Combining Martial Arts and Prevention Education By
©Juliana Rose Nicole Larsen
This paper is an introduction for martial arts instructors who would like to teach or who currently teach self-defense for women and vulnerable populations. Pronouns used in this paper: Throughout, I will mostly use common masculine pronouns when referring to perpetrators and feminine pronouns when referring to victims. This is not mean to invalidate acts of sexual violence perpetrated by a male against a male, a female to a female or a female to male, but the statistically most common occurrence of such crimes is a male perpetrator and a female victim. For ease of communication, I will assume this most common scenario.
During college I worked for two years at a center called the Student Advocacy Resource Center (SARC). We provided peer advocacy and counseling for victims of sexual assault and interpersonal violence. Later, I took a position writing for the YWCA of Missoula, an organization dedicated to empowering women and eliminating racism. During this period, my town and college were embroiled in a rape scandal that made national headlines and is now the main subject of Jon Krakauer’s newest book, Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town.
Throughout the events of several rape trials and my ongoing training as a peer advocate, I made a lot of connections to these situations and my experience as a martial artist. Having taught self-defense as a martial artist and upon the completion of my training as an advocate, I offered a self‐defense class to SARC when I first began working with them. They declined.
At first I was surprised, but after their explanation and my subsequent experience as an advocate, their reasoning made sense. They pointed out some very real issues with the way women’s self-defense courses are currently taught that made me realize most women’s defense programs are doing little to prepare women for the realities of assault. Worse, they can even be supportive of the culture and myths we have today that condone victim blaming, and support a society where sexual violence is ubiquitous. As most curricula stand now, they address a statistically unlikely range of scenarios while failing to address the majority risks victims will face. Additionally, they often fail to go beyond fighting techniques to address the more complex realities of assault.
How do defense classes contribute to the victim-blaming mentality? One example, a common idea perpetuated through defense classes, is that in taking the class, women are doing their part to prevent their own assaults.
We as martial arts instructors are in a unique position to provide prevention training that acknowledges the realities of the world we live in, while also providing tools for empowerment. In teaching women’s self defense, we take on the responsibility of providing the most technically and culturally relevant information within our power to provide. We must acknowledge that martial arts training alone is not enough to qualify us to teach self-defense. There are several major changes that have to occur in the way self-defense is taught in order for it to have the impact we as instructors would like to see:
- Our curricula have to be based on the premise that it is not our student’s responsibility to avoid being assaulted. The physical training we are providing is meant to be a tool for empowerment; the education we are giving is meant to increase awareness, not make our students “assault proof”. Our teaching must assume that assault is a perpetrator’s choice, not a victim’s fault.
- Instructors have to educate themselves beyond their studios. This includes ongoing education about best practices in prevention and current terminology and legal definitions.
- Our curricula must be relevant to the statistical and clinical realties of sexual violence.
- We have to address men as our best allies for ending sexual assault and violence, providing training and resources for men toward this end.
- We as instructors must equip ourselves with training as first responders so that we may respond to potential survivors in our classes without re-victimizing or harming their healing process. This includes providing trigger warnings and outlets for triggered survivors.
According to a recent study, 69% of rape survivors reported feeling at least somewhat or extremely concerned that others would blame them or hold them responsible for the rape. It is our responsibility to show survivors that we hold offenders, not survivors, accountable for sexual assault. A component of this concept includes providing educational opportunities for men, as I will cover in #4.
Sexual assault is often treated differently than other violent crimes. Many link sexual assault and rape with acts of sex rather than acts of violence fueled by issues of power and control. Violent crimes are often seen as horrific and tragic, yet in the media, victims of sexual assault and rape have been blamed for their own behaviors. What’s more, many victims don’t name their own experience as rape because they believe the law applies only in cases of stranger rape rather than acquaintance rape. Yet rape by someone known is the most common rape there is.
The techniques that we show our students must be accompanied by the caveat that these techniques are designed to promote overall confidence and empowerment in students’ capabilities, not to specifically prevent rape. Our goal as instructors should be to empower and increase awareness. The number one lesson our students take away is that assault is a choice and it is never a victim’s fault; whether they kick, scratch and scream or completely freeze and remain silent, the assault is not their fault.
Before teaching a self-defense course that is marketed for women or vulnerable populations as many courses are, it is the responsibility of the instructor to seek further education. Martial Arts training is not enough on its own. There are realities about the legal system, assault statistics and norms, as well as best practice prevention approaches which an instructor has a responsibility to be aware of before they teach a self defense class.
Interpersonal violence and sexual assault are realms of violence that are far more complex than we are taught to believe. We as instructors must educate ourselves to avoid perpetuating the very fallacies that make assault one of the most underreported and ubiquitous crimes in the U.S. and beyond.
We cannot accurately teach self defense without having a holistic understanding of how assault happens, who perpetrators are, and what happens to victims after an assault. Understanding legal definitions associated with sexual violence enables us to understand the range of manifestations of sexual violence our students are facing. It is important to understand and teach according to legal definitions for the sake of uniformity in prevention and intervention efforts, as well as to ensure that students understand their rights and protections under the law. This also helps to eliminate myths often associated with sexual violence we ourselves as instructors often harbor.
The legalities and aftermath of assault are complex and confusing. If we as instructors don’t take it upon ourselves to understand the system and how it works, we cannot hope to help our students navigate such a complex system or experience.
According to the Rape Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), approximately 2/3 of rapes were committed by someone known to the victim; 38% of rapists are a friend or acquaintance, 28% are an intimate partner, and 7% are a relative.
43% of the sexual victimization incidents involve alcohol consumption by victims and 69% involve alcohol consumption by the perpetrator. Furthermore, 90% of acquaintance rapes involve alcohol. These are just a few factors that we often fail to address in self-defense classes. We often target the grossly overused trope of the “stranger in the bushes” which accounts for a very small percentage of assaults and we consistently fail to address one of the most pervasive factors in assaults which also happens to be the most widely used date rape drug of all: alcohol.
We often approach our curriculum from a fighter’s perspective. The material presented is typically an abbreviated version of skills and fighting theories that have been developed over the course of the instructor’s martial arts career. It is often the material that the instructor feels will be most relevant to what they think their students will be facing. For instance, basic situational awareness techniques are often covered such as those related to dark parking lots or running trails, easy in and out stranger-danger techniques. These techniques may be effective fighting techniques, but we as instructors learn what the most common situations our students will actually face really are, we can adjust the techniques we’re teaching to apply to these situations.
There are a few assumptions in self-defense classes that we must eliminate
- A) The perpetrator is a stranger.
- B) There is little to no prelude to the attack, i.e. it is a surprise attack or it is an obvious physical aggression.
- C) No verbal manipulation or subtle physical coercion has been employed by the perpetrator to de‐stabilize or isolate the victim.
- D) The victim is at their full physical capacity, i.e. they are not under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
- E) The victim is alone throughout the entire incident.
When we begin to account for these variables, we can address more of the realities of sexual assault. For instance if we address the various levels of coercion including those that are verbal, emotional, and implied, we can create awareness and red flags for women about the standard manipulation techniques that are often used by rapists.
What types of coercion do victims face?
- A) Isolation from sources of help, whether by physically locking a door or talking her away from others.
- B) Economic pressure, i.e. I bought you dinner, now you owe me.
- C) Alcohol or drugs. Continually filling her glass and pressuring her to drink, or spiking her food/drink without knowledge. The perpetrator may also use his own intoxication as an excuse for his behavior (“ I lost control”).
- D) Emotional manipulation. Usually the more emotionally involved the victim is with the perpetrator, the more effective this form of coercion will be.
- E) Intimidation or threats with physical harm or public embarrassment. Because women are not trained to defend themselves physically, he may need to do no more than raise a fist to intimidate the victim into compliance.
- F) Physical force
In terms of teaching technique and developing fighting skills, one of the most important approaches we as instructors can develop is to take ourselves out of a situational mindset. Instead of thinking about techniques specific to sexual violence, think about the most basic techniques you would teach to a beginning martial arts student.
Utilization of the voice (screaming and yelling) is something women are often societally conditioned to be hesitant about. This is one of the basic steps we don’t spend enough time on, especially when we’re working in a society that has been conditioned to believe that women will play “hard to get” and that overriding subtle verbal protestations is normal.
It is far more effective to focus on developing comfort with making noise and using elementary strikes than it is to teach techniques for specific holds and grabs. It is better to have a woman walk away from your class feeling comfortable with screaming, thrashing, and throwing a basic strike, than it is for her to learn how to throw an opponent or execute an arm bar.
Keep in mind that most students will face emotional, verbal, and implied physical manipulation or coercion before all else. In fact it is often these more subtle forms of manipulation that cause confusion and hesitancy in a victim, making them less sure of their own right to defend themselves or remove themselves from the situation.
While holding mixed gender defense classes is not recommended, holding a separate class for men specifically about how they can prevent assault is a vitally important piece that must be incorporated into any instructor’s repertoire of courses.
Dr. David Lisak is a prominent researcher in the field of interpersonal violence. He conducted interviews with men at Duke University and the University of Massachusetts. During the period of 1986-2000, Lisak interviewed 2000 men. In the course of his research he found 10% of the men he interviewed had committed sexual assaults (according to legal definitions of sexual assault), many had committed multiple assaults. Only one incident was reported and none of the men were prosecuted.
Based on his research he compiled a list of the typical characteristics of undetected rapists. These perpetrators:
- Do not use weapons
- Are not mentally ill
- Use instrumental violence, not gratuitous violence
- Use increasing violence as needed, to ensure completion
- Pre-meditates and plans
- Specifically maneuvers victims into positions of vulnerability
- Uses multiple strategies, including alcohol to make the victim more Vulnerable
- Uses alcohol intentionally
- Often has deluded notions about women
- High levels of anger, but they can and do control it
- Have access to consensual sex
- Come from all racial and ethnic groups
- Have very high rates of physical and sexual abuse as children.
- (90-97% of the undetected rapists have experienced child sexual abuse.)
- The rapists think of this as “sex” and are proud of it in most cases.
What does this information tell us about how we can educate men? It tells us that the majority of men are not perpetrators and that a small number of perpetrators are committing the majority of assaults. If we teach under the assumption that the majority of men ARE NOT perpetrators, we can encourage bystander intervention and solidarity in numbers. Lisak noted that prevention efforts should be tailored to fit perpetrators and their tactics including the promotion of the idea that rape is a crime, not a mistake or bad conduct.
Estimates vary that between one quarter to one fifth of all women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime. When teaching material of this sensitivity we need to be aware and sensitive to the fact that there may be survivors in our classes.
A first responder is someone who is equipped with the skills to respond to someone talking about a sexual assault and be supportive and helpful. It is best to seek out an organization that provides first responder trainings and take a class. Above all, remember that you are not law enforcement and it is not your job to question a survivor’s story. It is your job to listen and avoid re-victimizing a survivor.
During a self-defense class you will often be covering sensitive material that could potentially trigger a survivor. Triggering refers to stimulus or events that trigger a flashback to their assault and may set off a temporary crisis. First responder training will familiarize you with ways to respond to someone being triggered, however it is important to proactively warn your students that they may be triggered by material being presented or activity of the class.
There are many organizations that provide support to survivors, including support hotlines, and it is a good idea to familiarize yourself with those organizations and the resources they have on hand should you need them in your class.
There is no question that most martial arts instructors have the best of intentions in teaching a self-defense class. But as they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. In all seriousness, we must think twice before we purport ourselves as experts before we offer our services to vulnerable or victimized populations. The subtleties of such a topic cannot be ignored.