Self-defence against sexual assault: does it really work?

Like millions of women, you've probably been told that fighting back would just make things worse?

This sounds like a sensible advice...

Except, it is not.

Common sense is often made up of much prejudice.

And you're here because you asked "does women's self-defence work?"

The short answer is yes. The most effective strategy to thwart sexual assaults, according to experts, is forceful resistance (we'll get back on what it means) that's why self-defence training for women is such an important tool. And there's ton of research that confirms this as we're going to show.

But before we get into the thick of the argument, let's have a brief look at sexual assault statistics.

Recent studies indicate that "sexual assault" is an endemic problem worldwide.

In Britain, the grim statistics ("one in three women", "one in five women") have been widely reported by the media such as Metro, the Dailymail, The Independent or The Guardian (see infographic below).

Of the estimated 78,000 rapes in England and Wales, every year, only about 20% are reported and only 1,070 become convictions!

In the US, the statistic stirred controversy, particularly in the context of university campus -see for example this piece from the Time (2014) or this one from the Washington Post (2014)- with opinions ranging from "misleading numbers" to "problem vastly underreported".

In 2015, a nationwide survey by the Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation corroborated these numbers. Although the statistic is still debated (Why the Prevalence of Campus Sexual Assault Is So Hard to Quantify), the report highlights the pervasiveness of the problem and the lack of adequate responses by the authorities.

It also confirmed the prevalence of "date rape"

The term describes sexual crimes involving friends or acquaintances where the rapist ignored a "no" (or never sought a "yes"), by contrast to the stereotype of the rapist as a unknown predator lurking in the dark.

It is important to make it clear that "consent" means a "yes". And that the absence of "no" doesn't mean a "yes". Particularly if the victim is incapacitated (this highlight the issue of alcohol incapacitation). And last but not least, people have the right to change their mind.

As a society, we still have a long way to go to eradicate sexual harassment and sexual assault. Until then, teaching women to defend themselves can make a huge difference.

Fighting back remains the most effective strategy to thwart sexual assaults

Ask French journalist Jackie Parker ("I've been attacked, but I'm fine"), ESPN Exec Keri Potts ("How I Escaped a Rapist") or Adele Barber (The Telegraph), among many others, who decided to fight back (see a list of similar stories at the end of this article).

These stories which make compelling cases in point for forceful resistance, are not anecdotal evidence.

As a matter of fact, research conducted since the 70ies has consistently shown that fighting back is actually the most effective strategy to thwart sexual assaults.

Studies such as Kleck & Tark (2005) or Reekie & Wilson (1993) or Ullman & Knight (1992), show that women who respond with physical and verbal resistance to the offender's violent attack significantly reduce the probability that a rape would be completed.

A recent meta-analysis shows that:
"[...] women who resist their attacker are significantly more likely than nonresisters to avoid rape completion. This finding held across analyses for physical resistance, verbal resistance, or resistance of any kind." (Wong & Balemba 2018)

In the 1990's, German commissioner Susanne Paul examined 522 cases of rapes and attempted rapes to see whether fighting back was a good strategy. Result: fighting back had a 85% success rate.

Irène Zeilinger, director of the NGO Garance, says that data they collect indicate a 90% success rate ("Ladies, against assaults nothing match fighting").

One prevailing popular belief is that resistance will lead to being injured or more severely injured.

Research has shown that there's no correlation/relationship between verbal and physical resistance and the amount of injury sustained (see references at the end of this article).

In other words, resistance does not increase the risk of injury.

Do you know what actually does increase the risk of injury?

According to these studies, "any tactics that are ambiguous and not forceful such as stalling, cooperating, pleading and screaming from pain or fear" (Kleck & Tark 2005).

"Forceful physical resistance by victims was found to be unrelated to the use of physical force by the offender during or after the rape." (Ullman 1998)

A 1992 research on women's resistance strategies to rape using police reports and the court testimonies suggests that:

"the frequently found correlation between physical resistance and injury of the woman might be the result of the initial level of the offender's violence and should not be used to discourage women from physically resisting rape" (Ullman & Knight 1992)

Additionally, studies show that victims of sexual assault who fight back recover physically and mentally faster.

So, does women's self-defence really work?

Yes it does.

There are decades of data, referenced by the US National Institute of Justice, that support the effectiveness of self-defense classes for women in stopping rape and sexual assault.

"We know that women’s resistance can stop assault, and that self-defence training enhances women’s ability to resist"

There are numerous real-life stories that corroborate this. Have a look at these recent cases:

Whether you use Krav Maga (What is Krav Maga?), Boxing or Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (among others), technique is an equalizer and it can go a long way.

Self-defence against sexual assault: the statistics

Jocelyn Hollander, a professor of sociology who study violence against women, recently ran an experiment to assess the efficiency of self-defence training for women.

Women who completed a thirty-hour self-defense class (blue) and those who did not (red) reported different types of unwanted sexual contact over a one-year period.

The results of her study show that "women who took a ten-week (30hrs) self-defence training (blue) were significantly less likely to experience unwanted sexual contact than those who didn't (red)."

 In a similar experiment, Charlene Senn, a women’s studies professor at the University of Windsor, tracked nearly 900 women at three Canadian universities over a 4-year period.

Students were randomly assigned to two groups. One group would to take at least one 12-hour self-defence training ("resistance group"), while the second group would received only brochures ("control group").

One year later, the number of rapes reported by women who took the program (resistance group) was half the number reported by women from the control group; the gap in incidents of attempted rape was even wider.

Women in the "resistance group" learned to recognize and avoid risky situations, and were also more likely to stop coercive behaviour before it escalated, using forceful physical strategies if necessary (see detailed article of the study).

The results of these studies are further supported by earlier research by the self-defence instruction company Model Mugging. They surveyed 60,000 of their female students. 98.3% reported no assaults.

More interestingly, among 1,021 who reported having been threatened with assault, 800 managed to de-escalate the situation and avoid physical confrontation. So that's a 78.35% success rate for this sub-group, just using voice, assertiveness and body language.

221 were involved in a physical attack. Of those reported 221 assaults, 214 (97%) graduates successfully fought off their attacker.

Self-defense is a valuable and well proven tool to prevent sexual assault.

The big misconception surrounding self-defence against sexual violence

Giving women the skills to defend themselves does not mean they are to blame when an assault occurs.

Self-defence training is about empowering women and giving them the choice

At this point, it is important to note that "softer" methods for sexual violence prevention (such as brochures, informational workshops, etc) are sometimes used. The results of these targeted programs for men and for women have mostly been disappointing (see Lonsway & al. 2009).

"I am not about to sit around waiting for a mammoth cultural shift before I feel safer on the streets. Until society changes, what’s wrong with any woman equipping herself with some of the skills that could give her a fighting chance? Self-defence is not my responsibility; it is my choice, just as it is every woman’s choice." Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett

Self-defence for women is not victim-blaming

Equating the promotion of women's self-defence training with victim-blaming illustrate what self-protection specialist Lynne Marie Wanamaker has called “the self defence paradox.”

One facet of this paradox is the fact that one person – the perpetrator – holds sole responsibility for the decision to assault someone. The other is the fact that people at risk of violence can take effective steps to increase their own safety.”

Award-winning women's self defense expert and former trauma psychotherapist Melissa Soalt brilliantly explains why victim-blaming is such a toxic mindset (Safety yes, Blaming No!) and why learning self-defence is so important for women (Being Nice Can Kill You).

"The more a woman is groomed in traditional behaviors of female socialization and platitudes of politeness the more at risk she becomes" Melissa Soalt

Sexual violence is a complex, multi-faceted problem that requires a variety of approaches

As one of my student recently articulated it:
"just because a particular approach addresses ONE part of a complex, multifaceted problem, doesn't mean it should be discounted as useless" Dasha

Personally, when someone brings the "victim-blaming" point, I use the following analogy to highlight the issue with this mindset:

As a society, we've waged a full-on campaign against drunk driving. Thanks to a variety of approaches, it is mostly working. But, at the same time, there will always be people who get behind the wheel when they shouldn't. We can't stop all of them unfortunately.

What we can do is learn how to handle our vehicles confidently and competently and learn how to avoid or minimize accidents when possible.

That still won't stop us from getting hit by a drunk drivers, and if it ever happen, it will be that driver's fault. But overall "emergency driving lessons" still provide skills and experience that can significantly reduce the probability of serious injury or death.

Similarly, it's naive to think sexual violence (and violence in general) will ever completely go away. We cannot control the thinking or the actions of rapists, but we can empower women to defend themselves to prevent and survive an assault.

"perpetrators are 100% RESPONSIBLE but that does not mean that intended victims and survivors are 100% POWERLESS" Susan Schorn

In our fight against harassment and sexual violence, we have to acknowledge that no single approach is going to solve the problem of rape on its own.

That's why we need multiple combined-strategies.

"if we continue to rely only on long-term solutions millions of additional women/female adolescents would be sexually assaulted before we could make inroads into preventing the perpetration of rape" (Adeogun et al. 2018)

Self-defence training is one that has shown its effectiveness. It is a valuable part of the solution and it increases the chances of a good/better outcome.

"we now know that giving women the right skills, and building the confidence that they can use them, does decrease their experience with sexual violence. This is our best short-term strategy while we wait for cultural change.” Charlene Senn

Rape-induced paralysis

It is important to insist that the responsability is 100% with the aggressor and that "not fighting back" or "not screaming" does not mean the victim is consenting. The reason for that is what specialists refer to as the "freeze response".

Freeze response, also known as "tonic immobility" (TI), is an involuntary reflexive reaction causing a natural state of paralysis.

"TI is a temporary state of motor inhibition believed to be a response to situations involving extreme fear" Abraham et al. 2009

In other words, the person who is “frozen” is unable to move, speak, scream or take any action against the danger (Kozlowska et al. 2015). It is a normal and natural reaction.

Instances of fear-induced freezing are documented in disasters, particularly war events, and other life-and-death types of situations such as shootouts, hostage situations, etc.

Freezing might seem like a counterintuitive way to respond to danger but scientist have suggested that it might:
  • give people time to assess the situation and decide how to respond to the threat (Roelofs 2017)
  • increase visual perception (Lojowska et al. 2015)
  • help someone hide: In some situations, being very still may keep a person safe from danger, or cause an attacker to lose interest
  • reduce the impact of the trauma through dissociation (Krause-Utz et al. 2017)

Typically, TI occurs when the victims find themselves in perilous situations they feel they can neither escape nor overcome.

Research shows a high prevalence of freeze reponse during sexual assaults. For that reason, tonic immobility is also referred to as “rape-induced paralysis”.

At a societal level, raising awareness of this issue is critical because rape-induced paralysis is too often ignored by the justice system.

And every self-defence programme should be part of that effort by bringing attention to freeze response.

Whilst tonic immobility is very common, it is a fallacious argument to say that it makes self-defence training useless. Here is why:

How can self-defence training help prevent sexual assault

It is also about de-escalation, awareness, avoidance, learning how to be more assertive and standing up for yourself.

"Self defense means giving yourself permission to do what might otherwise be unthinkable. It also means giving yourself permission to say it straight, to speak your mind." Melissa Soalt

Techniques should be based on quick reactions, swift movements and leverage rather than physical strength making them ideal against bigger and stronger opponents. They should also be easy to assimilate regardless of age, gender, athletic attributes or body type.

"With the right kind of training women are better able to discern the warning signs of assault. They are clearer about their own desires in an interaction, and more willing to speak and act on their own behalf.” Jocelyn Hollander

A good programme should emphasize the most likely threats and the most adapted solutions. And self-protection skills are just one part of what you'll get (see also The multiple benefits of self-defence training for women).


Self-defence research papers

Abrams, M. P., Carleton, R. N., Taylor, S., & Asmundson, G. J. (2009), Human tonic immobility: measurement and correlates. Depression and anxiety, 26(6), 550–556.
Bart & O’Brien (1993), Stopping rape:Successful survival strategies. New York, NY: Pergamon Press.
Chakraborty, Chaudhary & Bos (2007) "A New Way to Resist Rape" in JIAFM 29(4)
Gordon & Riger (1989), The female fear: The social cost of rape. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Kleck & Tark (2005) The Impact of Victim Self Protection on Rape Completion and Injury, National Institute of Justice.
Kozlowska, K., Walker, P., McLean, L., & Carrive, P. (2015), Fear and the Defense Cascade: Clinical Implications and Management. Harvard review of psychiatry, 23(4), 263–287.
Krause-Utz, A., Frost, R., Winter, D., & Elzinga, B. M. (2017), Dissociation and Alterations in Brain Function and Structure: Implications for Borderline Personality Disorder. Current psychiatry reports, 19(1), 6.
Lojowska, M., Gladwin, T. E., Hermans, E. J., & Roelofs, K. (2015). Freezing promotes perception of coarse visual features. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 144(6), 1080–1088.
Lonsway, Banyard & al. (2009) Rape prevention and risk reduction: review of the research literature for practitioners, Harrisburg, PA: VAWnet.
Norris J. (2011), "Fresh" Thoughts on Studying Sexual Assault. Psychol Women Q. 2011 June ; 35(2): 369–374.
Reekie & Wilson, Rape, Resistance and Women's rights of Self Defence, Australian Institute of Criminology.
Roelofs K. (2017) Freeze for action: neurobiological mechanisms in animal and human freezing. Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society. Biological Sciences. The Royal Society Publishing.
Senn & al. (2015), Efficacy of a Sexual Assault Resistance Program for University Women, The New England Journal of Medecine.
Ullman, S.E. (2002) "Rape avoidance: Self-protection strategies for women." In Schewe, P.A. (Ed.). Preventing violence in relationships: Interventions across the life span. (pp. 137-162). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Ullman, S. E. (1998). Does offender violence escalate when rape victims fight back? Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 13(2), 179+.
Ullman, S.E. (1997) “Review and critique of empirical studies of rape avoidance” in Criminal Justice & Behavior, 24(2), 177-204.
Ullman & Knight (1993) “The efficacy of women’s resistance strategies in rape situations” in Psychology of Women Quarterly, 17:23-38.
Ullman & Knight (1992) "Fighting Back: Women's resistance to Rape"in Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 7: 31-43.
Weiser Easteal P. (1993), Without consent: confronting adult sexual violence. Conference proceedings series no. 20. Canberra: Australian Institute of Criminology.
Wong, J. S., & Balemba, S. (2018). The Effect of Victim Resistance on Rape Completion: A Meta-Analysis. Trauma, violence & abuse, 19(3), 352–365.

Women's self-defence articles: Survivors Stories

- How I Escaped My Rapist (Marie Claire, Nov 2010)
- J’ai été agressée, mais je vais bien, merci (Madmoizelle, Nov 2012)
- Charisma Carpenter was just 21 when she escaped a brutal attack by a serial rapist who tried to murder two of her friends (, Oct 2013)
- Mother 'bit off sex attacker's tongue' to secure DNA evidence (The Telegraph, Feb 2015)
- Woman fights off attacker in downtown Wichita (The Wichita Eagle, Aug 2016)
- Gigi Hadid would like strange men to stop grabbing her body (, Sept 2016)
- WSU woman fights off attacker (, May 2017)
- Rochester teen out for a jog fights off attacker (StarTribune, Jun 2017)
- Woman fights off attacker at Eugene (, Aug 2017)
- Woman fights off attacker in south Evanston park during attempted sexual assault (The Daily Northwestern, Sept 2016)
- Woman fights off attacker in Surrey park (Vancouver Sun, Sept 2017)
- Woman fights off attacker in Montclair apartment office; suspect arrested (, Sept 2017)
- Woman fights off attacker in attempted sexual assault in Plaza (Fox46, Sept 2017)
- Woman fights off attacker who broke into her bedroom, suspect in custody (San Francisco Gate, Sept 2017)
- Woman Fights Off Attacker; Residents Concerned About Safety (NBC Washington, Oct 2017


  1. Excellent, why isn't this information WIDELY known and disseminated?

    1. That's a good question Ed and to be honest I have no idea. Hopefully this post will go a long way to raise awareness on the issue.

  2. Patrice, this is an excellent article you should get a regular spot on (BCA combat corner) Liked your article ( what's the one technique you would teach?). Ron ( UKM)

    1. Thanks Ron. Never really thought about writing elsewhere than my blog but why not if the opportunity comes.

  3. Patrice, good article ( you should have a spot on combat corner.
    Ron Levett ( UKM)

  4. This is a great article. I’m writing a research paper on why self defense should be taught and this article is definitely going to be credited.

    1. Hi,

      Thanks. Please let us know when your paper is published. all the best