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Best Self Defense for Women: Tactics and Moves for Real-Life Scenarios


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Last Updated: September 7, 2020

As a woman, I unfortunately know the importance of learning self-defense.  By the time I was fourteen, I’d already been sexually assaulted twice.  Then, in my late 20s, I had the displeasure of having to fight off a would-be rapist by kicking and biting him.

My experiences aren’t at all unique.  In the US, approximately 15 to 20% of women will be raped in their lifetimes. Not sexually assaulted but outright RAPED.  In Canada, Australia, and the UK, the numbers are just as bad.

Yes, men also get raped (especially in prison) but no one is denying that the incidence is much higher with women.  I don’t want to get into the socio-economic factors that create this rape culture.  Here I’m going to specifically deal with self-defense for women.


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Should Women Fight Back if Attacked?

In many situations – like getting mugged – the best solution is NOT to fight back.  Fighting back just increases your likelihood of getting injured or killed.  Instead, throw your wallet on the ground near the mugger and run away.   The mugger will have gotten what he wants and won’t follow you.

Of course there are exceptions.  When the attack is violent, you should fight back to protect yourself.  Likewise, there are studies which show that drawing a firearm prevented injury and property loss to the victim.  Every situation is unique but, if you feel at risk of bodily harm, you should fight back with everything you have.

But what about in situations of rape?

There have several been studies on whether fighting back reduces the risk of being raped.  These studies found that when women fight back, there odds of being raped are cut in half.

These studies also show that women who fight back are more likely to be injured.  Some people might interpret this as meaning women shouldn’t fight back in order to avoid injury. However, the evidence shows that women fight back because they are being injured – not that they are injured because they fight back.  Fighting back does not increase the risk of additional injury.

The Problem with Most Self-Defense for Women

As Carolie Cunning writes at the Washingtonian,

“Traditional self-defense tends to fall into one of two categories. The first is learning how to fight. The second is learning a list of rules that women are told to follow, most of which start with ‘never’: Never go out alone at night. Never drink at parties. Never wear revealing clothing. Never talk to strangers.”

Unfortunately, neither of these approaches necessarily help keep women safe.

Never Walk Alone at Night…

On a surface level, most of us have moved past victim-blaming. We know that getting drunk or wearing a short skirt doesn’t mean a woman was “asking for it.”

Yet, woman are still constantly told “don’t walk home alone,” “don’t get drunk” and other advice meant to keep them safe.  This is just another way to blame women for their assaults: If a woman was doing something “risky” when she was assaulted, she should have “known better” and therefore it must be her fault.

Need examples? How about…

Hell, I even went to one Krav Maga course where the instructor suggested that we all cut our hair short so it would be harder for an attacker to grab us!

As a feminist, I have a major issue with this safety advice for women: It puts the burden on the woman.

Jessica Eaton makes a good point about this unfair burden on women:

In the aftermath of a terrorist attack, public officials say “we will not change our way of life… we will carry on as normal because we deserve a safe society.”

Yet, when predators are on the loose, women are warned to change their behaviors and take caution lest they be victimized.

Should You Change Your Behavior in order to “Play It Safe”?

Let’s be clear: It’s not a woman’s job not to be raped.  It’s a man’s job not to rape.

But I also know the world we live in. Just like how I use a home security system against burglars, isn’t it reasonable to take precautions like not walking home alone at night?

Yes… And no.

It’s one thing to listen to your gut instinct and get out of dangerous situations.  It’s another thing completely to avoid activities out of paranoia and fear.

As I talk about in my post about why I’m not afraid of getting raped, rape is NOT a crime of passion or lust.  Rape is about taking control away from a woman.

With every warning to “be cautious,” you are taking away my choices and power in the same way that a rapist does.

Ironically, most rapes don’t even occur when walking alone at night.  They occur indoors, and usually by people we know.  So all that paranoia and fear is usually for nothing.

Keep that in mind the next time someone suggests that an activity isn’t “safe” for you to do.

When the Attacker is Someone You Know

The first “self defense” for women is telling them not to do risky activities.  The second method is teaching them how to kick butt, such as teaching women cool moves like groin kicks and eye jabs. These are great to know (and we’ll talk about some of the best moves later in this post).

But knowing how to kick butt doesn’t necessarily make a woman safer.  Why?  Because the sad reality is that in 80% of sexual assaults, the woman knew her attacker.

It’s a lot harder to groin kick someone when the attacker is your Uncle Henry and the little voice in your head is saying that “this must be a mistake” because imagine how awkward Thanksgiving dinners will be after you tell Aunt Matha.

Case in point: Consider how many sexual assaults occur in the military.

If learning badass self-defense moves was effective, then we would see fewer incidences of sexual assault in the military.  Yet, the rate of sexual assault is just as high.

Defense attorneys even try to use their knowledge of self-defense against female soldiers who have been victims of assault: They routinely tell juries that soldiers could not have been raped because they’ve had self-defense training.

This doesn’t account for the fact that soldiers are trained to use self-defense tactics in combat situations, not against their colleagues.

Again, it’s a heck of a lot harder to jab someone in the eyes when it’s someone you know and thought you could trust.

Women: Stop Being Polite!

One of the big problems in our culture is that women are trained by to be “polite” and prioritize other people’s emotions over our own.  Ask a woman to do something that makes me uncomfortable or is a hassle? Women are more likely to say yes just to avoid conflict or hurting someone’s feelings.

It’s no wonder that so many women were worried about “hurting his feelings” in the uncomfortable moments that led up to a sexual assault from an acquaintance.

As one high school student said about her sexual harassment experience,

“I told him to stop every time he did it, but I said it this way, ‘Oh my gosh, stopppppp!’ with my voice highly pitched and with a playful shove. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings by acting too sensitive to the situation.

Because of this ingrained feeling that we need to be polite, a huge part of self-defense for women is learning to set boundaries.  It is overriding all those lessons about politeness so we speak up when someone is taking advantage of us.

Because of this, I think that ESD is the best self-defense training course for women.

ESD: The Best Self-Defense Training for Women

self defense groin kick move

Also called “feminist self-defense,” ESD stands for Empowerment Self Defense. It takes a much more holistic and realistic approach to self-defense than your standard “kick ‘em in the groin” class (though they definitely teach you to do groin kicks too!).

Instead of just teaching you to defend against strangers jumping out at you in dark alleys, ESD addresses the fact that most assaults occur from people we know.  It focuses on setting boundaries and de-escalation tactics so assaults can be prevented in the first place.

And, for when those tactics don’t work, the training also teaches physical self-defense.

Learning to Set Boundaries

In empowerment-based self-defense training, for example, students might do simulations where a coworker is trying to dump a load of work on you.  Your job is to tell the coworker “No.”

If you can’t speak up for yourself in harmless situations like that, how are you supposed to say no to the jerk who is putting his arm around you, or the drunk guy in the bar who is getting way too close…?

I can’t emphasize how important this is. Most violence actually starts with boundary testing in a way that feels uncomfortable but isn’t an attack.

For example, a man might sit next to you on the bus even when all the other seats are empty.  If you don’t immediately tell him to sit somewhere else, he might take it as an invitation to make comments on your appearance. If you still fail to set boundaries, then it might escalate into him following you home…

Some examples of how you could establish boundaries:

  • A man grabs your arm to stop you from leaving a bar. You look him in the eyes and calmly say, “I will be leaving now.  Let go of me.”
  • A colleague starts rubbing your shoulders. You tell him, “I don’t like that.  Please stop.”
  • A date insists forces himself on you. Say, “Get off of me. This is rape.”
  • A man is walking behind you in a secluded street. You aren’t sure whether he is a threat or just going the same direction as you.  Cross the street to increase the physical distance.  If he also crosses the street, ready your weapon and scream.

The research backs this up.  Women who learn to set boundaries were drastically less likely to be raped and were more likely to identify threatening situations. In fact, learning verbal and confidence skills seems more effective than learning physical skills (though knowing how to do a groin kick is important too).

By the way, as a parent, I feel it’s important to start teaching boundary-setting early on.  My dad’s friend molested me when I was 8 years old. I knew that something “wasn’t right” but didn’t say anything because I was supposed to be polite to adults.Stranger Danger doesn’t address the fact that assault is likely to come from someone they know and trust.  It’s imperative that you teach children that they don’t have to be polite to adults who are making them uncomfortable.  Whether it’s grandma pinching their cheek or a counselor telling them to sit on his lap, they have the right to say no.

De-escalation Tactics

Empowerment Self Defense also teaches de-escalation techniques, or “verbal self-defense.”  These tactics aren’t as useful against sexual assault or attacks where the perpetrator’s sole intent is to do harm.  However, in situations where someone who is normally peaceful snaps, you could use these tactics to talk yourself out of harm.

The goal of de-escalation is to diffuse anger before it becomes explosive.  It involves a lot more than just telling an attacker to “calm down.”

The human brain works on three levels:

  1. The reasoning brain that can understand complex issues,
  2. The rational “mammalian” brain
  3. The “reptilian” brain which controls our fight or flight instinct.

When a person becomes emotional, their brains stop being reasonable and rationale.  Instead, the reptilian brain takes over.   They are desperate to feel in control.  Anything you do to make them feel threatened – such as shouting or drawing a weapon – will just make them more aggressive.  Even saying “calm down” is likely to backfire because they will feel like you are taking control of the situation away from them.

The first step of de-escalation is to assess what emotional state the attacker is in. You can do this by asking open-ended questions like, “How can we solve this?”

If the person is able to respond, then you know that their reasoning brain is still functioning.  If they are muttering things like, “How could you?”, then you know that they are in fight-or-flight mode.   The worst-case scenario is that they don’t respond at all.  They are quiet and have a blank look.  This is a sign that they are about to attack and you need to get ready to fight back.

If your attacker is responsive, then you can use a variety of techniques to get him (or her – women certainly are perpetrators of crime too!) to calm down. Some ways to do this are:

  • Continue asking open-ended questions. This will force the attacker to use their reasoning brain and become less emotional.
  • Use non-threatening postures and gestures. If your attacker is standing, you might choose to sit a good distance away to show you aren’t a threat.
  • Slow down your speech. This will cause the attacker to slow down his speech and thoughts too.  Never shout; use a low, calm tone.
  • Acknowledge the attacker’s anger, such as by offering an apology. Even if the attacker is being unreasonable, you should never say that they are wrong or overreacting.
  • Don’t stand your ground. Obviously you should enforce boundaries, but there are times when your boundaries will be irrelevant.  Many people snap and go on violent sprees because of small things like an argument over whose turn it is in line.  It’s better to stay safe than to try to enforce what you think is fair or right.

*ESD isn’t the only self-defense method which teaches de-escalation tactics.  Many more classes are now incorporating de-escalation, especially as they realize that a more realistic approach to self-defense is needed.

Other Self-Defense Training for Women

Unfortunately, Empowerment-Based Self Defense classes aren’t available everywhere.  And, compared to some other self-defense training, they don’t offer as much of a physical approach.  If you want to learn to kick ass, then you might want to take additional training too.

Note: In addition to learning cool self-defense moves, I’ve found that self-defense training can be incredibly empowering.  I’ve also met a lot of great women at classes.  It’s great to be in a supportive environment with other women.

Krav Maga

Krav Maga was developed to for Israeli soldiers.  It’s all about simple techniques that deliver the most effective results.

I still like ESD better, especially since none of the Krav Maga instructors I had ever mentioned acquaintance rape.  They also constantly harped on things like how strangers were going to jump out of dark alleys and drag us away, so we had to “immediately start fighting back.”

I’m not sure that’s actually good advice, especially considering that it’s more likely you are going to be mugged than kidnapped if someone jumps out at you in an alley – and it’s usually better not to fight back against a mugger

Despite the flaws, I still really like Krav Maga training because:

  • Quick and dirty tactics: This isn’t about learning pretty moves for competition. It’s about delivering RESULTS.
  • Simulated attacks: With a good trainer, you’ll do simulations of attacks. For example, in classes we would perform certain moves in the dark as though we’d woken up to find an attacker straddling us.
  • Very physical: You will definitely get a complete workout from Krav Maga. It’s great if you want to get in shape while also learning self-defense.
  • Focus on getting to safety: This isn’t about learning to kick ass. The point of every move is so you can run away to safety. Drills reinforce the instinct to run ASAP.
  • De-escalation tactics: Depending on the instructor, you may learn a lot of de-escalation tactics to prevent assaults in the first place.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

Jui-Jitsu originated as a style of street fighting in feudal Japan.  The Brazilian style of Jiu-Jitsu is very trendy right now for self-defense, especially because it focuses on learning to defend yourself from larger opponents.

Note however that there is a big difference between sport BJJ and “street” BJJ.  There are a lot of rules to follow in BJJ, and they don’t often translate into real-life scenarios where you’d have to defend yourself.  You also wouldn’t want to spend all that time grappling on the ground when your real goal should be to run to safety.

Still, there are a lot of useful fighting skills you can learn from BJJ.  If your goal is self-defense though, make sure you find an instructor who focuses on those techniques and not competition tactics.

What about Martial Arts for Self-Defense?

Martial arts is an ART.  It is not suitable as a self-defense class for women (or men).   Why?

The main issue with martial arts is that they focus on highly-choreographed moves. These moves look great, but aren’t useful in real-life attack situations.  You will never learn the “dirty” methods like groin kicks in martial arts.  It’s these dirty methods that actually get results, especially when dealing with larger attackers.

Another issue is that martial arts rarely talks about the situations leading up to an attack.  You won’t get any training on situational awareness, de-escalation, or other prevention tactics.

However, I fully support anyone’s decision to pursue martial arts.  While it might not be directly effective for self-defense, it can do wonders to improve your self-confidence.  That in turn can prevent you from becoming a victim in the first place.

Best Self-Defense Moves

eye jab self defense move

For self-defense moves to work (especially against a bigger, well-prepared attacker), they must be easy to use and strike sensitive areas.

The point of these moves isn’t to kick your assailant’s a$$.  No matter how much you’d love to give the guy a good whooping, the entire point of these moves is to stun or injure your attacker enough so you can run away.

Below are some of the best self-defense moves and videos showing how to do them.

If Attacked from Front:

  • Knee to the groin
  • Eye jabs
  • Palm strike to the nose
  • Kick to the shin

If Attacked from Behind:

If Being Choked:

If Attacker is On Top Of You:

Do These Moves Really Work?

There are plenty of articles and videos that list the best self-defense moves for women.  On the flip side, you’ll also find plenty of naysayers with videos showing just how ineffective these moves are.

Yes, these moves DO work. The attacker I fought off a few years ago?  I did it with a well-executed knee to the balls while simultaneously biting him.  Then I ran away from there quickly!

But, on the flip side, an attacker who has carefully planned the attack – and chosen his victim carefully – might not give you the opportunity to fight back.

So, while the moves might not be effective in every single scenario, they are still worth learning.  They literally could save your life.

For more on this, including the most effective moves, best target spots, and what really works, read Matt’s great post on self-defense methods.

Choosing a Self-Defense Course

Self-defense methods come in and out of style.  One year Krav Maga will be all the rage.  The next it will be mixed martial arts, BJJ, or combat sports.

Regardless of the style of the course, it is really important that you are getting training which will be effective in real-life situations.

Here are some parameters to consider when choosing a course.

  • Teaches De-escalation Tactics: This refers to techniques which can be used to get out of potentially-dangerous situation.
  • Simulates Real-Life Scenarios: Is the training all about learning moves? Or do you actually go outdoors in your normal clothes to endure “attacks”?  It is VERY useful to be able to actually kick a guy in the groin while he wears one of those padded suits!
  • Versatile: Is the entire course about one style or type of move, or will you cover various tactics such as strikes, grappling, choke holds, etc.
  • Focuses on Escape: The course shouldn’t be about kicking ass. All methods should be taught so you can run away as quickly as possible.  
  • Positive Environment: Simulating attacks can definitely put your mind on edge. The environment should be comfortable, positive, and friendly to counter the dark reality of why you are learning these skills.
  • Repetitiveness: Moves should be done over and over again until they are ingrained in your muscle memory. Weekend self-defense courses can give you a good foundation, but you’ll need to invest more time if you really want to use these tactics on auto-pilot.
  • Incorporates Weapons Training: No self-defense training is complete if it doesn’t train you to use weapons like pepper spray or weapons of opportunity like rocks.

REMEMBER: The only objective of self-defense is to get to safety.  Your job isn’t to kick ass or subdue an attacker.  It is to get away with as little harm as possible. Any course which doesn’t emphasize this isn’t teaching you self-defense.

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