The Awful Truth About Women’s Self-Defense

The awful truth about womens self defense

Ever ask yourself why there’s so many cringe-worthy videos online on the topic of women’s self-defense? If you’re not sure what I mean, here’s a prime example*:

Hard to watch? Kind of makes you embarrassed for martial arts instructors everywhere, doesn’t it?

The Culprit: The Expert Delusion

I can tell you that part of the problem stems from martial arts instructors suffering from “the expert delusion” — that’s when someone is an expert in one field, and they assume that makes them an expert in a related field.

You see this A LOT in the world of “tactical” self-defense training. Many firearms instructors think they can teach anything and everything, just because they attended a two-hour range course, or because they spent a few years working as a cook in the Marine Corp.

This is also why you’ll see cops teaching women’s self-defense classes, where they give really bad advice… things like “use your keys as a weapon” (you won’t have time to stick your keys between your fingers), or “urinate on yourself” (might actually be a turn-on to a sadist), or “tell the rapist you have AIDS (they might already have it… and besides, most rapists use condoms because they watch TV too).

Likewise, many martial arts instructors think they are experts at self-defense, just because they’ve earned a black belt. Not true. So not true.

Learning The Hard Way

I learned this the hard way, the first time I taught a women’s self-defense course. A friend and I taught it at a local community college… I think I was 22 at the time. Only two women showed up. Both had been assaulted, and both of them asked questions that we were totally unprepared to answer.

Our class was a huge flop. My friend resolved to never teach a women’s self-defense course again. I decided instead to learn everything I could about the topic, and spent two decades studying various approaches to teaching women self-defense, pouring over crime statistics, and trying to examine self-defense from a woman’s perspective.

Along the way I taught self-defense classes to hundreds of women, and lectured twice yearly on the topic at our local university (I taught a class for the kinesiology department, and the department chair asked me to include it in my course syllabus as a class requirement for all my students). And, I spoke to dozens of young women who had been assaulted.

What I Learned

The things I learned during that time would have a tremendous impact on how I eventually approached women’s self-defense training. Since I get asked about this a lot by my clients, I decided to share a few tips today, in hopes that I can prevent many of you from teaching cringe-worthy women’s self-defense courses.

Lesson #1 – It’s Just Self-Defense, Period

The first thing you need to keep in mind when teaching women self-defense is that it’s just self-defense. There’s no such thing as “women’s self-defense.” I mean, would you teach a “man’s self-defense” course? **

Of course not! So, get yourself out of the mindset that you are teaching different self-defense methods for women than you are for men.

Certainly, there are differences in bone structure, musculature, and so on between the sexes in most cases. But, if the recent rise of women’s MMA has taught us anything, it’s that women can learn to fight just as well as men can.

So, ditch the sexist attitude and teach your female students like warriors, not women. Everyone bleeds the same on the battlefield, so train them just like you would anyone else. Equal, and with an equally serious mindset.

Lesson #2 – Something Is Better Than Nothing…

At every opportunity I try to on-ramp the ladies who attend my self-defense courses for women into my regular classes. The reason is not just because I want to enroll more students, it’s also because I know that the more training they get, the better.

However, I still teach short courses on self-defense for women. My reasons for this are simple:

  1. Most women don’t want martial arts training, and they are unlikely to join a martial arts class.
  2. Something is better than nothing, and even a little self-defense training might help a woman escape and survive a sexual assault.

If you want a prime example of reason #2, take a look at the story of Kelly Herron. Kelly was out for a jog and got attacked by a serial rapist. She’d taken a self-defense course just three days prior, and was able to successfully fend off her attacker.

With just a tiny bit of training and a hell of a lot of attitude, she was able to successfully defend herself. And, she even locked the guy in the bathroom until the cops arrived (with some help from bystanders).

Lesson #3 – …And Mindset Trumps Technique

Which brings me to lesson #3, that mindset trumps technique. First, show a woman a few simple techniques and tactics, like how to throw a strike with her whole body behind it, how to attack soft target areas like the eyes, throat, and groin, and how to fight to her feet from the ground…

…and then, tell her that her attacker is going to rape and kill her child after he’s done with her. I can guaran-effing-tee you, she’s going to fight like a hellcat and beat the shit out of her attacker, or die trying.

And that’s the most important lesson you can learn as a self-defense instructor to women, and that you can teach your female students. That is, to fight with everything they have to their very last breath to escape.

Now, I won’t ever tell my students they should fight in every scenario, because I don’t know what they’ll face. And, it’s a personal decision for each individual to choose to fight and possibly die or comply and survive. I won’t make that decision for my students.

But, I will try to help them develop the mentality that they will fight to their last breath. Because that’s what’s going to get them home, more than anything else I can teach them.

Other Lessons for Would-be Women’s Self-Defense Instructors

A few other things you should note if you’re thinking of teaching self-defense classes to and for women. First, much of your art is shit when it comes to self-defense. This comes from someone who holds dan ranks in two styles of karate, in tae kwon do, and in hapkido, plus instructor ranks in a couple of other arts.

And, I can tell you that 90% of what I learned in getting those ranks is absolute crap for self-defense.

If that rankles your ego, then you have no business teaching self-defense to anyone. Because face it — if you teach something useless to a student, and they have to rely on it to save their lives tomorrow, they are going to die.

That’s a hell of a thing to let your ego decide.

So, throw the “art” side of your training out the window, and stick with the basic stuff. Gross motor movements. Basic power generation. Strikes to soft targets. Forward aggression. And leave the crazy stances, the complicated hand movements and footwork, and the forms/animal moves/philosophy out of it.

Also, don’t reinvent the wheel. Instead, go to the people who have already figured this stuff out to improve your skills. Find a real Israeli krav maga instructor, and learn from them. Study Tony Blauer’s stuff or attend one of his courses. Get certified to teach a course like Gracie Women Empowered or Defend University’s programs. Look into adrenal stress response training. Teach what has been proven to work.

If you do these things, chances are good that next week or next month or next year, you’ll have a student contact you to say thanks, because what you taught them helped them survive a sexual assault.

Or, you could stick to what you’ve always done, and get someone hurt or killed. Your call.

Until next time,

Mike Massie

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P.S. – * Like that karate rap video, this video will haunt the instructors who made it till the end of time. The moral of the story is, be careful what you put on video, because the internet is forever.

P.S.S. – ** If you immediately pictured a course that consisted of nothing but defenses against attacks to the groin, you are not alone.


  1. Mandy Marksteiner on May 19, 2017 at 10:56 am

    Great article!

    My biggest fear is that someone will attack me when my kids are there. That fear is there for a good reason… I would fight 100 times harder to protect them.

  2. Mike Massie on May 25, 2017 at 5:54 am

    Absolutely, Mandy. But having family members around in such a scenario does change the dynamic. That’s why it’s a good idea to seek out systems and training classes that address third-party protection.

  3. Rob Steffen on October 16, 2017 at 12:21 pm

    Very well said!

  4. Pablo Zamora on January 22, 2019 at 1:13 pm

    Great article! I’ve been in the martial arts all my life… going on 50 years. But honestly, I didn’t start to learn about reality self defense till I dive into JKD and Israeli Fighting Systems. That’s 35 yrs in JKD and 20 in Krav. Maga, I also get a good laugh when martial artists talk about women’s self defense being different than men’s. It’s nit different. It’s a Marketing tool, that’s all. A finger jab to the eyes is the same for a man, woman or child. So us a side kick to the knee. Self defense is universal. You strike vulnerable areas to escape.

  5. Mike Massie on January 23, 2019 at 7:10 am

    Yup! And most of what’s taught as “self-defense” in this industry, isn’t. People need to learn to stay in their lane, or get training in areas where their skills and knowledge are deficient.

  6. Anne Roos on July 13, 2019 at 10:20 am

    Fantastic article! Nothing works without the proper mindset, and with that, anyone walks with more confidence and a wold-be attacker decides to pick someone else. Thank you!

  7. B on August 6, 2020 at 12:33 pm

    I agree with the point you made about women’s self-defense classes, I hadn’t thought about that perspective upon looking for a women’s self defense class!
    However, the reason I searched for a women-only self-defense class is b/c I hoping the class is full of ONLY women, b/c I am uncomfortable around men.
    Again, thank you for your knowledge and perspective!

  8. Mike Massie on August 9, 2020 at 8:48 am

    Thanks for the feedback, B! Over the last three decades I’ve taught many women who were uncomfortable training with men. My advice is that you train in the manner you’re comfortable training. If that means women’s-only classes, then do that. The important thing is that you get the training you need to defend yourself.

  9. Randell on January 30, 2022 at 11:56 am

    the biggest draw back of Women’s self defense is that it is usually Women’s only. if a woman want’s to develop the necessary skill to defend against a man than she must do so by practicing against MEN. just like how you wouldn’t train in self defense using only kata/forms but you would also have free form sparring, and full contact sparring. its the only way to get good at FIGHTING by fighting. so the onlyw ay to get good at fighting men is to fight men.
    Ronda Rousey wouldn’t be able to go up against a man if she had never ever fought gainst a man because of the extreme difference in strength between both sexes

  10. Edward Murnane on March 14, 2023 at 1:14 pm

    Great article. It’s laughable what some schools call self defense. I teach a Jiu Jitsu based self defense curriculum because it can be used by anyone in any situation from the school bully to someone trying to abduct and kill you.

  11. AutodifesaPerDonna on December 7, 2023 at 11:04 am

    A great post, I liked it a lot. Not sure I agree with #1, but the others are spot on. The reason I teach women differently from men, is most of the time, the law treats women differently. High trauma bio defense, is frowned on in court, if used by a man, as it is not regarded as “reasonable force”. Whereas a woman, with a smaller size, lower bone density is in more danger of being maimed by exactly the same attack (and the courts know this) so will allow a higher level of aggression to compensate for a lower strength level.

    A great post, thank you for sharing.

  12. Crystal Fier on January 8, 2024 at 10:27 pm

    Great article, Mike! I trained for 8 years in kenbujitsu and aikido under Dan and Jillian Coglan, and the biggest part of what I learned about self defense is paying attention to my surroundings, closely followed by moving out of the way of someone coming at me. It’s really unfortunate to see so many other systems focus first on blocking, if at all, instead of teaching how to move.

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