Why the CDC Doesn’t Promote Women’s Self-Defense

There is large body research that spans decades which consistently finds women who are trained in self-defense are less likely to be assaulted, and are more likely to get away if they are. So why doesn’t the CDC promote women’s self-defense? You just might be mortified.

Evidence Women’s Self-Defense Works

The Efficacy of Women’s Resistance Strategies in Rape Situations published in the Psychology of Women Quarterly on March 1, 1993 found that women who fought back forcefully were more likely to avoid rape than women who did not fight back, regardless of whether a weapon was present. Forceful fighting resistance was related to increased physical injury when a weapon was present, but most physical injury was caused by nonlethal weapons. Women who screamed or fled when confronted with weapons experienced less severe sexual abuse. Increased physical injury was associated with pleading, crying, or reasoning indoors. Women who used drugs or alcohol experienced more severe sexual abuse and physical injury.

The Efficacy of a Sexual Assault Resistance Program for University Women published in the New England Journal of Medicine on June 11, 2015 found that the risk of completed rape was significantly lower over a period of 1 year among first-year university women who participated in a sexual assault resistance program than among those who were provided access to brochures on sexual assault. It also found that attempted coercion and nonconsensual sexual contact were also significantly lower in the women who participated in a sexual assault resistance program.

One of the more recent, ‘It’s breaking quite big social taboos’ violence against women and girls and self-defense training in Nepal published in the Women’s Studies International Forum in September, 2017 found that self-defense training can play a crucial role in challenging normative gender roles, raising confidence and self-esteem in girls and women. This is similar to the conclusion in The importance of self-defense training for sexual violence prevention published April 13, 2016, Jocelyn A. Hollander states “that empowerment-based self-defense training helps to change the root conditions that allow violence against women to flourish.”

If there is such a body of evidence that women’s self-defense training dramatically reduces violence against women, why doesn’t the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) consider it an important approach to preventing sexual violence? The answer is surreal.

First, Teach Men Not to Rape

CDC Behavioral Scientist Sarah DeGueFirst, the CDC argues that self-defense training does nothing to change the behavior of perpetrators. In a June 6, 2012 article on the success of women’s self-defense training in The New York Times, CDC behavioral scientist Sarah DeGue said “It’s possible that potential perpetrators could encounter individuals who have received training and just move on to more vulnerable individuals.” Keep in mind Ms. DeGue is responsible for reviewing evaluations of prevention programs for the White House Task Force on campus sexual assault.

While it is possible that a perpetrator “could encounter individuals who have received training and just move on to more vulnerable individuals”, any perpetrator will think twice if his intended victim gouges his eyes, delivers a powerful elbow to his throat, or breaks his knee. Even if resistance is not physically violent, meaning using body language and authoritative verbal commands to set clear boundaries, can it really be assumed that this experience will not shift his perceptions of women’s vulnerability?

The CDC is implying that the focus of rape prevention and violence against women should be only on the perpetrator. In Kenya, where violence against women and rape are rampant, a six-week “Your Moment of Truth” program that began in 2010 produced lasting improvements in teenage boys’ and young men’s attitudes toward women. The Stanford University School of Medicine study was published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence on June 10, 2015. In 2017, every secondary student in Nairobi participated in the assault prevention training. Meanwhile, back at the CDC, lack of any training condemns millions of women to suffering rape and sexual assault.

Fear of Victim Blaming

CDC Researcher Kathleen BasileThe CDC is also concerned about victim blaming. CDC researcher Kathleen Basile wrote an editorial on The Efficacy of a Sexual Assault Resistance Program for University Women study, citing the major weakness of Senn’s study “is that it places the onus for prevention on potential victims, possibly obscuring the responsibility of perpetrators and others. What happens when women who complete the intervention cannot successfully resist rape?”

The answer is clearly found in multiple studies, including this one published in Trama and Abuse in October 2014. Studies have consistently found that women who participated in self-defense training and experienced a subsequent assault blamed themselves no more than women without self-defense training, or even blamed themselves less.

Kenya’s “No Means No” assault prevention training for girls taught them self-defense skills to teach them how to fight back against rape instead of just avoiding “high-risk” situations. It was found that the self-defense training shifts the blame to the victim for being raped instead of putting it on the rapist for actually committing the crime.

The Role of Women’s Self-Defense Training

The United States would be well advised to follow Kenya’s “Your Moment of Truth” training for boys and “No Means No” for girls during secondary school. So would incorporating healthy relationship education into the secondary school curriculum. But it’s not there, nor is it in on the CDCs horizon.

In the meantime, self-defense training is effective for helping women reduce their risk of assault, and reducing the likelihood of injury if they are assaulted. The CDCs argument that women’s self-defense training doesn’t dissuade perpetrators and results in victim blaming is what H.L. Mencken would generally have described as “neat, plausible, and wrong.”