Self Defense Efficacy Research—A Bibliography

This excellent summary of sources on self defense instruction’s benefits and its place in public policy  was compiled by  Katy Mattingly, MSW, instructor of “Violence Prevention in College and Beyond” at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor. She is also the author of Self-Defense: Steps to Survival.

Prevention Experts & Federal Recommendations

Personal Safety Education is a key recommendation of numerous national experts in violence prevention, public health, sexual violence, criminology, and trauma studies.

Alan Berkowitz recommends that programs for women, in particular, include the following elements of PSE: discussion of effective responses to coercive behavior, overcoming of social norms that reduce self-efficacy, understanding protective and risk behaviors, and learning physical self-defense techniques and skills (Berkowitz, 2001, pp. 85-86).

Judith Herman recommends self-defense in the newest edition of her seminal work Trauma and Recovery, in which she notes that self-defense training can empower survivors to “face their world more confidently” (1997, p. 198).

National prevention expert Gavin De Becker recommends IMPACT Personal Safety Education and further readings on self-defense in his best-seller The Gift of Fear (1997).

Teaching PSE skills has been identified as a promising practice in the same category as Bystander Intervention Education; both are “supported by a preponderance of the evidence” for changing knowledge, attitudes, beliefs, or behavioral intentions and for reducing… victimization,” (Schewe, 2007, p. 227.)

Further, self-defense training has been labeled “one of the most promising interventions to prevent violence against women, particularly sexual assault committed by strangers or acquaintances” (Hollander, 2009, p. 575).

Various federal U.S. institutes, grant-makers and departments recommend that people at high risk for violence practice PSE. In a recent report commissioned by the National Institute of Justice, researchers examined various types of assault against women. They found that certain actions reduce the risk of rape more than 80 percent compared to nonresistance and did not significantly increase the risk of serious injury to the defender (Kleck & Tark, 2005).

The most effective actions, according to survivors, are attacking or struggling against their attacker, running away, and verbally warning the attacker (all actions which are taught and practiced in Personal Safety Education).

Further, while the Department of Justice once identified self-defense-styles of PSE as an example of victim-blaming programming which would not be funded, in recent years they have moved from such a stance. Their 2012 solicitation for Campus Grants no longer disallows such programming, but cautions only that any funded self-defense programs must not be mandatorynor the sole Prevention program available for students on campus.[1]

Academic Literature

A number of studies have found evidence that self-defense training, specifically, may decrease a woman’s chances of experiencing future sexual victimization as compared to women without training; and that forceful verbal and physical resistance and fleeing (all taught and practiced in PSE) have a proven association with rape avoidance in both reported and unreported crimes (Bart & O’Brien, 1993; Brecklin & Ullman, 2005; Ullman & Knight, 1993; Orchowski, Gidycz & Raffle, 2008; Peri, 1991; Zoucha-Jensen & Coyne, 1993).

Low utilization of self-protective dating behaviors (including those taught and practiced in PSE) is associated with more frequent sexual victimization (Orchowski, Untied, & Gidycz, 2011).

Additionally, self-defense has been empirically proven to decrease a number of psychological attributes that are associated with victimization (Brecklin, 2008; Ozer & Bandura 1990; Sochting, Fairbrother & Koch, 2004; Ullman, 2007).

PSE programs may increase assertiveness, perceived control, self-efficacy, risk avoidance behaviors, confidence, and self-esteem, and may also lower anxiety and fear (Brecklin, 2008; Hollander, 2004). Importantly, low self-esteem and low assertiveness have been found to be predictive of victimization (Brecklin & Ullman, 2005).

Unfortunately, crime prevention effectiveness is a difficult topic to quantify, as successful risk reduction or escape from violent situations is rarely reported as such. Experts believe women successfully resist at least 75% of all attempted sexual assaults (Bart & O’Brien, 1993; Gordon & Riger, 1989; Ullman 1997). Such was the case during the well-publicized Ann Arbor attacks of 2011; 5 out of 6 of the assailant’s intended victims successfully employed Personal Safety strategies to end the assault.[2]

Survivors of intimate partner violence similarly employ many different active and creative self-protective strategies both to resist and to escape violence (Campbell, Rose, Kub, & Nedd, 1998; Cook, Woolard, & McCollum, 2004; Gondolf, 1988; Jones, 1994; Hollander, 2005).

Case Study — University of Oregon

One well-known and widely respected academic PSE class reveals additional important supporting research. This upper level, 4-credit Women’s Studies class was taught by the author of Self-Defense from the Inside Out. Nadia Telsey is a national expert on non-violence and personal safety, and a founder of the National Women’s Martial Arts Federation[3] who taught at the University of Oregon for 17 years. Her course included 45 hours of instruction in PSE over a 10 week academic quarter. This women-only class included 3 hours per week of physical and verbal PSE training plus a required weekly 1.5 hour discussion section.

Deep and broad learning outcomes for students were revealed in a qualitative, longitudinal study. Researchers identified five areas in which changes were most striking: “interactions with strangers, interactions with known others (acquaintances, friends, employers, teachers, and intimates), feelings about one’s body, perceived self-confidence, and beliefs about women, men, and gender” (Hollander, 2004, p. 212).

Risk Reduction

Self-defense programs may increase assertiveness, perceived control, self-efficacy, risk avoidance behaviors, confidence, and self-esteem, and may also lower anxiety and fear (Brecklin, 2008; Hollander, 2004). Importantly, low self-esteem and low assertiveness have been found to be predictive of sexual victimization (Brecklin & Ullman, 2005).


Bart, P.B., & O’Brien, P.H. (1993). Stopping rape: Successful survival strategies.New York, NY: Pergamon Press.

Berkowitz, A. & Kilmartin C. (2001). Critical elements of sexual assault-prevention and risk-reduction programs for men and women. In Sexual assault in context: Teaching college men about gender. Mahwah, NJ, US: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Brecklin, L.R. (2008). Evaluation outcomes of self-defense training for women: A review. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 13, 60-76.

Brecklin, L.R., & Ullman, S.E. (2005). Self-Defense or assertiveness training and women’s responses to sexual attacks. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 20(6), 738-762.

Campbell, J., Rose, L., Kub, J., & Nedd, D. (1998). Voices of strength and resistance: A contextual and longitudinal analysis of women’s responses to battering. Journal of Interpersonal Violence,13, 743-762.

Cook, S. L.,Woolard, J. L.,& McCollum, H. C. (2004). The strengths, competence, and resilience of women facing domestic violence: How can research and policy support them? In K. Maton, C. Schellenbach, B. Leadbeater, & A. Solarz (Eds.), Investing in children, youth, families, and communities: Strengths-based research and policy (pp. 97-115).Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Dahlberg, L.L., & Krug, E.G. (2002). Violence-a global public health problem. In: Krug E., Dahlberg, L.L., Mercy,

J.A., Zwi, A.B., Lozano, R, Eds. World Report on Violence and Health. Geneva, Switzerland: World Health Organization: 1-56. Retrieved from

De Becker, G. (1997). The Gift of Fear: And other survival signals that that protect us from violence. Little, Brown, and Company: New York, N.Y.

Gondolf, E.W. (1988). Battered women as survivors: An alternative to treating learned helplessness. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books.

Gordon, M. T.,& Riger, S. (1989). The female fear: The social cost of rape.Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Herman, J. (1997). Trauma and Recovery: The aftermath of violence — from domestic abuse to political terror. Basic Books: New York, N.Y.

Hollander, J.A. (2009). The Roots of Resistance to Women’s Self-Defense. Violence Against Women 15(5), 574-594.

Hollander, J.A. (2005). Challenging Despair: Teaching About Women’s Resistance to Violence. Violence Against Women, 11(6), 776-791.

Hollander, J.A. (2004). ‘I can take care of myself’: The impact of self-defense training on women’s lives. Violence Against Women, 10(3), 205-235.

Jones, A. (1994). Next time, she’ll be dead: Battering and how to stop it. Boston: Beacon.

Kleck, G. & Tark, J. (2005). U.S. Department of Justice. The Impact of Victim Self-Protections on Rape

Completion and Injury: The Analysis of Existing Data Program, National Institute of Justice. Award Number: 2004-IJ-CX-0046.

Nation, M., Crusto, C., Wanderman, A., Kumpfer, K.L. ,Seybolt, D., Morrissey-Kane, E., & Davino, K. (2003).

What works in prevention: Principles of effective prevention programs.American Psychologist, 58, 449-456.

Orchowski, L., Gidycz, C.A., & Raffle, H. (2008). Evaluation of a sexual assault risk-reduction and self-defense program: A prospective analysis of a revised protocol. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 32, 204-218.

Orchowski, L., Untied, A.S., & Gidycz, C.A. (2011). Reducing risk for sexual victimization: An analysis of the perceived socioemotional consequences of self-protective behaviors. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 27(9), 1743-1761.

Ozer, E.M., & Bandura, A. (1990). Mechanisms governing empowerment effects: A self-efficacy analysis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 58, 472-486.

Peri, C. (1991, March). Below the belt: Women in the martial arts. Newsletter of the National Women’s Martial Arts Federations, 6-14.

Schewe, P.A. (2007). Interventions to Prevent Sexual Violence. In: The Handbook of Injury and Violence Prevention, Eds: Doll, L.S., Bonzo, S.E., Sleet, D.A., Mercy, J.A. Springer, U.S.

Sochting, I., Fairbrother, N., & Koch, W.J., (2004). Sexual Assault of Women.Violence Against Women, 10(1), 73-93.

Ullman, S.E. (2007). A 10-year update of ‘Review and critique of empirical studies of rape avoidance.’ Criminal Justice and Behavior, 34(3), 411-429.

Ullman, S.E. (2002). Rape avoidance: Self-protection strategies for women. In Schewe, P.A. (Ed.). Preventing violence in relationships: Interventions across the life span, 137-162. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Ullman, S.E. (1997). Review and critique of empirical studies of rape avoidance. Criminal Justice & Behavior, 24(2), 177-204.

Ullman, S.E. & Knight, R.A. (1993). The efficacy of women’s resistance strategies in rape situations. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 17, 23-38.

Zoucha-Jensen, J.M., & Coyne, A. (1993). The effects of resistance strategies on rape. The American Journal of Public Health, 83(11), 1633-1634.

FearLess Fridays: A weekly plan for making yourself a safer person in a safer world


Hi everyone,

I’m preparing to launch a new project to help people learn and practice everyday safety skills. It’s called FearLess Fridays, and I’ll be posting new installments every Monday for twelve weeks, starting on January 27, 2014. Yes, on Monday. Here’s how it works:

Each Monday, I’ll post an easy-to-do activity that will improve your personal safety. It’ll be something you can try out without disrupting your daily routine. You’ll need a partner for some of them, but they’ll all be simple and quick.

During the week, you’ll practice the skill as opportunities arise during everyday life, and report back via comments, Facebook, or Twitter (@SusanSchorn, #FearLessFriday). On Friday, I’ll summarize your responses, and we’ll reflect on how the week’s practice has changed our perspective on safety. The goal is to acquire basic self defense skills in a practical and convenient way, without the time commitment of a full-fledged self defense class.

That’s it. One simple thing to do, cued up for you on Monday morning, that will make you feel safer by Friday.

Sound like fun? If you want FearLess Fridays to show up in your email box automatically each week, you can sign up with the email widget my friend Amy has helped me install over there in the sidebar*. Or follow me on Twitter @SusanSchorn, where I’ll be Tweeting links every Monday. I’ll also be posting the links on Facebook (and of course you can just bookmark the FearLess Fridays main page and swing by on Monday mornings), so you’ll have many ways to access the activities and contribute your feedback. I hope you’ll join us!

*If you sign up, you’ll get one FearLess Fridays email on Mondays, plus an occasional follow-up message or notification. I have neither the inclination nor the aptitude to use your email address for marketing purposes, nor will I sell your address or give it away, except under threat of torture, which I am fairly certain won’t come up but these days one never knows.