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


15 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.

  2. I’ve only ever needed to defend myself twice against a stronger man. I just went with the approach my mum taught me as a teenager. Feint compliance/submission to lower their guard, then knee them in the balls as hard as you can.
    Tried it twice. 2 men on the floor whimpering and moaning.

    • Excellent advice from your mom. The groin is an excellent target for defense because it is so full of nerves and has very little protection — regardless of the size of the assailant. I’m very glad you were able to successfully defend yourself.

      • Thanks. I was also lucky that neither were life and death situations. I wasn’t going to get killed or raped. So “defend” is maybe not the right term, depending on how you’d define it I guess. Both were just guys in bars and nightclubs who were groping me and refused to stop.
        I’m guessing some of the more principled self-defense advice would say just run away and get out of the bad situation, which I definitely could have done. But when a creepy man puts his hand under your skirt, it really seems like there needs to be some kind of punishment for that.
        I don’t know if you’d recommend that course of action to women or not? I’d like to think I did women in general a favour by damaging a creep’s testicles though.

  3. Every state has its own self-defense laws, so I would recommend checking out what the laws cover (or don’t) in your particular state. With that being said, I have had to do something similar. I was at a Halloween party years ago — a rather happy-drunk man picked me up from behind, his hands gripping my chest. I asked him to put me down twice, but he refused. Evidently, this was a “good time” to the jerk. Finally, left with no other obvious option, I solidly kicked backwards with my heel into his groin. He dropped me immediately and had to excuse himself from the festivities for quite some time. When he finally returned, he left me alone (which, of course, was the optimal conclusion).

    An important point to consider before using physical self-defense in a situation where the threat level isn’t as high as rape or death, though, is that it is nearly impossible to determine how the perpetrator will respond. It could ramp up their physical aggression rather than put them off. This is particularly true when alcohol or drugs are involved since they can sometimes mask physical pain. But, every situation is different. And, I strongly believe women should know HOW to use physical defense in case their situation warrants it.

    • Yes I’ve heard that there are some guys who just become more aggressive if you hurt them. I wonder if that’s true for both regular violence and sexual assault though. One of the reasons I’d generally favour hitting them between the legs in those situations is it does seem to put a downer on their libido, if that’s what they’re after. Sounds like that happened in your situation too.
      Out of interest, have you had many other real world experiences like that? I always love to hear of situations where women have come out on top like that.

      I’m actually from England. Our laws are very weird and messy on this sort of thing and change quite often. It depends whether you use a “reasonable amount of force” in defending yourself. (so the amount of force you use has to be proportional to the danger of your situation).
      That does raise an interesting question, which I don’t know the answer to. Obviously punching someone in the arm with the same amount of force that you kick them in the testicles with, is going to lead to incredibly disparate outcomes. So if it is literally just about the amount of force, that would lead to the law being incredibly lenient of women hitting men in their private parts. Which would be quite funny.

  4. My research (some of the resources mentioned above) matched tales I’ve heard through the years as a self-defense instructor — whether the violence was domestic, sexual, or otherwise, the perpetrator’s response is extremely difficult (if not impossible) to predict.

    But, more specifically to your question, yes, I’m familiar with perpetrators of regular violence becoming more aggravated by a woman’s attempt to defend herself, so the attacker escalated the violence. On the other hand, I’m familiar with cases where minimal self-defense was enough to deter the attacker. Sometimes simply talking loud enough to draw attention from others, yelling, or acting like you are ready to fight is enough to change an attacker’s mind. This all goes back to the point that every attack is complex and should never be underestimated.

    Even in the U.S., self-defense laws tend to be a quagmire — leaving a bit too much to interpretation, giving judges and juries a lot of latitude. So, I fully understand your frustration there. Regretfully, unless a situation is clear-cut, extreme, and with witnesses willing to come forward, whether or not something is “reasonable force” is often open to interpretation and individual biases.

    For example, if a judge considering “reasonable force” thinks groping is a minor inconvenience, then he (or she) will consider a strike to the groin as unreasonable force. Granted, I do think most judges would be reasonable. But it is still important to consider that not all judges will be. For me, in the circumstance above, I had asked the guy twice to put me down. I figured that pretty much covered me legally. If not, at the point that I decided to strike him, I was willing to take an assault charge if necessary.

    You inquired whether I had experienced other circumstances similar to this. Yes. Regretfully. One example: many years ago a boyfriend tried to rape me — really bad idea on his part. As he tried to pin me down, I wedged my leg up and kicked as hard as I could (it’s not that I’m particularly strong, but the floor gave me a lot of leverage). He flew backwards into a door and was knocked out long enough for me to escape.

    Not all of the situations I’ve personally encountered required physical self-defense — but they always required some level of “don’t you dare put your hands on me.”

    It’s regrettable that simple human decency doesn’t prevent this kind of behavior — and that women have to grow up being taught that it’s pretty much inevitable that they’ll have to fend off creepy, groping men. But, until those moral undercurrents change (which I doubt will be within the foreseeable future), then women need to know how to use their voices and they need to be supported when they say “don’t you dare put your hands on me.” And, because there will always be violent offenders in the world, women certainly need to know how to assess danger and how to defend against it.

    • Sorry to hear you had a boyfriend try that on you. Glad you handled yourself well though. Were you well trained at that point or did you get into self-defense as a reaction to that?

      Well I do think maybe we’re overstating the importance of the legal issue, as wrong as that sounds. In my experience, very few men will actually go and report a woman for beating their ass. He’d be too busy trying to rebuild his ego in embarassment. I think that’s something we really should use to our advantage. Especially if it’s something that happened in public, like both of my incidents.
      How many times do you think a woman has kneed a man in the balls to teach him a lesson in a night club and then he’s gone and reported that to the police? I really struggle to imagine that ever happening. Guys are just too proud and wouldn’t want to draw attention to it.

      Would you have just played it safe in my particular situation instead? Or maybe a better question is how would you play it if the law wasn’t an issue. If it was purely about a combination of your own safety and wanting to punish and deter the creep, what would you do?

  5. Thank you — and, I was fortunate that I started training in the martial arts as a young child.

    I very much agree that it isn’t often that a guy will call the cops after she nails him (whether in the groin or somewhere else) because he was groping her. Either way, though, I think it is important for women to have at least a basic understanding of the laws that govern how they defend themselves. It’s actually a bit frustrating that they don’t cover these laws in school (at least not in the U.S.).

    Please know that I don’t question what you did — not at all. You followed your instinct in each situation (and your mom’s advice, of course) and it worked out well. The jerks definitely got what they deserved — and you got away safely. I think that’s fantastic!

    To your broader question about if the law weren’t an issue … It’s an interesting question. What I can tell you is that I believe groping is boorish, vile, and willful behavior. It is an invasion on a person’s right to her (or his) own body. Nobody should ever feel entitled to unilaterally decide to touch someone else’s body for his/her own titillation.

    And, yes, I believe women absolutely should have the choice to use physical self-defense as a means to stop someone from groping them. My only concern with this is to make sure that women have full information so they can make fully informed choices in such situations.

    One important point to our (wonderful!) conversation is that you and I are more of the exception than the rule. More often than not, women “freeze” and are unsure how to handle such situations. This is something I would like to have become a thing of the past.

    And, honestly, I think if all women were fully informed, trained to physically defend themselves, and supported in saying “don’t you dare put your hands on me!” — not only would the women be prepared and better able to protect themselves, but — on a societal level — all of this would likely serve as a deterrent for such boorish behavior as groping, thereby curtailing it from happening as much as it does.

  6. So you started training at a young age whereas I had the next best thing: growing up with 3 older brothers.
    That’s the reason I don’t freeze. Lot of experience with aggressive guys.

    And thank you, I’m glad my approach makes the grade. Although you didn’t answer the question! I was wondering what you’d have done in the same situation. I stipulated no laws because I’m curious how big a gap there is between the 2 hypotheticals and it’s also interesting to know if you’d personally use an approach that you wouldn’t tend to teach others.

    I wonder how much of an exception we are. I know there are plenty of women who fit that more timid category I couldn’t say what the percentages are. Feels like there should be school classes of some kind dedicated to dealing with pervy and assertive men. As distinguished from just general physical self-defense. Psychological self-defense I guess you could call it.

    If you do agree that men are incredibly unlikely to report such things to the police, surely we should just be encouraging more women to exploit this and being a bit more violent in response. Especially in those public situations where you’re safer from retribution,

  7. I can’t possibly say what I would have done in your shoes — as I pointed out, each situation is simply too different.

    Regarding the question, I thought I had answered it — but let me try again:

    Regardless of the laws or lack thereof, any situation that may call for physical force needs to be assessed with consideration for the environment, the perpetrator’s behavior, as well as for the victim’s ability and state of mind.

    I do not encourage nor advocate beating up men *when other options are available* — even if the guy is a complete jerk — because it introduces unnecessary risk to the victim. Every physical altercation (even between two men of the same size and ability) innately includes unpredictability. So, if there is no imminent danger and a “get the hell away from me” will suffice, I would discourage anyone (male or female) from elevating the risk to her (or his) safety by introducing violence.

    The goal is to extricate the victim in the quickest and safest manner possible.

    • I can understand that as a general principle, absolutely. But don’t you think it changes a lot depending on where you are?
      Take an extreme hypothetical. Say you’re out in public with 10 girl friends and 1 isolated guy starts groping one of you. Do you still go with the extreme pacifism approach? Or can you not take advantage of your safety in numbers to cause this guy some much deserved pain?
      I do find your position a bit confusing. You congratulated me for taking a more aggressive approach but also said you’d never advocate a position that creates unnecessary risk.
      Is your liking my approach just based on hindsight then because it happened to work out well for me?
      These are definitely tough issues to get the optimum approach I think.

      • First, it is important to note that It is not “extreme pacifism” to avoid unnecessary risk. Not even close.

        Yes, I did congratulate you — for extricating yourself from a precarious situation (being groped). It appears that my mistake was assuming that you felt like there were no other options, since you are now referring to your actions as “a more aggressive approach” at odds with my view that women shouldn’t take unnecessary risk.

        You keep pushing for the idea that punishment, not self-defense, is the goal. If you will take a second to re-read the title of the article, you’ll see that everything I wrote was centered on self-defense. And, if you take any martial arts course (or simply speak with martial arts instructors) the instructor will tell you that the goal is self-defense. If you want punishment, there is a full legal system that handles that. If you don’t approve of how the system handles it, then work to change the laws. Work to change the societal norms that make it difficult for women to get justice. But putting yourself (and potentially encouraging others to put themselves) in harms way simply to get a small, temporary measure of retribution is not what I consider to be a sensible approach.

        I’m sure there are people on the Web somewhere who support vigilantism. I’m not one of them.

  8. I apologise if my argument seems unnecessarily forceful. I’m maybe not arguing it with enough nuance.
    I’m definitely not suggesting punishment should be the main goal. I agree with you that self-defense should always come first and foremost. In something like that horrible situation you had with a boyfriend where you were completely alone (at least I assumed you were), I’d always prioritise self-defense there and just getting away from him to be the main goal.
    But do you not agree that in most public situations, where there are a lot of people around, you’re in much less danger of being personally harmed? I generally think most people would agree with that and it’s certainly how I’ve always felt. Part of that might just come from living in a fairly small countryside town where nearly everyone knows of each other. When you’re in a bar at night, most people in there will probably be a friend of a friend (or 1 friend after that).
    I wouldn’t call it vigilantism either. I’d interpret that as meaning going round, after the fact, to attack and punish men. Whereas I’m talking talking only about those situations where you’re probably physically safe, and where you’re using violence for self-defense at the same time.
    So for example. If this guy had put his hand up my skirt but I’d just walked off and avoided him, but then gone and found him the next day and kicked him in the balls for payback, I’d be against that. That wouldn’t have any self-defense element to it, and wouldn’t necessarily be in as safe a situation. But I do think that’s fundamentally different than responding at the time, in a situation that I feel fairly safe from a violent response, by causing him some much deserved pain to his manhood.
    In that situation you have the safety of a lot of people around you, and you also have the fact that it could be defended as self-defense in court if absolutely necessary.

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