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Facts in the Fight: The Truth About Self Defense and Sexual Violence by Peter Jensen and Margie Serrato

Here is a staggering research done by Peter Jensen and Margie Serrato, esteemed colleagues in our partner association headed by Kevin Secours, giving us the answers we have so long been looking for as well as truths we must all know and acknowledge.

The International Combat Systema Association (ICSA) and GOTAC leaders highlighted the issue of sexual violence against women in their video response to Justice Robin Camp’s remarks during a criminal trial [see news story here]. Camp’s troubling remarks, directed at the rape victim in the case, put the onus of responsibility on her based on misguided ideas that: 1) women, particularly if consuming alcohol, are inviting sexual contact or assault; 2) sex is sometimes painful, therefore forced sex is not necessarily a crime; and 3) victims can successfully fend off attackers if they really want to - in this case, by keeping one’s knees together or skewing one’s pelvis. Offering solidarity to those who have faced sexual violence, the video reviewed some fundamental principles and techniques for self-defense against sexual assault.  To complement the video, this article introduces the wide range of information and research available on women’s self-defense against sexual violence.  As a community who relies on rigor and evidence-based practice to inform training, ICSA instructors and students may find this article a useful gateway for improving existing training curriculums on sexual violence self-defense.  

            Before discussing the self-defense related findings in this article, it is important to emphasize a point addressed in the video response.  Specifically, that it is not a victim’s responsibility to avoid sexual violence.  Responsibility for sexual violence lies solely with the individual perpetrating the aforementioned crime.  The findings and recommendations in this article are not designed as “tips” and “strategies” for women to avoid sexual assault - and inherently shift responsibility onto the woman who is attacked [1].  Instead, for those who train in women’s self-defense or are considering such training, there may be questions about what beliefs to hold about the efficacy of the training that they complete or choose to begin.  The information in this article aims to address some of these questions and offer resources for continued explorations on questions about training in self-defense against sexual violence.


            The threat of sexual violence for women remains persistent in both Canada and the United States.  A recent study examined the views of first-year university students in Canada and found that more than one in four women reported having a history of being sexually assaulted [2].  The research study - led by Dr Charlene Senn of University of Windsor - uncovered a number of other key findings:

  • More than half of the women reported experiencing one or more forms of victimization since the age of 14.
  • Over one-third were either raped or experienced attempted rape at least once, and 23.5% had been raped.
  • Sexual assault through the use of drugs, force, or threats had been experienced by half of the women.
  • Men used force in nearly half (48.3% and 44.3%) of all rapes and attempted rapes.

Similar rates of sexual violence against women exist in the United States [3].   Without question, a significant and persistent threat exists for women in Canada and the United States.  With this evidence, one question raised by those in the self-defense community might be: what does research say about the role of self-defense in preventing, countering, and resisting sexual violence?


            Studies on sexual violence resoundingly indicate that fighting back during a sexual assault is associated with a reduced likelihood of rape.  However, it is important to note and explain to those considering training that, in the past, women were encouraged to not resist if faced with such a situation [4]. The concern was that if women resisted their attackers, the attackers would be angered and the victims would be in further peril; if they did not resist, their attackers would presumably be more gentle - which was also a misguided remark made by Judge Camp in the aforementioned trial. Such misinformed ideology is still inaccurately perpetuated in popular media and in outdated resources for women on avoiding rape. Dispelling this myth is an important task for self-defense instructors and practitioners to undertake. Three recent articles reviewed the considerable research and national reporting on the relationship between resistance to a sexual assault and rape avoidance [4, 5, 6].  Findings from these studies indicate that:

  • There is a 91% decrease in the odds of experiencing rape when a person defends themselves with a knife, gun, or other weapon.  Further, there is an 85% decrease when individuals used other physical resistance tactics.
  • Physically resisting sexual violence is not associated with a greater risk of physical injury to a woman.
  • Non-Forceful Physical Resistance (e.g. blocking strikes, fleeing) lessens the likelihood of rape and is unrelated to physical injury.
  • Forceful Verbal Resistance (e.g. threatening the attacker, screaming, yelling at the attacker) is related to rape avoidance, but research has not found a relationship regarding the risk of physical injury to this defense response.
  • Non-Forceful Verbal Resistance (e.g. reasoning, pleading, begging with an attacker) is related to greater severity of sexual abuse and unrelated to physical injury.

These findings strongly support the overall merit in physically resisting - either forcefully or non-forcefully - during a sexual violence encounter.  These findings are consistent with the contemporary understanding that sexual assault and rape are related to power, not only sex. Perpetrators of sex-related crimes are in actual or perceived positions of power [7]. Thus, challenging an attacker’s power through physical resistance is an effective response, while non-forceful verbal resistance is ineffective because it enhances the attacker’s sense of power. Fighting back against those who perpetrate sexual violence is an acceptable and basic solution for a complex and endemic threat - except that it is challenged by a disturbing finding.  Specifically, that the vast majority of attackers in a sexual violence encounter against women are notstrangers.


            A recent national survey in the United States found that 44.7% of perpetrators of sexual violence against women were acquaintances and 41.7% were either a spouse or partner [3].  The remaining groups of perpetrators included strangers (5.3%) and a person they had dated (3.6%).  As instructors and students of self-defense, the implications of these findings may not be immediately apparent.  The relevance of these findings come to light when posing the question: How much of your self-defense training has included application of physical resistance (i.e., self-defense skills) against an acquaintance or spouse/partner?  Does your self-defense curriculum address the psychological demand to enact physical and/or verbal violence against someone normally trusted?  

Humans are social beings.  We are influenced - even under the threat of violence and harm - by deeply held societal norms.  As discussed previously in this weblog, psychological inhibitions play a complex role in self-defense.  Further, Western society socializes women into being gentle, non-violent, feminine, and fragile [4].  Self-defense training against sexual assault must consider these aspects of human culture.  Modern, evidence-based women’s self-defense programs incorporate into training curriculums the social dynamics and psychological barriers related to the challenge of defending oneself against an acquaintance or partner/spouse.  

For example, Dr Senn and her colleagues examined the effectiveness of a comprehensive women’s sexual assault resistance program implemented at three universities in Canada [8].  Women who completed the resistance training reported significantly lower incidence of rape and attempted rape than a control group of students who only received brochures on sexual assault (i.e., the university standard education practice).  Given that the training program consisted of only 4 three-hour sessions, these study findings are promising.  Self-defense instructors and students may consider leveraging practices from modern resistance programs, such as those used in Dr Senn’s research, in order to improve existing training curriculum.  


Perhaps the most important message in this article is that women’s self-defense against sexual violence occurs within a societal context.  Instructors and students of self-defense against sexual violence should be encouraged that physical resistance is related to a reduced likelihood of rape.  Yet, review of training curriculums might be in order to ensure that societal and cultural factors are considered.  Research - such as that conducted by Dr Senn - is a useful resource to inform and update training and address the broader context involved with women’s self-defense against sexual violence.


[1] Bedera, N., & Nordmeyer, K. (2015). “Never Go Out Alone”: An Analysis of College Rape Prevention Tips. Sexuality & Culture, 19, 533-542.

[2] Senn, C. Y., Eliasziw, M., Barata, P. C., Thurston, W. E., Newby-Clark, I. R., Radtke, H. L., & Hobden, K. L. (2014). Sexual violence in the lives of first-year university women in Canada: no improvements in the 21st century. BMC Women's Health, 14, 1-8. Articlelink

[3] Black, M. C., Basile, K. C., Breiding, M. J., Smith, S. G., Walters, M. L., & Merrick, M. T. (2012). The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey: 2010 Summary Report. Atlanta: National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; 2011. Articlelink

[4] Gidycz, C. A., & Dardis, C. M. (2014). Feminist Self-Defense and Resistance Training for College Students A Critical Review and Recommendations for the Future. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 15, 322-333.

[5] Hollander, J. A. (2016). The importance of self-defense training for sexual violence prevention. Feminism & Psychology, 26, 207–226. Articlelink

[6] Brecklin, L. R. (2008). Evaluation outcomes of self-defense training for women: A review. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 13, 60-76.

[7] Groth, A. N., Burgess, W., Holmstrom, L. L. (1977). Rape: Power, anger, and sexuality. American Journal of Psychiatry, 134, 1239-43.

[8] 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, 2326-2335. Articlelink


PeterJensen, is a Combat Systema instructor and holds a doctorate degree in sport psychology and motor behavior.  A former director of the United States Military Academy Center for Enhanced Performance, he has also served as a United States Army Special Forces officer during multiple combat deployments in Southwest Asia.  He is a Certified Consultant -  Association for Applied Sport Psychology (CC-AASP) and has published several articles on military hand-to-hand combat.

Margie Serrato, is an experienced martial artist in a variety of disciplines and the assistant editor for Martial Arts of the World: An Encyclopedia of History and Innovation. She earned her doctorate degree in anthropology and her dissertation research included immersion and training with the United States Modern Army Combatives Program at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.  She is currently a National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Research Fellow and working at TutorGen, an educational technology company.


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