Should Self-Defense Courses For Women Be Part of A Campus Safety Plan?

Picture of Mary Kate McGrath By Mary Kate McGrath


self defense courses for women be part of a campus safety planAcross the United States, self-defense courses and training remain a common resource for individuals looking to defend themselves in difficult situations. Yet, these classes are less prevalent on college campuses, as many believe they place the burden on women to protect themselves and don't prioritize prevention. Most college sand universities focus on educational trainings for all students sexual assault and comprehensive bystander training to teach students to intervene when a dangerous situation arises. Training is critical, but the question of whether optional self-defense training for women can be beneficial remains. Self defense courses remain controversial because these programs alone are an insufficient way to address the complex issue sexual assault on campus, but there may be a case for including these resources as part of a campus safety plan.  

Self-defense courses can be integrated into campus safety training, or offered as an optional workshop for students. Many campus safety teams offer safety and self-defense classes tailored toward preventing violence toward women or men. During these 3-4 hour classes, campus police review basic safety procedures and introduce basic options for self-defense. The training would typically be held  1-3 times per year. 

In 2015, a group of women at Harvard University organized a self-defense training class aimed at fighting incidents of sexual assault, as reported by WBUR. The course, which was hosted in an off-campus facility and paid for by the parent of a student, taught physical tools for women encountering danger. The class was approximately 3 hours long and taught women verbal and physical ways to deter aggressors in public. The training showed how do a stable stance, assess threats, and escalate a verbal response. The program also had participants act out skits to practice getting out of a situation they don’t want to be in, such as one where a man brings them into a male-dominated space, such as their dorm room. 

Self-defense training on campus was on the rise circa the mid-2000s, as per US News, but programs such as the one at Harvard have received pushback. Many critics point to how self-defense classes for women put the blame on the victim, and a greater emphasis should be given to teaching men not to assault. These critiques hold weight, especially since self-defense courses do not account for those individuals who are particularly vulnerable to attack - such as those belonging to marginalized communities, or who may be physically or verbally unable to defend themselves

Alone, self-defense courses may be an insufficient way to address physical attacks or assault on campus, and should be offered in tandem with other training so students don’t feel the burden is on them to protect themselves. If offering these courses, campus safety teams should also communicate to students the other basic safety tools and strategies available to bolster safety practices. 

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What Are Self-Defense Courses? 

Self Defense courses teach individuals personal safety strategies. The exact logistics of the training can vary by program, and each program offers a different framework to teach participants. Every instructor may choose to focus on different elements of self defense training, such as physical defense versus teaching students how to vocalize opposition and advocate for their needs in uncomfortable situations. 

Arguably, the situation-based portions of the programs have become thes more controversial elements, as they once again put undue burden on women or vulnerable students to protect themselves. Additionally, in order to prevent violence on campus, safety managers need to focus on the fact that most acts of sexual violence on campus are perpetrated by someone the victim already knows. It's critical for defense course to address this reality, and adjust response accordingly. 

It’s important to differentiate between self-defense courses, education about consent for men, and bystander intervention training. Bystander intervention training reduces the instances of sexual violence on campus, but also interpersonal violence as a whole at colleges and universities. The program uses a “community of responsibility” strategy to teach students to intervene in situations where a peer may be at risk. 

A study conducted in 2015 on two New England college campuses found that bringing in the Bystander Prevention Program changed students attitudes about sexual violence and the individual’s ability to prevent it, a change that was effective both immediately and a year later. These trainings can have a significant impact on the student population, and should be considered a fundamental part of ending sexual harassment and assault on college campuses.

There is a persuasive number of studies conducted which show that women’s participation in harm risk reduction programs, such as self-defense, reduce the likelihood of being assaulted on campus. However, these studies also show that programming tailored toward educating men can change attitudes and decrease the likelihood of assault as well. Therefore, these programs are equally critical on campus, and safety managers should consider requiring or offering education and training to all members of the campus community. Creating a safety plan that includes comprehensive safety training for all and a large safety net of safety resources is the most effective way to address this issue on campus, beyond one simple safety training used as a catch-all. 

Leveraging Technology To Bolster Safety For Women 

A campus safety app can be a powerful tool for bolstering safety for women in the college or university community. The tool allows users to set a virtual escort when traveling between campus facilities. The app will let a designated guardian know if the user does not reach their destination on time, and then campus safety or local law enforcement can be informed. The app also provides a direct way to contact campus safety officials or first responders in the area during an emergency - the user only has to push a button to be connected to help.It’s important for students to feel empowered to take safety into their own hands, and this can be yet another way for all students to create an extra layer of safety while on campus. 

It’s also critical to communicate to students, faculty, and staff all relevant safety training at the beginning of the school semester. A mass notification system can be a way to effectively communicate all relevant safety materials at the beginning of a semester. Campus administrators can let students and faculty know via text, voice-call, or e-mail what training will be required or offered at the school. The greater reach these programs have on campus, whether it is self-defense or bystander intervention, the more likely the course is to reduce instances of assault or interpersonal violence.

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Mary Kate McGrath

Written by Mary Kate McGrath

Mary Kate is a content specialist and social media manager for the Rave Mobile Safety team. She writes about public safety for the state & local and education spheres.


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