Study: women trained in self-defense far less likely to be sexually assaulted

Woman fighting a man There’s a new study out of Canada showing that college students who underwent a 12 hour sexual assault resistance training were far less likely to to be assaulted. More telling, is that they were less likely to be the victims of attempted assault.

Self-defense training works

This study jives with earlier research by the self-defense instruction company, Model Mugging. They surveyed 60,000 of their female students and found that after training (more intense than the Canadian training), 98.3% of their students were able to avoid assaults altogether.

Of those who were assaulted, 97% were able to fight off their attacker, 80% of those were able to use voice and body language alone and did not resort to violence.

Sexual assault

Numbers on sexual violence in the US vary, and are difficult to track, because it is an under-reported crime. The most conservative estimates are around 1 in 5 women, and somewhat fewer men, will be the victims of sexual assault in their lifetime. The numbers might be much higher, but this number is still staggering.

Imagine being able to reduce sexual assault incidents from 20% of women to less than 2% of women. Imagine if, of those 2%, sexual predators were only successful 3% of the time. This means a reduction to .06%.

The controversies around teaching women’s self-defense

In the interest of full-disclosure, I do teach a kick-butt women’s self defense class. I started teaching in Boston around the summer of 2000 with my partner when two serial rapists were attacking women in the city. Quite frankly these guys were pissing us off (pardon my French).

Since then I have heard a lot of arguments against training women in self-defense. To be honest, all of them are completely without merit. Most of them are a subtle form of misogyny. Allow me to elaborate:

The quasi feminist argument

In 2014, Miss USA and Tae Kwon Do black-belt, Nia Sanchez, created a stir among some when she dared suggest women train in self defense to help prevent sexual assault. The argument, by some calling themselves feminists, was that this somehow promoted rape-culture. Expecting women to help prevent rape was “victim-blaming.”

I may be male, but I fail to understand how women empowering themselves and taking control of their bodies is anything but feminist. Self-defense training isn’t about shifting blame from criminals, it’s about developing our bodies, minds, and spirits. For women and men, this is a good thing.

And yes, there is something wrong with a culture where sexual assault is so prevalent. We can work against that problem from multiple angles. And a very effective angle is empowering women to stand up for themselves.

That self-defense stuff doesn’t work

This is just hogwash. The studies above, and my experience teaching thousands of people, do not agree.

This stems from a pervasive myth in the martial arts world I call “the juggernaut foe.” Most people get all of their ideas about violence from TV and movies. On TV, you punch the bad guy in the jaw, he shakes it off, and comes at you harder. Oh yeah, nobody ever bleeds, gets bruised, or gets a thumb in the eye.

The vast majority of criminals are not indestructible. Most of them are afraid of getting caught, hurt, or identified. Most of them prefer easy targets.

The Boston Strangler is known to have killed 13 women. All of his victims except one, Gertrude Gruen, perished. Gertrude Gruen fought off The Strangler and he fled.

Self-defense isn’t about defeating somebody in a ring, like in the UFC. It is about escape. The goals are much different, and the means to achieve them are too.

The false sense of confidence thing

Here’s another one that drives me crazy. The argument is that some amount of training gives women a false sense of confidence. They will then go out and pick fights with people and get into trouble, or something.

This is a load of horse manure.

Not to sound sexist, but women don’t do this – not in my experience. False macho trouble-making falls squarely in the realm of male behavior. Self-defense training leads to smarter decisions, not more stupid ones.

Just give women guns, or pepper spray, or stun guns, etc.

Politics completely aside, firearms and other defensive weapons can be great equalizers. Just recently, a woman brandished a handgun to scare away a knife-wielding robber in Portland.

However relying solely on weapon for self-defense leaves a lot of gaps. For example, many people travel to places where carrying a weapon is impractical or illegal. The post office, a school, federal property, the beach.

Many victims of sexual assault are young women in College, who are not allowed to carry weapons on campus, and because of their age.

Weapons also only work when they are in-hand precisely when you need them. The woman in the story above was luckily able to retrieve a firearm from her car. An assailant might not give you time to access a weapon.

Unarmed skills are the first and last line of defense. If you need to fight to get away, access a weapon, or retain a weapon, unarmed skills are crucial. If you lose your weapon, can’t access it, it fails, unarmed skills are what you’re going to have to rely upon. There is a good reason our ARMED forces train in unarmed close-quarters combat.

What self-defense training does

Good self-defense training isn’t just kicks and punches. It begins with awareness. It teaches to look for indicators of violence in people’s body language. It teaches escape and avoidance strategies. Yes, there are also physical techniques.

But one of the interesting things to come out of these studies is that women who are trained are less likely to be the target of attempted attacks. This is important. They aren’t just better at fending off attacks, they are less like to be attacked.

Why is this? I have two theories:

1. People who are properly trained have better awareness of their surroundings and the people around them. They are more able to avoid problems before they start.

2. Training changes people’s body language. A bit of confidence and perceived strength and awareness is very off-putting for somebody looking to victimize someone. I have seen this with my own students.

The effect might be completely unconscious. If you’ve ever been made uneasy by someone and couldn’t explain exactly why, you’ll understand this.

My personal take

If you couldn’t tell by now, I am all in for women getting self-defense training. I train and will continue to train my wife and daughters. I believe it’s the right thing to do.

Women's self-defense class

John Moore

About John Moore

John Moore is a Maine native who overcame congenital physical limitations to achieve a 3rd degree black belt in jujutsu. He holds two master's degrees, and is a nationally certified crime prevention instructor. John teaches martial arts and self defense in the Portland area