Essay: How feminist self-defense flips the script on violence against women

Rachel Piazza's "concrete tools" of feminist self-defense are rooted in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Courtesy of Rachel Piazza

The fear of violence is one of the reasons I started training in the martial art of Brazilian jiu-jitsu nine years ago. This feeling of vulnerability was formally validated for me when the United Nations 2015 World's Women Report revealed that one in three women had experienced physical/sexual violence at some point in their lives. But, perhaps more startling, the report also noted that intimate partner violence accounts for the majority of assaults against women.

However, from my experience, most traditional self-defense programs, focus on violence perpetrated by strangers. The stereotypical scenarios are familiar; we envision a masked man jumping out from behind bushes to prey on vulnerable women who've "dared" to venture out alone.

And yes, those occurrences happen -- it is more likely women would have a dangerous encounter with a boyfriend, husband, partner or an associate -- but it ignores the fact that not all assailants are strangers. And defense classes should reflect that.

But, as a feminist self-defense instructor who follows the empowerment model -- which was developed by the National Women's Martial Arts Federation -- I'm working to change that.

Following a three-pronged approach focused on the culture of violence, boundary setting, and concrete tools (more on that later), this model is a stark contrast from traditional self-defense, which is typically based on reacting to a situation, rather than that preventing or destabilizing it. Integral in these courses is the idea that violence against women often stems from unbalanced power dynamics.

By teaching strategies like speaking with an assertive tone of voice, displaying confident body language, managing distance from the possible assailant and calling out inappropriate behavior, women can learn to interrupt escalating boundary violations.

However, despite the effectiveness of boundary setting, physical fighting skills are still vital, and most feminist self-defense instructors come from a variety of martial arts backgrounds. The "concrete tools" I explicitly teach are rooted in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Since this discipline is designed to allow a smaller, and possibly physically weaker person to control or incapacitate an attacker through dominant positions and submissions such as chokes and joint locks; it is perfect for women.

Known for providing tools to be offensive from the ground, I use Brazilian jiu-jitsu to teach women to avoid and escape control from dangerous positions like being pinned on their back. By being aware of leverage and body weight, a small woman can successfully defend herself, as strength is less important than the application of proper technique.

The payoff of learning these techniques is not only an increased ability to defend oneself but the confidence that comes with it. This self-assurance can empower women to be more verbally assertive and improve their overall sense of well-being, which is the biggest transformation I see in my students.

The efficacy of feminist self-defense goes beyond my personal observations. Aside from benefits like increased self-confidence and healthier body image, a 2013 study from the University of Oregon showed that after taking a 30-hour feminist self-defense course, participants were significantly less likely to experience a violent incident of any kind. The study suggests that these courses go beyond teaching women to defend themselves from an attack -- they help to prevent violence by instructing women to confront controlling behaviors that could escalate to physical and/or sexual violence.

While women are never responsible for preventing violence against themselves -- as that responsibility rests entirely on the perpetrator -- feminist self-defense proves that women can be active players in liberating themselves from control and violence.

By teaching women to use all the tools available, feminist self-defense is a powerful way to resist domination and the violence associated with it.

Rachel Piazza is a TEDx speaker, an acclaimed feminist self-defense instructor, and adjunct professor teaching sociology at Wilmington University. You can learn more about her workshops at feministselfdefense.com.