A month before I left home to travel the world solo at 18, I signed up for a women’s self-defense class. My high school counselors said it would prepare me for the situation everybody warned me about: getting attacked by a stranger while walking alone late at night.
Women’s self-defense classes popped up in the United States as far back as a century ago, supposedly empowering women to fight back against assailants, combining tactics from boxing or martial arts. From the beginning, the classes focused on repelling apparently inevitable attacks by strangers, always assumed to be men.
In my week-long self-defense class I was taught to aim for a man’s groin and face, and what kind of language might help de-escalate a threatening situation. I role-played scenarios I might encounter, including physically countering attacks by a man wearing protective gear. Fewer than twenty percent of sexual assaults are perpetrated by strangers, but the physical training I completed focused on “stranger danger” attacks. The instructors skimmed over the complications inherent in physically fighting back against someone I knew — a situation I was far more likely to face.
I role-played scenarios I might encounter
I took the class with a friend, who came away from it feeling more exposed, more aware of threats where there probably weren’t any. But I left the class more sure of myself and more prepared for what might happen. Or so I thought.
About a month into my trip, a taxi driver attempted to assault me. In the altercation I used “stop sign” hands to get him to step back, and I kept my voice even, instead of raising it, so as not to anger him further. We did not speak the same language — something my training had not prepared me for — but still, I got away. I felt shaken but proud of myself for successfully using my training.
Thinking back to my self-defense class, my proactive choice was a step towards feeling in control of my physical safety. But that’s the thing: it was just a feeling. Ultimately, I “got out of” the situation because this man — this threat — backed down. It was his choice, not mine.
A couple months later a stranger cornered me in an alleyway at night. My self-defense class had focused on preparing me to prevent, or escape, this exact type of nightmare situation, though it was actually more likely I would be attacked by somebody I knew. Despite this, everything I learned failed me. That night I was raped.
The next day I wondered why I hadn’t been able to effectively use my training. It took months for me to realize that maybe the training itself was flawed. It promised prevention, when in fact, prevention was, and is, entirely out of my hands.
I was taught about “risk factors” like walking alone at night, but the night sky doesn’t rape — perpetrators do. I was taught not to wear clothing that attracted attention, but what I experienced was not “attention.” I was taught to “walk confidently,” but my self-assured steps meant nothing to the man who saw me as prey.
I remembered how I was told that, if I was in the midst of being raped, I should tell my assailant “this is rape,” in order to “shock” them out of doing what they were doing. This attitude presupposes that perpetrators of sexual assault do not know that what they are doing is rape.
Instead of asking women to educate them when we are at our most vulnerable, why don’t we shift the onus to other men — or at least, to somebody other than women experiencing rape? Is the burden really on women to turn our own rapes into teachable moments?
My training had not prevented my rape, so I questioned how it applied to my sexual encounters. I was told it was okay to say no to men, as if this were a revolutionary concept. This attitude perpetuates the idea that sex is something women give and men consume — not to mention that it was assumed that our sexual partners were men. The class was designed for straight, cis, white women. The teachers used trans-exclusionary language. It also glaringly ignored how the actions of participants of different races and abilities might be perceived differently, viewed through the lens of harmful tropes and stereotypes. Saying no yields highly variable reactions because of many factors, including our identities.
Generally speaking, saying no may have been revolutionary twenty years ago, but I don’t think it is in the same way today. And of course, saying no shouldn’t be a form of self-defense against attack; it should be part of the everyday conversations we have about and during sex. When I “say no to sex” I’m just communicating what I want in the moment. “No” should not be a confrontation, it should be a conversation — if all goes well.
I have said “no” many times, and only once did a partner become aggressive as a result. The man yelled at me, pushed me onto the bed, and blocked the door so I couldn’t leave. I convinced him to let me go, but had it come to a more physical confrontation, we were in a small bedroom without enough room to fight back in the ways I had been instructed — the setting in my training was always a wide open space, as can be expected outside or in public. Though I wasn’t raped that night, most sexual assaults are perpetrated by somebody like this man — somebody known to the victim. A third of sexual assaults are perpetrated by the victim’s own partner, and the majority of sexual assaults occur in or near the victim’s home. So why did my training not more explicitly address this type of person and situation?
I have said “no” many times
When I hear people talking about self-defense classes for women — the kind that are a few afternoons a month, or a one-week intensive, which is to say, not ongoing strength training — the words “muscle memory” get thrown around a lot. My instructors told me that doing this training, and running through drills over and over again, getting used to saying the right words at the right time, meant that in a dangerous situation, these responses would come naturally to me.
But in fact, “muscle memory” — or more accurately termed “motor memory” — cannot be built in the short period of time these classes take. And considering that as many as half of sexual assault victims are intoxicated or drugged at the time of their assaults, motor control is impaired anyway. Getting stronger may help women fight back in a violent situation in which we are sober, but many physically in shape people are raped. Physical strength does not prevent rape.
And telling women to take self-defense classes as rape prevention implies that women who are not taking self-defense classes are somehow actively choosing to not fight back. In short, it puts the burden on women.
Although suggesting that women take self-defense classes is a solution to prevent sexual violence is deeply problematic, I understand why many women — smart women, self-described feminist women — still choose to take them. Some small-scale studies have found reduced rates of rape and attempted rape against people who have participated in self-defense training programs, sometimes as high as a 50 percent reduction.
But beneath the promise of these results is the means it takes to achieve them. Maybe the graduates of these programs are raped less frequently, but the programs have no direct impact on the number of rapists out there, the total number of rapes. Self-defense classes may teach women agency and bodily autonomy and power, but billing these classes as rape-prevention fails to address the fact that rape is caused by perpetrators’ actions, not victims’ response.
The problem is not that fighting back isn’t effective — it can be. It’s not even that self-defense classes can’t teach us some useful tricks and tools — they can. It’s that self-defense classes do not address the fact that rape happens because perpetrators choose for it to, and that nothing victims of this crime do to fight back will change that. Self-defense classes perpetuate the myth that the type of attack we need to be able to repel is from a man approaching us on a dark street at night, when in fact we’re much more likely to be raped in our own beds.
The problem is not that fighting back isn’t effective — it can be.
Self-defense classes may, maybe, give women tools that might — or in my case might not — save us from experiencing violence in our lifetimes. But if we take a self-defense class and avoid being raped, that doesn’t mean the person that might have raped us is also being trained not to rape. The person that might have raped us is still out there.