Why Self-Defense Classes Don’t Prevent Sexual Assault

An article published last week in South China Morning Post claims Thai women are ‘fighting sexual assault with their fists’ by taking self-defense classes.

It talks fantastically being able to stun and incapacitate a rapist, using an elbow or the heel of a palm. It also describes being able to valiantly protect ‘fragile’ friends, who have no training, from attackers in public spaces. While articles like this one may be great advertising for self-defense instructors, they’re unrealistic in their claims to tackle rape and sexual assault.

In fact, the idea behind them is deeply flawed in many ways.

This is Not How Most Rape or Sexual Assault Cases Happen

SCMP’s article focuses on attacks on public transport. This is not without reason. In a 2017 survey by Thammasat University’s Faculty of Public Health, almost half of the women who’d responded had experienced sexual harassment on public buses. However, much like the moral panic of ‘stranger danger’, the idea that rape is most likely to happen in a public place, whether it’s a bus or dark alley, is a common misconception. Of course, these cases do happen, but statistically, they’re the rarest kind of rape. In reality, the issue is usually much closer to home. 

Most sexual assaults are committed by people who are close to the victim. According to UN Women’s 2017 report, The Trial of Rape, 91% of rape survivors in Thailand reported knowing the perpetrator beforehand. 

the trial of rape UN Women thailand 91% of rape victims know suspect

Fear of being attacked by a stranger in a public place is legitimate. However, in focusing only on this type of case, we fail to even scratch the surface of the much larger problem, and paint an inaccurate picture of what rape often looks like. Factors like grooming, coercive control, emotional abuse and imbalanced power dynamics can be disarming for anyone, no matter how much self-defense training they’ve had. 

Framing Sexual Assault as a Women’s Problem

One former fighter who is quoted in the SCMP article says “if you act like a victim, you’ll become a victim”. While this message is perhaps intended to be empowering, it instead implies that you have a choice in whether or not you’re sexually assaulted. This is a dangerous false narrative, which causes people to doubt those who report sexual assault, asking ‘why didn’t you fight back?’ 

When we say ‘don’t be a victim’, we’re essentially saying ‘let someone else be the victim’. The idea is that if it didn’t happen to you, good job – you didn’t let it. But, if it did, it could have been somehow your fault, because you could have stopped it.

The only person who is responsible for a sexual assault is the perpetrator. Legitimate self-defense classes should teach this. 

self defense rape sexual assault

A poorly-worded advertisement from a London self-defense school.

These Classes Don’t Create Real Change

Self-defense is a valid approach to personal protection, but won’t create any structural change to prevent sexual violence. This is because it does nothing to confront the root of the issue – rape culture. 

In a Guardian article entitled ‘We Need to Stop Rapists, Not Change Who Gets Raped’, Jessica Valenti explained why. She referenced fellow writer Jaclyn Friedman, who noted that “unless the vast majority of women are getting this training, I don’t see how it makes a dent”.

Friedman described the effects of an ‘anti-sexual assault program’ on college campuses. “So just because these girls [who took the training] are less likely to be picked, it doesn’t mean there’s less rape on campus…This isn’t rape prevention, it’s rape protection”, she wrote. If a rapist is fought off, they’re likely to simply pick someone else. That’s not a solution.

Most Women Can’t Access this Kind of Training

You can always find inspirational stories of women fighting off attackers. However, for every one of those, there are thousands of stories of women who couldn’t. This is why catchy headlines about women ‘fighting back’ and ‘kicking ass’ don’t tell the whole story.

Many women don’t have the privilege of the time, money, ability or opportunity to do this kind of training. When they are attacked, some are left wondering why they ‘let’ it happen to them. Real rape prevention needs to help those women, too. 

Self-Defense Doesn’t Always Work

Even those who do have some form of training may find themselves powerless to use any of the skills they’ve learned in a real-life situation. I was one of them.

I’ve spoken publicly multiple times about the ‘freeze’ response to trauma, and how this was my personal experience. When a Muay Thai instructor attempted to rape me, I was unable to speak or move, let alone scream, kick, or perform a well-timed manoeuver to escape. I knew how to fight, but I couldn’t. So, even if I had practiced specific self-defense techniques like the ones shown in this ‘rape escape’ video, they would have been useless to me.

This response is common, even for those who possess the skills and strength you would assume one might need to fight back. 

Lauren McKeon wrote about how she was unable to fight back against her rapist, despite having 2 years of kickboxing training in her essay, ‘Kickboxing, Rape, and the Myth of Self-Defense’. Like me, she felt guilty for somehow letting herself fall victim because she was a strong and capable athlete. “I was not kind to my body after I was raped. I hated it for betraying me”, she wrote. She also described being assaulted twice more in the years after that rape and experiencing the same freeze response, saying “I forgot how to put my fists up. Or, more than that, I forgot that I could”.

Freezing is a typical way for the brain to respond to trauma. This excellent video by the Glasgow Clyde Rape Crisis Centre explains just how common it is.

A 2015 article by The Washington Post, ‘Why Many Rape Victims Don’t Fight or Yell‘, provides further explanation.

“Freezing occurs when the amygdala – a crucial structure in the brain’s fear circuitry – detects an attack and signals the brainstem to inhibit movement. ..Simultaneously with the freeze response, the fear circuitry unleashes a surge of “stress chemicals” into the prefrontal cortex, the brain region that allows us to think rationally – to recall the bedroom door is open, or that people are in the dorm room next door, for example, and to make use of that information”.

During my attempted rape, I remember being aware that there was a baby asleep in the next room, and not wanting to scream for that reason. But even if I had wanted to, I’m not sure that I could have.

While freezing is a common involuntary reaction, it can also be a choice. Fighting back can put a victim in further danger, and in some cases, that makes freezing the safest thing to do. SCMP’s article describes sexual assault and harassment on public transport, and such attacks in public places can add another layer of complications for victims. One self-defense instructor quoted in the article seems completely unaware of this, as he quips after describing a technique he teaches.

“Before you do this, make sure you really are being assaulted,” says Kittichet “Joe” Mayakarn, a self-defence expert who runs the small studio. “You don’t just want to elbow someone in the face for no good reason,” he adds with a laugh”.

Women and girls are taught to be quiet and complacent, so the idea of making a scene in a public place, even while being sexually assaulted, is something that, for many, doesn’t come naturally. Add the fact that you should ‘make sure you’re actually being assaulted’ (lest you be accused of overreacting) and many of these self-defense techniques become useless when you’re faced with a real perpetrator. 

If even a ‘trained’ victim can’t always fight back, how effective can self-defense really be? Survivors of rape and sexual assault are already subject to feelings of guilt and shame, and the expectation that they should have fought back only intensifies those feelings, creating further trauma. This is something that I personally struggled with. 

How Should We Talk About Self-Defense?

There’s no doubt that self-defense classes can be empowering. Just as Muay Thai showed me that I was capable of more than I’d ever realised, learning to protect yourself can give you newfound confidence and assertiveness. But let’s not present such training as an effective rape prevention tactic. It’s not. 

It is worth noting that self-defense and combat sports training is especially valuable as a form of healing for those who’ve experienced trauma. For many, it can provide a sense of control over their bodies and personal safety. It certainly helped me work through my trauma and become more assertive. Still, after almost 10 years of training and 30 fights, I’m not confident that I would be able to fight off an attacker. 

Some women find confidence in this kind of training, though. In a 2014 report, ‘Does Self-Defense Training Prevent Sexual Violence Against Women?’ sociology professor Jocelyn Hollander assessed the effectiveness of a 10-week feminist self-defense class. After a 1-year follow up, she noted that “women who participate in self-defense training are less likely to experience sexual assault and are more confident in their ability to effectively resist assault”. However, at the end of her report, she was clear to state that her findings should not be taken to mean that women are responsible for preventing sexual assault. 

does self defense training prevent rape sexual assault

This kind of distinction needs to be made much more often by self defense instructors and the media. If we really want to create change, we need to be having wider conversations about rape and sexual assault, how it happens and the culture which not only allows it to happen, but often means there are more repercussions for victims than for perpetrators.

Self-defense training can be a worthwhile venture, but when it comes to rape or sexual assault prevention, it just isn’t an effective one. While we can promote it as a personal protective measure, we have to also acknowledge that the very need to do so is a product of victim blaming.

Some have argued that if recommending self-defense classes to prevent sexual assault is victim blaming, then recommending a home security system to prevent burglary is victim blaming, too. The difference is that even if you don’t have home security and someone breaks in and steals your belongings, it’s still recognised as a crime. Burglary cases aren’t being thrown out because victims failed to lock their doors. On the other hand, just last year, a British judge dismissed a rape case because the victim had taken “no physical steps” to stop if from happening, and therefore he believed that it “did not constitute rape”. Cases like this one are not out of the ordinary.

It’s not that we shouldn’t bother learning to defend ourselves, but that we should be having wider conversations about why we feel that we have to. Instead of just recommending self-defense classes for some, we need to take steps to create a safer society for all.

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8 thoughts on “Why Self-Defense Classes Don’t Prevent Sexual Assault

  1. I think you make some good points about how it can be oversold. But at the same time, I do know 2 women who’ve successfully defended against sexual assault, so I really don’t think you should downplay it too much. One of them didn’t have any fighting skills but managed to stab the guy with her car keys and then escape. The other was a black belt in either kickboxing or karate (I forget which) and apparently kicked the guy really hard in the balls and incapacitated him. Surely that’s got to be a good thing!


  2. Just about everything written is true. However, like most everything else there is another side. I am also a survivor of sexual assault and I also froze. But even if 1 less woman is sexually assaulted then these defense classes are most definitely worth while.


  3. Pingback: ‘We are Fighters!’ – A Muay Thai Class for Survivors of Violence | Under The Ropes

  4. I think another important distinction to make is that combat sports are not self-defense training. I had 5 years of boxing training with competition experience and felt like I could probably handle an assault situation if I was faced with it. Then I had the opportunity for specialized self-defense training which included rape defense, abduction, weapons, and multiple attackers. Although, there is some cross-over between combat sports and self-defense, the mindset is completely different.
    It is true that even with training, freezing is a possibility in a dangerous and threatening encounter, but I can say with certainty that choosing to train and prepare for any emergency situation will always be a benefit.


  5. I personally was a victim of sexual assault a few years ago before martial arts training. I did have some boxing and a self-defense/ situational awareness class before this, but it didn’t help in a situation. It was someone I was dating and I was already in a vulnerable position. I then started to train BJJ as a way to find healing from that and be more comfortable around men. However, it proved to be useful, because I then was able to defend myself against another attempted sexual assault. In both cases, the assailants were people I was dating (I’m working with my therapist to better recognize predatory dating behavior and avoid it). I think BJJ was particularly effective in my case because it’s grappling and not striking based, so I had the muscle memory for pushing someone off of me and did it without thinking.
    That being said, I agree with most of what is written here. Martial arts is no guarantee that you will have the right response and even if it does, and the perpetrator will just go on to someone else. It doesn’t solve the systemic problem.


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