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


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