A Call for Self-Defense Against Victim-Blaming AND Against Rape

As feminists working to stop sexual violence, we must challenge media outlets and individuals that scrutinize the actions of survivors to find reasons why the rape is their fault. The importance of vigilance against victim-blaming is illustrated by a recent BBC poll that found that a majority of respondents believe women are partially responsible for acquaintance rapes if they got into bed with the perpetrator and by inflammatory comments in response to editorials about rape policies.

For  feminist writers and anti-rape activists and advocates, coming out against victim-blaming often means challenging “advice” women get–sometimes from law enforcement–about what we can do to keep ourselves from getting raped. Ridiculous advice about not walking through cities alone or talking to strangers (when most rapes are perpetrated by people close to us) or not wearing short skirts (when no evidence exists to support a correlation between rape and short hemlines) needs to be called out for what it is: limiting women’s personal and public freedoms in the name safety. On the other hand, effective steps women can take to reduce our risk–most notably self-defense–don’t belong on that laundry list of ineffective advice.

Self-defense training with a social justice perspective should be embraced, not dismissed, for three main reasons:

1. It Works

In a recent review of the state of research on strategies that are effective at stopping rape, the Violence Against Women Network (VAWnet) identified self-defense as one of the most promising practices. More than ten years of data collected by people of multiple political persuasions (or no apparent political persuasion) shows that women who forcefully resist attempted rapes can stop them effectively and can do so without increasing their risk of injury.

2. Instant Accountability

The ability to protect our bodily integrity gives women and others targeted by rapists the opportunity to right an injustice as it is happening. It means not having to depend on others (men) to keep us safe.

3. It Doesn’t Require Women to Diminish Our Lives.

Most advice women get about how to reduce our risk of rape is also advice about how to reduce ourselves. It’s about places we shouldn’t go, clothes we shouldn’t wear, times we shouldn’t be alone. The message of feminist self-defense is just the opposite: Use common sense, sure, but if you have the skills to verbally and physically protect yourself, you can live your life fully and safely in a rape culture.

Photo courtesy of IMPACT Boston.


  1. Rafia Zakaria says:

    Dear Meg:__Thank you for this excellent post and for the commendable work you do on violence against women. I look forward to reading your book!

  2. I thoroughly appreciated this article, thank you so much for posting this! I have been trying to articulate for years the inequalities that society and law enforcement put upon us by trying to "protect" us. It is absolutely ridiculous that a woman should fear going places at night by herself, when our male counterparts have no need to be. Also, in the case that a woman is raped while she is in a place by herself at night, or wearing a short skirt, tight jeans, etc., the media and public dismiss by saying "she was asking for it."

  3. Great post. Just wanted to add that martial arts (pictured above) is different than self-defense training. If you'd like to find a women's self-defense class, they are reviewed here: http://www.girlsfightback.com/resources/self-defe

    • I think what's pictured above IS an IMPACT self-defense class (not martial arts) and IMPACT is listed 3rd on your website resource list!

      • The first day this article was posted, the photo was a bunch of teen girls dressed in white Gis (traditional karate outfits) and in formation doing a traditional martial arts strike. Glad they replaced it with a photo that better describes what Meg is addressing in this article.

  4. pavlovsothercat says:

    Some good points made about victim blaming, which is no less than I'd expect here. However, I'd like to point out that self defence is not a comprehensive solution to rape for six reasons. Five of them are explained in an excellent post on Shakesville, which I can't seem to get to load right now but the link is http://shakespearessister.blogspot.com/2008/01/fi…. The sixth always reminds me of that old joke with the two guys stranded in an area with an escaped tiger on the loose. One guy puts on running shoes and starts stretching. The other asks what he's doing, as he can't possibly outrun the tiger. His response is that he doesn't have to outrun the tiger, just the other guy.

    There are a lot of women in the world who, for health reasons, because of disabilities or because of learning difficulties, are not going to be capable of fighting off a rapist. They are still targets, and when the rest of us are likely to fight back they become easier targets in comparison. I don't want to outrun any of them.

    • A complex social injustice like sexual violence has no singluar solution and nowhere in this post am I suggesting that self-defense or any other response should be the entire picture of violence prevention. At the same time it concerns me that the value of self-defense is called into question because it can't do EVERYTHING to stop rape. IMPACT and several other organizations have extensive programs for people with disabilities and I know that they can and have fought back. IMPACT also addresses the fact that most perpetrators are familiar people and addresses that in all our classes for women, LGBTQ people and people with disabilities. Well-taught self-defense is for people of all health statuses and all body types. Also, if you take a closer look at the research I cited many of the effective resistance strategies are VERBAL not phyiscal.


      • pavlovsothercat says:

        Meg, I never said you did propose it as a complete solution. I just thought that the article was quite one-sided, and that there were fair and relevant points it didn't mention. The post I linked also doesn't say that there's anything wrong with making self defence part of the solution. So I'm not sure what about what I said you're responding to. I'm very glad that there are programs for people with disabilities, but there are a whole lot of different things out there that class as disabilities (including ones that would make VERBAL response difficult in a conflict situation). It's important that self defence doesn't become a game of putting the target on somebody else's back.

    • powerupmama says:

      I agree. That's why so many of us who are committed to teaching self-defense offer classes adapted to people with special needs. So, you'd better hurry up and get those running shoes on, Cat, before some wonder in a wheelchair leaves you in her dust and you become Tiger Meat.

      • pavlovsothercat says:

        I'm very glad you adapt your classes, but as I said in reply to Meg, there are an awful lot of different disabilities out there and varying degrees of severity, and you're never going to be able to accommodate everybody. A comprehensive package of solutions needs to protect more vulnerable people too.

  5. Self-defense is a *necessary* skill for all women to learn. Of course it's not the end-all-be-all solution to rape- & attack-prevention, but it sure does help! I've always wondered why more women don't learn at least a little…at least learn how to throw a proper punch for crying out loud!
    I'm very grateful to have come from a family who, as far back as I can remember, always ALWAYS told me to fight back *and* yell like crazy if something ever happened (thank God, nothing ever has!). They also encouraged me to show off some skin if I wanted to, and that there's nothing wrong with that. I'm SOO gratefull…Thank you to my family. 🙂
    I've taken some karate, muy thai, and lift weights at the gym to feel strong (heavier weights, not those itty bitty light ones that women tend to use because they underestimate their strength). It feels amazing to feel as though I wouldn't be completely helpless in a situation.

  6. Thanks, Meg, for your thoughtful and compelling views on the importance of including self-defense in a comprehensive approach to rape prevention.

  7. Sexual assault prevention as in other forms of interpersonal violence prevention does not have a one size fits all answer. It requires complex strategies and norms change on a variety of fronts. However – since sexual assault and various other forms of violence are personal; Persons can benefit immensely from an IMPACT course or several others recommended. In addition to the verbal and physical skills is the opportunity to experience feeling powerful in many different situations. What really feeling and experiencing ones own power on a cellular level does for individuals is a life changing event. It gives voice to possibility – a powerful emotion to own. IMPACT courses are designed to help everyone – regardless – how to connect with the power of themselves and possibility.

  8. We do encourage in our school that women should learn martial arts in order to protect themselves from any physical harm. Rape can be avoided if all women have knowledge on martial arts.

    • Rape can't be avoided if all women know martial arts – you're putting the responsibility for avoiding rape on the victim, and thinking of rape as a crime that's exclusively committed by an unarmed man jumping out of the bushes at night.

      Some women might have physical conditions or disabilities that prevent them from excelling at martial arts – how exactly is martial arts knowledge going to help a woman who's paralyzed from the neck down, or has osteoporosis so advanced that throwing a punch would break her fingers? Sometimes a rapist might use a weapon, or drug the victim, or possibly be better at martial arts than the woman. The victim might be a toddler who isn't old enough to throw a punch that could hurt an adult. The victim might be comatose, or under anesthesia in a hospital. The victim might be restrained by law enforcement. The rapist might not use force at all because the victim may "agree" to sex but be legally unable to consent (say, if she is underage).

      It might not be a male raping a female, either. It might be a male raping a male or a female raping a male or a female raping another female or a male raping a genderqueer person or a person of any gender identity raping a person of any gender identity.

    • Why is the responsibility to stop rape always placed on the victim? The perpetrators of rape are the ones responsible for stopping it. This type of narrow thinking is what perpetuates the violence!

  9. dorothywhite says:

    Yes, I totally agree with women learning martial arts or basic self defense techniques. It's the only way we women can truly protect ourselves. We really can't trust the police, not even our relatives that they'll be there for us when we need them. This is also the reason why my daughter as young as she is, I let her attend self defense classes. You never really know when it might come in handy.

  10. One particularly disgusting example of victim-blaming just happened after that gang rape at the rave festival a week ago Friday in British Columbia. Salon quoted this from the local news station, "Only hours after disturbing pictures were posted on Facebook, teens were already suggesting the victim was a willing participant and asked for it."

    Police are saying she was given the date-rape drug and it took her several days to remember what happened to her. She reported the crime once she discovered the photos on Facebook.

  11. So what about those of us who are disabled? Martial arts aren't going to help me. Firearms are right out.

    • Check out http://www.impactselfdefese.org for the IMPACT organizaiton closest to you. Most of us teach people with a variety of disabilities. If an IMPACT program is not near you the National Women's Martial Arts Federation has an extensive membership and has done some programming on teaching self-defense to people with disabilities. Though many self-defense programs have their roots in some martial art or other, martial arts as a way to learn self-defense is not for everyone.

  12. As a 28 year women's self defense trainer, Black Belt Hall Of Famer AND as a former trauma psychotherapist, I have serious problems with the article linked by pavlovsothercat, as posted on Shakesville.

    To be blunt, I suggest that MS. Shakesville (forget her name) and others who like to disavow, minimize or shoot holes in the power of learning physical self defense as a viable means of self protection AND as a means of personal, societal and cultural empowerment – not to mention the fact that it is a BASIC PRIMAL life-skill which all women should learn and possess simply as creatures on this planet because 'shit happens' -should get off their asses and learn how to fight like a Bitch.

    I find such criticisms to be a cheap shot at best. NO ONE I know in this field ever suggests that learning to fight back in self defense IS THE sole solution to combating violence against women.

  13. PS. I post lots of fight back success stories on my facebook page- -http://www.facebook.com/pages/Dr-Ruthless/123771709667?ref=tshttp:// — all of which attests to the fact that self protection strategies, including slamming and bashing back or employing weapons can and often does work. (Of course it's NOT always the best option or strategy.)

    I also want to unabashedly say that when anyone minimizes the power of learning REAL self defense they also inadvertently diminish women's sexuality and sexual prowess – because the two are linked at their deepest primordial root, in the Old Brain. Learning to fight back IS part of the larger fighting EROS of life. Every woman who's been there, SMASHED THAT knows: the blood pulsing rushes of heat, power and adrenaline also just plain feels good. It is a primal form of physical empowerment which NO woman should have to question, rationalize or be forced to defend to her feminist "sisters." Period.

  14. microbio27 says:

    Does anyone else think it's crazy to tell women how to prevent being raped? Especially because IT DOESN'T WORK. Can the victim of any crime really ever prevent it? Doesn't the responsibility of any crime lie with the criminal? So wouldn't it make more sense to tell men, the most likely to be perpetrators, NOT to rape? Why aren't there classes (in highschool, college, workplaces etc.) geared towards men to:

    1. Define rape/sexual assault/harassment
    2. Handle situations where a woman has not given consent or has expressly said, "No."
    3. Handle situations where other males may become perpetrators (Ex. a friend at a party)
    4. Make clear the consequences for the victim
    5. Make clear the consequences for the perpetrator
    6. Make men realize they are responsible for their own actions!

    The best prevention is education but we are educating the wrong people!

    • I agree with all the strategies for men's engagement that you list, though none of them can guarantee that men won't perpetrate, which is why we need strategies that women can use when all these prevention messages fail to change men's behavior.

      You say "IT DOESN'T WORK". Based on what evidence? I've seen extensive research on the effectiveness of verbal and physical self-defense at thwarting rape and none demonstrating that self-defense is ineffective. What do you mean by "it doesn't work" and how do you know?

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