The Self-Defence Myth

I was just invited to a free self-defence class, held by my old university’s Judo Club in tandem with the Dublin University Gender Equality Society. The purpose is to “help people learn some basic pointers to defend themselves against physical and sexual assault.” While the organiser went out of his way to specify that these classes are open to men and women, they’re clearly primarily intended for women, as are most self-defence classes.

Although I know their intentions are good, I find the idea of a feminist society promoting the self-defence market a bit unsettling. I object for two reasons.

Firstly, I think that a self-defence myth has been created, and a considerable market has grown from that myth. If you think a bit more about the nature of sexual assault, the idea that some “basic pointers” in martial arts can prevent sexual assault is highly implausible. The vast majority of sexual assaults are carried out by people known to the victim. Assessments of the processes of rapists show that they take care to isolate their victim, minimising the likelihood of being stopped or caught and punished. They use threats, fear, weapons, force, and often drugs or alcohol to restrict the victim’s ability to resist. Most sexual assaults are also committed by men against women, therefore the attacker will almost always be naturally stronger than his victim. Taking all of this into account, a woman would need to be incredibly adept in self-defence or martial arts to stop her attacker. Your basic self-defence class (particularly a once-off hour-long class) won’t provide that kind of proficiency. It might allow you to get a few good hits in at your attacker, but that’s precious little consolation. I object to how the self-defence industry uses women’s fear of assault to sell an ineffective means of protection. It feels a bit exploitative.

Secondly, I think that the self-defence myth feeds into a seriously problematic social attitude towards rape and sexual assault. The painful reality we must face is that as long as there are men who want to rape, women will be victims of rape. We can take self-defence classes, we can never walk alone at night, we can watch our drinks, we can watch our backs, but there is no absolute protection. There is the guilt that comes with feeling that you could have done more, you could have been more careful. It’s not that those who provide self-defence training blame victims, but they do feed into the automatic tendency of victims to blame themselves. Who knows what they would have told you in that self-defence class if you hadn’t stupidly chosen to have a long lunch instead? There’s also a feeling of powerlessness that comes with paying the freedom tax, paying the class fees, taking all the precautions and still becoming a victim. For any woman there’s the fear that’s created and enhanced by being reminded that we’re at risk all the time, that we have to plan for the likely event of assault all the time.

And you know what, I love martial arts. I love most sports and exercise. But I love them because I like to feel strong and comfortable in my body, I like the endorphins, I like learning new things and I love competition.  All of this is diminished when my participation is a constant reminder that I, along with all the other women, live under siege.


6 thoughts on “The Self-Defence Myth

  1. Yes, I completely agree that there’s an exploitative aspect to the self-defense industry. It’s also quite depressing that self-defense courses are almost always the “first response” to the question “how can we prevent rape/sexual assault?” (well, that and “don’t walk alone in the dark”). I think people see it as less problematic than advising people to dress/act differently, because it’s about being “empowered” and learning skills – but ultimately, it’s still putting the onus for avoiding assault and rape on the victims.
    And you bring up a good point about how a one-off self-defense course isn’t likely to protect anyone that much anyways. I practiced martial arts pretty intensely for about five years, but even when I was at my physical peak, I don’t think I could have fended off more than one or two attackers, especially if they had the element of surprise on their side. I also remember that a lot of my friends assumed I was taking martial arts in order to defend myself – thus reducing my interest and love of the sport to the fact that I was female, and thus (more) at risk of rape and assault.

  2. I just saw on facebook that some students in DCU are establishing a self-defense society next year. However, unlike the kind of self-defense classes you take issue with in this post, this DCU society seems to be run by members of the LGBT society in DCU and seems to be primarily orientated towards LGBTs. Do you think that LGBT-oriented self-defense classes are as problematic as women’s self-defense, given the fact that gay bashings almost always resemble the kinds of attacks that most people mistakenly associate with rapes (i.e. dark alley, strangers, etc.)? Would appreciate your insight here!

  3. Hey David,

    As I said on the twitters, this is a really interesting question. I think that the question of effectiveness remains relevant when you’re talking about LGBT self-defence. I don’t know a huge amount about gay-bashing, but my impression is that it’s often a group activity and as the commenter above said, if more than one or two people attack you even someone quite proficient in self-defence will be overwhelmed.

    The more important question is about messaging. And in the same way that I resent being sold self-defence on the basis that as a woman I’m vulnerable to rape, I resent the idea that I would be sold it on the basis that as I gay person I’m vulnerable to being hated and attacked. If I engaged in martial arts for either of those purposes I think it would destroy my enjoyment of them. In the case of the LGBT class I feel it would be feed unhealthy perceptions of oneself as hated, as victim etc. Which, considering that the skills you acquire aren’t likely to be especially useful, is a net loss.

    Obviously that perception will be created anyway if someone is the victim of gay-bashing, but to the greatest extent possible I think we should be defiant in insisting that it’s the state and society’s job to protect us from violent attack, not our own. I think it’s troubling that instead of greeting young gay men with acceptance and meaningfully fighting for their protection, parents, friends and allies suggest that they toughen up and protect themselves.

    Hope that’s vaguely coherent!

  4. hiya,

    #1. practical self defence {whether for men, women or aliens} is not about MOST of the techniques you learn in MOST martial arts clubs,
    #2. there are NO definite ways to defend yourself {too many variables} BUT you can cut down the oportunities, risks, and dangers of potential confrontations, BY …….
    # DO NOT teach people strength based or complicated techniques.
    # FOCUS ON & DRILL {not teach} techniques that people are already able to do naturally.
    # Techniques should have the ability to STOP an agressor in their tracks.
    # Make people aware of the REALITIES of aggressive attacks.
    # learn to deal with agressive attackers and how to be agressive in your defence
    In my experience i’v found that most people dont know what REAL self defence is
    all about and therefore have no idea how to deal with it.
    I hope this info has been useful to someone.
    Mike C.

  5. I realize this is an old post but thought it important to ad some thoughts here. While you mention the myth of self-defense you have actually propagated some common myths yourself…

    While it is true that the majority of sexual assaults are committed by people known to the victim that doesn’t mean that the intended victim can’t protect herself. It doesn’t change her right to live free from assault. While it’s also true that men may be bigger and stronger, it doesn’t mean that a woman can’t SUCCESSFULLY resist an assault. In fact there are tons of reports and intended victims that prove otherwise. Many people and even instructors continue to promote the myth that the larger and stronger person will always win so resisting is futile. We can safely say that this myth has been “busted” many times over.

    You state- “Taking all of this into account, a woman would need to be incredibly adept in self-defence or martial arts to stop her attacker.” Fortunately as I just pointed out, this simply isn’t the case. There are many reports of women successfully avoiding or escaping violent assaults with little or no training whatsoever. There are just as many and more successful reports from those with some kind of previous self-defense training. There have been several research projects completed over the past few years that clearly prove that those with proper self-defense training statistically decrease their chances of becoming a victim. All of that being said, there must be a clear distinction made between self-defense and martial arts. Many people think that they are one in the same but nothing could be further from the truth. While the majority of martial arts can offer numerous positive benefits, generally realistic self-defense is NOT one of them. So, I agree with you if we are discussing a standard martial arts “self-defense” class. Regardless of it’s length it won’t likely offer any real benefit, other than false confidence. I also agree that there are many people out there trying to make money off of the fear of others. It’s a sad but common occurrence in today’s world. However, please don’t group all instructors or training methods together under one heading. I can assure you that they are not all the same.

    I think it’s safe to assume that you experienced the common martial arts class under the guise of “self-defense” and I am truly sorry to hear that. Now I highly suggest that you consider checking out a real self-defense course so that you can experience the difference. Some of the best options include Model Mugging, FAST Defense, Impact Self-Defense, and RAW Power. How are they different? First off, most of these programs were designed specially for women and survivors of sexual assault. Secondly, all of these realistic programs tend to focus on non-physical aspects of personal safety like mental preparation, awareness / avoidance , assertiveness skills, and verbal options for de-escalating bad situations. While physical skills are taught they tend to be thought of as the last-ditch option only after all other options have been exhausted. Unfortunately the majority of martial art instructors have little training or experience with many of these aspects, including how to work with victims of assault and abuse. In regards to physical skills, these solid self-defense programs include simple and effective skills that are easy to learn, easy to remember, and most importantly easy to apply in real life during an adrenal state. You generally won’t see any of the common wrist-grab releases or other complicated fine-motor skill techniques. These programs incorporate scenario-based training that allow the students to experience what really happens during many of these situations (if they haven’t already been exposed to this in real life). While the intensity of these programs will vary from course to course, you can expect them to better prepare you than anything you can get during a typical martial arts “self-defense” class. The good news is that there is tons of data and student feedback to prove the effectiveness of many of these programs. Model Mugging has been in existence since the 70’s and has proven itself over and over again. The other programs are variations that have also proven themselves. I can assure you that they are nothing like what you previously experienced.

    I agree with you in the fact that as long as there are predators there will always be victims. Unfortunately, this can be said about all forms of crime and against both genders, not just rape and sexual assault. This being the case, we all have to accept some responsibility for our own safety. While it’s not the victims fault that they are targeted, they can still take simple steps to reduce the chances. This is no different than taking fire safety classes to reduce the chances of being trapped in a burning building or learning how to properly evacuate a building during an emergency. it’s no different than driving defensively to avoid accidents that very well could be someone else’s fault. In regards to sexual assault I personally believe that educating boys and men on how NOT to become perpetrators is vitally important. But this can’t be done without cooperation. The problem is that the cooperation just isn’t there. Until it is, there will always be an issue and people need to continue to be vigilant and proactively take a stand.

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