Why Colleges Should Pay More Attention to the Quality of Self-Defense Training

Thanks in part to new mandates from the federal government, colleges and universities are more proactive about sexual violence than they were when I started school. Yet the quality of self-defense programs have not improved nearly enough.
01/14/2015 05:50 pm ET Updated Mar 16, 2015

When I was in college I took a women's self-defense class that was taught by a male student.

The warnings I'd heard about rape and assault made me realize I had no idea how to protect myself. So when a fellow student offered to teach us some moves he'd learned in a karate class I signed up right away.

One Saturday morning I put on sweat pants and trekked up to the college's athletic building where 30 women sat on a gym floor waiting for class to start. Our instructor began by introducing us to a female student I recognized from my dorm.

"I brought her here," he said, "To talk to you on your level."

She told us she had been raped by a family friend who never faced any consequences for assaulting her. She said she didn't think it could happen to her so we shouldn't pretend it couldn't happen to us. She told us to be careful out there, to be grateful for the class, and to take it seriously.

After her presentation our instructor showed us a punch. He didn't explain why he was teaching the punch. In what type of assault situation would a person use it? What advantage would this punch give someone who was smaller than the attacker? On a more basic level, what part of the assailant's body should I punch?

These are questions I know to ask now that I have been teaching self-defense for more than 10 years. Back then I just punched.

We took turns holding brown leather pads while our classmates punched them. We hit the pads hard and yelled loud. Maybe because we were enraged by our classmate's story. It was cathartic to hear the sound of so many women yelling and the thuds as so many fists hit the pads.

In response, our instructor laughed. He shook his head and told us he was surprised that we'd hit so hard.

I'm sure he offered the class with good intentions, but he lacked the teaching skill and emotional maturity to support us as we learned to resist sexual violence. I don't understand why he believed he was qualified to teach women to protect ourselves from rape. Even more concerning was that my college -- with its otherwise excellent curriculum and student activities -- didn't offer anything better.

It takes more than a punch to stop an attempted rape. The majority of sexual assaults are perpetrated by familiar people -- intimate partners, friends, and acquaintances. Interrupting these assaults takes verbal assertiveness strategies that give people the tools to resist coercion and threats made by someone they know and possibly like or love. People need the skills to remain focused on protecting themselves while their bodies are flooded with adrenaline and other stress hormones.

Physical skills should be designed to equalize disparities in size or muscle mass between the perpetrator and the intended victim. This usually means striking a vulnerable part of the would-be assailant's body such as the face or groin.

There is strong evidence that self-defense is one of the most effective ways to stop attempted rape. A recent University of Oregon study found that 12 percent of women who participated in a well-designed self-defense program were sexually assaulted compared to 30 percent of women with no self-defense training. Results from the National Crime Victimization Survey show that people who used physical self-defense in response to attempted rape were significantly more likely to stop the assault.

Self-defense can be a crucial part of strategies to prevent rape. Yet most self-defense courses taught on college campuses don't prepare students for the violence they are most likely to face -- sexual assaults perpetrated by people they know.

When I was in my late twenties I took a self-defense class from the organization I now lead. The instructors were emotionally supportive and repeatedly emphasized that any act of violence was the responsibility of the person who perpetrates. This was especially important to women in my class who were survivors of sexual violence. When they taught a physical or verbal technique they explained why it was useful and what type of attack it would effectively counter. Most importantly, they taught skills that would be effective if the perpetrator was someone we knew.

Thanks in part to new mandates from the federal government, colleges and universities are more proactive about sexual violence than they were when I started school. Yet the quality of self-defense programs have not improved nearly enough. Teaching people to protect themselves from sexual violence takes skill, sensitivity, and expertise. College administrators and everyone else committed to student safety should ensure that self-defense programs are relevant and well-taught.