Because I Can

I had the privilege of delivering the sermon at my house of worship (Unitarian Universalist) once again, on Sunday, August 2, 2015. I am so lucky to have such wonderful friends to teach and inspire me. 

This service started not as a gathering for worship on a warm summer Sunday, but at a kitchen table in a dark and quiet house at the end of a long winter day. The children are finally asleep. The dinner dishes have been washed. The lamplight throws warmth in small circles. And the grown-ups sit at the humble kitchen table with a cup of tea -- or a glass of whiskey, if that’s a good choice for you -- and we talk about what matters.

And someone tells a story that becomes a kind of guide for your life.

What is Empowerment Self Defense?

All self defense is not the same! Empowerment self defense (ESD) -- sometimes called "feminist empowerment self defense" or "empowerment model self defense" -- is a uniquely holistic, evidence-based, survivor-centered, feminist approach to self-protection skills. 

While no single, authoritative description of ESD exists, the definition below is consistent with the practice wisdom of ESD instructors in an emerging professional affiliation. It is also consistent with published research regarding self defense approaches demonstrated as effective in reducing sexual assault (e.g., Hollander, 2014; Sarnquist et al, 2014, Senn et al, 2015).

ESD is characterized by:

  • An explicitly survivor-centered ethos that holds perpetrators solely responsible for sexual violence and rejects cultural victim-blaming.
  • 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 defense 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.

Effective ESD instructors utilize multi-modal learning methods including lecture, discussion, homework, games, personal reflection, and kinesthetic exercises. The interactive social nature of ESD classes is an important component of the learning environment. 

Read more: 

Hollander, J.A. (2014) Does self-defense training prevent sexual violence against women? Violence Against Women, 20(3), 252-269.

Sarnquist, C., Omondi, B., Sinclair, J., Gitau, C., Paiva, L., Mulinge, M., Cornfield, D. & Maldonado, Y. (2014). Rape Prevention Through Empowerment of Adolescent Girls. Pediatrics, 133(5), e1226-e1232.

Senn, C.Y, Eliasziew, M., Barata, P.C., Thurston, W.E., Newby-Clark, I.R., Radtke, L., & Hobden, K.L. (2015). Efficacy of a sexual assault resistance program for university women. New England Journal of Medicine, 372, 2326-2335.


Supporting Survivors in Community Settings: A practice resource


One of my passions is empowering communities to support the presence and resilience of survivors. Sexual violence is so epidemic that we can assume survivors are present in every gathering. Evidence indicates that negative social responses damage survivors and that social connection can be a powerful mechanism for healing.

Often trauma-sensitive practice is considered a clinical concept, appropriate only to psychotherapeutic settings and work with identified survivors. This unnecessarily limits the impact of our growing knowledge about trauma. Sexual violence is hugely underreported; those who would benefit from trauma-informed practice are everywhere. Disclosure need not be a prerequisite to survivor-centered work.

Empowerment Self-Defense (ESD) practitioners have developed a rich practice wisdom for supporting survivors—whether or not they disclose—in our classrooms. In my research into trauma and community as a student at Boston College School of Social Work, I've been unable to find many resources to support trauma-sensitive mezzo-level practice. This is significant gap, because countless community and group settings—including faith communities, classrooms, and service agencies—have the potential to either profoundly help or hinder survivors' recovery from trauma.

In response to this information gap, I developed this resource describing the pro-active practice behaviors ESD instructors demonstrate to support survivors and avoid the negative social responses cataloged by Sarah Ullman (2010). This is a work in progress!

These practices can be adapted to many settings. Teachers, movement instructors, journalists, clergy-people and all of us can have a profoundly beneficial impact on survivors by incorporating these concepts into our speech and behavior.