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Credit: Mona McDonald

Understanding empowerment self-defense


Prevention experts’ recommendations

  • Empowerment self-defense is a key recommendation of numerous national experts in violence prevention, public health, sexual violence, criminology, and trauma studies.

  • Alan Berkowitz recommends that programs for women, in particular, include the following elements of ESD: discussion of effective responses to coercive behavior, overcoming of social norms that reduce self-efficacy, understanding protective and risk behaviors, and learning physical self-defense techniques and skills (Berkowitz, 2001, pp. 85-86)

  • Judith Herman recommends self-defense in the newest edition of her seminal work Trauma and Recovery, in which she notes that self-defense training can empower survivors to “face their world more confidently” (1997, p. 198).

  • International prevention expert Gavin De Becker recommends IMPACT Empowerment self-defense and further readings on self-defense in his best-seller The Gift of Fear (1997).

  • Teaching ESD skills has been identified as a promising practice in the same category as Bystander Intervention Education; both are “supported by a preponderance of the evidence” for changing knowledge, attitudes, beliefs, or behavioral intentions and for reducing… victimization,” (Schewe, 2007, p. 227.)

  • ESD training has been labeled “one of the most promising interventions to prevent violence against women, particularly sexual assault committed by strangers or acquaintances” (Hollander, 2009, p. 575).

  • Various federal U.S. institutes, grant-makers and departments recommend that intended victims practice ESD. In a report commissioned by the National Institute of Justice, researchers examined various types of assault against women. They found that certain actions reduce the risk of rape more than 80 percent compared with nonresistance and did not significantly increase the risk of serious injury to the defender (Kleck & Tark, 2005).


Academic literature

  • A number of studies have found evidence that self-defense training, specifically, may decrease a woman’s chances of experiencing future sexual victimization as compared with women without training; and that forceful verbal and physical resistance and fleeing (all taught and practiced in ESD) have a proven association with rape avoidance in both reported and unreported crimes (Bart & O’Brien, 1993; Brecklin & Ullman, 2005; Ullman & Knight, 1993; Orchowski, Gidycz & Raffle, 2008; Peri, 1991; Zoucha-Jensen & Coyne, 1993).

  • Low utilization of self-protective dating behaviors (including those taught and practiced in ESD) is associated with more frequent sexual victimization (Orchowski, Untied, & Gidycz, 2011).

  • Additionally, self-defense has been empirically proven to decrease a number of psychological attributes that are associated with victimization (Brecklin, 2008; Ozer & Bandura 1990; Sochting, Fairbrother & Koch, 2004; Ullman, 2007).

  • Unfortunately, crime prevention effectiveness is a difficult topic to quantify, as successful risk reduction or escape from violent situations is rarely reported as such. Experts believe women successfully resist at least 75% of all attempted sexual assaults (Bart & O’Brien, 1993; Gordon & Riger, 1989; Ullman 1997).

  • Survivors of intimate partner violence similarly employ many different active and creative self-protective strategies both to resist and to escape violence (Campbell, Rose, Kub, & Nedd, 1998; Cook, Woolard, & McCollum, 2004; Gondolf, 1988; Jones, 1994; Hollander, 2005).

  • ESD programs may increase assertiveness, perceived control, self-efficacy, risk avoidance behaviors, confidence, and self-esteem, and may also lower anxiety and fear (Brecklin, 2008; Hollander, 2004). Importantly, low self-esteem and low assertiveness have been found to be predictive of sexual victimization (Brecklin & Ullman, 2005).



  • Bart, P.B., & O’Brien, P.H. (1993). Stopping rape: Successful survival strategies. New York, NY: Pergamon Press.

  • Berkowitz, A. & Kilmartin C. (2005). Critical elements of sexual assault-prevention and risk-reduction programs for men and women. In Sexual assault in context: Teaching college men about gender. Mahwah, NJ, US: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

  • Brecklin, L.R. (2008). Evaluation outcomes of self-defense training for women: A review. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 13, 60-76.

  • Brecklin, L.R., & Ullman, S.E. (2005). Self-Defense or assertiveness training and women’s responses to sexual attacks. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 20(6), 738-762.

  • Campbell, J., Rose, L., Kub, J., & Nedd, D. (1998). Voices of strength and resistance: A contextual and longitudinal analysis of women’s responses to battering. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 13, 743-762.

  • Cook, S. L.,Woolard, J. L.,& McCollum, H. C. (2004). The strengths, competence, and resilience of women facing domestic violence: How can research and policy support them? In K. Maton, C. Schellenbach, B. Leadbeater, & A. Solarz (Eds.), Investing in children, youth, families, and communities: Strengths-based research and policy (pp. 97-115).Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

  • Dahlberg, L.L., & Krug, E.G. (2002). Violence-a global public health problem. In: Krug E., Dahlberg, L.L., Mercy, J.A., Zwi, A.B., Lozano, R, Eds. World Report on Violence and Health. Geneva, Switzerland: World Health Organization: 1-56. Retrieved from

  • De Becker, G. (1997). The Gift of Fear: And other survival signals that that protect us from violence. Little, Brown, and Company: New York, N.Y.

  • Gondolf, E.W. (1988). Battered women as survivors: An alternative to treating learned helplessness. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books.

  • Gordon, M. T.,& Riger, S. (1989). The female fear: The social cost of rape. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

  • Herman, J. (1997). Trauma and Recovery: The aftermath of violence – from domestic abuse to political terror. Basic Books: New York, N.Y.

  • Hollander, J.A. (2009). The Roots of Resistance to Women’s Self-Defense. Violence Against Women 15(5), 574-594.

  • Hollander, J.A. (2005). Challenging Despair: Teaching About Women's Resistance to Violence. Violence Against Women, 11(6), 776-791.

  • Hollander, J.A. (2004). ‘I can take care of myself’: The impact of self-defense training on women’s lives. Violence Against Women, 10(3), 205-235.

  • Jones, A. (1994). Next time, she’ll be dead: Battering and how to stop it. Boston: Beacon.

  • Kleck, G. & Tark, J. (2005). U.S. Department of Justice. The Impact of Victim Self-Protections on Rape

  • Completion and Injury: The Analysis of Existing Data Program, National Institute of Justice. Award Number: 2004-IJ-CX-0046.

  • Nation, M., Crusto, C., Wanderman, A., Kumpfer, K.L. ,Seybolt, D., Morrissey-Kane, E., & Davino, K. (2003). What works in prevention: Principles of effective prevention programs. American Psychologist, 58, 449-456.

  • Orchowski, L., Gidycz, C.A., & Raffle, H. (2008). Evaluation of a sexual assault risk-reduction and self-defense program: A prospective analysis of a revised protocol. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 32, 204-218.

  • Orchowski, L., Untied, A.S., & Gidycz, C.A. (2011). Reducing risk for sexual victimization: An analysis of the perceived socioemotional consequences of self-protective behaviors. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 27(9), 1743-1761.

  • Ozer, E.M., & Bandura, A. (1990). Mechanisms governing empowerment effects: A self-efficacy analysis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 58, 472-486.

  • Peri, C. (1991, March). Below the belt: Women in the martial arts. Newsletter of the National Women’s Martial Arts Federations, 6-14.

  • Schewe, P.A. (2007). Interventions to Prevent Sexual Violence. In: The Handbook of Injury and Violence Prevention, Eds: Doll, L.S., Bonzo, S.E., Sleet, D.A., Mercy, J.A. Springer, U.S.

  • Sochting, I., Fairbrother, N., & Koch, W.J., (2004). Sexual Assault of Women. Violence Against Women, 10(1), 73-93.

  • Ullman, S.E. (2007). A 10-year update of ‘Review and critique of empirical studies of rape avoidance.’ Criminal Justice and Behavior, 34(3), 411-429.

  • Ullman, S.E. (2002). Rape avoidance: Self-protection strategies for women. In Schewe, P.A. (Ed.). Preventing violence in relationships: Interventions across the life span, 137-162. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

  • Ullman, S.E. (1997). Review and critique of empirical studies of rape avoidance. Criminal Justice & Behavior, 24(2), 177-204.

  • Ullman, S.E. & Knight, R.A. (1993). The efficacy of women’s resistance strategies in rape situations. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 17, 23-38.

  • Zoucha-Jensen, J.M., & Coyne, A. (1993). The effects of resistance strategies on rape. The American Journal of Public Health, 83(11), 1633-1634

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