Self-defense does not prevent violence
Updated: Feb 26
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official views of Canyon Creek Services.
Written by: Kaleigh Bronson-Cook, Awareness & Prevention Director CCS
Our vision at Canyon Creek Services is "Communities Free of Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault." I know that when this statement is read or heard that the images in peoples minds of what this would actually look like may be very diverse. When we at CCS say "Communities Free of Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault", we don't envision communities where every single person is ready to defend themselves from a potential abuser at any given moment. We envision communities without perpetrators. We know that this is ambitious and it isn't going to happen overnight, but it really is the only acceptable goal.
Self-defense courses and techniques have long been marketed as sexual assault or abuse "prevention". While we understand that self-defense can be an empowering practice for many, it is our responsibility to dispel the myths, highlight the facts and showcase the potential for harm that well intentioned self-defense classes can cause when they are framed as sexual violence prevention.
Self-defense classes are not violence prevention programs. Instead, they advocate for risk reduction strategies which attempt to stop or interrupt an assault in progress. True prevention occurs when we stop offenders of violent crimes from ever becoming offenders in the first place. Risk reduction strategies do nothing to address the root causes and reasons why violence happens. As experienced violence preventionists, we know the best way to protect individuals from abuse and assault is to engage in prevention programming to address the root causes of violence. This can include challenging harmful ideas about violence, cultivating environments where violence is not tolerated, promoting gender equity, advocating for policy change and teaching healthy relationship and consent skills. These strategies help protect our communities by stopping people from becoming perpetrators of violence in the first place.
Self-defense classes miss the mark in many ways. There is a very real myth that rapists are strangers that hide in bushes. This couldn't be further from the truth: the majority of people who experience sexual assault personally know the individual committing the violent act. The U.S. Department of Justice reports that approximately 73% of sexual assaults are perpetrated by someone who is not a stranger to the victim. According to RAINN, 8 out of 10 rapes are committed by someone the victim knows and 93% of child sexual abuse cases reported to law enforcement were committed by someone the child knew. In these instances, self-defense is not usually a viable strategy because the survivor has a personal connection or relationship with the perpetrator and may not feel comfortable or safe fighting back.
Additionally, due to trauma responses (fight, flight, or freeze), victims of assault and abuse are often physically incapable of fighting back no matter how much self-defense training they have or how much they may want to. This phenomenon is frequently referred to as “tonic immobility” or “involuntary paralysis” and is incredibly common in assault survivors. One study found that 70% of survivors surveyed reported “significant” tonic immobility and 48% reported “extreme” tonic immobility while being sexually assaulted. Another found that of adults surveyed who experienced child sexual abuse, over 52% percent of them reported experiences of tonic immobility during the assault.
Teaching self-defense incorrectly puts the responsibility of assault or abuse onto the victim rather than on the perpetrator where it belongs. Abuse survivors (whether they be adults or children) are not responsible for stopping abuse from happening to them or the people close to them. By teaching individuals that self-defense will protect them and make them less of a “target” for assault or abuse, these courses send the message that if they are assaulted or abused, it is their fault because they did something to make themselves a “target” or didn't fight back hard enough. This message is so incredibly harmful and creates an additional barrier for survivors in coming forward because they may feel as though they should have fought back and that because they didn’t, they won’t be believed or taken seriously. Survivors already blame themselves for abuse committed against them, with or without self-defense training, and it is so critical we recognize and promote the fact that assault and abuse are never the victim's fault.
Framing self-defense classes as sexual assault prevention can perpetuate harmful stereotypes and myths about abuse. Incidence avoidance is not true prevention. Risk reduction is not true prevention. We need to change the narrative about sexual assault away from teaching "don't get raped" to teaching "don't rape".
For more information, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or check out the resources listed below.
Canyon Creek Services (CCS) provides free and confidential services for survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault in Iron, Beaver and Garfield counties. Services include emergency shelter, crisis intervention, information and referral, court and medical advocacy, mental health services, housing advocacy, safety planning and more. Help is available via the 24 hour hotline 435-233-5732 (call or text). CCS also provides awareness, education and prevention services in order to achieve our vision of “Communities Free of Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault.” For more information, please contact email@example.com