and to respond to such situations if
they occur—which in itself decreases their risk of assault. These
two interrelated changes transform women’s relationship to the
world around them.
The participants’ responses to the closed-ended survey ques
tions also demonstrated their increased confidence in dealing
with potentially dangerous situations. On both surveys, partici
pants were asked to indicate, on a 7-point scale (where 1 = not
effectively at all and 7 = very effectively), how effectively they felt
that they would be able to defend themselves if a stranger
attacked them. Before the class, the average answer was 4.2; after
the class, the average had risen to 6.0 (t = –7.443, p < .001). Simi
larly, students’ average scores on the Self-Defense Self-Efficacy
Scale (Weitlauf et al., 2000), which measures confidence in one’s
ability to enact six behaviorally specific types of physical self-
defense, rose from an average of 31 to an average of 48 out of a
possible 60 points (t = –11.067, p < .001). Clearly, the participants’
perceived abilities and confidence had grown.
Importantly, the participants in this class did not say that learn
ing more about violence against women had made them more
fearful or, alternatively, made them fearless or overconfident.
Rather, they professed a heightened awareness of danger, but an
increased confidence that they can cope with violence:
The fear is still there, but now I know that I can do something.
I feel like I know when to be afraid now. Intuition gives you an
acute sense of fear ...itdoesn’t need to convince you to be scared. I
know that when I am scared, I should do something about it (leave,
call someone, etc.) rather than cower.
I’m more aware of myself—my environment and my powers—so I
feel safer. I’m also at the same time more knowledgeable about vio
lence and the realities of it. So my fear is angled now in a more accu-
rate direction where before it was so scattered by the stereotypes of
rapes, abusers, etc.
On the closed-ended questions about fear and danger, the stu-
dents’ generalized fear for their own safety was unchanged.
However, their average sense of worry or unease in a variety of
specific situations—being at home, walking through parking lots,
going to movies or plays, using public transportation, going to
clubs or bars, and using laundromats (all alone and after dark)—
decreased, and these changes were statistically significant. These
findings, and the quotes above, are consistent with psychological
research on the relationship between coping capabilities and fear
or anxiety. When people believe they can cope with threats, they
experience less anxiety, even if the threats still exist (Ozer &
Bandura, 1990).
Participants were asked whether the self-defense class had
helped them deal with a variety of people, both strangers and
known others. The participants reported that the self-defense
class had helped them deal with strangers: Virtually all answered
yes to this question. They provided a variety of examples of these
changes. Many focused on their use of public space and their own
body language when dealing with strangers, as in these com
ments: “I don’t move out of the way on the street anymore and I
take up more space.” “If I am walking down the street about to
pass a man I will not move out of the way.” “I started using eye
contact with every person I walked by. I used to always look
down to avoid confrontation.” “I walk confidently and with pur
pose with my arms swinging along with me—I TAKE UP SPACE.
I speak louder, laugh louder, I make eye contact, I resist smiling at
everyone if I don’t want to.”
Other changes focused on verbal interactions with strangers.
Here, too, the participants said they were more aware of their own
boundaries and more able to communicate their needs to others:
I feel more entitled to be assertive and maintain my boundaries,
whereas I used to feel I was being rude.
Being direct and honest about how I feel/think is a very beneficial
thing that can translate from one scenario to the next. Being sure
and assertive of who I am, my thoughts, and my space improves
the kinds of relationships you do have.
I am less afraid and more assertive and straight forward (I don’t
feel like I always have to smile and be friendly).
When a petitioner was bugging me to sign papers, I turned to him,
looked him in the eye, and said, “No, I don’t want to sign your
papers.” He left. The best thing about it is that I didn’t even hesi-
tate. I held eye contact the whole time.
I don’t feel like I have to explain myself to strangers at a bar. “No” is
Self-defense training changes women’s interactional patterns
with strangers, even when those interactions do not threaten vio
lence. In this way, self-defense training literally trains women to
defend their selves—not only their physical and sexual selves, but
their psychological and emotional selves as well.
Although many women’s fears center on assault by strangers
(Gordon & Riger, 1989; Hollander, 2001; Stanko, 1992), the aver
age woman is at much higher risk of assault by an acquaintance or
intimate. Recent studies have found that at least 85% of attempted
or completed sexual assaults against women are at the hands of
known others (Tjaden & Thoennes, 1998). Indeed, all the past
unwanted sexual experiences described by the participants in this
class, and by the other 128 women in the larger sample, were per
petrated by friends, acquaintances, relatives, or intimates.
Accordingly, it is important to examine whether the strategies
learned in self-defense classes are also effective when interacting
with known others.
Overwhelmingly, the participants in this research reported that
the class had helped them deal with friends and acquaintances
(29 out of 36 said yes, whereas 4 were not sure). Some of these
experiences were potentially threatening situations, as in these
When my friend’s boyfriend got belligerently drunk, tried to hit on
me and called me a bitch I used three-part statements and assertive
voice and saying “NO!” I said, “John, you are making me feel very
uncomfortable. You are being very rude and invading my space—
it is NOT okay and I want you to leave.”
My best friend’s boyfriend pushed me onto a bed and started
“playfully” tickling me. He was DRUNK and I was too but I was
frightened when he got on top of me. I was disgusted, yelled “Get
OFF ME!” and slapped him. He called me some name and stum-
bled out of the room.
These situations are especially notable because they resemble
many of the acquaintance assault experiences participants
reported happening in the past, before they had begun the self-
defense class. In these situations, trusted friends or acquaintances
became threatening and coerced or forced women into unwanted
sexual contact or intercourse. After completing the course, the
participants felt significantly more prepared to respond to these
types of situations; their average assessment of how effective they
would be in defending themselves if an acquaintance or intimate
attacked them rose from 4.4 (on a 7-point scale) at the beginning of
the class to 6.0 at the end (t = –5.418, p < .001).
The first comment above is also notable because the participant
reports using specific assertiveness (verbal self-defense) strate
gies learned in the class. Indeed, all but 4 of the 36 participants
reported on the second survey that they had already used their
newly learned assertiveness strategies in their everyday lives; the
average number of strategies reported was 6.5, as illustrated in
Table 1.
Clearly, the assertiveness and awareness strategies taught in
self-defense classes have immediate value to students. As one
said, “I use these techniques in my life every day.” Moreover,
these skills are perceived to be the key to implementing the physi-
cal self-defense skills learned in the class. As one student wrote,
Self-defense is not only understanding the physical elements of
protection, but also getting in touch with the person inside. I could
know all the physical skills known to woman, but if I did not feel
confident or assertive, my knowledge would be useless.
This student echoes a claim made by many who have taught and
studied self-defense: “Highly developed physical protection
skills are useless if a woman does not have the mental prepared
ness and sense of self-worth that will enable her to use her physi
cal skills” (Searles & Follansbee, 1984, p. 67). As described above,
feminist self-defense focuses explicitly on these issues; they are
not considered separable from the physical self-defense
The students report using assertiveness strategies with a wide
variety of people. Some reported using these strategies with
strangers or in threatening situations with acquaintances, as
Types of Assertiveness Strategies Used by Self-Defense Students
Number Reporting
Strategy Use of Strategy (n = 36)
Body language/taking up space 30
Eye contact 27
Assertive voice 26
Using intuition 26
Saying “no” 23
Active listening 19
Avoidance 19
Three-part statements 17
Verbal principles or strategies 12
Recognizing ploys, clues, and testing 12
De-escalation 10
Broken record 4
described in the previous section. Others reported using their
newfound skills with friends or acquaintances in situations that
they did not perceive to be dangerous: “I have used many of these
techniques in social and party situations. And I have also used
some of these strategies with my roommates during arguments.”
“I’ve been using three-part statements quite a bit, just in day-to-
day conversation. I find it’s a great tool for expressing myself
without getting into an argument.” “I discuss things with my
friends instead of leaving things bothering me.” “[I used] saying
‘no’—to a roommate always asking for favors (without explana
tion I said ‘no’).” “I’m more assertive with some of my male
friends now.” These changes seem to affect the quality of their
relationships, as well as specific interactions: “Friends count on
me in situations—they see my confidence.” “I feel empowered
and they [friends] feel it too, so a different level of respect has
A majority of the respondents (22 of 36) also indicated that the
class had helped them deal with intimate partners, as in these
comments: “All in all I feel more justified in my feelings whatever
they may be, and I speak my mind more than I ever did in the past.
I am less self-conscious of appearing rude.” “My partner knows
that when something offends or upsets me I will say something
about it.” “With my boyfriend I have learned to be more assertive
and to use the assertive voice. Generally I was very passive with
him but now I notice I stand up for what I believe and want.” “I’ve
learned how to communicate better [with my romantic partner].”
“I would never deal with an abusive relationship again.”
Changes in the participants relationships with their intimate
partners also included greater assertiveness regarding sexuality.
Several women noted that they felt more comfortable refusing
sex—as well as making their own desires known: “[I] am able to
be more secure when saying “No” to sex.” “I’ve noticed several
times in the past when I felt violated and I didn’t even say how I
felt. No more!” “I’m more comfortable asking for what I want
[with romantic partner].” These comments are especially signifi
cant because of the evidence that many women experience sexual
activity that is not wanted but that falls short of the legal defini
tion of rape (Muehlenhard & Cook, 1988). For example, Ogletree
(1993) found that 42% of college women had experienced sexual
coercion by a date; 70% of these women had given in to their
dates’ “overwhelming arguments and pressure” and had engaged
in intercourse even though they had not wanted to. Indeed,
among the 36 women included in this sample, 20 reported
unwanted sexual contact (with 3 additional “not sure”), and 12
reported unwanted sexual intercourse that occurred because they
were “overwhelmed by someone’s continual arguments and pres
The follow-up surveys suggest that these students’ relation
ships with a wide variety of people had been transformed by tak
ing the self-defense class. The tools and strategies they learned
were perceived to be relevant not only to stereotypically danger
ous situations but also to everyday interactions with friends,
acquaintances, intimates, and strangers—interactions that
although often assumed to be benign are the location for most
actual violence against women.
Self-defense training transforms not only one’s interactions
with others, but also one’s perceptions and feelings about oneself.
For example, 24 of the 36 participants indicated that the experi-
ence of taking the self-defense class had affected their feelings
about their bodies. When asked to describe these changes, they
offered comments such as “I love my body [now].” “I used to feel
uncomfortable taking up space because I’m bigger, but now I
don’t.” “I see my own power and strength.” “I am more willing to
take up space!” “It’s all MINE!” “I am more confident and I feel
more unique and beautiful.” “It is able to hurt someone and pro
tect me.” “I am more comfortable in my skin.” “I feel much stron
ger and more in control of my body.”
The closed-ended survey questions also supported the idea
that self-defense changes women’s conceptions of their own bod
ies. The students’ perceptions of their own physical competence
(measured by the Physical Self-Efficacy Scale [Rykman et al.,
1982]) increased from 85 to 94 (of a maximum score of 132)
between the first and second surveys, a statistically significant
difference (t = –4.471, p < .001). Participants’ perceptions of their
own strength compared with that of the average man (where 1 =
much less and 5 = much more) increased from 1.8 to 2.5 (t = –4.730,
p < .001).
The sentiments expressed in the quotes above are strikingly
different from those described in most of the literature on
women’s bodies, in which women report feeling that their bodies
are inadequate, shameful, fragile, and contaminating (e.g.,
Brumberg, 1997; Lee, 1994; Young, 1990). Moreover, they are also
different from ideas about the body implied by much feminist
theorizing about violence against women. In calling much-
needed attention to men’s violence against women, women’s
experiences of violence have often become conflated with
women’s vulnerability to violence; because women are fre
quently victimized, many have assumed that women are innately
and necessarily vulnerable to such victimization (Burton, 1998).
The changes in body perceptions evident in the comments
above echo the argument made by McCaughey (1997), who con
tends that “self-defense transforms the way it feels to inhabit a
female body. It changes what it means to be a woman” (p. 2; see
also Rentschler, 1999). Unless they have participated in contact
sports, many women have never had the opportunity to experi-
ence their bodies in a powerful way. As a result, “we often experi-
ence our bodies as a fragile encumbrance, rather than the media
for the enactment of our aims” (Young, 1990, pp. 146-147). More-
over, women tend to experience their bodies as objects to be dis-
played and decorated. Thus, a woman interacts with her body
from without as well as from within: “She gazes at it in the mirror,
worries about how it looks to others, prunes it, shapes it, molds it,
and decorates it” (Young, 1990, p. 155). In self-defense classes, in
contrast, women both observe and experience strength and
power in a female body. As they begin to feel that their bodies can
protect them, rather than make them vulnerable, the value and
respect they accord their bodies increases.
Half the participants said that one reason they signed up for the
self-defense class was the desire to become more assertive and
self-confident. Clearly, this goal was met: Twenty-nine of the 36
participants (including all those who had indicated this goal)
said that the class had increased their self-confidence: “My self-
confidence has skyrocketed.” “I am more confident of being who I
am.” “I just feel more confident when I walk down the street that I
can take on whatever comes.” “I feel more confident in my intu
ition and ability.” “I learned things I didn’t think I could possibly
do.” This increase in confidence is not limited to dealing with
dangerous situations; this confidence touches many aspects of
women’s lives.
Self-confidence is closely related to the concept of self-efficacy,
or the perception that one can be effective in carrying out a partic
ular behavior. According to Bandura (1977, 1997), self-efficacy is
key to learning new behaviors, approaching new situations confi
dently, and performing competently. Perceived self-efficacy can
be increased in four principal ways: mastery experiences (i.e., suc
cessfully performing the behavior in question), modeling (watch
ing similar and/or respected others perform the behavior), social
persuasion (including feedback about one’s own abilities), and
interpretations of physiological states, such as rapid heartbeat or
calm relaxation. Feminist self-defense training includes all these
elements: It includes practice in physical and verbal self-defense
techniques, observation of others performing such techniques,
information about self-defense and feedback on one’s own per-
formance, and practice in reinterpreting bodily cues as signs of
power or outrage, not fear. Such training has been shown to
increase self-efficacy both in domains related to self-defense
(Ozer & Bandura, 1990; Weitlauf et al., 2000) and in other domains
(Weitlauf, Cervone, Smith, & Wright, 2001). Importantly, this
change in self-confidence can reduce a woman’s risk of victimiza-
tion; “a confident demeanor is a deterrent to attack and a
woman’s belief that she can fight, and the concomitant willing
ness to put up a fight, are central components to successfully
thwarting attacks in the vast majority of situations” (McCaughey,
1998, p. 293).
Although women described changes in their self-confidence
and self-perception, the effects of the self-defense class went
beyond women’s views of themselves. Importantly, the partici
pants’ views of women as a group shifted and transformed.
Twenty-nine of the 36 participants said that the class had changed
their views of women and described those changes with com
ments such as “Women Rock! We have to deal with all sorts of
everyday stuff and we do it.” “All types of women can be tough
and strong.” “Women can fight back + defend + survive.” “We are
awesome, strong and beautiful.” “Women have the capability to
take control of our lives.” “We all kick ass.” “Women are just as
capable as men.” These changes mark a dramatic shift in the par
ticipants’ views of gender. Although women are widely seen to be
weak, vulnerable, and inadequate (Hollander 2001), these partici
pants came to see women as powerful, strong, and beautiful.
A few participants also said that their beliefs about men had
changed: “I’m realizing all the little ways that we [women and
men] interact and seeing if they’re empowering or oppressive.”
“Men’s sense of entitlement angers me more. I don’t tolerate it as
much any more.” These comments suggest that men’s privilege—
and by implication, the systematic inequality between women
and men—has been illuminated through the self-defense class.
Men’s behavior and greater power is no longer taken for granted.
Some of this behavior relates to violence:
Most men aren’t attackers, but most men do carry around beliefs
that perpetuate violence.
I found that the role-plays where I was the aggressor were particu-
larly useful. It was these activities that completely reinforced my
belief that men (or women) who attack do so with knowledge of
what they are doing. Men who rape and assault women make a
choice to do so. Their sex drive did not carry them away and she
wasn’t “asking for it.” To assault is a decision.
These comments suggest that the students have begun to see the
role that violence plays in perpetuating gender inequality. This
kind of “critical consciousness” (Friere, 1970; McWhirter, 1997) is
an important part of individual and social change.
The many comments presented in this article (and the many
more similar comments made by other participants) make clear
the depth and breadth of the changes experienced by these self-
defense students. These changes included strategies for dealing
with dangerous situations and people but also extended to touch
many aspects of the students lives. For example, when asked,
“Are there any other ways that learning self-defense has affected
your life so far?” one woman simply wrote, “Is there any way it
hasn’t?” I have suggested here that these changes may also play
an important role in preventing violence against women.
We are left, then, with the question of why this particular inter
vention is so effective and consequential for the women who
experience it. As university faculty know to their chagrin, most
college classes do not have this sort of dramatic impact on stu
dents’ lives. Indeed, one critique of this project from a potential
grantor was that a single class would be unlikely to produce any
measurable changes in students’ lives, even in the short term. The
data presented above make clear that this prediction was
I suggest that self-defense classes are life transforming because
they address three issues that touch every aspect of women’s
lives: the fear of sexual assault, the self, and gender. First, the fear
of sexual assault forms an ever-present backdrop for women’s
lives. Many studies have documented the extent of this fear (e.g.,
Gordon & Riger, 1989; Hollander, 1997, 2001; Stanko, 1993).
Women rank sexual assault as one of their greatest fears—indeed,
many women report that they fear rape even more than murder
(Warr, 1985). This fear is not limited to particular situations or
activities; because potential assailants are indistinguishable from
other men, virtually any experience of danger can evoke the
threat of sexual assault. This fear is intensified by the belief, wide-
spread among both women and men, that women are weak and
inherently unable to protect themselves from men’s violence
(Hollander, 2001; McCaughey, 1997). If danger is pervasive, and if
women have little hope of defending themselves against it, no
wonder women’s fear is so great. And no wonder that challeng
ing these fears by demonstrating that women are strong and can
defend themselves has such dramatic effects.
A second reason why self-defense classes dramatically affect
women’s lives is because they focus not only on women’s knowl
edge of sexual assault and the physical skills they need to avoid it
but also on the students own place and value in the world. Rather
than “profaning” the self, as other safety interventions do
(Gardner, 1990), self-defense classes help women learn to value
the self. Indeed, honoring the self is the heart of feminist self-
defense training:
If a woman does not have a strong sense of self-worth, she will not
be likely to see her life as worth fighting for, and hence she will be
unable to use her physical defense skills when necessary. Learning
to value oneself is the first step toward acceptance of one’s basic
interpersonal rights. (Searles & Follansbee, 1984, p. 68)
Feminist self-defense classes suggest to women not only that they
can defend themselves, but also that they have the right to do so:
the right to take up physical space, the right to determine who will
touch their bodies and how, the right to move through public
space without restriction. The students wrote about this belief in a
variety of ways:
This class made me gain self-confidence and I also learned that my
life is worth protecting. ...Imnotafraid of anyone or anything any
more. I believe that I could do anything I want if I really put effort
into it.
I have a right to express myself.
[My body] is mine and no one else is allowed to touch it unless I
give them my permission.
have a right to say no.
I believe in myself and I will do anything to protect myself.
I am worth defending emotionally.
It has boosted my self-esteem and has made me see myself as the
“actor” instead of the “reactor.”
I am creating and defending my path.
The idea that one’s life and one’s self are worth defending is a
profound lesson indeed, as is the idea that one can “do anything,”
that one has agency and can act as well as be acted upon. As
another student wrote, “I never thought I would be able to defend
myself if I was attacked. . . . Now I know differently....Ifeel this
changes my whole persona.” The knowledge that one can defend
oneself—and that that self is valuable enough to merit defend
ing—changes everything.
Finally, the self is not all that self-defense classes change.
Equally important are changes in ideas about women—and im
plicitly, about men and gender. These ideas are fundamental to
the changes in the self described above. It is not just individuals’
views of themselves that change but individuals’ views of them
selves as a member of the category “women. The meaning of gender
is transformed through exposure to new ideas and new physical
experiences of what is possible in a woman’s body.
Several domains of gender meaning are affected by self-
defense training. Most obviously, beliefs about women’s vulnera
bility and inability to defend themselves against male violence
are undermined and replaced by trust in women’s bodies as capa
ble and strong. Ideas about women’s vulnerability are central to
notions of gender (Hollander, 2001); thus, changing these ideas
changes gender. As Catherine MacKinnon (1989) has written, “To
be able to resist rape, not to communicate rapeability with one’s
body, to hold one’s body for uses and meanings other than that
can transform what being a woman means” (p. 122).
These ideas about gendered vulnerability are founded on
understandings of gendered bodies. Women’s bodies are gener-
ally understood to be weak, soft, passive, and penetrable, where-
as men’s bodies are seen as hard, strong, and active (Connell,
1995; McCaughey, 1997). As McCaughey (1997) argued, these
understandings of gendered bodies are not simply cognitive;
rather, they are imprinted onto and into physical bodies. Gender,
she says,
is not just a psychological, attitudinal, or ideological matter. It’s a
material reality. Gender is no less bodily or material because it is
discursive or textual. Social institutions seep into bodies. The stan-
dards of gender operate through meaning systems which them
selves operate through the lived body. (p. 38)
Because these meanings operate through physical bodies, they
are perceived to be natural when, in fact, they are largely socially
constructed. Gender expectations exaggerate modest “natural”
gender differences in physical ability by requiring that women
keep their bodies small and delicate, take up as little space as
possible, and not use their bodies assertively, while requir
ing the opposite practices of men (Goffman, 1976; Lorber, 1994;
McCaughey, 1997; Young, 1990).
Self-defense classes disrupt conventional understandings of
gendered bodies because they demonstrate to women that they
can use their bodies effectively, and they also suggest that men’s
bodies are not invulnerable. Self-defense is a “reprogramming
regimen for the body” (McCaughey, 1997, p. 95); it challenges the
idea that the female body is weak and violable and overwrites tra
ditional gendered bodily patterns with new practices that reaf
firm women’s power and strength on a visceral level. “Because
gender is not really natural, it requires constant enforcement and
repetition. This repetition is abruptly interrupted in women’s
self-defense classes” (McCaughey, 1997, p. 90). Feminist self-
defense training vividly demonstrates to women—both through
watching other women use their bodies in new ways and through
feeling their own bodies as they practice new behaviors—that
women can be strong and defend themselves from men’s vio
lence. The result is a powerful redefinition of gendered bodies.
A final domain of gender meaning relates to the issue of polite
ness or niceness. A key tenet of gender expectations is the idea
that women should be “nice girls” (Fox, 1977); that they should be
deferent to others, especially men; that they should put others’
needs first; that they should avoid making a scene (Rozee & Koss,
2001). In other words, girls and women learn to put others’ per-
spectives before their own. This gender expectation is a form of
social self-control; rather than being forcefully controlled by oth-
ers, women learn to control themselves. As Fox (1977) observed,
“Social control through normative constructs has the virtue of
subtlety; it gives the appearance of nonrestriction and noncontrol,
thus reducing the potential for resistance” (p. 816). These expecta-
tions operate in a variety of realms: in conversation, where both
women and men expect men and men’s ideas to dominate; in rela-
tionships, where men are expected to initiate sexual activity and
take the lead on decision making (Blumstein & Schwartz, 1983);
and in the workplace, where women are more frequently in posi
tions that require emotional labor in service of others needs
(Hochschild, 1983).
These gendered behavioral expectations are rooted in part in
the fear of men’s violence:
[Sexual] violence, as well as the fear of it, produces in women spe
cific feminine dispositions. The fear of violence restricts women’s
mobility and encourages them to be with male “protectors.” It
prompts women to engage in a variety of cautious and modest
behaviors to avoid crossing the line between virtuous woman and
whore (for whom little sympathy is given when victimized).
Women display deference to men that they would not otherwise
because of rape culture. (McCaughey, 1997, p. 43)
At the same time, these expectations contribute to women’s vul
nerability by devaluing women’s needs or desires and
prioritizing the desires of others, especially men. This reduces the
likelihood that women will resist men’s desires, in both consen
sual and forced situations:
Due to traditional socialization, a woman is likely to feel obliged to
act in a gracious or compassionate manner, and she may find her
self being concerned about or even taking responsibility for the
feelings of someone who has harmful intentions. (Searles &
Follansbee, 1984, p. 67)
Of course, these expectations vary by local situation and culture;
some women are more subject to these expectations than others,
and some situations are more conducive to them.
Self-defense training both reduces women’s fear of violence
and, especially through assertiveness training, introduces the
radical idea that women should consider their own needs and
addressed these issues in their comments:
I am more confident and aware ...Ialso have learned the type of
things that I don’t have to put up with. I don’t always have to be
nice and accommodating to other people. ...Icantake care of me
I learned a lot about who I am and what is most important for me.
This idea is central to physical self-defense (one must know one’s
own desires to determine that the interaction is unwanted and
choose to resist) but transfers easily to other parts of women’s
lives, including interactions with strangers, family members,
friends, and intimates. This is not simply an issue of individual
rights but a question of whether women, as a group, should be
“nice girls” who defer to men’s all-important preferences or
whether women have an equal right to be at the center, to have
their ideas and desires taken seriously. The idea that women mat
ter is perhaps the most radical transformation these students evi
dence. As one student wrote, “I am more satisfied and happy to be
a woman.” If women as a group matter, then individual women
matter too.
Taking themselves, and women more generally, seriously, chal
lenges the entire gender system built on the subordination of
women; it disrupts the taken-for-granted assumption that men
are at the center of social life and women are at the margins (Bem,
1993). No wonder, then, that self-defense classes produce such
profound changes in women’s lives: They shift the foundations
upon which those lives are built.
The data presented in this article suggest that feminist self-
defense training positively affects women’s lives. These effects
include changes in the way women deal with potentially danger
ous situations, but they also extend far beyond such situations to
influence many different aspects of women’s daily lives, includ-
ing their interactions with a range of known and unknown others,
their self-confidence and feelings about their bodies, and their
ideas about gender. Although not direct responses to episodes
of violence, these changes may nonetheless indirectly reduce
women’s risk of victimization and increase their effectiveness in
responding to violence if it does occur. For example, assertiveness
in seemingly benign interactions may deter an attack; there is evi-
dence that assailants often begin an assault by testing a potential
target to see if she will resist (Rentschler, 1999). Knowing her own
feelings and boundaries may also allow a woman to recognize
behavior that transgresses these boundaries and respond earlier,
thus heading off an attack before it becomes more serious. Rozee
and Koss (2001) have observed that in many assaults, women
delay resisting because they are both shocked by the man’s
behavior and unsure of what is happening. Being aware of one’s
own boundaries may reduce this period of uncertainty.
Further, reducing women’s fear of violence and increasing
their perceived competence to deal with it if it does occur make
women’s everyday lives less anxious and increases the likelihood
that they will respond effectively if attacked. Perceiving their own
bodies as strong and competent increases women’s confidence
that they will be able to defend themselves; this self-confidence is
an essential ingredient of successful self-defense. Finally, learning
to value the self and to view one’s own needs and desires as
equally important as those of others increases women’s motiva
tion to protect themselves from violence. These changes are based
not only on shifts in self-perception but also on changes in the
meaning of gender; the “self-defense metamorphosis”
(McCaughey, 1997, p. 23) transforms how women see the world
around them, as well as how they see themselves.
Further results from the ongoing longitudinal study should
help to confirm these findings and also answer additional ques
tions. For example, does self-defense training have similar effects
across more diverse populations, including nonuniversity
women and women of varying ages, races, and social classes? Do
these effects differ for those who have and have not survived past
violence? Do women who complete self-defense training have a
reduced risk of attack? Does self-defense training change the way
women react to an actual assault attempt (and are those changes
equally effective for different kinds of assaults, such as attempted
rape, relationship violence, or harassment)? Are the kinds of
changes described here maintained over the long term, and how
do they affect women’s life choices? Answering these questions
will provide a fuller picture of the power of feminist self-defense
1. Other important foundational principles of feminist self-defense are that it addresses
the continuum of assaults against women (from harassment to murder) as well as the con
tinuum of assailants (from strangers to intimates). Feminist self-defense teaches options
rather than static prescriptions for responding to assault, focuses on early detection, pre
vention, and interruption of assaults as well as physical fighting, and builds a supportive
community of women (Telsey, 2001).
2. It is important to emphasize that acknowledging women’s ability to defend them
selves from men’s violence does not mean that women are responsible for preventing such
violence. Rape, sexual assault, and other forms of violence against women are always the
responsibility of the perpetrator, and men should also be involved in preventing violence
against women. Similarly, acknowledging that women can and do effectively resist men’s
violence does not mean that all women should resist all kinds of violence in all situations or
that women should be blamed for their own victimization if they choose not to resist or are
unsuccessful in doing so. Again, women are never responsible for men’s violence against
them. It is a central tenet of feminist self-defense classes that the only person who can judge
the appropriate reaction to an assault is the potential victim herself, and that in some situa
tions submitting to an assault may be the safest course of action—in other words, a legiti
mate self-defense strategy.
3. As noted above, these data represent the first results from a larger longitudinal study
of the effectiveness of self-defense training for preventing violence against women. When
complete, this prospective study will compare 250 women who take a feminist self-defense
class (in both university and community settings) with similar women who do not take
such a class to assess any differences in their risk of sexual violence or their responses to
such violence. The self-defense students will be surveyed at multiple points in time: before
beginning the self-defense class, at the end of the self-defense class, 1 year after completing
the class, and 5 years after completing the class.
4. These students were recruited from introductory women’s studies, English, educa
tion, and physical education classes and completed the same first survey as did the self-
defense students; they will also complete the 1-year and 5-year follow-up surveys for com
parison with the self-defense students.
5. Following Koss, Gidycz, and Wisniewski (1987), sexual contact was defined in the sur
vey as “fondling, kissing, or petting, but not intercourse or penetration.” Sexual coercion
was defined as “giving in to sexual intercourse when you didn’t want to because you were
overwhelmed by someone’s continual arguments or pressure” or “because someone used
their position of authority (such as a boss, parent, teacher, or coach) to make you.”
6. Open-ended survey responses have been edited for spelling, punctuation, readabil
ity, and confidentiality, but are otherwise presented verbatim.
7. Three-part statements involve clearly naming the problematic behavior, expressing
one’s feelings about it, and stating the change one desires in a direct yet nonconfronta
tional way.
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quences of self-defense training for women, including violence prevention and
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... Although efforts to eliminate sexual assault have advanced over the past four decades, few programs and prevention strategies have shown to be effective in reducing rates of sexual assault perpetration and victimization (DeGue et al., 2014;Lonsway et al., 2009). One type of programming with solid evidence of reducing risk of sexual assault is women's self-defense training (Hollander, 2004(Hollander, , 2014(Hollander, , 2015Senn et al., 2015Senn et al., , 2017. ...
... In their randomizedcontrol trial, Senn et al. (2015Senn et al. ( , 2017 found that college women who were enrolled in EAAA had a 50% reduced risk of sexual assault victimization at a 1-year and 2-year follow-up period, compared to college women in the treatment-as-usual group who received educational brochures about sexual assault (Senn et al., 2015(Senn et al., , 2017. Other quasi-experimental studies have also reported fewer completed and attempted sexual assaults (Hollander, 2004(Hollander, , 2014. ...
... Evidence also suggests that college women who were assaulted after completing an ESD course, compared to college women in a wait-list control group who were later assaulted, were less likely to blame themselves and more likely to blame the perpetrator for the assault (Gidycz et al., 2006). Multiple studies have shown that ESD is associated with increased self-defense selfefficacy (Gidycz et al., 2015;Hollander, 2004Hollander, , 2014Hollander, , 2015Ozer & Bandura, 1990;Senn et al., 2013Senn et al., , 2017. Several smaller quasi-experimental studies reported an increase in assertiveness across various social contexts; this includes increased assertiveness during everyday, non-threatening situations, on one end of the spectrum, and dangerous, threatening situations on the other end (Gidycz et al., 2015;Hollander, 2004Hollander, , 2014Weitlauf et al., 2000). ...
Empowerment Self-Defense (ESD) has been shown to be effective in reducing risk of sexual assault victimization among women, but because research in this area is still in its infancy, less is known about additional intervention outcomes that may explain how and why the intervention is effective and about other ways that ESD affects students. The purpose of this study was to examine ESD instructor perspectives about intervention outcomes they perceive to be most important for their students. Using qualitative case-study methodology, interviews from 15 ESD instructors from the United States and Canada were conducted and analyzed using thematic analysis, which yielded six themes: Agency, boundaries, core beliefs, health and healing, somatic experiences, and gender and intersectionality, with each theme having two or more subthemes. Although some of these outcomes have been quantitatively evaluated in previous ESD studies, over half (n=10) have not yet been empirically measured. These ten outcomes include enactment, self-determination, nonverbal communication, relationship quality, self-worth, healing, physical strength and power, downregulation, support and solidarity, and societal-level changes. In addition to developing standardized tools to measure these outcomes, future research should quantitatively evaluate these outcomes across diverse student populations and explore their effect on producing the profound outcome associated with ESD, which is reduced risk for sexual assault victimization. 3 Beyond Sexual Assault Prevention: Targeted Outcomes for Empowerment Self-Defense
... These studies also demonstrated program effects for women's increased use of self-protective strategies in dating situations with a new partner (e.g., providing their own transportation and meeting in a public place; Gidycz et al., 2006;Gidycz et al., 2015;Orchowski et al., 2008). Hollander's (2004) study of a small group of women following a longer and more intensive (45 hours) feminist ESD course provided further insight into women's use of information and skills from risk reduction/resistance programs. In qualitative survey responses, women reported that the training had changed their daily practices to avoid dangerous situations, including implementing a range of precautionary strategies (e.g., locking doors) and having a heightened awareness (e.g., using one's intuition). ...
... Prior research on sexual assault resistance finds that women with and without a history of victimization and risk reduction/ resistance education, engage in a range of strategies to avoid or prevent sexual assault, but the strategies used are unlikely to be effective and restrict women's lives in significant ways. The important work of Gidycz et al. (2006Gidycz et al. ( , 2015 and Hollander (2004) begins to address the lack of scholarship on women's use of resistance strategies following risk-reduction/ resistance education (including ESD) and provides initial insight into the types and effectiveness of strategies women use. Hollander's (2004) study begins to identify how ESD training, specifically, changes women's everyday lives. ...
... The important work of Gidycz et al. (2006Gidycz et al. ( , 2015 and Hollander (2004) begins to address the lack of scholarship on women's use of resistance strategies following risk-reduction/ resistance education (including ESD) and provides initial insight into the types and effectiveness of strategies women use. Hollander's (2004) study begins to identify how ESD training, specifically, changes women's everyday lives. However, a deeper understanding of the knowledge and skills beyond forceful physical and verbal resistance used by women who have taken resistance education is lacking. ...
Full-text available
Research on women’s response and resistance to sexual assault risk has informed the development of interventions to improve women’s ability to effectively resist sexual assault. However, little is known about how women anticipate, navigate, and respond to risk following participation in sexual assault risk reduction/resistance education programs. In this study, we examined the information and skills used by university women who had recently completed the effective Enhanced Assess, Acknowledge, Act (EAAA) sexual assault resistance program. We analyzed responses from 445 women using descriptive statistics and content and thematic analysis. Just under half (42%) of women used at least one EAAA strategy in the following 2 years. Most women reported that their efforts were successful in stopping an attack. Women’s responses included strategies both to preempt sexual assault threat (e.g., avoiding men who display danger cues, communicating assertively about wanted and unwanted sex) and to interrupt or avoid an imminent threat (e.g., yelling, hitting, and kicking). Women’s use of resistance strategies worked to subvert gendered social norms and socialization. The results suggest that counter to criticisms that risk reduction/resistance programs blame women or make them responsible for stopping men’s violence, women who took EAAA typically positioned themselves as agentic and empowered in their resistance.
... In the survey that was the basis of this research project, when asked, "If attacked by a man, would you instinctively look for another man for help?," 78% of the informants answered positively, with 63% adding they did not think they would be capable of defending themselves. As Hollander (2004) accurately points out, females who have been socialized to adhere to the conventional feminine role have been taught to be passive, dependent, emotional, helpless, inadequate, ladylike, and incapable of protecting themselves. They have been encouraged to limit their mobility in public spaces and to rely for protection on men to avoid becoming victimized. ...
... Another important aspect of these classes is that they cover not only physical techniques but also how women are socialized to believe they are fragile and powerless and the psychological aspects that discourage women from being assertive, among other elements like verbal defense, boundary-setting, etc. Both feminist self-defense (Hollander 2004), as well as holistic self-defense (Wild Inside Wellness 2019), emphasize how physical self-defense must be accompanied by the production of a new female subject, one that includes a new understanding of the potential of the female body and that does not see the female body as lacking the potential of the male body. While the literature on feminist self-defense adequately points out the importance of creating a new women's subjectivity that demystifies the notions of fragility, helplessness, passiveness, and weakness associated with the female body (see Madden and Sokol 1997;Hollander 2004;Rouse and Slutsky 2014;Arif 2015; O'Loughlin 2019), too little importance seems to be assigned to the equally important task of demystifying the myth of male invulnerability, powerfulness, and superiority to which many of the informants still fiercely subscribe. ...
... Both feminist self-defense (Hollander 2004), as well as holistic self-defense (Wild Inside Wellness 2019), emphasize how physical self-defense must be accompanied by the production of a new female subject, one that includes a new understanding of the potential of the female body and that does not see the female body as lacking the potential of the male body. While the literature on feminist self-defense adequately points out the importance of creating a new women's subjectivity that demystifies the notions of fragility, helplessness, passiveness, and weakness associated with the female body (see Madden and Sokol 1997;Hollander 2004;Rouse and Slutsky 2014;Arif 2015; O'Loughlin 2019), too little importance seems to be assigned to the equally important task of demystifying the myth of male invulnerability, powerfulness, and superiority to which many of the informants still fiercely subscribe. It was common to hear from informants who, despite feeling empowered by taking self-defense lessons, were still not confident in their capacity to protect themselves, arguing that their techniques would only be efficient if the man in question were not too big or strong. ...
Full-text available
Perceptions of young women in Japan are examined in relation to female self-defense. Several women in Japan were surveyed, with some chosen for interviews. It seemed that self-defense was often connected not to learning assault-prevention techniques but to purchasing self-defense tools. This finding opens two avenues for discussion. First, the marketization of personal safety is explored, as is the genderization of these tools and the subsumption of women's safety into a logic of consumption. Second, the shift from viewing the body as a weapon to viewing the object as one, which projects various forms of subjectification onto women, is discussed. These include the outsourcing of women's agency to an external object. It is concluded that this outsourcing often results in the reinforcement of tropes of fragility and the neutralization of resignifications of the female body that emerges from practitioners who focus on the body as the instrument of self-defense.
... Accordingly, feminist self-defence programming has demonstrated impressive results in reducing sexual violence, and for initiating far-reaching changes in participants' lives. Hollander (2004), for example, describes how participants reported feeling safer, being more likely to use public space, interacting more confidently with others, and that their perceptions of their bodies changed, with one participant explaining, "I see my own power and strength" (p. 221). ...
Full-text available
Women with disabilities experience high rates of violence and harassment, yet meaningful violence prevention interventions providing the opportunity to learn how to be active agents in their own self-protection are virtually non-existent. To understand why, we draw on insights from feminist disability studies to explore some of the unexamined assumptions and discourses in gender-based violence prevention research. We then apply a feminist critical discourse analysis to focus groups with blind and partially sighted women to explore their talk about violence and self-defence to understand how they portray self-protective measures, and what practices those portrayals engender. We discerned three portrayals: self-protective measures as necessary against strangers, a delimited responsibility, and an effective means to an end. These portrayals and their subsequent practices demonstrate how the participants navigate violence while living with vision loss. We also consider the implications of our analysis for future directions in gendered violence prevention research.
... To deal with these problems, there appears to be a growing social consensus that the practice of physical activities, including martial arts, is an extremely pertinent option (Rios et al., 2018). Martial arts are traditionally practised as an alternative to dealing with violence, often as a form of self-defence (McCaughey, 1997;McCaughey, 1998;Hollander, 2004;Matthews and Channon, 2016) or as a way of finding spiritual and bodily harmony and serenity. In the latter case, some martial arts are often associated with meditative and spiritual practices, coming to be related to a religious basis (Brown et al., 2009;Mainland, 2010;Cushing, 2013;Contiero et al., 2018;Kumpf, 2018). ...
... Moreover, as violent crimes increase in modern society, protecting oneself is becoming increasingly important. Despite the need for selfdefense training, such training studies are scarce, and most have focused on the physical and psychological effects [16]. Our hypothesis was that Taekwondo self-defense training has additional effects on physiological changes in postmenopausal women, such as those related to oxidative stress and inflammation. ...
Full-text available
We aimed to investigate the effect of a 12-week Taekwondo self-defense training course on oxidative stress and inflammation in postmenopausal women. Sixteen middle-aged women participated and were randomized into two groups: a control group (CG, n = 8) and a Taekwondo self-defense training group (TSDG, n = 8). The TSDG was trained for 60 min, four times per week, for 12 weeks. Following the Taekwondo training intervention, side-step was significantly higher in the TSDG than in the CG (p < 0.001). Malondialdehyde levels were significantly lower after the intervention than before in the TSDG (p < 0.01). Superoxide dismutase (SOD) levels were also significantly higher after the intervention than before in the TSDG (p < 0.001). After the Taekwondo training intervention, SOD levels were significantly higher in the TSDG than in the CG (p < 0.01). Tumor necrosis factor α (TNF-α) levels were significantly lower after the intervention than before in the TSDG (p < 0.05). After the Taekwondo training intervention, TNF-α levels were significantly lower in the TSDG than in the CG (p < 0.05). The results of this study suggest that Taekwondo self-defense training is an effective exercise that improves agility, oxidative stress, and inflammatory responses in postmenopausal women.
... Explicit measurement of this barrier for acquaintance rape resistance may have improved the model. Some researchers have suggested that the experience of learning physical and verbal self-defense changes how women experience their bodies, including their sense of inhabiting and having ownership of them (i.e., embodiment; see Piran, 2016) and that this can lead to increased demands that boundaries be respected and resistance when boundaries are violated (Hollander, 2004;Hollander, 2014). Inclusion of measures of embodiment and of experiences setting and protecting boundaries might both be fruitful additions for future research. ...
Full-text available
The Enhanced Assess, Acknowledge, Act (EAAA) program has been shown to reduce sexual assaults experienced by university students who identify as women. Prevention researchers emphasize testing theory-based mechanisms once positive outcomes related to effectiveness are established. We assessed the process by which EAAA's positive outcomes are achieved in a sample of 857 first year university students. EAAA's goals are to increase risk detection in social interactions, decrease obstacles to risk detection or resistance with known men, and increase women's use of effective self-defense. We used chained multiple mediator modeling to assess the combined effects of the primary mediators (risk detection, direct resistance, and self-defense self-efficacy) while simultaneously assessing the interrelationships among the secondary mediators (per-ception of personal risk, belief in the myth of female precipitation, and general rape myth acceptance). The hypothesized multiple mediation model with three primary mediators met the criterion for full mediation of the intervention effects. Together, the mediators accounted for 95% and 76% of the reductions in completed and attempted rape, respectively, demonstrating full mediation. The hypothesized secondary mediators were important in achieving improvements in personal and situational risk detection. The findings strongly support the benefit of cognitive ecological theory and the Assess, Acknowledge, Act conceptualization underlying EAAA. This evidence can be used by administrators and staff responsible for prevention policy and practice on campuses to defend the implementation of theoretically grounded, evidence-based prevention programs.
Empowerment Self-Defense (ESD) has been shown to be effective in reducing risk of sexual assault victimization among women, but because research in this area is still in its infancy, less is known about additional intervention outcomes that may explain how and why the intervention is effective and about other ways that ESD affects students. The purpose of this study was to examine ESD instructor perspectives about intervention outcomes they perceive to be most important for their students. Using qualitative case-study methodology, interviews from 15 ESD instructors from the United States and Canada were conducted and analyzed using thematic analysis, which yielded six themes: Agency, boundaries, core beliefs, health and healing, somatic experiences, and gender and intersectionality, with each theme having two or more subthemes. Although some of these outcomes have been quantitatively evaluated in previous ESD studies, over half ( n = 10) have not yet been empirically measured and are the focus of this article. These 10 outcomes include enactment, self-determination, nonverbal communication, relationship quality, self-worth, healing, physical strength and power, downregulation, support and solidarity, and societal-level changes. In addition to developing standardized tools to measure these outcomes, future research should quantitatively evaluate these outcomes across diverse student populations and explore their effect on producing the profound outcome associated with ESD, which is reduced risk for sexual assault victimization.
Full-text available
Objetivo: En la presente investigación se determina la prevalencia de la violencia contra las mujeres basada en el género (VcM) en las universidades de Ecuador, se identifican las mejores prácticas y el estado de las investigaciones en materia de prevención de la violencia contra las mujeres en las instituciones de educación superior en el mundo, y se propone un modelo de prevención integral de la VcM en las universidades. Método: El diagnóstico se realizó mediante un diseño descriptivo-explicativo, sobre la base de datos observacionales (encuestas) y relaciones de variables, acorde a un modelo teórico. Los datos provienen de encuestas a 23.261 estudiantes y 4.064 docentes y personal administrativo de las principales escuelas profesionales de 16 universidades con 22 sedes o campus universitarios en Ecuador. Resultados: En Ecuador, 1 de cada 3 estudiantes universitarias reporta haber sido agredida alguna vez por su pareja o expareja, desde que está en la universidad. Considerando solo los últimos 12 meses, 1 de cada 5 estudiantes ha sido agredida por sus parejas o exparejas, un promedio de 18 veces. Se ha encontrado también que 1 de cada 3 estudiantes mujeres ha sido agredida por otros integrantes de la comunidad universitaria, 10 veces promedio en el último año. Docentes y personal administrativo también reportan haber sido agredidas por sus parejas u otros integrantes de la comunidad universitaria. Como consecuencia, días de productividad académica son perdidos debido a la VcM. Se ha encontrado que las estudiantes pierden 11 días al año cuando son agredidas por sus parejas y casi 13 días cuando son agredidas por otros integrantes de la comunidad universitaria. La pérdida es mucho mayor cuando sufren, al mismo tiempo, ambos tipos de VcM, llegando a casi 29 días perdidos al año. Los agresores también pierden días de productividad académica y laboral. Se han encontrado diversos factores personales (actitudes y aceptación de la violencia) y contextuales asociados a la alta prevalencia de la violencia contra las mujeres. Costos: Considerando los costos indirectos de estudiantes y docentes, se ha encontrado que las universidades de Ecuador asumen 68.833.079 USD en costos indirectos al año, valor monetario de 3.664.409 días perdidos de 252.429 estudiantes y docentes afectad*s por la violencia contra las mujeres. Este monto equivale al 3,13% del presupuesto nacional universitario. Propuesta: La revisión sistemática demuestra que las acciones de prevención en la educación superior, a nivel mundial, son aún incipientes y fragmentadas, con poca evidencia de efectividad. Se propone, al respecto, un modelo integral de prevención de la violencia contra las mujeres basado en la cadena de valor de las universidades.
Little is known regarding the types of physical activity interventions most effective in supporting the mental and physical health of woman-identified survivors of gender-based violence. This study measured the experiences of 56 participants who participated in a 14-week trauma-informed, noncontact boxing program once per week for 90 min. Participants completed measures of health-related outcomes including physical and mental health, quality of life, mastery, resilience, self-esteem, physical self-efficacy, social conflict, and financial strain at baseline, program midpoint, and program end. Analyses of variance showed significant improvements for all indicators measured except financial strain, demonstrating viability and effectiveness of this program.
Presents an integrative theoretical framework to explain and to predict psychological changes achieved by different modes of treatment. This theory states that psychological procedures, whatever their form, alter the level and strength of self-efficacy. It is hypothesized that expectations of personal efficacy determine whether coping behavior will be initiated, how much effort will be expended, and how long it will be sustained in the face of obstacles and aversive experiences. Persistence in activities that are subjectively threatening but in fact relatively safe produces, through experiences of mastery, further enhancement of self-efficacy and corresponding reductions in defensive behavior. In the proposed model, expectations of personal efficacy are derived from 4 principal sources of information: performance accomplishments, vicarious experience, verbal persuasion, and physiological states. Factors influencing the cognitive processing of efficacy information arise from enactive, vicarious, exhortative, and emotive sources. The differential power of diverse therapeutic procedures is analyzed in terms of the postulated cognitive mechanism of operation. Findings are reported from microanalyses of enactive, vicarious, and emotive modes of treatment that support the hypothesized relationship between perceived self-efficacy and behavioral changes. (21/2 p ref)
This article presents ethnographic research on women's self-defense training and suggests that women's self-defense culture prompts feminists to refigure our understanding of the body and violence. The body in feminist discourse is often construed as the object of patriarchal violence (actual or symbolic), and violence has been construed as something that is variously oppressive, diminishing, inappropriate, and masculinist. Hence, many feminists have been apathetic to women's self-defense. As a practice that rehearses, and even celebrates women's potential for violence, women's self-defense illustrates how and why feminism can frame the body as both a social construction and as politically significant for theory and activism.