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An Irresponsible Piece on the "Martial Arts Delusion"

There is a post over at Hey Look entitled, "Martial Arts Delusion and How It Hurts Women." Because I think (a) the piece is based on demonstrably factually incorrect assumptions, (b) the piece assumes--here again, incorrectly--that there is some monolithic "martial art" or "self defense program", and (c) the author's conclusion is dangerous since if women take it seriously--which they shouldn't, as we'll see--they will be less likely to do one of the things that has been shown to make them more safe from sexual assault, I think this post merits deconstruction. In short, this post is an exercise in why one shouldn't spout off about things from the armchair, so to speak, when doing the dirty work of digging into the scientific literature is called for instead. Contrary to what the author suggests, self defense training has been shown to make women safer from sexual assault. So, let's start with that first and then I will move on to criticizing other elements of the author's wrong-headed argument.

“There is a documented effectiveness of self-defense training and enactment for thwarting attacks, helping survivors heal and avoid re-victimization, empowering women, and contributing to population-level changes that make self-defense a primary sexual assault prevention strategy in the public health model.” ~ McCaughey & Cermele (2015)

While rape and sexual assault are longstanding problems, it is only fairly recently that researchers, administrators, activists, and policy makers became aware of the depth and magnitude of the problem. Indeed, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that the sexual assault of girls and women is an epidemic both here and abroad. Agencies ranging from the Center for Disease Control to the U.S. Department of Education have taken notice. With increasing coverage in the media of the so-called “rape culture” that is rampant on college campuses (and in society more generally), governments have been forced to take notice. For instance, the Obama administration recently initiated the 2014 White House Task Force on Sexual Assault on College Campuses—which mandated that colleges receiving federal funding must provide staff and incoming students with sexual assault prevention education.


Needless to say, this is a good sign. However, the approaches that are most commonly adopted by colleges around the country are preventive in nature and place most of the onus on women to avoid alcohol, attending parties alone, walking alone at night, etc.  In short, these efforts curtail women’s freedom and autonomy rather than empowering them with the tools needed to fight back and defend themselves from would-be attackers. So, while we should applaud efforts to raise consciousness about the pernicious effects of rape culture, we also believe that the most common preventive strategies send the wrong message to women—making them complicit in certain respects to their own victimization. In this respect, I fully agree with McCaughey (1997) that a more pro-active approach should be adopted—one that empowers women by giving them the preventive and self-defense tools they need to engage in counter-violence when need be.

Fortunately, the College of Charleston--which is where I teach--started to adopt a more pro-active approach to addressing the rape culture on campus.  For the past few years, Patrick McGuigan, John Venable, and Amy Langville have been developing and teaching a women's self-defense class to seniors (and this fall they will be teaching a similar class to incoming freshman as well). Their curriculum is based on traditional Gracie jiu jitsu and they also include some good mobility work and so-called “ginastica natural” as a way of warming the women up for class. The course has proved to be both popular (as indicated by high enrollments) and transformative (as indicated by what the students say in their evaluations and workbooks at the end of the semester). Given that nearly 70% of the students here at College of Charleston are women and given the prevalence of rape on campuses nationwide—e.g., an astounding 1 in 5 women report having been the victim of rape or attempted rate during college (Briedling et al., 2014; Fischer et al., 2000; Tjaden & Thoennes, 2006)—we think this type of program is ideally suited for our campus (and other campuses around the country).

There is ample evidence that self-defense programs can help prevent sexual assault (see, e.g., Hollander, 2014; Senn et al., 2015; Senn & Hobden, 2015; Ullman 1997; 2002; 2007). Indeed, some studies suggest that women who use self-defense tactics or active resistance are between 80%-87% less likely of being raped (Clay-Warner, 2002; Tark & Kleck, 2014). In short, the gathering data make it clear that self-defense training for women really works when it comes to preventing sexual assaults. However, there is not as much data concerning some of the other auxiliary physical and psychological benefits that self-defense programs may yield for the women who take them (see, e.g., Cermele, 2010; McCaughey, 1997; Orchowski et al., 2008; Senn, 2011). Moreover, these studies don’t focus specifically on Gracie jiu jitsu—which we believe is the most effective form of self-defense (short of carrying a concealed weapon). These are issues we're are looking to explore this semester in a series of scientific studies. For now, the aforementioned findings should suffice to show that the target article in question is simply wrong on the face of it that self-defense and martial arts aren't effective at deterring sexual assault. Where facts are available, the author irresponsibly decided to appeal to intuition instead. That said, I now want to consider some of the other flaws in the article in question.

In addition to speculating about the ineffectiveness of martial arts and self-defense rather than taking a look at the facts on the ground, the author makes several other rhetorical and logical blunders that merit attention. For starters, she treats "self defense" and "martial arts" as if these terms picked out the same programs, styles, systems, etc.--when nothing further could be the truth. By lumping a multitude of systems and program--some useful and effective, some not--under general headings, it makes it easier to create straw men arguments that effectively throw out the women's self defense baby with the martial arts bath water. It's what enables the author to lump the wide variety of programs together under the overly generalized and ill-defined, "delusion of martial arts" and then criticize them as inadequate.

Obviously, no one would deny that lots of martial arts, martial arts training, self defense systems, and the like are not created equally. While some of these systems have very little applicability in the real world others have been "street tested" for the better part of 100 years--e.g., Gracie jiu jitsu. So, even if some women's self defense programs are misguided and give women a false sense of security, it shouldn't and doesn't follow that all self defense programs are equally effective (or ineffective). But figuring out which programs work and why is an empirical question that requires scientific investigation and not speculation based on anecdotal evidence (which seems to be the coinage of the realm for the author of the blog post in question). Separating the effective wheat from the ineffective chaff is part of the goal of figuring out how best to empower women with self defense programs. Writing all of these programs off in blanket terms under the moniker of the "delusion of martial arts" does an injustice to the programs and systems that have proven results. It also does an injustice to the women who have changed their lives by participating in the programs that really do empower them and protect them from rape and other forms of aggression.

The author sometimes seems to be pushing the dialogue in a helpful direction.  Consider, for instance, the following remarks:

Assault by friends, boyfriends, husbands, co-workers, teachers, bosses, and relatives, the monumental majority of assaults inflicted on women, start with emotional manipulation. Controlling behavior.  Envelope-pushing behavior. Boundary erosion.  Manipulation.  Creation of ambiguity.  Drugging of drinks. Encouraging of more alcohol or drug use than a woman intends. Undermining confidence and self-worth.  A vast array of behaviors that can make an assault into a loathsome morass, a situation where punching and kicking are worthless. Different skills are needed.  

The author is right. The facts about sexual assault need to be reflected in how women's self defense courses are taught--which is why good programs not only show counter-aggression and counter-violence techniques but also preventive techniques concerning how to speak assertively, how to notice when one is being "groomed" by a sexual predator (whether stranger or familiar), how to have the courage (and knowledge) to stand up for oneself both psychologically and physically in compromising situations, etc. But the fact that a good self-defense course will include these sorts of elements--along with familiarizing women concerning the laws about self-defense, rape, etc. in their state--is here again no reason to castigate all self-defense programs as "delusional."

Indeed, the charitable reading of this piece is that the author is merely expressing her dissatisfaction with much of what gets taught under the banner of "women's self defense." Had she simply said that, I would have had no gripe. Much of what is taught as women's self defense borders on being negligent--e.g., I am sorry, but most women are not punching or kicking themselves out of a violent altercation. But there are lots of programs that are doing precisely what they should be doing to empower women and make them safer from sexual assault. This piece does a disservice to these programs and the women they help. As with everything in life, the devil is always in the detail. Just because most programs are bad, it doesn't mean many aren't doing good work.

p.s. For a great introduction to these ideas--from a feminist perspective--see Martha McCaughey's awesom book, Real Knockouts: The Physical Feminism of Women's Self Defense. Students this fall in our self defense seminar will be reading this book along with learning Gracie jiu jitsu.


Breiding, M.J., Smith, S.G., Basile, K.C., Walters, M.L., Chen, J., & Merrick, M.T. 2014. Prevalence and characteristics of sexual violence, stalking, and intimate partner violence victimization—National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, United States, 2011. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, 63(8), 1-18.

Cermele, J. (2010). Telling our stories: The importance of women’s narratives of resistance. Violence Against Women, 16(10), 1162-1172

Clay-Warner, J. (2002). Avoiding rape: The effect of protective actions and situational factors on rape outcomes. Violence and Victims, 17(6), 691-705.

Fisher, B. S., Cullen, F. T., & Turner, M. G. (2000). The sexual victimization of college women. Washington, DC: National Institute of Justice, US Department of Justice.

Hollander, J. (2014). Does self-defense training prevent violence against women? Violence Against Women, 20(3), 252-269.

McCaughey, M. (1997). Real knockouts: The physical feminism of women’s self-defense. New York: New York University Press.

Orchowski, L. M., Gidycz, C. A., & Raffle, H. (2008). Evaluation of a sexual assault risk reduction and self-defense program: A prospective analysis of a revisited protocol. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 32(2), 204-218.

Senn, C. Y. (2011). An imperfect feminist journey: Reflections on the process to develop an effective sexual assault resistance programme for university women. Feminism and Psychology, 21(1), 121-137.

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 college women. New England Journal of Medicine, 372(24), 2326-2335.

Senn, C. Y., & Hobden, K. L. (2015, March). Empowering women to resist sexual assault: What it does and doesn’t do. Paper presented at the meeting of the Association for Women in Psychology, San Francisco, CA.

Tark, J., & Kleck, G. (2014). Resisting rape: The effects of victim self-protection on rape completion and injury [Special issue]. Violence Against Women, 20(3), 270-292.

Tjaden, P. & Thoennes, N. (2006). Extent, nature and consequences of rape victimization: Findings from the national violence against women survey. Washington, DC: National Institute of Justice.

Ullman, S. E. (1997). Review and critique of empirical studies of rape avoidance. Criminal Justice and Behavior, 24, 177-204.

Ullman, S.E. 2002. Rape avoidance: Self-protection strategies for women. In P.A. Schewe (Ed.) Preventing Violence in Relationships: Interventions Across the Life Span (Washington, DC: American Psychological Association): pp. 137-162).

Ullman, S. E. (2007). A 10-year update on “Review and critique of empirical studies of rape avoidance.” Criminal Justice and Behavior, 34(3), 411-429.




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I appreciate the rigor of your post. Thank you for saying with footnotes and clarity what I wrote in a quick blog post. I think you beautifully made my intended point. There are quite a few very poor and ineffectual martial arts programs out there masquerading as "women's self-defense" taught by people with no real understanding of the types of assault women face. There are also good programs that address fundamental issues of communication and psychology. To a woman looking for a "women's self-defense" class those are indistinguishable. Too often instructors think that the on-the-mat skills are enough. After a couple of decades of training, studying the issue, working with SA/DV survivors...and reading the research publications... I think I can fairly make a blog post that isn't "armchair." Excellent martial artists suffer acquaintance assault and intimate partner abuse in spite of their training. Traditional MA skills are not enough.

I endorse what you've said here, and if I was unclear in my post and undermined the idea that women should study martial arts, that certainly wasn't my intention. I think that everyone should study a martial art. Women absolutely should. But our industry could do a lot better at articulating what is and is not actually being taught. Which I think involves recognition that to be effective at addressing the bulk of assault scenarios for women means teaching skills that we don't think of (or see) in traditional, on-the-mat MA programs. Like the training you describe in your excellent post. More like that! Thank you!

Barry Lam

I actually went out to Torrance a year ago to talk with the Gracies about expanding their Women Empowered series to college campuses. The program includes all of the other types training from physical boundary-setting and recognizing the stages of sexual aggression, in addition to jiu-jitsu. They're just encountering too much resistance in the academy from thinking like this, and from Sexual Assault Violence Prevention officers that not only believe that self-defense is ineffective, but counterproductive, contrary to the loads of evidence. For every empirical study, there are five articles in various other publications talking about how self-defense courses unjustly put the burden of rape-prevention on women. I was happy to help with bringing Gracie JJ to Vassar or anywhere else I go, but I don't have the time an energy to jump over the administrative and cultural hurdles to do it.

Thomas Nadelhoffer


Thanks for your reply. A few remarks: First, while we agree on a number of points, I nevertheless think you framed your ideas in an irresponsible manner for the reasons I suggested. Barry's subsequent comment highlights perfectly why we must be very careful when we write about women's self-defense--whether in a "quick" blog post, an academic article, or The New York Times. There are lots of people and administrators--both from the feminist perspective and those who are overtly patriarchal--who think it's a bad idea to teach women to properly defend themselves with counter-violence. So, when an otherwise well-intentioned piece like yours has a sensational yet factually erroneous title, you do a disservice to the very women you were trying to assist in writing the post. Second, when I said you should avoid speculating from the armchair, I had something very specific in mind--namely, your blanket claim that women's self defense programs don't work and instill a martial arts delusion. That you have been doing martial arts for twenty years, etc. doesn't make your claim here any less speculative. There are researchers who take the time to run controlled and systematic studies when it comes to issues like the effectiveness or lack thereof of self-defense programs. I am running one such study this semester. My point was that when there is scientific evidence available that suggests self-defense training can be, and often is, effective, it is irresponsible just to speculate about it when evidence is available (and contravenes your speculation). Third, in your comment when you talk about "traditional martial arts skills" being insufficient, this is the kind of comment I am criticizing. Which martial arts skills? Gracie jiu jitsu will enable you to defend yourself against an attacker whether they are strangers or familiars. When coupled with a crash course in the statistics concerning rape, its typical causes, etc., this kind of martial arts training will surely make women safer. Can the same be said about kung fu or kickboxing? I have my doubts. But even there we need to look more at what the facts suggest. Some martial arts have a good historical track record when it comes to enabling smaller individuals to defend themselves against larger attackers. It doesn't clarify anything to lump these arts together with others with more dubious track records.

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