The Power of Feminist Self-Defense

I was always afraid of being raped growing up—and street harassment was a constant reminder of my vulnerability. I believed that if someone tried to rape me, there would be nothing I could do, because they would definitely be bigger and stronger than I am. 

When I took a self-defense class, I found out I was wrong. There were things I could do. I could knee them in the groin, poke their eyes, smash their nose, stomp their feet. I could yell really loud. 

I COULD STOP A RAPE. 

That knowledge, experienced in my body, was life-changing. I could live with less fear. I could do more of the things I wanted to do. I could speak up and set limits. I could ask for what I want. I could live the life I wanted. I could be more authentically me when I wasn’t always calibrating my vulnerability.  

Thousands and thousands of women and LGBTQ+ people have experienced their own transformations when they found out what their minds, voices and bodies could do; when they fully realized they were worth defending, and that they had permission to keep themselves safe, emotionally and physically. 

What all of us experienced is Empowerment Self-Defense, and it’s one of many strategies needed to end gender-based violence—from workplace micro-aggressions to trafficking, from street harassment to sexual assault, from emotional abuse to stalking. (Policy change, consent education, healthy masculinity programs, judicial education, direct services and protest matter, too. We need them all.)

A couple hundred of us who have learned Empowerment Self-Defense have gone on to become teachers, passing on the wisdom we’ve learned and training the next generations of resisters. But there’s a lot of confusion about what Empowerment Self-Defense is. Let’s start with a quick primer on our values.

We embrace the self-defense paradox: that a single person — the perpetrator — holds sole responsibility for the decision to assault someone, and that people targeted for violence can take effective steps to increase our own safety. We know that there is nothing you can do or not do to deserve to be harassed, abused or assaulted. We affirmatively challenge victim-blaming, including the ways we blame ourselves.

We don’t think only about the best way to knee someone in the groin (although we do teach that!), but also about ways to stop small, everyday intrusions before they escalate. We don’t focus on stranger-danger, but mostly on people you know, since they commit about 90 percent of all sexual assaults and, obviously, 100 percent of abuse in relationships. 

We aren’t male martial artists teaching take-downs and spinning kicks. Some of us earned black belts, but we’re women and LGBTQ+ people sharing what we know with people who, like us, are most likely to be targeted. We understand the importance of having a teacher who, as much as possible, looks like you, and we understand the way patriarchy shows up in our lives, which generally are not ways that can be solved with a spinning kick. We do believe that everyone can do this, and we teach people of all ages and abilities. 

We do know that there are survivors in every room (many of us are survivors), so we honor what we’ve each done to survive. We do know that no one lives in the world with one identity–and teach to the multiple, intersecting realities our students embody and experience. We do know that trauma lives in the body, and that movement is the only way to release some of it.

We do bring a social-justice analysis to the work we do. We don’t see gender-based violence as an individual or psychosocial problem. We know it is an expression and reinforcement of patriarchy, and that it supports with other systems of oppression. 

Did you know that taking an ESD class can lower your risk of sexual assault by 46 percent? Even more astonishing, it can lower the risk of attempted SA—meaning people stop an assault before they even realize it’s turning into an assault—by 63 percent. Just taking a workshop has other effects too: lower fear and anxiety; increased self-esteem, assertiveness and confidence.

“This class has had a huge impact on me,” one of my students explained. “I’ve been thinking about what I really need from relationships—including friends and family—and I’ve felt much more able to state those needs plainly. I don’t have to be quiet and nod when someone tells me to smile or tries to take up my space on public transit. I also feel like I’m going to be a lot more confident and relaxed the next time I go on a date or have a sexual partner, since I know I’ll be able to get out of a tough situation if something goes south.”

My other students also tell me that our classes are life-changing. “I thought self-defense was just about dealing with creepy random guys,” one said. “But really, I had a problem getting my point across in everyday life. Now I know what to do.”

It resonated with another who was a survivor, too. “This class helped me to work through my fears, better understand how to recognize unsafe situations and made me feel more comfortable being assertive,” she confided.

“A year ago, I wasn’t able to stay grounded and push back when my boundaries were crossed, but [taking this class] has helped me fight my socialization to be ‘nice’ and to advocate for myself,” another added. “It’s sometimes uncomfortable and scary, but every time I practice being assertive, I know it will get easier.”

Those couple hundred of us who became Empowerment Self-Defense teachers gather every summer to share skills and strategies—exploring topics like the relationship between sexual violence and eating disorders, teaching queer youth of color or confronting our internalized oppression as teachers. We sit around and discuss these topics, and we also play.

We have fun wrestling each other to the ground, disarming a knife-wielding partner, yelling loud, and figuring out how to break someone’s nose while you’re holding a toddler on your hip. We also play with words and scenes, practicing how to de-escalate a white supremacist, how to stand up to a disrespectful co-worker, and how to set limits with intrusive family members. 

Some people call us super heroes, but we’re not special. We’ve just put transformations into motion. “I’m not going to just deal with life,” one of my students said, “but go out and create it for myself.”

About

Lauren R. Taylor directs Defend Yourself, an empowerment self-defense organization based in Washington, D.C., which has reached an estimated 35,000 people. She also co-founded Safe Bars, which trains people who work in bars and restaurants in bystander intervention skills for standing up against harassment.