Does teaching self-protection blame the victim? And who is responsible for social change?

Not long ago, we attended a conference at which a number of researcher-practitioners described their project assessments and outcomes. Programs to reduce and treat the consequences of poverty, racism, sexism, homophobia, and so forth were all well represented, and our sexual assault program fit in quite nicely. Or so we thought.

During Q and A, one of the other speakers in our session (who had just discussed her own work to move people out of poverty), complained that self-defense approaches to sexual assault protection “blamed the victim.” The unspoken double-standard was stark: Her program empowered the poor by working to raise their awareness and build tools for financial success, but nobody suggested that her efforts to empower should be abandoned because they blamed people for their poverty.

To someone working outside of this particular subfield, such an accusation may seem bizarre. However, it is extremely common: A firestorm of complaints was leveled at Miss USA Nia Sanchez, who said during the 2014 competition that women should learn to protect themselves from sexual assault and could find such training empowering. The same critique was aimed at Ankesh Madan, Stephen Grey, Tasso Van Windheim, and Tyler Confrey-Maloney—undergraduate students at North Carolina State University who invented a nail polish designed to detect date-rape drugs (other than alcohol). Most recently, it has been directed against the work of Canadian researchers who demonstrated that self-defense training—as part of a broad package of programs in awareness and sexual boundary-setting—is effective in reducing long-term assault risk.

These critiques stem from at least two sources. Historically, women have been routinely blamed for their own assaults based on what they had been wearing, how much they had to drink, and any other of a litany of items that indicated that rape avoidance was a matter of behaving better and fighting harder. The message from society has too often been that, if potential victims didn’t police their own behavior and that of their partners, then they must have been “asking for it.” The message has very seldom been that men should bear responsibility for their own behavior and keep their own aggression in check. It is no wonder that many activists and practitioners bristle when people start to talk about yet one more thing that women can do to protect themselves. Moreover, there are real problems with the way that sexual assault self-protection—usually conceived of as elbows and knees against a grabbing stranger—has been taught. As the real assailants are usually friends, romantic partners, and acquaintances—people we are supposed to be able to trust—standard self-defense awareness strategies and tactics are often ill suited to addressing the problem. Without careful adaptation, they build the wrong awareness and teach techniques that people are unlikely to deploy against those whom they care about and do not want to damage. We in the martial arts/self defense community have too often and for too long focused on preparing people to face a version of sexual assault that is less likely. (We have thoughts about how this may have come to be, but we’ll save that for another post.)

In light of these problems, it is not surprising that there is strong sentiment in some segments of the sexual assault reduction community that self-protection programming is not desirable, does not work, and that cultural change should be pursued instead. We disagree. The evidence shows that self-protection does work when the program is crafted in a way that prepares people to face the realities of assault. (See citations below for a sample of work that demonstrates this.) And, moreover, since cultural change occurs slowly and because sex is treated as a private matter in our culture, it is critical to have a last line of defense that works in conjunction with efforts to change social norms and to bring in bystanders. It is not a matter of “either-or,” but rather a matter of “and”: comprehensive, effective programming that addresses everything from culture down to the nitty-gritty of face-to-face interaction in private, does not blame victims, and does not categorically require specific groups of people to avoid the rich experiences of life in order to be safe. That is empowerment. And that power and privilege to improve the world in this way—as well as the accompanying responsibility to do so—is within our collective reach. But it requires us to work together.

~The Directors


2014       Hollander, Jocelyn A. “Does Self-Defense Training Prevent Sexual Violence Against Women?” Violence Against Women 20, 252-269. DOI: 10.1177/1077801214526046

2014       Holtzman, Mellisa and Chadwick L. Menning. “A New Model for Sexual Assault Protection: Creation and Initial Testing of Elemental.Journal of Applied Social Sciences DOI: 10.1177/1936724414536394.  Online first at:

2015       Menning, Chadwick and Mellisa Holtzman.  “Combining Primary Prevention and Risk Reduction Approaches in Sexual Assault Programming.” Journal of American College Health. DOI: 10.1080/07448481.2015.1042881 Online first at:

2015       Senn, Charlene Y., Misha Eliasziw, Paula C. Barata, Wilfreda E. Thurston, Ian R. Newby-Clark, Lorraine Radtke, and Karen L. Hobden. “Efficacy of a Sexual Assault Resistance Program for University Women.” New England Journal of Medicine 372, 2326-2335. DOI: 10.1056/NEJMsa1411131

2007       Ullman, Sarah E. “A 10-Year Update of ‘Review and Critique of Empirical Studies of Rape Avoidance.’” Criminal Justice and Behavior 34, 411-429. DOI: 10.1177/0093854806297117


Elemental: We are not your mother’s sexual assault self-protection program

When you think about sexual assault self-protection, what comes to mind? Elbow strikes? Knees to the groin? Padded suits? Instructors advising women to carry their keys defensively, to watch their drinks, and not to walk alone at night? Preparation to confront a faceless attacker who emerges from the shadows—or a windowless white van—just long enough to impose his will on an unsuspecting victim? Such approaches have been common for years, but they have limited utility.

Assaults by strangers are devastating and inspire great fear, but they are rare. The vast majority of sexual assaults are between people who know each other, and—at least on college campuses—they tend to happen on dates. Because people are less likely to use violence to defend themselves against those they care about, standard self defense approaches are limited in their effectiveness. Students are unlikely to use them, in part because there is a mismatch between their training and the realities that they encounter. Sexual assault encompasses a broader range of experiences and is more complicated than the stereotyped image of women confronting strange men who lurk in the shadows.

These challenges are best met through greater inclusivity and flexibility: Training must simulate a more inclusive set of scenarios—dating, long-term partnerships, friendships, and hookups. It must also be inclusive in terms of the population it serves, both because sexual assault is everyone’s concern, and because assault rates among gender and sexual minorities is high. It must teach a broad and flexible set of strategies and tactics that can be tailored to fit the situation, and include non-violent physical and verbal responses that demonstrate a tried-and-true record of effectiveness.

Our philosophy at Elemental is that violence is not the only option. Since 2011, we have built, tested, and refined an efficient training program that is consistent with this philosophy and makes a critical, evolutionary step forward in reducing sexual assault rates. We are a synthesis of some of the best risk-reduction and primary prevention strategies—a combination that has a demonstrated record of long-term effectiveness in our peer-reviewed research publications (see the citations below for a sample of our latest work). As noted in a recent New York Times article, such verified successes are extraordinarily rare. We may not yet have international recognition; we are relatively new and small, but our results are promising and we are growing. Moreover, our programming dovetails particularly well with the social norming and bystander intervention approaches that have become so popular on college campuses and that are doing the important work of shifting campus culture.

Where do we fit in? We are the micro-level last line of defense within culture as it stands today, with current beliefs and values, current gender norms, and current behavior. We are the private decisions, words, and actions taken when bystanders are not around, the communication between partners that helps us judge intent and find consent, and the means of promoting broader social change by shifting the way that face-to-face interactions unfold. We are a method of achieving safety when situations become surprising, chaotic, and awkward or dangerous. We are flexible, yet simple. We are inclusive.

We invite you to become acquainted with the path of our program through this blog, and to find inspiration to join this growing movement to make the world a little safer than we found it. In the near future, we’ll be exploring a wide variety of topics, including the importance of early intervention, the divisions between primary prevention and risk reduction strategies, victim blaming and responsibility for social change, the importance of considering gender and context in unraveling this problem, and related issues.

~The Directors

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2015       Menning, Chadwick and Mellisa Holtzman.  “Combining Primary Prevention and Risk Reduction Approaches in Sexual Assault Programming.” Journal of American College Health. DOI: 10.1080/07448481.2015.1042881 Online first at:

2015       Holtzman, Mellisa and Chadwick Menning.  “Integrating Experiential Learning and Applied Research to Promote Student Learning and Faculty Research.”  College Teaching 63: 112-118. DOI:  10.1080/87567555.2015.1019825  Online first at:

2014       Holtzman, Mellisa and Chadwick L. Menning. “A New Model for Sexual Assault Protection: Creation and Initial Testing of Elemental.Journal of Applied Social Sciences DOI: 10.1177/1936724414536394.  Online first at: