A monthly newsletter for students and friends of  Kicks Martial Arts for Women
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Upcoming Events: No classes August 19th and 21st

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Located at the Heiter Community Center • 100 North Fifth Street •  Lewisburg, PA 17837
August 2003

Effective Self-Defense for Women
Means a Combination of Skills

CardioKicks! Fitness Tip
by Laura Kamienski

In the past twenty years, there has been an explosion of available information and data about violence against women. In reviewing both this data and the content of martial arts based women's self-defense courses, I discovered an alarming disconnection between what is being taught and the reality of assaults women and girls experience. Survivors of sexual assault are stepping up more than ever to tell their stories. Most self-defense courses for women I reviewed did not reflect the data or the actual experiences of these women and girls. This included those courses that claimed to consider current statistics and information about violence against women.

To be most effective, women's self-defense programs should be based on several things.

Based on Knowledge of Actual Attacks

The first of these is knowledge of actual attacks. Women take self-defense courses for a variety of reasons, but underlying all of them is the reality of specific kinds of violence. Sexual assault and domestic violence are, by far, the most common types of violence women experience.

Our culture promulgates and perpetuates massive and completely unnecessary ignorance about the violence women face. From advertising to news reporting, movies to television, violence against women (and how women respond to that violence) is flagrantly misrepresented. Rapists are most often portrayed as dirty, smelly, psychotic strangers who jump, unannounced, from behind bushes. Their physical features are sometimes exaggerated to the point of becoming huge ape like monsters with big teeth and hairy bodies. Very rarely are attackers depicted as friends or family members of their victims. In many instances it is either directly or indirectly implied that the victim secretly wanted to be raped. Women are rarely seen fighting back against their attacker and when they do they are usually ineffectual and are ultimately rescued by another male character. Sometimes the rapist himself turns out to be the hero.

While stranger attacks do happen, the effects of which are nothing short of devastating and traumatic, the overwhelming majority of sexual assaults do not happen on the street or in an alley. Furthermore, assailants are usually not strangers. The overwhelming majority of assailants know their victims -84% of all sexual assaults are committed by someone the victim knows. Furthermore, victims of sexual assault are very often young girls. According to the American Medical Association (AMA), over 61 percent of female victims of assault are under age 18. The AMA also reports that three-quarters of sexual assaults are committed by a friend, acquaintance, intimate partner or family member of the victim.

Violence against women is primarily partner violence: 76 percent of the women who were raped and/or physically assaulted since age 18 were assaulted by a current or former husband, cohabiting partner, or date.

Domestic violence is the leading cause of injuries to women ages 15 - 44, more common than automobile accidents, muggings, and cancer deaths combined (Surgeon General, US. Public Health Services, (Journal of the American Medical Association, 276:23, 31-32, June 17, 1992). 22-35% of women who visit emergency rooms are there for injuries related to ongoing abuse (Journal of American Medical Association, 1990). Although more than one million women seek medical treatment each year for injuries caused by their husbands or partners, doctors correctly identify the injuries as resulting from battering only 4% of the time (E. Stark & A. Flitcraft, "Medical Therapy as Repression": The Case of the Battered Woman, 1982).

The picture drawn by these statistics is one in which there is typically some sort of emotional connection between the victim and the assailant. It thereby suggests that sexual assault is a much more complicated issue than can be confronted merely by learning physical technique. Yet, in most cases, courses in self-defense for women focus almost exclusively on physical technique. The reality that women are usually assaulted by a known assailant means that self-defense skills for women should primarily include learning skills to recognize and defend against assaults committed by a trusted friend, neighbor or intimate partner. In other words, classes should begin to account for the emotional and psychological dynamics of the common relationships between victim and perpetrator. Some martial artists teaching self-defense for women, even while acknowledging that assailants are typically not strangers, tend to ignore the relationships and emotional dynamics that exist between victim and perpetrator.

Promotes Self-Esteem

Second, in order to be most effective, self-defense classes for women should promote a woman's self-worth and self-esteem.

Most forms of oppression have a corresponding form of violence. For women, that violence has historically been manifested as rape. Patriarchal culture defines women as second-class, having less value than men. Sexual assault and rape have been an accepted part of our culture for centuries. 

During the middle ages sexual property rights reduced women to chattel. "The 'droit du seigneur,' the right of the first night, gave each medieval lord the right to take first sexual access to any female serf who married on his land holdings." These laws made raping new brides legal during the middle ages. Our own legal system still favors the perpetrator in many instances. One of the most telling examples of our culture's tolerance of sexual assault was the episode of attacks in Central Park, New York City, during and after the annual Puerto Rican Day Parade in June of 2000. The fact that there was, and still is, question about who was to blame and whether or not the victims "brought it on themselves" reminds us too well that sexual assault is still condoned by our culture and its institutions. 

Even as effective as violence committed against women, is the form of oppressive violence by which women learn to devalue themselves. Patriarchal culture defines the female role as one of passivity, gentleness, weakness, compliance, concern for others, and dependency. Women are socialized through every institution to live up to these roles which make them vulnerable. 

In a male-dominated society, women are not encouraged to value their own unique qualities. Instead we are defined as "good" or "bad" according to male norms and standards. "Of course, the habit of seeing women's behavior as something to be explained in relation to the male norm makes sense in a world that takes the male norm for granted." These norms divide women into "good" and "bad." So it becomes an accepted idea that only bad women are assaulted. Not only is this an outright example of victim-blaming, but it also makes women feel that they are somehow to blame for being assaulted because they are "bad." It should be recognized that some behaviors are riskier than others, but assault is assault no matter where a woman is or what she was doing at the time of her attack. Socialization happens in many ways, but the end result of this kind of socialization usually includes feelings of low self-worth in women. For women, low self-worth often includes self-blame and self-hatred.

In order to defend the self, a woman must perceive herself as having value over and beyond that of an attacker. This notion goes against the very grain of women's role in society. Women's "other" orientation leaves them vulnerable because it devalues them and leaves them with feelings of low self-esteem and low self-worth. Women must first feel entitled to be safe and respected. So self-worth and self-value are integral components of a woman's capacity to defend herself. Self-defense for women should include activities that promote and increase a woman's self-esteem and self-worth.

Cool Link of the Month:

Serving as a central clearinghouse for the voluminous resources and research, the NSVRC provides a place to turn to for information, help and support. The NSVRC will influence policy, practice and research by providing greater interaction, investigation and review, and by promoting awareness within the anti-sexual violence movement. The NSVRC works with outside researchers to provide advocates with current information on various topics related to sexual violence.

Together we have allies and a forum of hope Strengthen the support system serving sexual assault survivors by enhancing the capacity of sexual assault providers at the national, state and community level.
Provide information and technical assistance to support effective interventions in preventing sexual violence; and
Identify emerging policy issues and research needs to support the development of policy and practice specific to the intervention and prevention of sexual violence.


Exercise is one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself. It improves your mental and physical state. And it's never too late, regardless of your age, to improve your level of fitness.

If that doesn't get you motivated, think about what happens when you don't exercise. According to the National Women's Health Resource Center, your muscles, including your heart and lungs, become weak; your joints become stiff and easily injured; you can develop high blood pressure, fatigue, obesity, osteoporosis, anxiety and depression.

So what is fitness?

There are four components. According to the National Women's Health Resource Center, they are:

  • Cardiovascular fitness - Your heart, lungs and blood all need oxygen to work. Your level of cardiovascular fitness will determine your body's ability to use oxygen as a source of energy. It gives you the stamina or endurance to be active without gasping for breath.
  • Muscular strength and endurance - This is the force your muscles can exert and their ability to keep moving without becoming exhausted.
  • Flexibility - Keeping the optimal range of motion in the joint areas, making bending and stretching easy is a measure of flexibility.
  • Body composition - There should be a healthy ratio of lean muscle tissue to fat.

Consider making martial arts part of your fitness program.

Upcoming Events
  • There will be no class on August 19th or 21st due to the gym floor being refinished. Normal classes resume on August 26th.
  • August 25th - Welcome to the neighborhood, Bucknell students!
  • The next rank test will be held on October 4th at 2:00 PM
  • The next twelve-hour  Empower! Self-Defense for Women level one course is scheduled for September 6th, 13th, 20th and 27th from 2:00 PM through 5:00 PM. Space is limited. Contact Kicks for details, and to reserve a place in the class.

Effective Self-defense continued...

While overemphasizing physical technique is detrimental to women's self-defense, it is important to interject that learning physical technique should be an integral part of training. A woman must believe that she is capable of defending herself. Learning physical technique is empowering, and is an invaluable tool for increasing women's self-esteem and self-worth. Women are routinely discouraged from any sorts of aggressive behavior. As children we are denied opportunities to learn to use our bodies in ways which are self-protective. 


Based On What Women Do

Next, effective programs should be based on what women already do, and provide women with opportunities to practice their skills. "Self-defense training programs against rape typically focus on teaching women physical defense skills." By defining self-defense as primarily techniques of physical force, martial arts instructors have historically minimized the successful and creative actions women already use to defend themselves, often ignoring women's own strategies completely. Anthologies like Her Wits About Her - Self-defense Success Stories by Women (editors Denise Caignon and Gail Groves) document an existing wealth of collective knowledge but are rarely considered a valuable women's self-defense resource by martial artists. Tapping into the resources and skills women already use is an essential part of teaching successful defense strategies. Women have been successfully defending themselves for centuries using combinations of verbal and physical strategies. Women's collective experience is one of the most effective teaching resources available to instructors. As a group, women have been forced to become true masters of self-defense. Experience is the best teacher and women have a surplus of it. With proper training, development and research, instructors can begin to help women see that they already know, and often use, the most common and effective forms of self-defense. 

Provides Supportive Environment

Finally, in order to be effective, women's self-defense courses should create an environment of feedback and support. Many survivors of sexual assault feel isolated and ashamed. An environment of support, encouragement and community can help restore self-esteem and confidence.

An [anonymous] woman described the importance of this support to her: "If you had said to me that within 24 hours I would be telling my story of incest and feeling comfortable with 14 total strangers, I would have thought you were crazy. My class supported me emotionally more than any one person in my life."

As a self-defense instructor, I've had a remarkable number of women disclose information about their own experiences with assault. These reports have some significant common elements. Only one reported that a stranger had jumped them. The most common scenarios I hear are about cases of child molestation (usually incestuous), date rape and stories of domestic violence. Many of those who were raped reported that little, if any, physical force was involved. My own sexual assault story is one in which fear of disapproval put me at risk and the unspoken threat of violence was enough to compel compliance. As self-defense instructor NadiaTelsey succinctly points out in her class workbook:

We may worry so much about the possibility of hurting someone else's feelings that we don't speak or act, even when the consequences of that inaction can be serious. At the same time, we may give the benefit of the doubt to the other person, frequently despite clear indications that they are disrespectful of our needs or wishes or are downright dangerous.

On many occasions, I have had the good fortune to discuss this topic, in detail, with women who are professional rape crisis advocates. (local crisis information: Susquehanna Valley Women in Transition) Advocacy workers are one of the best sources of knowledge about the kinds of assault women experience, as well as what kinds of self-defense strategies are most effective because they work with survivors on a regular basis. All of the information that has been reported to me confirms that, when assaulted, women are usually assaulted by men they know. They are usually very young women or girls and are assaulted by men who are significantly older than they are. Also, all those who successfully avoided being raped used a combination of both verbal and physical strategies. 


Discover your power.
Twelve hour course: September 6th, 13th, 20th and 27th
Call 523-7777 for more information or to register.

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