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The Myth Of Women's Only Self Defense

I was having a conversation with my wife and asked her, “ If I started up a women's defense course would you attend?” Her response both surprised me and after thinking about it was what inspired me to write this post.

She said, “If I truly wanted to learn how to defend myself why would I want to learn and train only in a women's only class. If I’m training in a comfortable situation and need to feel ‘safe’ in order to do so then I’ve missed the point of training and I would question its efficacy.”

I have been considering coining a “Women’s Self Defence Class” or a “Women's Only” program. This week I spoke with some participants from previous courses and bouncing off the energy of a successfully run Basic Personal Readiness Shortcourse and was exploring the idea of getting like-minded people together to train and there was serious consideration for spliting the programs and create distinctly separate streams for men's and women's self defence.

At first glance this seems like an enticing and ‘clever’ option especially if you consider the number of ‘women’s only’ courses out there. Yet there was something that I was feeling uncomfortable about. It took what my wife had to say to me, for it to really sink in, and for me to realise that what was good in theory was in principle flawed.

Interestingly enough if you do a quick image search online for Women’s Self Defense or Women’s Only Self Defense you will still see a large majority of images where the instructor or ‘assailant’ is male.

If you understand the SPEAR system and Personal Defence Readiness Program I teach, you will know that we make a distinction between how we train and prepare for the sudden violent encounter by looking at scenarios and the emotional, psychological and physical aspects of an encounter (real self defence) and that of martial art. It is unfortunate how few people actually understand the nature of real self defence, martial arts Instructors included.

Separating women’s self-defense from men’s self-defense opens the door to all sorts of unnecessary specialized training. Self-defense for senior citizens. Self-defense for obese people. Self-defense for basketball players. Self-defense for postal workers. Self-defense for midde aged balding males in their 40’s who don’t eat dairy or meat. Where does it end?

Have a look at this video on how to defend against a knife attack. 

I’m not knocking the martial skills and demonstrations here but now that you see a glimpse of the ridiculous content being taught, aren’t you appalled too?

Women are trying to protect themselves and too many of them are learning impractical gross motor techniques that are going to get them hurt or worse. In fact, many women would be better off having saved their time and money avoiding some these classes/seminars altogether, rather than be duped into believing the kooky things being taught by so-called experts, that are perpetuating myths and misconceptions of people thriving in a violent encounter. Because in a credible real self defense scenario (a real attack) you are surprised, you are ambushed. When adrenaline is coursing through your veins and you’ve been ambushed, shocked or surprised you do NOT have access to fine motor skills.

Women’s self-defense programs exploit women’s fears – focusing on the results of an attack.

I am not a fan of people taking advantage of others—especially when lives are at stake.  

I believe there should be no distinction between women’s self-defense classes and self-defense classes for men. None whatsoever. Doing so just over-complicates what is really a very straight-forward goal—preparing good guys to fend off bad guys.

Let’s start by defining what I take to be real self-defense. (You may have a different definition – this is mine adapted from Coach Tony Blauer, for better or worse):

  • Real self-defense is a confrontation you cannot avoid.

  • There is no consent. There is no preparation. It’s happening now.

  • It’s not a cooperative contest. There are no pads, mouth guards or cups. There is no referee. There are no rules of engagement.  This isn’t about who’s right, it’s about who’s left.

  • The fear is very different from performance anxiety – you can’t take a knee or tap out.

  • You don’t know if there is a ‘tomorrow’. You truly are in fear for your life.  This is a start and frightening realisation. No one is cavalier about what’s happening – it’s not funny in any way. You’re trying to survive.

  • Real violence always leaves a stain.

I would like to take this opportunity to dispel a number of myths and refute misconceptions about real self defense. Most of these apply specifically to what is commonly perpetuated in ‘women's defense courses’ and they also relate to how self defense is taught in general.

  • The biggest myth about ‘women’s self defense’ is that it exists at all.

Even the worst instructors recognize that attacks sans weapons are aimed at targets who are smaller/weaker/slower than the perpetrator. Remember the bad guy is the ambush, the bad guy picks the time, place and how he/she attacks. So, if this is true (and we all know it is) why is women’s self defense different from regular self-defense? Should men have self-defense that is unique to them as well? If a technique is effective in defeating an attacker who is bigger/stronger/faster wouldn’t it be beneficial for everyone to know it?

If we are training and looking at defense from the perspective of realistic scenarios as opposed to a set of techniques then wouldn’t it make sense to train with an opponent that is varied in weight, strength and gender? One that is as close to a realistic encounter as possible?

Don’t misunderstand what I am saying. I understand women may have different concerns and they differ from men. For example, outside of prison, I can’t imagine a grown man being fearful of rape. What this means is that there may be unique situations or scenarios that are more specific to males or females, but an attack is an attack and they are gender neutral.

A woman gets choked in the same manner a man does, a woman can be grabbed and shoved into the trunk of a car just as a man can, etc. so should there really be a curriculum that is entirely different because women are also victims of sexual assault (that mirror other attacks men also face)? Common sense tells you the answer is NO!

If you acknowledge one thing (man or woman). You must acknowledge that you can become a target and crimes such as: bullying, domestic violence, sexual assault & rape can happen to anyone!

  • Women are weaker/smaller (insert any other negative association)

Mindset is EVERYTHING. Your mind can be your ally or your most formidable opponent. As Coach Blauer puts it, “Your mind navigates your body.”

The biggest problem for females in a violent encounter is not that you may be smaller or weaker than the typical sociopathic criminal. Your biggest obstacle is if you assume a set of potentially life-threatening beliefs about what to do in dangerous situations.

We are often plagued with our own negative associations. Things like: age, size, weight, fitness level, their level of comfort, body image, etc., play into our thoughts about our ability to fend off/escape/subdue an opponent in a real situation.

In our courses we talk about capacity vs. potential. To consider, evaluate, plan and proceed, you must understand the difference between “capacity” and “potential.”  What you can do is your capacity.  What you would like to be able to do is your potential.  But, at the end of the day, you can only do as much as you can do. You want to avoid the victim mindset at all cost.

Reflect on this expression:

“You’ll never know how much you can do until you try to do more than you can.” ~ Tony Blauer

In training, assess your capacity, recognise your potential as greater, and create realistic goals so that you experience success regularly and you will be on your way to self-mastery.  But do not fixate on your potential.

It is sometimes said that size doesn’t matter, but size absolutely matters. You should recognise that against a bigger strong opponent you will be at a disadvantage. But in a credible fight or scenario, you are who you are when it happens and you cannot afford to tell yourself, I was going to defend myself, but I’m not taller/stronger/fitter/etc.

  • If I prepare for an attack it will draw that energy into my life.

That’s a little like saying ‘if I put on my seatbelt, I draw an accident into my life.’ It’s kind of absurd. Likewise, just as you wouldn’t drive your car into traffic without the simple preventative measure of buckling up, we believe you shouldn’t circulate in the world without the simple preventative measure of learning to access your body’s natural defenses in a crisis. It’s basic physical literacy.

The Golden Rule of self-defense, according to Coach Blauer, is accept what is happening. There’s tremendous comfort in denying what is a scary situation but the sooner you accept what’s really going on, the sooner you can take action and get out of harm’s way. It’s a natural human process to deny the fear: it’s called cognitive dissonance. Your brain can’t rectify the reality of the situation and so it makes excuses to keep you comfortable and keep you feeling like you’re safe, even when you are not. When you do realize you aren’t safe, Tony says you have to fight back: those who fight back are more successful than those who cooperate in 100% of cases.

  • Self defense is mainly a set of physical skills plus screaming “NO!” and “BACK OFF!”

Self defense is first about recognizing and avoiding dangerous situations so you hopefully never have to use your physical skills. Far too many martial arts and self defense programs focus solely on the defend portion of an attack they fail to account for the emotion, psychological aspects of an attack, defusing a situation through actions or choice speech and the crucial factor awareness plays in avoiding a potentially dangerous situation.

In the SPEAR system we teach people to listen to that bad feeling you’re having because it may save your life, we teach how to devalue yourself and void being a victim, and how to manage fear to get a better read on the situation you’re in. Honing these survival instincts is the first key to protecting and defending yourself and your loved ones. But you do need to practice using it.

Fear is like fitness, you can exercise it according to Coach Blauer. In that respect, fear is good for you. If you face it and confront it, you get stronger and your fear management skill set becomes more adept. In other words, when fear kicks in you don’t have time to think and you react instinctively. That’s why we train, to rehearse any of the strategies that are there for us. They are abilities you already have, you just need to hone and practice them before you’re actually attacked.

  • Women’s only class is a good gateway and promotes growth.

I agree that self defense class and the perceived aggression can be intimidating to many women. Some women are not comfortable taking lessons from or with men.  [This behavior makes it not only more difficult to get them to class and learn, but more susceptible to victimisation]. I think there is significantly more benefit from educating interested parties in the mindset required to handle an attack than to brush it off as something that isn’t intimidating or scary.

Violence being done to you or a loved one is a terrible thought.  It’s easier to “put off” or go into denial that violence will happen to you but in the SPEAR system we demystify the attack by looking at the attackers psychology.

The bad guy only wants one of three things;

  1. Property

  2. Body

  3. Life

Add to that the psychology of the bad guy, that he DOES NOT WANT to:

  • Get caught

  • Get hurt in the process

  • For the attack to take to long

Once you understand the motivations behind an attack (and they are simple) it becomes much clearer.  When combined with the skills mentioned earlier to avoiding being the victim in the first place and the trying to devalue yourself as a target before we even get into any physical fight we now have a systems based approach for analysing a violent encounter. The valuable lesson out of all of this is that if you are not prepared to handle the emotional and psychological aspects of the attack, harness your awareness, manage fear, then you have no credible response to a threat.  

Still not convinced that there shouldn’t be and distinction made between men and women when preparing for a fight?

Watch this video. It’s 2 minutes. Invest in it, it will be worth your while I promise.

The woman you’re about to meet is a hero! A legendary street fighter.  She surprised a burglar, beats him and and then throws him out of her house.  She was violent, vicious and effective. If you get this profound message, it could save you or someone you love. It’s embodies everything we discuss!

This women has more legitimate self-defense experience than most martial arts instructors. That’s not an insult, it’s a fact. She could teach us all something about awareness, fear, fear management and primal gross-motor tactics because she has lived through an experience where she has had to utilise those skills.

At the end of the day there could be a variety of reasons you might choose to participate in a women-only class or feel that it is more appropriate. But I implore you to ensure you are not learning a different, untested breed of self-defense from instructors who prey upon your fear (and their capitalisation of it) to drive their business.

When talking with instructors, ask questions, challenge assertions, and make up your own mind about your safety – your life (or quality of life) may depend on it.

I’ll leave you with a quote to get you thinking about this,

“The tools and skills you need to protect yourself are things you come equipped with.”  - Tony Blauer

If you would like some further reading on this topic do have a look at my other post, here.

Choose safety and you will never go wrong.

Coach Leonard


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