Self-Defense Can Work Well for Trauma Survivors

When we advocate women’s self-defense training, we often hear worries about the possible victim-blaming that is implied (“it will only make victims feel bad for not having defended themselves” and “it will only make people expect women to fight back in order to make a legitimate claim in a court of law”). We also hear related concerns about survivors of interpersonal violence. Won’t they feel bad for not having “successfully” defended themselves? Won’t they blame themselves for the attack they suffered? Will they be too traumatized to go through self-defense training? 

Survivors are not necessarily ready for self-defense training, but some are.  In fact, some survivors are even referred by a therapist to self-defense training because it can be helpful for reclaiming their power and sense of safety.  Of course, for these reasons self-defense classes must be taught by well trained, feminist instructors who are sensitive to the many issues around gendered violence that can emerge when training women how to practice self-defense techniques.  In the 2014  Special Issue of Violence Against Women on self-defense against sexual assault, Gianine Rosenblum and Lynn Taska outline the elements of self-defense training specifically for trauma survivors. The self-defense curriculum they helped develop is based in research on trauma and its treatment.  In a class like this, a therapeutic teaching team works to understand each student’s needs, triggers, and window of tolerance. Students also have the option of requesting custom scenarios to (re)enact past events or trigger experiences, providing an opportunity to re-script the event or experience. In these self-defense classes, trauma survivors who are ready to enter self-defense training can experience therapeutic benefits such as the internalization of new emotional and physical resources. 

Self-defense training is not just for the strong, the young, or the unscarred among us.  And above all, self-defense need not blame past or future victims. Its aim is to empower us to challenge the rape culture that we live in, and the rape culture that lives in us.


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