Updated: Aug 14, 2022
In the 15 years that I have been teaching self-defense, I estimate that I've taught over 1000 individuals. In that time, my approach to teaching has noticeably evolved. Not terms of technique - that part hasn't changed much at all - what's different is how I approach the mental aspect of self defense.
Most self defense programs (including mine) focus on a few basic principles that can be easily taught to a group without any previous experience. The students learn a few key target areas and simple concepts. A couple of hours later, everyone has graduated from the program, and odds are, they will never think about self defense again. As a Sensei who understand the value of regular practice, I worry about the brief time that I get with these girls - four hours isn't really enough time to be good at anything, let alone self-protection.
While these skills might be nominally useful, I know that the vast majority of my self-defense students will not pursue any long term study of these concepts. I worry that a little bit of knowledge may provide a sense of false comfort and do nothing address the the problem of sexual assault overall. What I find more troubling, is all the "helpful" posts that people (some of whom should know better) that offer quick tips on self-protection.
For a particularly long-running example, there's a video been making the rounds on Facebook called "Through a rapist's eyes". I remember getting the same information in a chain-letter style email many years ago. At the time, I dutifully tucked it away for the self-defense program that I was developing as a freshly hatched black belt. It seemed like common sense advice - don't be a target, don't wear clothes that impede your ability to escape, don't skulk around dark alleys alone. But the more that I researched sexual assault and looked for scientific consensus about the characteristics of a rapist, it seemed clear that this article was not only misleading - it was actually harmful to potential victims.
First let's debunk the concept of "fearing the stranger" in the context of self-defense. You are statistically more at risk from violence by your domestic partner in your own home than a stranger. I can not stress this enough - over 93% of sexual assailants are known by the victim. Even though stranger rapes are more likely to be reported, they are actually fairly rare in the broader scope of sexual violence.
Personal awareness and knowing your environment is important, but it's not the stranger lurking in the bushes that is going to do you harm, it's probably someone you already know. I am not suggesting that we all hide under the covers and forgo all personal relationships, but keeping one eye on that mythical man in the bushes is a distraction. We should be focused on defining our own boundaries and learning how to identify controlling behaviours. There is no "typical" rapist - they can be any age, from any social class, any income level. You can not identify a rapist from looks alone. Another misleading idea from "Through a rapist eyes" is how victims are targeted. It suggests that women with "long hair" wearing "easily removed clothing" who are in grocery store parking lots before 8 am are prime targets for rapist. There is literally no data that supports this conclusion. Rape victims are primarily (but not exclusively) women, and there is zero correlation to hairstyle, clothing, age, appearance, social class, weight or any other physical factor. To suggest that women can prevent rape through short hair and bulky clothing is nothing more than fear mongering. (And it's also victim blaming, but that's a separate blog post).
According to Nicholas Groth (a forensic mental health expert and author of this book), there are three motivating forces behind rape: power, anger and sadism. Depending on the motivation of your attacker, fighting back might work, and it might not. Someone who is motivated by anger may be easily distracted by a painful strike to the groin, but someone who is motivated by sadism may become empowered by a victim who fights back.
So knowing all this, and knowing that men almost always have a physical advantage over women, why do I continue to teach self-defense?
Because it's empowering. Strong girls are safer girls. Educated girls can make better decisions for themselves. Helping them to examine their own boundaries and owning their own space is a useful exercise for everyone (not just young women). My goal as a self-defense instructor is not to give them a list of techniques. My intention is to show them that they are already strong, they are already smart and they have the right to protect themselves from of physical harm. Sometimes it means defining consent, and shutting down slut-shaming by honoring each other's choices. . Instead of filling each other with fear, let's work on teaching our kids about consent and respect for one another. Let's take care of each other.