Self-Defense Training: A Brief Review

Alyssa A. Rheingold

Dean G. Kilpatrick


National Violence Against Women Prevention Research Center

Medical University of South Carolina







Self-defense training programs have been offered across the country for the past 25 years to assist in minimizing the possibility of assault.  The goal of such a course is to learn how to avoid becoming a victim by means of escape or protecting one’s body (McGrath & Tegner, 1977).  Training usually incorporates learning how to use body parts as weapons, other objects in the environment as weapons, as well as using the voice as a weapon in order to avoid an assault.   However, the kinds of training vary widely from program to program, specifically in the areas of  training model, length of training, depth of training, training environment, experience of trainer, and amount of time allotted to practice skills  (Cummings, 1992).   (For more information about the content of training, Cummings reviews relevant literature on self-defense training components and offers recommendations for self-defense program development.)  While some research suggests that self-defense classes increase self-efficacy beliefs (Weitlauf, Cervone, Smith, & Wright, 2001;Weitlauf, Smith, Cervone, 2000), little longitudinal research has been conducted that directly assesses the effectiveness of a self-defense class in decreasing the completion of future sexual assaults.  

Rape prevention studies mainly have focused on the effects of specific resistance strategies that were used by women who were raped versus women who avoided rape.  Findings are mixed; however, it seems that the majority of resistance strategy studies indicate that women who use more physical and verbal resistance are more likely to avoid the completion of a rape (Bart, 1981;  Kleck & Sayles,1990; Quinsey & Upfold, 1985; Ullman, 1997; Ullman & Knight,  1993; Ullman & Knight, 1995; Zoucha- Jensen & Coyne, 1993).  Furthermore, several studies indicate that less forceful types of resistance such as pleading, crying, and reasoning have either no association or even a negative association with rape avoidance (Ullman & Knight, 1993; Zoucha – Jensen & Coyne, 1993). 

In addition to examining whether physical resistance strategies are effective in preventing an assault, it is important to understand whether using such forceful tactics would increase the level of physical injury.  There are some discrepant findings on the relationship between the use of physical resistance and experiencing physical injury during a sexual assault.  Several studies indicate that physical resistance is associated with increased physical injury (Bachman & Carmody, 1994; Prentky, Burgess, & Carter, 1986).  The majority find no relationship between physical resistance and increased physical injury (Kleck & Sayles, 1990; Quinsey & Upfold,1985; Ullman & Knight, 1992; Ullman & Knight, 1995;  Zoucha - Jensen & Coyne,1993).  Most of the studies to date do not take into account the sequence of events that lead to assault and injury, therefore other factors may be associated with level of physical injury experienced by the victim besides the victim engaging in forceful resistance. For example, Ullman and Knight (1992) have suggested that physical injury endured by the victim is the result of the level of the offender’s violence, with physical resistance contributing little to increased risk of injury.  They examined the sequential relationship between offender violence, women’s resistance strategies, and both the probability of rape completion and subsequent physical injury in a sample of 274 women who were either raped or avoided raped.  They found that in response to physical attacks, the most effective strategies were forceful fighting and screaming for reducing the severity of a sexual assault without increasing the level of physical injury indicating that forceful resistance strategies are effective in avoiding rape without experiencing more physical harm. 

 It is important to note that several additional rape context factors, besides victim use of rape resistant strategies, seem to play a significant role in outcomes of rape situations.  These context factors include: place of rape (outside vs. indoors), relationship to perpetrator (stranger vs. acquaintance vs. intimate), use of weapon by perpetrator, and drug and alcohol use by victim (Bachman & Carmody, 1994; Quinsey & Upfold, 1985; Ruback & Ivie, 1988; Ullman & Knight, 1993).  Relationship to perpetrator is an important context factor given that 75% of rapes are perpetrated by someone the victims knows (Kilpatrick, Edmonds, & Seymour,1992). Therefore, a minority are actually perpetrated by strangers.  Critics of self defense classes argue that the resistance strategies taught in self-defense programs emphasize stranger assault situations rather than the more common types of assault scenarios, such as acquaintance rape. Women in acquaintance assault situations who do use assertive, action-oriented strategies have been found to be more likely to avoid rape (Levine-MacCombie & Koss, 1986).  However, Bachman and Carmody (1994) indicate that assault victims perpetrated by intimates were nearly twice as likely to sustain injury if they used physical-resistance strategies than victims of stranger-perpetrated assaults. Whether forceful resistance strategies would be beneficial for avoiding assaults perpetrated by someone the victim knows remains unknown.  Moreover, if it is found that resistance strategies are beneficial for acquaintance and/or intimate rape situations, it is uncertain whether women would utilize these strategies after taking a self-defense class because current programs do not usually directly address these types of scenarios.  Few studies have accounted for this factor and other context factors in their investigations of self-defense strategies and rape outcome.  Future research on the effectiveness of forceful resistance strategies would benefit from including these important context factors in their analyses.

Overall, rape prevention studies indicate that resistance strategies may decrease the chance of completed rape with probable little effect on extent of physical injury.   Data suggest support for the concepts taught in self-defense classes; however, minimal longitudinal outcome studies on self-defense classes have been conducted that directly evaluates its effectiveness.  It is unclear whether providing education and practice of specific skills in a classroom would generalize to actual life-threatening situations. In addition, questions remain as to what other factors play a role in successfully utilizing skills taught in a self-defense class (e.g., self-defense program factors such as type and duration of training, context specific factors such as relationship to perpetrator and perpetrator use of weapon). Future research is warranted to determine the direct effects of self-defense classes on assault outcomes. Caution should be given when interpreting the effects of resistance strategies on rape outcome since there are numerous factors that relate to victimization, many of which are out of a victim’s control.


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