Self-defense: A False Sense of Confidence?

The following is a guest blog by our good friend, Kate Webster, Ph.D. She is the Director of Violence Prevention Programs at Thousand Waves Martial Arts & Self-Defense Center in Chicago, IL. This gal kicks ass – and she uses her fancy advanced degree as an improvised weapon. *kidding* Seriously, she’s brilliant and she rules. Here’s Kate’s response to a recent interview on the Today Show that made all of us at GFB throw up in our mouths a little bit. -Erin

When I was in college, I knew there were dangers on my campus, as there were on any campus, and I wanted to be smart about being safe. Yet, all I heard was a bunch of don’ts.

Don’t walk alone at night, don’t go to fraternity parties, don’t get drunk at parties, don’t wear short skirts, don’t dress like you’re asking for it. Sound familiar?

To be safe, I was told to walk with a guy at night, carry mace or a siren whistle, or use the “blue” campus phones. But these tips always confused me because what if I didn’t have a guy friend to walk with me or want to carry mace or couldn’t find a blue campus phone?

Now, don’t get me wrong, some of this advice can be quite wise—it can be safer to walk with someone you know and trust, and mace or a whistle can help to stun or startle an attacker so you can get away. What confused me at the time was how the tips seemed to say that I had to rely on someone or something else to help me to feel safe. Couldn’t I stand up for myself, by myself? Luckily, a number of years later, I stepped into my first women’s self-defense class and found my answer to be a resounding yes.

I’ve been teaching self-defense ever since that first 12-hour course and firmly believe that we all have the power to stop, prevent, thwart, avert and successfully confront an attack through the most peaceful means possible—which sometimes might mean being physical and striking back, but more often means being assertive, strong, empowered, confident, and knowing you are worth defending.

However, not everyone seems to agree. On the Today show a couple of weeks ago, Pat Brown, a criminal profiler, denounced self-defense for young women, claiming it gave them a false sense of confidence. She erroneously claims that in self-defense classes, girls and young women learn to punch incorrectly and kick in high heels. And, according to her assessment, it’s not going to work—especially against a 200 lb Mike Tyson type of attacker.

I was so frustrated and saddened by these comments. Not just because they are incorrect—we teach untrained techniques such as a palm heel or a knee kick and not a trained one such as a punch—but because they are damaging to girls’ and young women’s ability to feel strong, empowered, and capable of taking care of themselves.

Peppered throughout her interview are comments of what we need to do to keep our girls safe and I was sorely reminded of those don’ts I heard back in college. Not a single time did she mention what girls and young women can do for themselves to keep themselves safe. She has a point that there are things all girls and young women can do to keep more safe, but let’s not blame them for wearing sexy clothing, having a few too many drinks, or wanting the freedom to walk home alone. Instead, let’s give them tools to feel strong and confident so they can make the best choices for themselves, and  decide for themselves if they want to have a drink, wear a short skirt and walk home alone.

The self-defense we teach at Thousand Waves Martial Arts & Self-Defense Center teaches teens and adults of all genders how to feel stronger in their mind and body and make the most peaceful choice in the face of violence that is appropriate for themselves. Giving individuals a sense of their own agency and a capacity to make decisions for themselves—the bad along with the good—is the true gift we can give the young people in our lives.

3 thoughts on “Self-defense: A False Sense of Confidence?

  1. Lauren

    Right on- to Teaching the tools!

    The old Chinese proverb comes to mind… about giving a fish (for a day) vs. teaching to fish (for a lifetime)

    Arrested Development lyrics version now is in my head…. (edit the gender!)

    Give a man a fish, and he’ll eat for a day
    Teach him how to fish and he’ll eat forever…..

    Give a man a fish, and he’ll eat for a day
    Teach him how to fish and he’ll eat forever…..

  2. Susan

    Description of Pat Brown via a radio show she’ll be appearing on tomorrow: “Brown, who is a frequent go-to expert on Nancy Grace and other shows on HLN, CNN, MSNBC, CBS, and NBC, shouts loud and clear that every young woman is vulnerable to a plethora of unforeseen dangers.” (

    How many disempowering, over-generalized, patronizing characterizations can they pack into one sentence?
    1) EVERY young woman
    2) is VULNERABLE to
    3) a PLETHORA of
    4) UNFORESEEN dangers.

    Thank you to Thousand Waves, Girls Fight Back, and everyone who is actively working to provide women tools for their own safety, so we don’t have to just stay home where it’s “safe,” and watch Nancy Grace.

  3. Siegrid

    Yeah, I think why not have both? Why not have some pepper spray in your purse as well as the training to get physical and run. Situation appropriate. Makes the most sense to me. Have tools and training… Because it’s true that if you have mace, it might not be easy to get to, and you might have to resort to special measures… fyi

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