In Defence of Self-Defence

In Defence of Self-Defence

A piece of advice for all you female-identified people – get good at yelling. You don’t have to be ‘ladylike’ if someone is disrespecting your boundaries. You have a right to get mad! Unleash the beast and yell from your belly like a frickin’ dragon.

In the debate over how to reduce sexual assault on university campuses, proposing self-defence classes for women is controversial. One in four women report being sexually assaulted during their time as students and 99 percent of sexual assaults are committed by men (Dickson and Wood, 2013). Is putting the onus on women to learn to defend themselves against potential attackers just another way of victim-blaming in a society already drenched in rape-culture myths? Expecting a woman to be able to fend off an attacker with a well-timed kick in the balls focuses on the behaviour of the potential victim rather than the attackers, right? Women aren’t the problem, so why is changing their behaviour the solution? 

I spoke to women’s self-defence teacher (and graduate student in Gender Studies) Bell Murphy about the potential contradiction in teaching her courses. Feminist self-defence courses actively challenge victim blaming and myths about women being the ‘weaker sex’. They also address the psychological barriers to resistance that women face, especially when an attacker is someone she knows. Rather than giving lots of advice about precautions they should take, the courses focus on cultivating confidence, assertiveness, proactive moxy and a sense of entitlement to fight back which increases freedom, rather than limiting it. And it works. Women who take self-defence courses not only report less completed assaults, but, amazingly, also less attempted assaults. A large Canadian study of a rape resistance programme has recently shown that teaching women self-defence is still the best way to reduce sexual assaults on campuses, particularly when grounded in a feminist analysis of gender and power. Independant research released this month on similar self defence programmes for women and girls in Aotearoa echoes these findings (Jordan & Mossman, 2016). 

A lot of advice given to women around rape is a list of things to avoid doing in the hope that a man won’t decide to rape you. Bell points out how, although well meaning, this kind of advice bolsters the myth that women are inherently vulnerable and men are invincible. There’s often a gap in advice around what to do once an assault has begun. Some people believe that teaching women self-defence is dangerous. They worry that women will become overconfident in their ability to defend themselves against a male attacker, leading to reckless behaviour. Bell says: “There is no evidence that this is true. Self defence helps to correct a lack of confidence. Women are much stronger and more capable than we are taught to believe.”

Although men tend to gain upper body strength more easily than women, women’s bodies can be really powerful agents of violence if and when they’re needed to be. “We just don’t get as much time and encouragement to practice that stuff as men do. Physical self defence is not about a competition of strength anyway. Each person’s body is an interesting mix of vulnerable points and potential weapons. It’s about knowing ways to cause pain quickly and thinking what’s vulnerable on their body, and whats free on mine? and connecting the two things. It’s about doing whatever it takes to stop an attack and refusing to give up.” Bell has heard many accounts of young girls who have successfully defended themselves against fully grown male attackers by being determined, using their voices and targeting “vulnerable points.” Knowledge of self-defence techniques is not the same as carrying a tin of mace or having an escort walk you home. It is a set of skills you have within you all the time. This can help overcome fear – it is empowering.

Bell believes self-defence techniques can help women recognise disrespectful behaviour from men more quickly and to know how to deal with it more easily. She also knows full well how this can be taken the wrong way: “Talking about this stuff I always feel like I’m walking on this knife-edge between victim blaming and empowerment. It’s a slippery slope, because the flipside of saying ‘here’s a bunch of stuff you can do to stay safe’ could be to say that women who don’t do these things are inviting assault which is obviously not true.” Bell remembers an example from her undergrad days in Gender studies at Otago given by Dr. Rebecca Stringer: “You could have a hundred drunk young women in mini-skirts passed out all around the city, and not a single one of them would get raped unless a rapist came along.” It’s obvious, but somehow striking because we get so distracted by constantly thinking about what a woman could have done to avoid being assaulted.

Bell takes a stance for female empowerment and against victim-blaming as a basis of her courses. “The courses aren’t just about physical violence”, she says. “To me the physical techniques are awesome and really important to know, but they’re not actually the thing with the most transformative potential for social change. It’s the conversations: seeing that our personal experiences are part of wider patterns of gender and power; busting myths about rape-culture; and talking about social dynamics, including why it can be so hard sometimes to recognise when unhealthy or abusive dynamics are creeping up in a relationship and how to deal with that.”

Feminist self-defence also includes techniques to deal with situations that require firm, assertive responses without actual bodily contact. “The need to break someone’s kneecap doesn’t come up frequently (thankfully, hopefully) for most of us. So if I were at a party and some guy said “hey baby, nice ass” I would use my voice and body language to put him in his place first, I wouldn’t break his knees. That’s something I’d use if I felt physically threatened and needed to make sure I could get away. Our first line of defence is our instincts which tell us if a situation is threatening or not, followed by our minds-- knowing we deserve respect and have the right to demand it - then our voices which we can use to articulate our desires (not just what we don’t want but also what we do!); and finally our bodies which we can use to fight if we need to.” Bell doesn’t tell people what is and isn’t appropriate, but teaches about having choices and the confidence to use them. “We have the ability to judge for ourselves how serious or threatening a situation is and respond appropriately.”

Bell works with girls and women to develop strategies to deal with the less serious but more common scenarios where men can make women feel unsafe – the guy standing too close to you at a party or cornering you so that you talk to him, the masseur “accidently” touching a body part you weren’t expecting him to, the man saying sexually charged or sexist jokes at work, the guy you are making out with who starts getting pushy, the needy ex, the cat-caller, the gropey dancer, the starer, the follower...

What can be done? These situations are all part of the environment that allows rape-culture to survive. Bell says rape-culture is so pervasive as to be “the air we breathe and the water we swim in socially and politically – it’s all around us – it’s not something the University is creating, but unless you as an institution are actively working to dismantle it, then of course you will have a rape-culture on campus.”  Sexual assault is a difficult problem to make disappear requiring complex efforts on many fronts including support for survivors and primary prevention of sexual violence which focuses on changing attitudes and behaviours of would-be perpetrators. However, as Sharon Marcus (1992) famously said, “we will be waiting a very long time if we wait for men to decide not to rape”. In the meantime, Bell says, women deserve the opportunity to learn self defence because it is an important puzzle-piece in the complex social struggle toward ending gendered violence and, despite its potential problematics, it works. Beyond keeping individual women safer, stopping inappropriate behaviour at the micro-level can actively help to dismantle the foundations of sexism and rape-culture. 

Self-defence is not only important in the context of attempted assault on a walk home. In Aotearoa, 80-90 percent of sexual assaults are committed by somebody the victim knows. It’s one thing to jump into your stance and yell “back off!” to some stranger who leaps out from behind a dumpster and tries to attack you. But if it’s your boyfriend, or your boss, or your friend’s boyfriend, how do you deal with that in a situation where you feel a whole bunch of compounding social pressures?

In Bell’s classes, women strategise ways to use words assertively in order to define their boundaries. This often means unlearning deeply ingrained, gendered behaviour. Bell explains: “In mainstream/Pākehā culture women are powerfully socialised to be ‘nice’ and to prioritise other people’s feelings and needs over their own-- even when someone is being a total jerk!” This can make it hard sometimes to recognise what’s happening in the moment, assess that it isn’t ok and decide what to do. Coercive men rely on this socialisation to make assaulting women easier. Bell suggests practising simple, clear messages “Look them in the eye and say ‘You’re standing too close to me. I don’t like it. Step back.’ You’re going against the current of what’s often expected of women and you can feel it pushing against you. It can be quite exhilarating and uncomfortable in that moment but it’s such good practice. It can feel antisocial, but actually they’re being antisocial! You don’t have to justify yourself or apologise. You have a right to assert your boundaries.”

A particularly damaging myth surrounding the topic of self-defence as a solution to sexual violence is that fighting back against an attacker will only make him angrier and more likely to seriously injure you. Although every situation is unique and there’s never a guarantee of getting out of an attack unscathed, studies show that forceful resistance, including yelling and fighting back physically, is consistently associated with rape avoidance without an increased rate of harm to the victim. Distressingly, passive techniques for stopping attacks such as pleading, crying, or bargaining are associated with more harm happening. Bell explains why this may be: “Rape is less about sex, and more about power and control. Attackers don’t want to get hurt and they don’t want to get caught. If they realise they’re picking on someone who’s going to put up a fight and make a big noise, they’ll often decide it’s not worth it. It’s not giving them that sense of power and control.”

The effect of fear on our brains can sometimes mean that during a physical attack victims freeze. Psychiatrist James Hopper wrote an article on why so many victims of sexual violence don’t yell or fight back. He uses examples of techniques taught to soldiers to demonstrate how route learning can help break through this freezing reaction and help a victim of an attack to fall back on muscle memory: “When bullets are flying and blood is flowing, you had better have some really effective habit learning to rely upon. That’s why combat training is rigorous and repetitive – to burn in habits of effectively firing weapons, executing combat formations, etc.” Bell teaches women and girls to practise defensive techniques repetitively so that they form muscle memories that can be easily accessed in times of extreme fear. This knowledge can mean the difference between freezing and reacting. If you are not normally an aggressive or angry person, learn to turn fear into anger. Bell believes that anger is an emotion that can snap you out of “freeze-mode.”

Bell’s classes are established as “safe spaces” with high awareness that there may be – and statistically, probably will be – survivors of physical and sexual violence in the room. Ideally she has someone working with her who can help support anybody who experiences tough feelings or has a memory from something bad that has happened in their past triggered. They talk about self-care strategies, how to give and find support and share success stories. There are classes for different age groups, people from different cultures who may have language barriers can access assistance, and all women and girls are welcome including takataapui, trans and genderqueer. 

Learning or improving a set of self-defence skills is not the same as limiting your behaviour out of a fear of attackers. It is equipping yourself with tools to identify unsafe behaviour quickly and to stop it from escalating. It’s knowing that there is something you can do between the beginning of an attack and your subsequent recovery. It is knowing that, just because we have the ability to defend ourselves this doesn’t mean we are responsible for stopping violence against us. Abuse is always and only the perpetrators fault. It’s about creating social change by breaking down rape culture, challenging myths about sex and gender and supporting each other because we all deserve to be treated with respect

Bell Murphy is a member of the Women’s Self Defence Network- Wāhine Toa (a national network of accredited teachers specifically trained to work with women and girls). She runs a course through OUSA Rec Center each semester as well as other courses throughout the year. For more info email: Or checkout her website


If you or someone you know needs help or advice regarding sexual violence you can contact the following organisations: 


Rape Crisis Dunedin
Phone: (03) 474-1592

Shakti Community 
Phone: 03 477 1351

Te Whare Pounamu Dunedin Women’s Refuge
Crisis (03) 477 1229 
Office (03) 466 3220 


Dickson, S., & Wood, N. (2013). Reporting Sexual Violence in Aotearoa New Zealand. The Tauiwi Prevention Project. Retrieved from


Jordan, J., & Mossman, E. (2016). Skills for Safety: An evaluation of the value, impact and outcomes of girls’ and women’s self defence in the community. Wellington. Available at


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. New England Journal of Medicine, 372(24), 2326–2335.


Marcus, Sharon. 1992. ‘Fighting bodies, fighting words: A theory and politics of rape prevention’. In Judith Butler and Joan W. Scott (eds)Feminists theorize the political, Routledge , 385–403.

This article first appeared in Issue 9, 2016.
Posted 11:33am Sunday 24th April 2016 by Lucy Hunter.