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Monday, August 22, 2016


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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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