I recently took a self-defense class. A friend invited me, knowing how I am a sucker for anything “female empowerment” based. I had some apprehensions about the course, recognizing why we do not tie self-defense classes with domestic violence work, but I tried to go in with an open mind. I learned some things about safety, and it supported the notion I have held for a while that I would enjoy learning how to box. But I also left with my concerns reinforced about the fundamental nature of teaching women self-defense in response to domestic violence.

  1. Generally, these classes center around the bad guy jumping out of the bushes. Stranger sexual assault does happen, but according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, in eight out of 10 cases of rape, the victim knew the person who sexually assaulted them. The existence of a “relationship” could make the utilization of self-defense more complicated and confusing, which was never acknowledged.
  2. I certainly believe that every instructor of this course has the best intentions at heart. They genuinely desire to help women to be safe. But, when the idea of self-defense classes are framed as “reducing the number of assaults,” it can be seen that it is a woman’s responsibility to fight off an assailant and defend herself, which is unintentionally victim-blaming. Assaults happen because of assaulters. We will reduce the number of assaults when we hold offenders accountable and make it truly shameful to use violence against another. 
  3. It needs to be said that even if a woman utilizes self-defense, does not use a technique correctly, or doesn’t use self-defense at all, an assault is still not her fault. That is victim shaming. Abuse is ALWAYS the fault of the perpetrator.  
  4. Self-defense classes are structured around the trauma response of “fight,” but unfortunately, we do not always get to choose how our brain will respond during an assault. Fight, flight AND freeze are all natural and normal responses to a traumatic event. And sometimes freezing and flight-ing are the safest ways for someone to survive violence. 
  5. Another topic missing from the week was the escalation of violence. Therefore, utilizing a self-defense technique might keep me unharmed for a moment but could very likely cause the abuser to escalate to more severe violence and put me in grave danger during this event or in the future. 
  6. We also know that abusers are master manipulators. Although she might be physically safe after defending herself from an attacker, if the police are involved, women are sometimes arrested as the primary aggressor (he has marks, she doesn’t, etc.). In family court, it can be stated that there was “mutual abuse” or she was “just as violent” as he is. In domestic violence, the trauma does not end with one abusive incident; the consequences of her response can be held against her for years to come. 
  7. Throughout the week, we were told over and over to be aware of your surroundings, how you walk, how you park your car or take public transportation, how you get into an elevator, what clothes you wear, how you exist in this world. What I wished would be acknowledged was that this is exhausting. Women should be able to move through this world as safely as most men can, and we cannot. And it is unfair.
  8. We also briefly discussed weapons in self-defense. According to statistics, the presence of firearms in the home increases the chance of a domestic violence homicide by 500%.
  9. It was taught that the female body is designed to fight off being raped. I am very concerned about the potential confusion and shame this kind of statement can cause. What we know about biology is that during a sexual assault, a victim can experience an orgasm. This idea can be very confusing for the victim. This does not mean she wanted to assaulted or that she enjoyed it; she, again, cannot fight biology. Statements like this can cause a lot of confusion around if the incident was consensual or not rape.
  10. We, also, have to consider race when talking about self-defense. Unfortunately, we know that not all survivors of domestic violence are treated the same by the criminal justice system. When safety planning with clients, we have to talk about the intersection of race and the police or courts. A woman of color who uses self-defense against their abuser is more likely to be perceived as the predominant aggressor and is less likely to be believed by some police officers to be the victim. If she is arrested, she is more likely to be charged with assault and for that to be on her permanent record. This charge (even if dropped) can be used against her in protective order hearings or in family court in divorce or custody cases. It is not fair that survivors of color not only have to think about their immediate safety but what ramifications can come of their actions, but they do. All the time.  
  11. Finally, one day I was accused of having a “victim mentality” when I pushed back on an instructor’s oversimplification of using self-defense. I would like to state for the record that this is also a victim-shaming statement; that statement hurts victims and their willingness to report abuse. I have worked with women who were police officers, ex-military, EMTs, and had black belts in karate. Training in martial arts, combat, or self-defense is not an automatic protection from experiencing assault or abuse.

The bravest and most courageous thing I witnessed in the class came from my 12-year-old classmate. While we were all in the hallway suiting up to beat up our assailants for the last time, she told her mother that she did not want to participate in the final exercise. Her mother, our classmates, and the police officers all tried to change her mind and convince her to practice. But she stood her ground. All week the instructors had been telling us, “Use your voice. Use your voice. It is your strongest weapon.” And here she was. Setting a boundary and speaking up for her needs. I was bursting with pride. This interaction symbolized what was missing throughout the class. Defending oneself is not always straightforward. It’s usually incredibly complex. You hold what your mom wants, what your peers want, what the police officer wants, and what society wants all in your mind and heart. We all need to learn how to respond to and respect someone’s “no.” That is how we genuinely reduce violence.

Written by Krista Fultz, director of advocacy and education at Genesis Women’s Shelter & Support.