What are the Best Ways for a Woman to Defend Herself?

First, a note about my experience on the subject:

I have studied the martial arts for more than three decades. I have taught for more than a quarter of a century. I have done my homework: hundreds of hours of research on attackers, victims, and the physiological impact of a sudden threat and/or attack. I am also a woman.

Please note: Below I’ve listed a number of resources for self-defense, research, and assistance for rape victims.

Recent  bad advice in the media

.A number of statements have been made recently telling women to either use “passive defense” or to use “weapons” such as ink pens if they are attacked. These opinions are either uninformed or, at best, do not explain the whole truth about women defending themselves against an assailant.

So what should women know?

The first thing every woman should know is that when an attack occurs, the body goes into fight or flight mode. Fear causes adrenaline to pump through her; her heart starts to beat so quickly that it echoes in her head; and her fine motor movement is hampered because of the adrenaline rush. None of this nullifies a woman’s ability to defend herself. However, an attack is complex and should not be underestimated.

Another factor to consider is the attacker, who will also have adrenaline pumping through him (for different reasons). The most important thing to note about attackers is that they are all different. While this may seem obvious, it is an often overlooked point when discussing self-defense. Why is it important? Some attackers enjoy women who fight back; Some will be intimidated by women who fight back; Some won’t care either way. Their size will differ as well. Height, weight, and strength of an attacker are all important considerations that could impact the manner of self-defense.

There is also a question of the location. The location will make the attack-defense scenario different in virtually every case. Is the attack in your home, in a park, or in a parking lot? Is it daylight? If it is, are other people within shouting distance or not?

Even with all of these variables, my list is not exhaustive. The simple fact is that every attack is different, which is why it is important that women have knowledge of multiple defenses.

Given that so many variables exist in an attack, are there any general rules to follow?

While there aren’t many general rules, there are a few that every woman should know.

The first general rule:

The more distance a woman can keep between herself and her attacker, the safer she will be.

From a distance, the attacker is unable to grab, strike, or rape her. One of the best ways to hold an attacker at a distance is to have a gun as a defense weapon. If he decides to attack her anyway, she has time and distance to respond with her weapon. A gun also has the added bonus of being obvious. It is obvious that a gun can severely injure or kill. This is not true of a woman who decides to fight back, but only has an ink pen in her hand–or even nothing in her hands. If the attacker is a betting man, he will assume that he has a good chance against an ink pen or against a “mere” woman.

Given that a gun is one of the best means of self-defense, I recommend that women:

  1. Learn how to shoot with an expert (gun ranges are helpful here).
  2. Purchase a gun only when they feel secure that they can use it properly and safely.

Close-Quarter Defense: Risky but Necessary

Of course, not all women carry a gun and, even if they do, they will not necessarily have it with them when they are attacked. So, having close-quarter and empty-hand defense ability is a good idea.

However, being in close quarters with the attacker, where the woman is just as much in the attacker’s striking range as he is hers, the woman is much more likely to be injured.

The government’s own statistics supports this: “A fifth of the victims defending themselves with a firearm suffered an injury, compared to almost half of those who defended themselves with weapons other than a firearm or who had no weapon.” (1) So, close-quarter combat is riskier, but not impossible.

There are two general rules regarding empty-hand combat:

  1. Use gross motor movements such as knee and elbow strikes. These strikes are stronger and more reliable than defenses that require fine motor movement (such as making a fist).
  2. Attack vital areas. The eyes, throat, groin, etc. are basically the same on every man. They take less physical strength to injure, regardless of the height or weight of the attacker.

What about those ink pens?

Ink pens are certainly an alternative, but much like being empty-handed, ink pens and other “small weapons” require close-quarter fighting, thus making them much riskier than having a weapon that can hold the attacker to a distance.

Get Educated

As close-quarter defense is riskier, I strongly recommend that it only be viewed as a back-up plan. I also recommend that all women take martial arts or self-defense classes in order to learn the most efficient and effective empty-hand defenses against an attacker, particularly because the attacker is likely going to be bigger and stronger. Another benefit of taking classes is that over time and with repetition, the physical defenses become part of muscle-memory. She is out of time if she is in close-quarter combat and will have to rely on her automatic responses. The muscle-memory developed from practice will allow her to react without having to stop and think about it.

A Final Note: “Passive” Self-Defense

One last note–regarding passive defense. As I have mentioned, every attack is different; and cases have been noted where women were able to scare off the attacker by telling him she had a disease or by disgusting him because she urinated on herself. These are the exception rather than the rule, however. So, while it is good to understand that passivity is an option for defense, it is also good to understand that it will do nothing to stop most attackers.

As a self-defense instructor, I want my students to have as much knowledge as possible–as many options as possible–for their personal defense. They can then take this information and decide what is right for them or right for the particular situation they face when attacked. Limiting their knowledge by telling them such things as urinating on themselves is a “good” defense when in most cases it is not will only handicap them in the event of a real attack.


(1) http://bjs.gov/content/pub/ascii/hvfsdaft.txt

Recommended Resources:

Please note that none of these resources are mine. I am recommending them simply because I found them useful and/or informative while researching women’s self-defense. Also, I’ve placed asterisks next to the book that I would only recommend for adults. Regardless, the topic is sensitive, so parents should use their discretion with these materials.


The Gift of Fear by Gavin DeBecker

The Evil That Men Do by Roy Hazelwood**

Fight Like a Girl … And Win by Lori Hartman Gervasi

Thank God I Had a Gun: True Accounts of Self-Defense by Chris Bird

I Never Called it Rape: The Ms. Report on Recognizing, Fighting, and Surviving Date and Acquaintance Rape by Robin Warshaw

No! No! No! A Woman’s Guide to Personal Defense by Kathy Long

Statistics and Other Research

When Criminals Face Armed Resistance by the Cato Institute

Information for Victims of Sexual Assault by the Montana Department of Justice

Rape, Resistance, and Women’s Right of Self-Defense by Dr. Gail Reekie and Professor Paul Wilson

R.A.I.N.N. (The Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network) Statistics

Sex Offenses and Offenders: An Analysis of Data on Rape and Sexual Assault by the Bureau of Justice Statistics

Female Victims of Sexual Violence by the Bureau of Justice Statistics

Resources for Rape Victims

10 Helpful Online Resources for Victims of Rape

R.A.I.N.N. (The Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network)

Safe Horizon

Rape Victims Support Network


2 comments on “What are the Best Ways for a Woman to Defend Herself?

  1. As a member of the Martial Arts community, I cannot tell you how insightful your self-defense plan is. I have over 35 years of experience in the study of martial arts and I have had the privilege of working with many women to help them understand the difficulties and complexities of violent attacks. The recent advice bantered about in the news media can get a woman killed. Your information is sound and should be read and integrated. Thank you for posting this information. Please continue your excellent work and care for those who are victims or intended victims of violence.

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