The Self Defense Paradox

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I considered writing an editorial about the failure of the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault to include empowerment self defense in their recommendations. Turns out I already wrote most of it in an editorial that appeared in my local paper over a year ago. 

Helping Women Overcome the "Self Defense Paradox" -- Daily Hampshire Gazette, Wednesday December 26, 2012

I want to commend the Gazette on last week’s series addressing gender-based and sexual violence on our local campuses. Kristin Palpini’s piece on consent education (Wednesday) skillfully manages the many complex realities of this issue. Her intelligent writing about the definition of “rape” and “consent,” and inclusion of concrete steps bystanders— male and female — can take to interrupt sexual assault is not only good journalism, it is an educational service to our community.

However, I must take issue with the implication that prevention-education efforts which focus on active steps women can take to increase their own safety are misinformed and ineffective.

For the past 25 years, I have been honored to participate in a grassroots feminist movement of prevention education. Sometimes called “social-justice empowerment-based self-defense,” this movement is firmly grounded in the reality that most gender-based violence is perpetrated by men known to their victims. Instruction is provided in the context of what I call the “self-defense paradox.”

One facet of this paradox is the fact that one person — the perpetrator — holds sole responsibility for the decision to assault someone. The other is the fact that people at risk of violence can take effective steps to increase their own safety. Our programs are trauma-sensitive, attentive to the presence of survivors in any gathered community.

Other hallmarks of empowerment-based self-defense training include:

• Evidence-based information about who commits violent and sexual assaults and who they attempt to victimize.

• Education about healthy relationships, including consent negotiation skills and early warning signs of interpersonal violence.

• Examination of how culture and socialization may disadvantage women from being able to trust or act upon their instincts regarding interpersonal safety.

• Opportunities to practice assertive communication that can be used to interrupt or de-escalate violent situations.

• Physical fighting techniques that are simple to learn and effective when other options have been exhausted.

• Healing and community organizing resources to recover from violence and increase safety for all people.

Far too many self defense classes reinforce the myth of stranger-danger and shade into victim-blaming, as if women’s behavior was the determinant factor in whether or not one was subject to sexual assault.

But in a world where as many as one in five women will be sexually assaulted, it is prudent and effective for us to build skills that promote our own safety. Until rapists stop raping, prevention education that empowers women to identify, interrupt and respond to sexual assault will be an essential part of the equation.

We will never know the number of sexual assaults averted because women — and men — exercise awareness, trust their instincts, use their voices, or cause physical harm to a would-be assailant. And we will never rest until sexual assault is erased from the human experience.

Lynne Marie Wanamaker is an anti-violence educator who has taught self-protection skills for over 20 years. For information about upcoming classes visit