Realistic Self-Defense Training: An Education for Everyone
Updated: Feb 25
**Guest Blogger: Rachel Collins
If you google “self-defense training near me,” or something similar, you’re likely to get relevant results in most cities of any size. If you’re lucky, you live somewhere with quality, accessible, empowerment-based self-defense (ESD) programs. However, you’re a lot more likely to find well-intentioned martial arts gyms doing their yearly charity women’s seminar. For kids, the best you’ll often find are martial arts-based “anti-bullying” programs focused on physical resistance to violence. It’s wonderful that many gyms offer this, but the quality and usefulness of these kinds of martial arts-based programs varies as wildly as the quality of the gyms offering them, and contrary to the common jargon used on marketing materials, these kinds of seminars are not always “reality-based.”
I’ve been a voracious student of self-defense, martial arts, and the overlap between them for the better part of my adult life, and an ESD instructor for several years. While I started out working exclusively with and for adult women and older teen girls, providing both verbal and physical training in self-defense, I now work with a team that has grown to serve younger girls, and men and boys as well. We’re now offering co-ed personal safety and bystander intervention training, and piloting our very first boys-specific youth series with a group at a local middle school. As our audience has expanded, our understanding has expanded as well, and I want to revisit a question that is primary to the work of educators in this field: From an empowerment-based, violence prevention-focused perspective, what does it really mean for self-defense training to be “reality-based”?
I am far from the first to ask. Educators and activists, women in the feminist movement in particular, have been asking, answering, and agitating for as long as women have been systematically mistreated and abused. In the US, these activists of the 1970’s created the empowerment model and a movement to spread it. Thanks to seeds planted long before I and my contemporaries took up the work, we’re in the midst of a global swell in the ranks of educators, martial artists, activists, and individuals from all walks of life interested in spreading and supporting empowerment-based self-defense. If you’re new to this movement, welcome! Whether you’re interested in getting access to ESD training for yourself or your family, an educator considering whether to include an ESD guest instructor in your class, or a new trainer building your curriculum, here are some aspects of reality-based training to consider.
Addressing reality means putting kids first.
From an empowerment-based, violence prevention-focused perspective, what does it really mean for self-defense training to be “reality-based”?
One of the most common reactions from women who take their first ESD training as adults is: “I wish I would have had access to this training as a young girl. It would have changed a lot.”
It does change a lot. Over the course of twelve, six, or even just one session of empowerment-based self-defense training, the transformation in girls is unquestionable. Middle schoolers, even those who entered the course timid and unsure of their strength, show consistent, measurable growth in confidence and the physical efficacy of their techniques, but also in their ability and likelihood to identify coercive or dangerous behavior and set effective verbal boundaries.
Adult women benefit just as much from access to empowerment-based training. Our students consistently report lasting benefits, ranging from increased confidence all the way to real-life success stories, in both surveys given immediately post-training and in follow-up interviews conducted more than a year later. Training for adult women is worth every ounce of effort trainers are putting into it across the world. However, we know that children and teens are particularly vulnerable to assault and coercion. We know that girls are exposed from birth to sexist stereotypes, misogynistic social norms, and the lack of equal opportunity that contribute to women’s diminished, unequal power and safety in our society. This truth is present in parallel for boys as well. By the time they become men, or even teens, too many have been failed by the adults and institutions that are supposed to protect them.
Reality-based training requires us to acknowledge the real experiences of boys and men. As one teacher of mine often says, typical martial arts were created by men for the ways men fight. In contrast, empowerment-based self-defense was created by women, for women, and for the situations that women most commonly find themselves in. The more I learn about working with boys, the more I think there’s an additional, less pithy element to this truth that should inform our conception of what it means to be “reality-based”: Martial arts were created largely by men, for the ways that men believe fights with other men should/do happen.
We need to increase access to ESD programs for all age groups, but reaching youth with these programs has the greatest potential to create the kind of deep cultural shift that violence prevention-focused educators know is needed.
Real fights between boys and men don’t often resemble fight scenes in action movies. They don’t even resemble the relative realism of UFC, which pits highly trained expert athletes against each other in front of a crowd, with a referee and medical help standing by. Real fights are more often chaotic, panicked confrontations that are over in seconds. Unfortunately, the lack of skill does not translate to a lack of harm. In one middle school we’re currently piloting our programs, the teachers share with us that the more dominant boys pit those that are smaller, weaker, or perceived as feminine against each other, pressuring them into physical confrontations with others.
These aren’t athletes or actors trading blows - these are scared kids trying to survive what passes for boyhood in our culture. Focusing on martial arts-based physical resistance alone, even those that actually are somewhat “reality-based,” leaves out the true experiences boys have of being socially singled out, pressured and manipulated, and emotionally as well as physically bullied, by bullies who are often themselves reacting to the threat or reality of abuse. In different ways, yet just as urgently as girls, boys need tools to defend themselves against emotional abuse and pressure to conform to toxic group norms. Boys need boundary-setting and healthy communication skills not only in their interactions with girls, but also in their interactions with each other. This is how unequal power dynamics replicate themselves in our kids, and teaching them to physically defend themselves is only a part needed in a comprehensive violence prevention program.
Violence is a systemic problem, not an aberration, and power imbalance is at its root
Those who would defend the recent Trump administration changes to the national definition of intimate partner violence, for instance, convey their justifications by way of a central set of misconceptions: that violence is most often something perpetrated randomly, with overt force, by unhinged strangers. This intentional misinformation conveniently masks the behavior of less obvious perpetrators. We live in a time where the term “rape culture” has become a relatively common parlance, while simultaneously, we in the US have - and most often lose, if you’re on the side of believing the survivors - frequent public conflicts over the appointment and election of violent men to powerful public offices. If we believe that friends, fathers, pastors, and future supreme court justices are less likely to hurt or coerce, it gets a lot easier to find reasons to disbelieve the survivors who speak up.
Boys need boundary-setting and healthy communication skills not only in their interactions with girls, but also in their interactions with each other.
Typical, non empowerment-based self-defense training programs are too often built on the same harmful misinformation. Truly realistic training requires including situations beyond the stereotypical “stranger in a dark alley” attacks. Most coercion and violence that women experience comes from family, friends, coworkers, and acquaintances, and the problem is bigger than just physical violence. Coercion, violence, and exploitation occur on a spectrum, from the subtle to the severe, and from the invisible to the obvious. Since the likelihood of leaving a mark is not the sole indicator for the potential of harm, a sole focus on physical violence is not an approach based on realism.
ESD emphasizes a focus on giving participants the tools to know and defend all their rights - not just the right to physical safety. Whether we’re talking about elementary school students or adults in the highest echelons of government and industry, violence and coercion are not random, chaotic acts. They’re most often the result of individual and systemic power imbalances, and the scope of our violence prevention programs must reflect that if they are to be effective. Empirical measures solidly confirm what instructors, advocates, and students already know. Reality-based training must be empowerment-based, and it works. Welcome to the movement - let’s get to work.
**Rachel Collins is Lead Trainer at She Begins, based in the Pacific Northwest United States, which offers verbal and physical self-defense and martial arts training to schools, organizations, businesses, and individuals, with a focus on accessible, empowerment-based, trauma-informed course offerings.
Rachel began work in the violence prevention field as a college student and feminist activist, working as an educator on sexual and reproductive health in middle and high schools, and eventually becoming a sexual assault and domestic violence crisis line advocate and community educator. Upon discovering the primary prevention potential of empowerment-based self-defense, she has devoted her career toward making ESD and martial arts accessible to women and girls.
She has been an empowerment self-defense instructor since 2014, and currently studies Krav Maga, Boxing, MMA, Jiu Jitsu, and more. She is a certified instructor through ESD Global Self-Defense.