The first time I drove my fist through a pine board I learned something about physical power that is almost indescribable. It stood stark against two decades of socialization telling me that, as a female, I was inherently weak and incapable. And it profoundly countered the repeated victimization I endured as an adolescent. Sexual violation, and a culture that objectifies women and dismisses our sexual agency, told me my body existed for the use or misuse of others. Self-defense taught me my body–my strong, capable, powerful body–was my own.
Self-defense students often come to me wanting to learn how to “kick ass and take names.” As I’ve noted before , women are still sidelined from the martial sports, with of rates participation in boxing and wrestling lagging far behind men. The jibe, “you punch like a girl” is a coded observation that someone punches like they don’t know what they’re doing–neatly wrapped up in a sexist slur. When a girl like boxing legend Lucia Rijker does know what she’s doing, no one trash talks. They’re too busy catching their breath.
So one might assume that what women learn in self-defense is fighting skills, and that what we gain is physical power–the kind of power that can be measured in pounds of pressure or breakage of bones. And that’s partially true: any self-defense will teach lots of fighting techniques and give many opportunities to feel physically powerful.
Things change — in ourselves, and in the world — when women hit things really hard.
But empowerment self-defense (ESD), a model of self-defense created by a network of feminist martial artists in the late 1980s, is based on the idea that power is not limited to the physical harm we can cause. ESD also teaches awareness and assertiveness skills. It’s grounded in a feminist stance that holds perpetrators solely responsible for violence while acknowledging every person’s capacity to take action for their own safety. ESD classes — in contrast to other models — are grounded in the reality that most interpersonal violence is perpetrated by people we know. ESD classes talk about consent, gender socialization, and the behavioral warning signs that someone may be violent, and undermine rape culture by explicity rejecting female vulnerability.
It’s essential for women to know that we can be this physically powerful, because forceful resistance to sexual assault works . In a review of ten years’ of data from the National Crime Victimization Survey , Jongyeon Tark and Gary Kleck determined that a range of self-protective behaviors — including armed resistance, physically striking, struggling, and running away — are effective in reducing rape completion without increasing the risk of physical injury.
There are lots of reasons why we might not be able to fight back in a given situation. Incapacitation or even the human physiological stress response can inhibit one’s ability to fight. And no matter how anyone responds to it, the responsibility for violence lies squarely with the person perpetrating it. But when we learn how effective physically fighting back can be, it becomes even more astonishing that the real power of ESD lies in something other than kicking and punching. It turns out that awareness and assertiveness–trusting and acting on your intuition–are what ESD-trained women use most often to avoid and interrupt assault.
For example, in a study from Nairobi, Kenya, 52% of adolescent girls trained in ESD reported using skills they learned to stop incidents of assault and harassment. But nearly half of these girls reported using verbal skills alone to defend themselves. Jocelyn Hollander of the University of Oregon found that college women who took an ESD class were “not simply less likely to be raped if attacked…but were less likely to be attacked at all.”
Hollander hypothesized that ESD students’ awareness of the warning signs of assault, clarity about their own desires, and willingness to assert themselves might be the mechanisms by which self-defense training reduces risk. This might look like a woman speaking up to reject unwanted touch. Or trusting her gut when someone’s behavior feels manipulative or a situation seems unsafe. It might mean yelling, calling for help, or making a scene.
I don’t wish I had taken self-defense before I met my perpetrators because I wish I had hit or kicked them. (Not that I haven’t wished that.) I wish I’d studied ESD as a younger girl because self-defense would have alerted me that violence most often comes from people we know. Self-defense would have taught me that isolation from friends and family, humiliation and belittling, and coercive control are abuse. Self-defense would have given me practice standing up for myself. Self-defense might have empowered me to trust my gut sense that these folks were no good.
Self-defense would have given me a fighting chance.
Instead, ESD is where I learned that the myth of stranger-danger and my socialized reluctance to assert myself were part of the cultural conditions that support sexual violence. And that what happened to me wasn’t my fault. And that we should all be safe enough that we have no need for self-protection skills.
We’re not there yet. Until we are, feminist empowerment self-defense delivers the power to stop sexual violence.
To read more about the effectiveness of empowerment self-defense, read this recent study from The New England Journal of Medicine
Find out more about feminist empowerment self-defense here.