How to pick an empowerment self-defense class

A group of teenage girls learning to defend themselves

Empowerment self-defense is much more than physical skills to resist attack. A good class teaches awareness and assertiveness, as well as physical strikes. These skills can help you prevent, escape, resist, survive, and heal from harassment, abuse, or assault.

Two students holding their hands up in the "stop" position

In picking a class, look for a program or an instructor who:

Knows that abuse and assault are never the victim’s fault. People don’t ask for, cause, or invite assault, nor do they deserve to be assaulted. Someone may exercise poor judgment about safety, but that doesn’t make them responsible for an attack, and it doesn’t mean they deserve to be attacked. Attackers are responsible for their attacks and their use of violence, threats, intimidation, coercion, or substances to overpower, control, or abuse another person.

Knows the facts about gender-based violence and tailors their classes to this reality. For example, a good class will emphasize situations involving acquaintances and romantic partners, as these are the most common.

Knows the emotional realities of women’s and LGBTQI+ people’s lives and is able to work with each student where they are. For example, a good teacher can adapt verbal and physical techniques to each student’s strengths and challenges; they won’t have a one-size-fits-all program.

Respects each person’s decisions on how to handle dangerous or threatening situations and doesn’t blame or judge survivors. They will offer techniques, knowledge, and strategies to help students make their own decisions about how to handle situations. They don’t tell students what they should or shouldn’t do.

Helps students empower themselves not only in the practice of self-defense but also in the program itself. For example, students should be free to decide their levels of participation in the class, and no one should feel pressured into doing specific exercises.

Has a holistic approach, addressing the whole spectrum of gender-based violence including harassment, emotional abuse, and other intrusions and control behaviors that are often overlooked and is holistic in the skills and strategies taught.

Aims to equip students with more tools and strategies, and thus creates a learning experience that’s success-based rather than fear-based.

Understands how trauma affects survivors and makes learning empowerment self-defense part of the healing process.

Engages the power of the group as a powerful tool for learning and support.

Tailors their teaching to the ages, life experiences, and other characteristics of the student and the group.

Understands that gender-based violence is a tool and expression of oppression and is linked to all forms of oppression. Knows that harassment, abuse, and assault are expressions of structural social problems rather than individual issues.

Given that gender oppression is linked to all forms of oppression and that students live at the intersections, the teacher or program is explicitly anti-racist in their teaching and content.

Believes that to be successful, change must occur on multiple levels, including individual, interpersonal, workplace, family, community, and society.

A good teacher or program can make the difference between being scared or discouraged and being excited and empowered to have a larger, more authentic life. You may have to do a little digging to find a class that’s right for you. But when you do, you’ll find it life-transforming!

(Thanks to the National Coalition Against Sexual Assault for drafting the original document decades ago!)