Fighting chance: The case for teaching women self-defence

by Donna Chisholm / 29 April, 2016
Photo/Getty Images Photo/Getty Images
Is it wise for women to fight back if they’re being assaulted? The old advice suggested resistance was futile, and even harmful, but research strongly backs self-defence training as a way of keeping women safe.

When she woke to find a machete-wielding man crouched at the end of her bed, Natalie* remembered two pieces of advice from the self-defence course she’d taken a few years earlier. She believes they saved her life.

The man had broken in through a balcony entrance into the room where she was staying on holiday in Fiji late last year. Despite her terror, Natalie recalled the crucial tips.

“One was to shout ‘NO!’ in a loud bellowing voice and not fall into the stereotype of a distressed woman they are prepared for. The second was to ask questions to delay and give yourself a couple of moments to prepare for fight or flight.

“I immediately and instinctively started asking him questions which caught him off guard and gave me the seconds I needed to get to my feet,” she told the Women’s Self Defence Network – Wahine Toa in an email afterwards.

“I asked him, ‘What are you doing?’ twice, and he replied, ‘I’m going to f--- you.’ Although I was terrified, those moments gave me a chance to stand and say, ‘NO!’ He was taken aback when he realised I’d been able to stand and started violently punching my face trying to get me back on the bed. I managed to escape with only one deep slash to my arm, but I swear it was those few seconds of hesitation that allowed me to get off the bed and fight, giving me the chance to escape rape and potential murder. Thank you.”

Jan Jordan: new research paper is “Skills for Safety”. Photo/Hagen Hopkins Jan Jordan: new research paper is “Skills for Safety”. Photo/Hagen Hopkins

Until now, most of the evidence for the effectiveness of self-defence training was, like this story, anec­dotal. But a new paper, “Skills for Safety”, co-authored by Victoria University of Wellington researchers Jan Jordan and Elaine Mossman and released by Justice Minister Amy Adams on April 6, goes further, suggesting self-defence courses for schoolgirls and women can play a key role in reducing violence and sexual violence against them.

The 150-page report dismisses misgivings about the value of the courses – traditionally that women aren’t physically strong enough to resist attack; that resistance doesn’t work; that self-defence training is victim-blaming and men should be solely responsible for rape prevention.

Jordan says the old “well-intentioned” advice – that women risk greater harm if they try to resist an assault – is changing, although “there are still those who would probably advocate there isn’t much you can do.

“There was a genuine belief we could not expect a woman to be able to physically resist and fight off a male attacker. The image of the helpless female victim seems to be still quite dominant unless you have incredible characters like Xena and Buffy the vampire slayer. But the average woman can be taught reasonably easily some techniques that can really improve her safety. We don’t give that message routinely.”

Jordan says although it’s difficult to assess the degree to which women can reduce their likelihood of becoming victims of abuse or sexual violence, the research unearthed a surprising number of first and second-hand stories of self-defence course participants who had escaped violent attacks by remembering skills they’d learnt. She says that’s in line with international findings.

* Natalie’s name has been changed.

Cun Xiu Tian. Cun Xiu Tian.


Last June, a Canadian study of nearly 900 university students published in the New England Journal of Medicine found women who attended self-defence courses were significantly less likely to be attacked or raped in the following year. Of the 451 women who’d done the courses, 23 reported being the victim of a rape, and 15 an attempted rape during that time. Of the 442 women who hadn’t done the training, 42 said they were raped, and 40 reported an attempted rape.

“Resistance, it appears, is not dangerous for women – but may be for men,” says Jordan. “Equally evident is that not resisting and not fighting back make a completed rape more likely.”

Her report says violence prevention, public health and community safety are difficult areas within which to make measurable differences.

“The field of rape prevention, for example, yields many good programme ideas, but few have been subjected to the rigorous analysis of this one.”

It says self-defence courses not only give girls and women confidence to disclose or seek help for abuse or bullying, but also the assertiveness to respond to physical attacks, one of the most important of which is using their voice. “Breaking the silence and isolation is often the first step to safety, yet one of the most difficult steps many girls and women ever make.”

Ideally, Jordan says, complementary courses should target boys and men, and “ethical bystanders”.

The spectrum of violence against women is vast – from drunken groping in a crowded bar to horrific attacks that make national headlines for weeks, such as the murders of Auckland women Jo Pert and Cun Xiu Tian who were killed one week apart in January by assailants apparently unknown to them. Pert was attacked while out running in Remuera, and Tian was allegedly sexually assaulted and murdered in her Te Atatu home in a “burglary gone wrong”.

Jo Pert. Jo Pert.

Their deaths sparked a flurry of activity by the Self Defence Network, which ran four one-hour self-defence taster sessions in different parts of Auckland in response to the apparently heightened sense of ­anxiety about “stranger danger”. The courses attracted just 28 women – in Remuera, a few kilometres from where Pert was killed, only two showed up. It is, of course, somewhat ironic that two, relatively rare, “stranger” murders sparked the taster sessions, when nearly 90% of violence and sexual violence against women is by men they know.

At the Remuera session, Ainsley Harding, 62, is one of the two attendees and admits Pert’s killing, so close to where she lives and regularly walks, has unnerved her.

She tells course tutors Rana Moir and Julie Goldingham that at age 12, she was attacked from behind by a man who tried to strangle her with a chain around her neck before another man fought off her assailant. “You have a fear that if you don’t hit them hard enough it’s only going to make them angrier and angrier.”

The tutors tell her that effective self-defence is about committing with full force, because “it’s you or them”. There are no martial arts rules here as the women are instructed where to hit, and how to hit hard, above and below the belt, all the while shouting the name of the target area: “Nose! Neck! Guts! Nuts!”

Julie Goldingham, left, and Rana Moir. Photo/Tony Nyberg Julie Goldingham, left, and Rana Moir. Photo/Tony Nyberg

“There’s nothing scarier than an angry woman,” Goldingham says. “Being a possum in the headlights is not going to keep us safe. We have to develop some attitude that it is worth fighting back and it’s worth making it difficult for them. We know how to hurt. We teach techniques for causing a whole lot of pain. You don’t play nice.”

Both Goldingham and Moir avoided ­serious harm in incidents before they learnt self-defence. Moir fought off an attack by a former partner in which she was strangled until she saw black spots before her eyes, and Goldingham, at age 23, averted a potential sex attack when she was working in a shearing gang and one of the crew, who was drunk, entered her room. She yelled, “GET BACK TO YOUR ROOM” in her best “maternal directive” tone, and he did.

They often work with older women who don’t feel confident using their bodies in self-defence “because they’re not 23 any more and their knees don’t work like they used to”.

But Goldingham says self-defence is not just about physical techniques. “If there’s a knife against your throat, you try to talk to them, calm them down. Try to make them recognise you as a person. Sometimes it’s about humanising yourself.”

It’s also about stance, body language and using your voice. They also teach that technique is more important than strength.

Rapists acknowledge they are looking for an easy target. “They don’t want anyone time consuming, because that means there is more chance of getting caught,” says Goldingham.

Harding is so impressed by what she’s learnt in the hour-long session that she signs up for a full course.

Other self-defence courses are also offered by martial arts exponents. Auckland woman Scarlett Jiang, in her early 30s, says she is more confident after a free two-day workshop in March, run by a male close quarters combat (CQC) trainer. “Before, I didn’t know how to do anything except scream, but the advice was very useful and specific.”

Ainsley Harding and another participant learn to protect themselves. Photo/Tony Nyberg Ainsley Harding and another participant learn to protect themselves. Photo/Tony Nyberg


For Sue Lytollis, who developed the first self-defence classes in New Zealand in the 1980s, the validation in Jordan’s report is something she’s waited more than 30 years to hear.

She says she asks herself “every decade” if women are at greater risk now than before. “I go back to our grandmothers’ generation and I still think abuse was as prevalent then as now. There were Mickey Finns then. As women become more assertive and alert, perpetrators are just getting smarter and sneaky.”

She used to say one of the riskiest places for women was to be cornered in a phone box on the street “like a rat in a cage”.

“Now the danger is from what’s on the phone. You have a Tinder, Facebook kind of world.”

When she first asked martial arts instructors to teach her self-defence techniques, “I learnt 10 different ways to get rid of a gun in my back. They had very little insight into the intimate ways women can be preyed on. I kept thinking, ‘What about my best friend’s husband putting his hand on my knee at the dinner table?’ That’s the practicality of what women experience.”

Photo/Tony Nyberg Photo/Tony Nyberg

The courses now teach women and girls to recognise the “signs of attack” from a person they know and give them the confidence to rebuff advances early, and trust their instincts about a man’s motives instead of thinking they must be mistaken.

“I’ll often talk about the brother-in-law syndrome,” says Lytollis. “His wife, your sister, is sick or overseas, he’s had a bit too much to drink, and you go past him and he runs his hand across your breast and two hours later he’s trying to give you a sloppy kiss. You’re slithering out of the way and thinking, ‘I wish Jack wouldn’t do that’, and Jack will be thinking you’re loving it.

“You’re thinking, ‘What a creep’, but you daren’t tell your sister because you’re mortally embarrassed or thinking you’re just imagining it. You avoid it because you don’t like to create a scene and you’re conditioned to be polite so he’s got away with it. Next thing you know, he’s leaping on you and you may or may not be raped and he’s saying, ‘You tell anyone and I’ll say we’re having an affair.’ I’m giving you a very common scenario in this country which seldom gets reported.”

Like many people we spoke to for this story, Lytollis identified porn as a driver of sexual violence and misogynistic attitudes.

Photo/Tony Nyberg Photo/Tony Nyberg


That’s often reflected in vulgar slogans – think of the recent examples adorning Wicked camper vans and the walls of a men’s toilet in Ponsonby. In February, we saw those attitudes on display in real time at Auckland’s Laneway festival when two intoxicated young men interrupted TV3’s Story journalist Kim Vinnell during a live cross, using an obscene phrase popular in internet memes, and sexual posturing. For a woman who has reported from some of the world’s most dangerous war zones, they were the worst moments live on air in her decade-long career.  “I’ve done thousands of live crosses over the years and I’ve never had anything that confronting,” Vinnell says.

On screen, she looked wide-eyed and appalled as the “f-bomb” registered, then amused as she walked away to escape the men’s attentions. They followed, and one ground himself against her hip before the feed was abruptly cut.

When the camera stopped rolling, ­Vinnell was anything but amused. She was shaken, and she was mad as hell. She also knew that the only thing that made this experience different was that it had happened on live television. “It’s actually indicative of what every woman gets in a bar on Saturday nights. You get someone touching your shoulders or squeezing your butt – then yelling at you for not being appreciative of their advances. It happens all the time and it is not okay. That’s why we need to be having a conversation about it.”

TV3 reporter Kim Vinnell's live cross. Photo/TV3 TV3 reporter Kim Vinnell's live cross. Photo/TV3

On social media in the days that followed, the victim-blaming began. This time, the trolls couldn’t claim she was “asking for it” by what she wore or drank. Vinnell’s problem, in their minds, was lacking a sense of humour. The “lads” – we won’t name them because they seem to relish the attention – interviewed by her the day after the incident as they slugged from cans of premix ­bourbon and cola, seemed largely unapologetic, with one saying reporting from Laneway was a man’s job, anyway. He later sent ­Vinnell a hand­written ­apology. His mate has remained silent.

Vinnell’s boyfriend, Richie Hardcore, a community worker, Muay Thai trainer and campaigner against domestic violence, blogged about the incident.

“Why should women and girls learn to laugh it off?” he asked. “Why aren’t boys and men learning not to sexually harass and intimidate women and girls? It’s up to us to question others, because next time it might not be ‘just a joke’ and it might not be my girlfriend. It might be yours. Or your daughter. Your sister. Your friend. Will it be so funny then?”

At anti-domestic violence agency Shine, Aaron Steedman, who co-ordinates the men’s programme No Excuses in Auckland, says he explains to men how this sort of behaviour affects women.

“This isn’t against gay men, but I try to get them to imagine being at the lights about to cross the road, and standing behind them are three large bikie-type gay guys, the big staunch ones. They’re whistling at them, going, ‘Look at your arse.’ I ask them how they feel, and they say scared.”

Steedman says the widespread and easy access to porn is one of the greatest contemporary influences on sexual violence towards women.

“We’ve had high-speed internet for only five years so we don’t fully understand the impact it’s having on the brain yet, but we are starting to. You now can’t find a boy over 12 who hasn’t watched porn. There’s a tsunami coming and we haven’t even seen it. It scares the hell out of me. Roastbusters is nothing compared to it.”

 Sue Lytollis, second from left, teaches Amy Orr, Margaret Walker and Liz Dutton in Lower Hutt. Photo/Hagen Hopkins Sue Lytollis, second from left, teaches Amy Orr, Margaret Walker and Liz Dutton in Lower Hutt. Photo/Hagen Hopkins


Despite the academic endorsement for self-defence training, some who work with victims and perpetrators of violence say it’s impossible to foresee when fighting back might have a bad outcome.

“It’s a matter of chance,” says clinical ­psychologist associate professor Ian Lambie, who has worked with young offenders for many years and in December was appointed Justice Sector Science Adviser.

“You could fight back and make a situation worse, or you could not fight back and make it worse.”

He knows of no research that might help predict how an offender will respond. “What has been shown is that very young people and the elderly are least likely to fight back, which is what common sense would tell us, and some studies have shown victim resistance resulting in an escalation of violence. And if you say you should fight back and women don’t, they blame themselves, so it’s a very delicate area.”

In a 2014 study, Joanna Jamel, senior ­lecturer in Criminology at Kingston University in London, analysed resistance strategies in 24 female and 12 male rape victims. The most frequent strategies were “turning cold” and pleading or reasoning. About 70% ­struggled with the offender.

“It should be noted that those victims who did engage in physically resistant strategies incurred more physical injuries than those who used non-forceful resistance strategies.”

However, 2005 research from the University of Illinois had more positive results. The researchers questioned more than 1600 young women who’d had unwanted sexual contact, or been victims of an attempted or completed rape, and found 13% who had done self-defence training beforehand. This group was more likely to say their resistance stopped the offender or made him less aggressive, and they reported being “angrier and less scared” during the incident.

Photo/Tony Nyberg Photo/Tony Nyberg

Shine advocate Mary McGee says she doesn’t recommend women fight back in domestic violence situations. “We see it as a risk factor. With some offenders, there is a mindset of ‘If you fight like a man, I will drop you like a man.’ They will go really hard.”

She says dealing with an intruder in the home or a stranger in the street is likely to be different to how women would respond to an intimate partner who has a systematic pattern of abuse and “absolute control” over them.

Kathryn McPhillips, executive director of Help, the Auckland Sex Abuse Help Foundation, says it’s good for girls and women to have self-defence skills, but “there’s no golden rule about what you should do in the moment.

“It’s a very tricky line. Yes, it’s great if women can fight an attacker off and yes, psychologically that can be better than being passive in the face of attack. However, we need to be very, very careful that as a society we don’t put that responsibility on women to fight back.

“That has to be squarely on the person who is causing the harm and that’s so critical because when we hear young men defending their actions sometimes, they say, ‘I thought she wanted it because she didn’t fight me off.’ If she’s actually frozen with trauma or petrified with fear, she can’t do that, and we can’t end up with a situation where our society thinks consent is based on whether or not she fought him off. That’s the danger.”

Funding for self-defence courses in intermediate and secondary schools is tight – less than $400,000 a year, which Women’s Self Defence Network chair Alison Broad says pays for 8000-10,000 girls to be trained. In 2011, the Ministry of Social Development announced the funding would stop – it was reinstated after a public outcry. Other courses are paid for by the Ministry of Justice or participant fees.

Photo/Tony Nyberg Photo/Tony Nyberg

Jordan says although it would be “fantastic” to include the training in the school curriculum, overseas research has found problems can arise when schools try to take over the teaching, and course quality becomes inconsistent. “Schools say there’s a huge advantage in having an external provider with accredited teachers.”

In 2008, Jordan published Serial Survivors, a book based on interviews with 15 women who were sexually assaulted by Auckland serial rapist Malcolm Rewa.

“A couple of those women had panic buttons in their houses, but in the moment they completely forgot they had one. It’s that panic and immediate fear that is so dis­abling. One of the big things I saw coming through self-defence programmes was the skills and techniques to try to take that fear and turn it into anger and something much less passive.”

She says the opportunities for the women attacked by Rewa to fight back were “incredibly minimal”.

“But what I thought was amazing, even when they had no physical room to move – he’d gagged them, he’d bound their hands and feet – there was still the capacity in those women to find ways to remove themselves psychologically from it. They were trying to protect their real self and I saw that as self-defence.”

They also talked about “thinking themselves bigger”. In the book, survivor Gabriel told Jordan: “This guy had me strewn over a bed half-naked, bound with blankets over my face, in position, just totally ready to rape me and he’s going through the knife drawer, coming back into the room … I thought, ‘What can I do, what can I do to protect myself?’

“So I closed my eyes really hard and I decided to just fill up the entire room with myself so that as much of that room had me in it, so that there was no room for him in there­ … Bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger. And he comes back in and he tries to rape me and he can’t.”

Yes, it could have been coincidence, says Jordan – Rewa suffered erectile dysfunction – but the important thing was Gabriel felt there was something she could do, as opposed to “just being there for him to do things to. That seems to be the hub of self-defence. So much of it is mental.”

Lytollis practising kendo in 1986. Lytollis practising kendo in 1986.


And much of it, she says, is simply about young girls getting the message early on that they have a right to say what happens to their body and who can touch it, “as opposed to my generation, which was ‘Go and give your uncle a kiss.’”

She’s worried about some of the US rape prevention campaigns that advise women to arm themselves. She hasn’t looked at the pros and cons of lesser weapons such as pepper spray. “But I have some misgivings about saying ‘carry whatever kind of weapon you can use’, partly because someone can use it against you, but also because the really important message is not ‘What do you need to make yourself strong?’ but realising what abilities you already have.”

So, too, is the ability to keep your wits about you, even in frightening circumstances. Broad recalls a woman in her seventies who took a self-defence course after her husband died.

Later, she was ironing in her kitchen one evening when she saw a large male hand come through the open window and unlock her door from the inside. “She unplugged the iron, went straight across the kitchen and gave him a really good scorch on the back of the hand. There was an audible yelp from outside, the hand disappeared and she heard footsteps ­running away …”


•  New Zealand ranks as one of the ­countries with the highest rates of sexual violence and child sexual abuse in the OECD. It’s estimated that one in four females and one in eight males are likely to experience sexual violence or abuse in their lifetimes, many before the age of 16.
•  In 2012, police attended 87,622 family violence callouts – one ­incident every six to eight minutes.
•  In a University of Auckland study of 2855 women in 2010, more than a third reported they had experienced at least one act of physical and/or sexual violence by a partner in their lifetime.


Assaults are always the fault of the offender, but police say there are steps we can all take to keep us safer if we’re out exercising:

•  Let someone know where you are going and how long you will be away.
•  If you carry a phone, load an app on it where your friends can track you.
•  Carry a whistle.
•  If wearing an iPod or headphones, have only one in your ear so you can be aware of your surroundings.
•  If you see someone who looks out of place, cross the road, change your route, check your surroundings.
•  If it’s dark, stick to the road and brightly lit places.
•  Walk or jog facing the traffic.

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