Thursday, December 22, 2011

Women's Self Defence Courses - Effective or Not? - Pt 1

I'll use the Women's Self Defence (WSD) course developed by Debbie Clarke while she was an instructor with the Jan de Jong Self Defence School (JDJSDS) as a case study to study the issue of WSD courses generally. See for her current work.

Clarke's WSD course was designed as a six week course with lessons of 2 hours duration per week. Variations of the format were developed when teaching the course to female students at various high schools in the Perth metropolitan area. One elite private girls school included it as a compulsory course for all their year 11 girls.

A feature of the course was that it was designed by a woman for women based on a female experience of violence. It was also designed to be taught by a woman to women. I was the only male instructor within the JDJSDS to be trained in teaching the WSD course, and to teach it for a number of years. This was because I was working full-time for the JDJSDS at the time, and the other (senior) instructors did not hold the WSD course in high regard. They taught 'martial arts', something that has to be trained for years, with dedication, before you can be effective in surviving a violent encounter.

One thing that is never in short supply of in the martial arts is opinion. Most people involved seem to have one on many violence related subjects, and they are not adverse to sharing their opinions. One commonly held opinion, particularly by male martial artists, is that WSD courses are largely, if not totally, ineffective. Or worse, they provide participants with a false sense of security.

One thing that is also never short supply of in the martial arts is uninformed opinions. The martial arts are bastions of anti-intellectualism for the large part. God forbid that research would be undertaken in order to inform these opinions, including those associated with the effectiveness of WSD courses.

In researching Beyond Fight-or-Flight, I came across this article in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence: Self-Defense or Assertiveness Training and Women's Responses to Sexual Attacks by L.R. Brecklin and S.E. Ullman, 2005, 20: 6, 738-762.
Self-defense classes aim to prevent violence against women by strengthening women's capacity to defend themselves; however, little research has examined the effects of self-defense training on women's attempts to fight back during actual attacks. This study investigated the relationship of self-defense or assertiveness training and women's physical and psychological responses to subsequent rape attacks.
In this and the next couple of blogs, we'll look at various aspects of this study and the content of the article.
Self-defense training prepares women both mentally and physically for potential assaults (...) by providing them with opportunities to learn, observe, and practice physical, social, and cognitive skills through the use of role-plays, discussion, and simulation exercises (...). Women's self-defense tactics are meant to be practical, simple, and effective in common situations, so that all women can learn them regardless of age, size, previous experiences, and physical strength (...). Women's self-defense lessons often include learning how to create impromptu weapons (e.g., comb, keys) and how to use body parts (e.g., fists, elbows, knees) against the offender's particularly vulnerable body targets (e.g., eyes, jaw, nose, groin) in various situations (...).
Firstly, the '(...)' replaces the references that Brecklin and Ullman have referred too. This will be consistently employed in direct quotes from the article in this blog. Secondly, their description of self-defence courses corresponds with Clarke's WSD course. Their discussion on self-defence courses generally refers to numerous other studies which, unfortunately, are hidden away in academic journals:
After completing self-defense classes, evaluations have shown increases in the following domains for women: assertiveness, self-esteem, perceived control, anticipatory behaviors, self-efficacy, masculinity attributes (e.g. active, independent), anger, dominance, self-defense skills, physical competence, and decreases in anxiety, depression, hostility, fear, and avoidance behaviors (...).
I wonder, did the increase in masculinity attributes include an increase in arrogance? Note the increase in anger. What do you think that is all about? My sourcing this article had to do with research into our evolved survival mechanism and our learned survival mechanism for Beyond Fight-or-Flight. Most people do not understand that the fight-or-flight concept is only associated with fear. However, the literature associates violence with fear, anger, no emotion, and positive emotions. Each of these emotions entails different subjective feelings, physiological responses, cognitive capabilities, action tendencies, and behavioural responses. Fight-or-flight is only looking at one small part of a larger 'violence elephant'.
Studies have found that successful rape resisters were more assertive, confident, dominant, perceived more control over their lives, and showed more initiative, persistence, and leadership compared with women who were raped (...), demonstrating that psychological changes because of participation in self-defense training may have substantial implications for subsequent rape avoidance. Increasing women's assertiveness skills is especially important in light of a recent prospective study showing that low assertiveness specific to situations with men was predictive of future victimization in a sample of 274 college women (...). Empowering women with the tools to respond to threats may serve to both protect and liberate them (...).
It's not looking good for the WSD course detractors.
Although self-defense training may have positive psychological and behavioral effects on female participants, very little empirical research has examined whether self-defense training is related to actual rape avoidance among women who later face a rape attack. In Bart and O’Brien's (1985) landmark interview study of 51 rape avoiders and 43 rape victims, rape avoiders were nearly twice as likely to have learned self-defense as women who were raped. In a descriptive study, Peri (1991) found that of 8,000 female graduates of Model Mugging, a self-defense course, 120 have reported using nonphysical strategies (e.g., screaming) to avoid an assault. In addition, 46 out of 48 graduates of Model Mugging who were physically assaulted after the course chose to fight back physically and reported being able to disable the offender enough to avoid further harm (Peri, 1991). This prior research suggests that self-defense training may be related to rape avoidance for participants; however, more rigorous studies are needed to verify this relationship.
If these studies were more generally known, they could be used to support the efficacy of these WSD courses. This in turn increases the confidence of the participants in the efficacy of these courses which could increase their commitment to the instruction and the implementation of the instruction.
Numerous empirical research studies have examined the role of victim resistance in rape incidents, using police reports and retrospective self-report surveys. Victims' use of forceful physical resistance (e.g. hitting, kicking, biting) is typically related to avoiding completed rape (...). In prior studies examining the temporal order of assault events (e.g. offender attack, victim resistance, rape or injury outcomes), forceful physical resistance (FPR) was not related to greater injury (...) but was still related to avoiding completed rape. Nonforceful physical resistance (NFPR) (e.g. fleeing, blocking blows) has also been found to be related to less rape completion (...) and unrelated to physical injury (...). Several studies have shown that forceful verbal resistance (FVR) (e.g. screaming, yelling at, or threatening offender) is related to rape avoidance ...), but its relationship with physical injury has been inconsistent. Forceful verbal resistance was linked to greater physical injury (...) in studies without sequence information (...); but in one study, analyzing sequence of events, this strategy was unrelated to injury (...). Finally, nonforceful verbal resistance (NFVR) (e.g. pleading, begging, reasoning) has been found to be related to greater severity of sexual abuse and unrelated to physical injury (...). Based on this research, it appears that the techniques taught most often in self-defense training (e.g. hitting, kicking, yelling) are related to rape avoidance, implying that self-defense may reduce women's severity of sexual victimization.
Firstly, it is not uncommon to see and hear of law enforcement officials advising females to not resist a sexual assault because it is likely to increase the violence involved. The studies suggest this is simplistic reasoning - which should come as no surprise in this area. The risk of increased violence appears to be dependent upon the type of resistance, rather than resistance per se. Secondly, all of the above behaviours are identified in Beyond Fight-or-Flight in the chapter which expands upon the original fight-or-flight concept in terms of behavioural responses. The reference to the fight-or-flight concept and related theory in terms of understanding violence is seriously limited. The question that needs to be asked, and which is not in the many academic disciplines I've been researching and integrating to write Beyond Fight-or-Flight, is: what emotion is being experienced when these behaviours are enacted? Fear is the obvious answer; but what about anger? After all, the action tendency of anger is fight as per emotion theory and Walter Cannon's original fight-or-flight model.

And finally, the research implies that WSD courses may reduce women's severity of sexual victimisation. Right now, it's 15:love in favour of WSD course supports vs their detractors. Next blog we'll have a look at the findings of this study and associated comments.


  1. Ah, a topic close to my heart! As a jujitsu practitioner, and assistance trainer for self-defence programs, I invariable get put with the female beginners.

    As a smaller female, I was a good "show 'n' tell" with regards to how a technique would work with a much larger opponent.

    One factor that may also play a small part in the fight/flight or reactions in general (eg NFVR vs FVR) is the woman's general demeanour and behaviour, as well as the predisposition to joining a self-defence program in the first place.

    As I see a lot of women come and go through classes, I think I've got a feel for those who would react in a certain way in a confrontation, firstly without any training, which would only be reinforced by some technique knowledge.

    As someone who fought physically with my older brother, played lots of sports, competitive and a bit of a tomboy, I believe I was always going to be the type of woman to take to jujitsu training, and the type of woman to "fire up" when under duress.

    I know I had doubts about the Virgin Airline girls who did self-defence training - not so much because of the short timeframe and what they could expect to absorb and remember, but more because they were "girly-girls" who were more worried about breaking a nail and messing their hair and weren't taking it seriously.

    Food for thought indeed!

  2. Kirsten, thanks for the comment. This is also a topic close to my heart - for many reasons. One is that it is a case study for issues with wider applicability.

    You raise an interesting point concerning predisposition to defending oneself and joining a self defence program. The article actually raises this issue.

    An issue that arises out of the abovementioned issue is; how do you encourage those not predisposed to defend themselves or enrol in a self defence program to do just that. THAT is the challenge.

    Stay tuned for some more paradigm shifting discussion.

  3. Yes, how do you get them to join in the first place?

    Certainly the few we've had who've turned up due to an incident already taken place were generally not in the right mindset at that point and weren't prepared for the hands-on work. I think one-on-one sessions at different stages after an attack would be better than a general class (even if a specific self-defence course).

    I think short courses offered at schools / colleges etc, as part of the curriculum is one positive approach.

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  5. I think women's self-defense courses kind of 'unlock' women. Techniques taught are probably more or less useless after a couple of weeks following the end of a course, but women who have taken a course are more likely to do something- anything; kick, struggle, whatever. And they're more likely to use their voice- I think sometimes women scream for the first time since they were kids in WSD courses. So in that regard, they are useful.

    With regard to not getting into difficult situations in the first place, and to getting out of them before things get nasty- the best book I've ever read was Brent Sander's 'How Dangerous Men Think'. I'd recommend it to any woman- and particularly to young women.

  6. This is what one study had to say on Sander's 'How Dangerous Men Think' referred to above:

    Although a recent self-defense book affirmed that the key to effective self-defense was the accompanying mind-set, the mental side was described as using the mind to ascertain and “fully exploit the weakness of the offender” Sanders, 2001, p. 195). In other words, the role of the mind is stressed only insofar as it can help potential victims to resist and avoid being raped. The very title of this book is itself somewhat of a giveaway: How Dangerous Men Think and How to Stay Safe for Life. The promise that the selfdefense techniques contained within its covers will keep a woman “safe for life” virtually ensures that if you read this book and are later raped, you have only yourself to blame. It also implies that if you did not buy and read this book, you have only yourself to blame. Notions of mental resistance and survival feature little, with the emphasis on physicality obscuring and denying the realities described by many of the women interviewed in this study.

    This is a serious issue deserving of serious attention by those who are prepared to do the study with an open mind.

  7. Excellent post. As a martial artist who has a strong leaning toward self defense (for those of us who understand the distinction) I have tried to instill in my wife small assertive techniques (scanning while walking, eye contact, head held high, etc) and repeatedly attempted to get her into one of these types of courses but to little avail.

    I think I just don't understand where her resistance is to learning defensive skills comes from, or how to make it appealing for her.


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  11. Thanks for the informative article. This is one of the best resources for self defence classes for women I have found in quite some time. Nicely written and great info. I really cannot thank you enough for sharing.


Your comments make my work all the more relevant as I use them to direct my research and theorising. Thank you.