Knocking Down Patriarchy: Feminism and Women’s Self-Defense

By Alexis Fabricius

Many people think that women’s self-defense is, by its very nature, a feminist pursuit. In practice this is rarely the case. Women’s self-defense can effectively be broken down into two sub-genres: Women’s Self-Defense (WSD) and Feminist Women’s Self-Defense (FWSD). When people typically think of women’s self-defense classes, they are thinking of the former. Consider the traditional imagery: some martial artist or a police officer leading the class, instructors sharing horror stories about violence supported by anecdotes and outdated statistics as evidence, the dispensation of advice that is always aimed at helping women “avoid being a victim,” and self-defense moves that are so mired in technique that it would be difficult for most women to perform them efficiently or even correctly. While these courses are well-intentioned, they reveal a glaring truth: the people who teach women about violence prevention do not understand the realities of women and women identified persons’ everyday experiences, nor do they recognize the types of violence women face. As a feminist woman who has trained in martial arts for twenty years, who owns my own women’s self-defense company, I have witnessed many of these issues firsthand. Numerous martial arts schools provide WSD, oblivious to the extent to which their suggestions, techniques, and attitudes buttress rape culture. When what are seen as credible teachers offer advice that leads women to police their actions, restrict the way they move through the public sphere, and take on responsibility for avoiding victimization, this does not foster empowerment.

The self-defense techniques taught in these classes are consonant with the advice and information offered by instructors – they are often problematic and misguided. It is a good idea to teach women how to defend themselves. (I am a firm believer that everyone should have access to this type of instruction, and that we should probably all know at least a few moves. For me, self-defense is just another life skill, much like knowing CPR.) But it is the responsibility of instructors to teach women about the realities of violence, and to appropriately contextualize self-defense techniques for participants. Muggings and stranger-perpetrated sexual assaults do happen, though they are rare in comparison to the violence women experience from people they already know (e.g., partners, friends, acquaintances). It is very difficult for women to perform brutal self-defense techniques against people with whom they already have an established relationship. Consider how difficult it would be to break the knee or gouge the eyes of your partner’s brother who is trying to assault you, or how hard it would be to knee your professor or boss in the groin when you know them and there is an established power dynamic to your relationship. Yet, WSD typically only teaches brutal, submission, or escape-oriented techniques. In essence, WSD prepares women for some of the least common scenarios against the least likely opponents.

WSD is well-intentioned, but it misses the opportunity to have a transformative effect on the lives of women. This is the goal of feminist women’s self-defense (sometimes referred to as ‘empowered women’s self-defense’). Not only do FWSD courses educate women on the realities of violence against women, but they also provide information on the gender socialization process that women go through that make them vulnerable to violence in the first place. For example, women are raised to be feminine and demure in their actions, to not cause a scene, to be agreeable – all of these behaviours directly undercut their ability to effectively resist. To be able to say “No” or “I don’t want to do that” can be very difficult for women when they have been raised to please others, and to often put the needs and desires of other people before their own. Opening participants’ eyes and minds to the way that our patriarchal society has taught them to behave is a crucial step in overcoming the reservations women often have toward using resistance (verbal or physical). I have witnessed this many times in my own classes and workshops. When teenage or adult women join a martial arts or self-defense class, they are reluctant to hit plush pads, to practice with intent, to be sure in their movements, or to even make noise. Even in an all-female space where participants have paid for instruction, it is difficult for many to let go of these learned behaviours. My students often tell me that they feel embarrassed about being loud, or giggle nervously when asked to hit the pads with force.  Yet, when techniques are coupled with education, I see a transformation in these women. They are able to hit with intent and strength, they perform techniques, and they feel powerful. FWSD gives women the opportunity to eschew some socially constructed behaviours and attitudes, and allows them to take up actions and beliefs that were previously not accessible to them.

A key element in FWSD, and in my own teaching, is the message that women are capable of great power and can be effective in their resistance. This goes directly against much of the criticism that is levelled at women who are trying to learn combative sports or self-defense. It is not uncommon to hear statements like: “I don’t know why you’re teaching women, they’ll never be able to truly defend themselves, anyway”; “Women just aren’t strong enough to fight off a man”; “Women will develop an inflated sense of confidence and will get their clock cleaned when they try to actually fight back”; “The techniques that women learn would never work in a real fight.” Indeed, it can be disheartening to hear these common assertions, especially when they would not typically be said about men. This is why it is all the more important for feminists (both in the martial arts/self-defense world and beyond) to counter these types of essentialist messages and offer counter narratives. Women are capable of great strength, they can effectively resist, and can assert themselves when they so desire. Only when we provide examples of effective resistance behaviours will women begin to internalize this message.

It is important to look at work designed to empower women with a critical eye. Programs like WSD certainly appear feminist at first glance, but when you start to critically examine the content of these courses, it is apparent that many of the people leading them do not have a good sense of the violence that women experience, nor do they truly believe that women are actually capable of resistance. In order to push women toward the idea that resistance can be a good and natural thing, it is important that we share success stories of women who have used both verbal and physical strategies to prevent violence in the hope that these will serve as models for other women. Feminism has an important place in violence prevention work – by challenging and knocking down patriarchal ideas that prevent women from being agentic, we can take a giant leap toward reducing gendered violence and move toward greater equality.

Learn More

Breitenbecher, K. H., & Scarce, M. (2001). An evaluation of the effectiveness of a sexual assault. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 16(5), 387-407.

Cermele, J. (2010). Telling our stories: The importance of women’s narratives of resistanceViolence Against Women, 16(10), 1162-1172.

DeWelde (2003). Getting physical: Subverting gender through self-defense. Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 32(3), 247-278.

Hollander, J. A. (2016). The importance of self-defense training for sexual violence preventionFeminism & Psychology, 26(2), 207-226. 

McCaughey, M. (1997). Real knockouts: The physical feminism of women’s self-defense. New York: New York University Press.

Senn, C. Y., Eliasziw, M., Barata, P. C., Thurston, W. E., Newby-Clark, I. R., Radtke, H.L., & Hobden, K. L. (2015). Efficacy of a sexual assault resistance program for university women. The New England Journal of Medicine, 372(24), 2326-2335.

Author Bio

Alexis Fabricius has been training in martial arts for twenty years, and owns her own feminist women’s self-defense (FWSD) business, Invicta Self-Defense. Her academic work is centred largely on gendered violence prevention, and she is particularly interested in exploring how FWSD can be best used in this regard. She also works to make FWSD accessible to people who may not always have easy access to this type of instruction, and is currently working on a project to determine the violence prevention needs of visually impaired women. Finally, she is also a member of the Psychology’s Feminist Voices team.