Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Women's Self Defence Courses - Effective or Not? Pt 2

This is part two of an as unyet defined number of posts based on a study on the effectiveness of women's self defence (WSD) training that I came across while researching Beyond Fight-or-Flight : L.R. Brecklin and S.E. Ullman, 2005, 'Self-Defense or Assertiveness Training and Women's Responses to Sexual Attacks', Journal of Interpersonal Violence 20(6): 738-762. The study investigated the relationship of self-defense or assertiveness training and women’s physical and psychological responses to subsequent rape attacks. This post will look at the results of the study.

The present study will examine the effects of self-defense or assertiveness training on sexual assault victims using data from 3,187 female college students through the National Survey of Intergender Relationships conducted by Mary Koss. Several published studies have been conducted using this national data set (...); however, no study has examined the relationship between self-defense or assertiveness training and women's responses to sexual attacks. Because there is limited research available on this important topic, this study will be the first using a national sample to examine whether self-defense or assertiveness training is associated with a decrease in women's sexual victimization. Until primary prevention of rape occurs, women should have access to tools for responding to this threat.
There are many 'opinions' concerning the effectiveness of WSD courses - mostly uninformed opinions. I've discovered there is a large body of research associated with WSD and sexual assault; but that research lies buried in academic journals and those who could most benefit from that knowledge do not have access to it. This in part reflects the prevailing tendency of self defence instructors and developers (no matter the discipline, and not restricted to WSD) to rely on commonly conceived or their own 'understanding' rather than adequately informing their knowledge base.
A national sample of 3,187 female college students from 32 institutions of higher education across the United States was administered an anonymous self-report questionnaire. ... For the sample, there was a 98.5% response rate.
The majority of the 1,623 victims in this sample were White (89.1%), unmarried (88.2%), lived off campus (60.4%), and were an average of 21.7 years old at the time of the survey.
Go back one step. A national sample of 3,187 female college students were administered a questionnaire and there was a 98.5% response rate. That is 3,139 respondents, of which 1,623 were categorised as 'victims' based on their responses. 51.7% of the female respondents reported having experienced some form of defined sexual victimisation. This alarming finding does not even rate a mention in the study. Given I have three adopted nieces who are 19 (twins) and 22, this finding registers with the urgency of an air raid siren during the height of the Blitz in WWII London for me.
Unwanted sexual contact was defined as women who experienced unwanted fondling or kissing without attempts at sexual intercourse because of a man’s continual arguments or pressure, his misuse of authority, threats of physical harm, or actual physical force. The group labeled sexual coercion included women who experienced sexual intercourse following the man's use of continual arguments or his misuse of authority but without threats of force or direct physical force. Attempted rape was assessed with two questions (e.g., 'Have you had a man attempt sexual intercourse [get on top of you, attempt to insert his penis] when you didn’t want to by threatening or using some degree of force [twisting your arm, holding you down, etc.], but intercourse did not occur?'). The second question assessing attempted rape using similar phrasing asked about attempted intercourse where the offender gave the victim alcohol or drugs. Completed rape was assessed with several questions meeting the legal definition of rape (e.g., 'Have you had sexual intercourse when you didn't want to because a man threatened or used some degree of physical force [twisting your arm, holding you down, etc.] to make you?').
This brings home to me that, in addition to protecting their daughters, parents have a responsibility to educate their sons about appropriate sexual behaviour. WSD course participants are mothers, or may become mothers.

I decided to suggest to people who wanted to buy me presents for Christmas to donate to CARE Australia. CARE Australia is an Australian charity and international humanitarian aid organisation fighting global poverty, with a special focus on empowering women and girls to bring lasting change to their communities. Why focus on empowering women and girls? Because, 'our research has shown that if we help one women out of poverty, she'll bring four others with her.' Mothers can influence the boy, and shape the man he becomes. Who better to teach the boy who becomes a man how to respect women than a women who the boy respects. Mothers can influence future generations of males far more effectively than any government or private institution initiated male 'education' program.
Sexual victimization severity for the sample was as follows: unwanted sexual contact (27.3%), sexual coercion (21.1%), attempted rape (22.6%), and completed rape (29.0%).

Of the 51.5% respondents who reported some form of defined sexual victimisation, 26.7% of respondents reported being subjected to an attempted rape or a completed rape. Now we are getting back to the 1 in 4 women experience rape or attempted rape statistic that is often quoted.

The victim offender relationship characteristics were: stranger 6.4%, acquaintance 44.5%, and intimate 49.5%. These findings are consistent with the common findings that the vast majority of rapes are attempted by familiars. This fact has huge implications in terms of understanding survivor's responses. Think about it. 80%-90% of all sexual assaults on a female are perpetrated by an acquaintance or an intimate. It is a very different scenario being attacked by a stranger than being attacked by someone you know, trust, and care about to varying degrees. The change in mindset that is required, in an instant, to defend yourself is ... inconceivable. It goes against our evolved natures.

The abovementioned fact has huge implications for WSD training and course development as well.
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 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 (...).
Stress training, stress inoculation training, stress exposure training, reality based training, etc. are methods designed to increase the effectiveness of the participants in 'real-life' situations by exposing the participants to simulated experiences. ... Can you see where I'm going? Most WSD courses have an implication, or are actually based on, stranger-attack/rape. Stranger-attack/rape make up a very small percentage of attacks/rapes on females. Stranger-attack/rape involves a very different mental/emotional experience than attack/rape by an acquaintance or an intimate. Do the WSD courses teach social and cognitive skills to cater for the latter, more prevalent, scenario? Do they use role-plays and simulation exercises featuring acquaintances or intimates as the threat?

I'm reading about WSD courses where women are taught to attack vulnerable parts of the attacker's anatomy. Sometimes with lethal effect. The attacker for training purposes is suited up with padded outfits. Some courses do not allow the men playing the 'attacker' to interact with the female participants of the course. How does not allowing the women to identify with their 'attacker' during training support the 'reality based' training methodology?

Is not referencing the 'typical attacker' in these WSD courses detrimental to the effectiveness of these courses? Or, does the 'non-reality' based methodology actually better prepare the participants for reality? I do not profess to have the answers (yet), but, course developers, instructors, and participants should be aware of, and understand, the questions; and the course developers and instructors should be expected to understand and explain the underlying assumptions of their course and methods.

'Close to one half of victims reported they used alcohol (41.6%), and their attacker used alcohol (50.9%) prior to the incident.' This should come as no surprise. Alcohol is a factor in a significant proportion of crimes and tragedy. Instructors should never shirk the issue of raising this fact for fear of being categorised as a 'wowser'.

FPR = forceful physical resistance; NFPR = nonforceful physical resistance, e.g. fleeing, blocking blows; FVR = forceful verbal resistance, e.g., screaming, yelling at, or threatening offender; and NFVR = nonforceful verbal resistance e.g., pleading, begging, reasoning.
To assess victim resistance, respondents were asked, 'id you do any of he following to resist his advances?'including the following categories: (a)turn cold; (b) reason, plead, quarrel, or tell him to stop; (c) cry or sob; (d) scream for help; (e) run away; and (f) physically struggle, push him away, hit, or scratch. Respondents were asked to check either no or yes for each type of resistance. Those victims who physically struggled, pushed, hit, or scratched their offenders were coded as using FPR, and victims who ran away were coded as using NFPR. FVR included those victims who screamed for help, whereas NFVR was coded as present for victims who cried, sobbed, reasoned, pleaded, quarreled, or told the offender to stop.
Findings: FPR 47.4%, NFPR 9.5%, FVR 6.4%, and NFVR 78.9%.

'Eighty-two percent of the victims used at least one type of resistance strategy.' A word on 'resistance'. Jan Jordan, 2005, 'What Would MacGyver Do?: The Meaning(s) of Resistance and Survival', Violence Against Women 11: 531-559:
Rape resistance is, at best, a thorny issue; at worst, an expectation by which victims of rape are assessed and judged. On one hand, women have been told that a little resistance is all it takes to fend off a rapist; it is only by submitting that a woman 'gets herself' raped (...). Hence criminal justice system agencies have interpreted physical injuries to the woman as evidence of her resistance, construing these as necessary indicators of a lack of consent (...). On the other hand, the prevention advice often given to women has been not to resist, that resistance may anger a rapist and provoke greater injury, even death (...). In the face of such contradictory advice, the message to women is chillingly clear — women are damned if they do and damned if they don't. Although women are socialized against being aggressive and expected to be submissive in their relationships with men, 'The irony is that when confronted with a rapist who is physically stronger and may be armed, a woman is suddenly expected to struggle, fight, and resist to a degree not otherwise expected' (Burgess, 1999, p. 8).
'Irony' is not a description that leaps to mind when I think about the world my adopted nieces face in this regard.
Traditional police advice often urged women, when attacked, not to resist. Police advice to women suggesting they submit to rape has been criticized on several grounds (...). First, it reflects a view of rape as simply unwanted sex—give in and let him have his way with you, and you will be okay. As Stanko (1990) pointed out, the woman is not submitting to sex but to rape, a vast violation of her body and being. The very essence of rape makes it impossible to 'submit' to; rape by definition implies being taken against one's will. Second, there are times when women, when attacked, have decided not to resist physically; however, to portray this as submission ignores the mental component involved. Submitting to his will is a different prospect from evaluating the situation and determining that physical struggle may not be the best strategy with a particular offender. A lack of physical resistance, then, does not denote a lack of mental resistance. Kelly (1988) was one of the few writers to have observed that 'Women resist by refusing to be controlled, although they may not physically resist during an actual assault. Resistance, therefore, involves active opposition to abusive men's behavior and/or the control they seek to exert'(p. 161).).
A sobering few words on sexual victimisation resistance.

'More than one half of respondents (52.9%) said that the offender stopped or became less aggressive because of their resistance.' This is a statistic that needs a great deal of investigation. For instance, there are studies that suggest that NFVR is not effective in preventing an attack, and might even encourage violence.
Women perceived that the offenders used a moderate level of aggression and that the offenders were highly responsible for their assaults. The victims also felt that they were moderately responsible for their own assaults and that they used a relatively high level of nonconsent or resistance.
Injury science analyses an injury event in temporal terms as pre, during, and post event. Injury science analyses an injury event in these temporal terms in order to prevent an injury, reduce the severity of an injury, and/or to improve recovery from an injury. Self defence courses ought to analyse violent events in the same manner, and develop strategies for each of these three temporal phases. Women are never responsible for a sexual assault. They may increase the risks of sexual assault, e.g. becoming intoxicated (see above), but they are not responsible for their assault. This understanding has implications for post-assault recovery.

'Women reported moderate levels of fear, anger, and sadness during the incident.' The reference to emotions is what drew me to this paper. WSD courses often teach women to become angry when attacked. The action tendency for anger is fight; and the emotion of anger energises the body to fight. Anger reduces inhibitions for aggression and violence. Anger is being used as a tool. Interestingly, another study I'm in the process of reading refers to advanced courses of the Model Mugger WSD course. The basic course uses anger. The courses that flow on from this course, often relating to the use of and defence against weapons, involves controlling your emotions. Much the same as most martial arts profess to teach. Manage the intensity of your emotions. Referring to a previous post of mine, this strategy attempts to instill learned responses to a threat that would be categorised as predatory/instrumental aggression or violence rather than affective/emotional aggression or violence.

'Approximately one half of respondents reported that they discussed their experience with someone (51.4%).' Why? Judgements. Society judges them. The law, by definition, judges them. Their family and friends judge them. We judge them. Is it any wonder they judge themselves?

I've always taught that WSD courses are not just about the participants experience of assault (no matter how it is defined). Given 1 in 4 women experience an attempted or completed rape, and according to this study, 1 in 2 women experience some form of sexual victimisation, the female course participants are likely to know female friends, family, and even colleagues who have undergone these experiences. Knowledge is power, in this case, power to help.

'Approximately one fifth of women said they seriously contemplated suicide after their index assaults(19.1%).' Post assault/victimisation strategies. If WSD courses are to be the complete package, they must cater for pre, during, and post phases of an assault.

There is a great deal of food for thought in the findings arising out of this study's questionnaires concerning sexual victimisation. The next blog looks at the differences self defence or assertiveness training has.


  1. This is an extremely important and useful post, however I would just like to point out that the study discussed above uses a very narrow demographic (female college students). These are a vulnerable group of women (young, away from parental influences for the first time, in the presence of and living in groups with young men, partying a lot and using alcohol). Their 'sexual assault' risk is clearly quite high during this period of their lives. However, I don't think this is generalisable to all women across the age ranges. Though 'intimate partners and familiars' remain the greatest threat to women, generally I would imagine a woman's life-time risk of sexual assault is much much lower than 25%. Do you have any statistics for this?

  2. SueC - you raise very valid points. And that is what we need more off. Research, and questions on that research. Questions are not generally encouraged within martial arts/self defence/CQC. I will provide further statistics and findings as I study this subject further. Unfortunately, the 25% statistic does appear to be a commonly referenced for women's experiences of attempted or completed sexual assault.

  3. John, the best book I've read on staying safe was Brent Sanders' 'How Dangerous Men Think'. It gave really good examples of how women get into difficult situations and how to get out of them. I'll lend it to you if you like.

    25% sounds pretty accurate to me.

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