Everything you know about self-defense is wrong


To begin, let me clarify what “self defense” means to me by paraphrasing this from the Center for Anti-Violence Education (from whom I’ve learned plenty, some of which I’ve adapted here):

Self-defense is everything and anything we do to protect and take care of ourselves. This may include, for example, trusting our instincts, avoiding danger by getting away, fighting back using verbal and physical skills, understanding prevention and safety strategies, finding support and healing after an attack. 

At its core, I believe self defense = survival. There are no secrets or magic formulas; “self defense” makes no promises. More often than not, pre-planned “moves” don’t work. If anyone tells you otherwise, practice real self defense and get away from them as quickly as possible!

If I were to be hired to offer a self-defense seminar (hint, hint), here are some of the basic guidelines I’d aim for during the session:

  • Respect. Trying not to judge other participants or yourself.
  • Courage. It’s more than okay to make mistakes. Participants would be invited to safely step up to try new things while taking care of themselves. Of course, you can opt to stay on the fringes and watch but if we’re all trying something together, it can be fun to risk imperfection together.
  • Honesty. From me. In how I explain what we’re up against and how 99 percent of self defense teachers teach fantasy.

This seminar would consist of three loosely delineated sections:

  • Awareness
  • Some stretches, movement, and practical work
  • Lengthy Q&A

Q. Who can practice self-defense?

A. Everyone and anyone.

Contrary to YouTube, you don’t have to be strong, fast, experienced, “sexy,” or super fit. But you do have to be committed. Arguably, the three most important words in self-defense are “choose to commit.”

Which brings me to a major component of the seminar I’m planning, the pledge: “I will resist and I will survive, by any means necessary.”

I’ll ask all participants to state this pledge, several times during the session. The idea is to recognize that, with self defense, nothing is more important than this commitment:

  • Decide in advance to survive. (As Derrick Jensen reminds us: “The Jews who participated in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising had a much higher rate of survival than those who went along.”)
  • Condition your mind to defend yourself and who/what you love.
  • Condition your body to endure.
  • Live in a state of awareness. (more on this in part 2)
  • Take time to learn some useful tools like kicks, punches, blocks, etc. But never forget: anything goes. There’s no such thing as fighting “dirty.” (more on this soon)

I’ll say it again: There are no secrets, no magic formulas, no promises. More often than not, pre-planned “moves” don’t work. If I regularly practiced fire drills, would you believe I was “ready” to deal with any type of fire, anywhere, at any time? Of course not. Practically anything else I could be teaching would offer a template of outcomes and situations. With self defense, there is no script. It’s all improv. If (when?) your turn to be attacked arrives, first and foremost: be committed to fight back.

It begins with a pledge: “I will resist and I will survive, by any means necessary.”


Alongside commitment is awareness. We must recognize and accept the realities of what we’re up against and then do the work to stay as safe as possible within the confines of such pervasive danger.

This is not victim-blaming, e.g. “Why was she in that neighborhood or wearing her headphones?” Predators are predators. It’s not you, your outfit, how much you drank, the way you danced, or the route home you took. The predator is the only one to blame. Always.

Thus, a major part of awareness = understanding more about predators.

For the record, when I discuss predators in my writing or at my seminars, I refer to them as males (he, him, etc.). This reason for this is frighteningly simple and accurate: The VAST majority of predators are male. To state otherwise is to deny the evidence and potentially put oneself at increased risk.

Since I’m certain that at least one person out there will take offense at this line of thought, I’ll offer some basic statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice (hardly a feminist or “radical” outpost). Here is a brief list of different types of murders following by the percentage of which are committed by males:

  • Sex related murders: 94 percent
  • Drug related murders: 96 percent
  • Workplace murders: 91 percent
  • Eldercide: 85 percent
  • Argument murders: 86 percent
  • Gun homicide: 91 percent
  • Child murders (killed by someone other than a parent): 81 percent
  • Gang related murders: 98 percent
  • Multiple victims: 94 percent

Okay, moving right along…

Predator-Prey Dynamic

The predator almost always has the advantage of surprise. He knows when and where he will attack and he is not looking for a fair fight. Therefore, we can never, ever be 100 percent ready against such predators. How about 50 percent? That’s doable, but we must really prepare.

This means studying and never underestimating predators. It’s a lot to stomach but the more you know about predators, the quicker you’ll recognize and thus avoid them.

Predators target, stalk, and plan. If this sounds paranoid or extreme to you, I invite you to peruse “advice” books and blogs from so-called “pick-up artists” (PUAs). I’ve read such manifestoes (including the PUA bible, The Game) and discovered how these men dedicate much of their waking hours to developing, testing, and then passing on methods of malicious manipulation to trap their targets.

More to consider:

  • Predators test and push boundaries.
  • They are counting on you not being aware; they expect you to not be wary of, say, walking or parking near a van.
  • They often work in teams.
  • They groom victims and can be extremely patient, if them deem it necessary.
  • They’ll pretend to be innocent. Even during an actual assault, a predator will assure you: “Do what I say and you won’t get hurt.” This is bullshit. Criminal records are teeming with examples to the contrary. Such a predator is already hurting you and has no intention of stopping. It would just makes things simpler if he could maneuver you into frightened compliance.
  • If confronted by a predator, try everything to get away (more about that in part 3) but always, always assume they are armed and that they have armed accomplices nearby. 
  • When it comes to contemplating how to survive an encounter with a predator: Expect the worst because that’s probably what you will get.

Remember the pledge: “I will resist and I will survive, by any means necessary.”

Simultaneously, you must learn about yourself. You must study your daily routines and environments. You can practice role reversal via self-stalking: meticulously analyze your own patterns. Try to see yourself the way a predator may see you.

More awareness advice, from the Center for Anti-Violence Education:

  • If you are using your cell phone, let the person you are talking to know where you are: This also tells those around you that someone knows your location. Because you will not be able to hear as well, be sure to keep your eyes alert and attentive.
  • Be aware of how your clothes, bags, etc. may help you or may hinder you in the case of an attack. Make any changes that can help you stay safe.
  • If you think someone is following you, don’t lead them to your home or a secluded place. Go to a place full of people with whom you feel safe or go into a store and let them know you are being followed.
  • Be aware of men pressing body parts (including hands) against you on the subway or bus. Speak up: You can warn other women, gain allies and protect yourself by saying something. Remember that you have done nothing wrong.
  • See if there is an object in each room of your home, something you can get to if you needed to defend or shield yourself from an attacker—someone known or a stranger.

Awareness can be ugly

Obviously, it’s not easy to become aware and to accept what you’ll learn. Perhaps this is why so few people do it. But please know this: Whether or not you do the work to commit and expand awareness, predators will be doing the work to seek out what they perceive as easy prey.

Remember the pledge: I will resist and I will survive, by any means necessary.


The practical and the tactical

Perhaps you’d characterize my presentation so far as, um…discouraging?  Well, I finally have some good news.

We wonder:

Q. What should we do?

A.Whatever works.

Q. How do we know what works?

A. We don’t.

(that’s obviously not the good news)

Since practiced and memorized “moves” are usually forgotten in high-stress situations, the number one choice (if possible) is GET AWAY or at least create distance—even though almost all YouTube “self defense” videos seem based on the treacherous idea of you sticking around to kick ass. (still not the good news)

First bit of good news: Your mind and body are hard-wired for such situations. It’s called the “fight or flight” response and the physiological changes it automatically activates may save your life. Here are a few of those changes:

  • Blood flow is diverted to our muscles
  • Blood pressure, heart rate, fats, and blood sugars increase to supply us with more energy
  • Muscles become more tense, providing us with extra speed and strength
  • In advance of possible injury, our blood clotting function speeds up

So, with all that evolution on your side, please choose “flight” whenever and wherever possible. If you imagine running is dangerous or ill-advised—especially if the predator is armed—I have more good news for you:

  • Less than 5 percent of predators with a gun, fire it. Of that tiny amount, only 10 percent of those fired upon are killed (virtually all point blank). Step one: Create distance.
  • Gun-wielding predators hit their target only 4 percent of the time and their aim gets worse over distance and/or with a moving target. Step one: Create distance.
  • Predators wielding a knife use their weapon of choice more often (21 percent of the time) but, obviously, it’s a close range weapon. Step one: Create distance.

But what if we can’t get away and have to “fight”?

1. Create as much distance as possible.

2. Recognize your voice as your next of defense.

Speak in LOUD statements, not questions. You are not negotiating with the human excrement confronting you. No! Stop! STOP! I don’t know you and I want you to leave. I want you to leave now! Go Away! Get Back. GET BACK! I said “NO”!

He might threaten you. He might try manipulating (Calm down, relax, I’m not gonna hurt you). He might get loud. Expect the worst because that’s probably what you will get. But keep creating distance and keep staying loud.

Yet more good news: We are never unarmed. Activate your search engine—even better, your imagination—to conjure up a list of potential weapons improvised from everyday items. Stick-like, pointy, or sharp things—of course. Blunt objects, liquid or powdered chemicals, and boiling water. A backpack or jacket rapidly waved in tight figure-8s is an excellent way to create all-important distance. Anything and everything that can inflict massive injury is open to you.

(Side note #1: Pepper spray. Buy it, carry it, and use it—without warning.)

Your attacker is not looking for a fair fight so please don’t ever feel obligated to give him one. Predators are willing to commit all levels of atrocities. Therefore, in resisting them: Anything goes. There is and will never be such a thing as fighting “dirty.” Predators have earned zero respect so please—I implore you—act accordingly. This not only increases your chances of survival but may leave identifying marks—bites, an earring ripped from an ear, visible scratches, damaged or gouged eyes, etc.—that will make it more likely the predator is found should he escape your fury.

If a physical confrontation appears inevitable, a possible first step is to assume a protective stance. I’m not going to offer much how-to via an article but this one is fundamental: firm footing, constant eye contact (while using peripheral vision), and hands up in front of you in sort of a “surrender” position. This will give the (false) impression that you’re not planning to defend yourself while also keeping your hands in position to quickly block and/or strike.

(Side note #2: This would be a good time to try noticing identifying marks like tattoos, birth marks, etc.)

Again, it’s ill-advised to attempt too much instruction in an article. In my planned seminars, I’d go more into all this. For now, I’ll highlight some primary targets and strikes:

  • Eyes: finger strikes or gouging motion
  • Nose: palm heel, head butt (only if comfortable and familiar with such a blow)
  • Throat: fingers, fist
  • Kneecaps: front kick

(Side note #3: Kicks look great in movies and MMA matches but the safest choice in a street situation is to keep both feet on ground and thus maintain balance.)

In more advanced seminars, I may discuss defending against a knife. For now, some basics:

  • The first choice remains: get away!
  • And if you can’t get away, create distance.
  • If faced with an inactive knife (held in one hand with stationary predator), you are in a position to use your voice to negotiate while surveying the scene (escape routes, possible predator accomplices, identifying marks, nearby help, etc).
  • With an active knife, assume a stance something like the one described above, except more “boxer” style: hands clenched in fists with palms facing you. Reality: Be prepared to bleed.
  • When striking back, always remember the primary targets.
  • If you have a backpack or jacket/shirt, this is an ideal time for the figure-8s defense mentioned in the “improvised weapon” section above.

(Side note #4: Facing a non-ballistic weapon can be frightening but some weapons serve to “limit” the attacker’s psychological approach thus, his options. Weapon wielding predators often focus solely on using this singular weapon. Contemplate that advantage in advance so you can exploit it when and if necessary.)

Since self defense bares little resemblance to what we see in movies or how-to videos, please allow me to sum up the basic lessons:

  • There are no secrets, no magic formulas, no promises.
  • More often than not, pre-planned “moves” don’t work.
  • Commit in advance to fighting back.
  • Practice awareness of yourself and others.
  • Learn as much as possible about predators.
  • Our bodies are designed to resist and survive.
  • Your chances of survival increase if your first choice is to get away. If you cannot get away, create distance and use your voice.
  • You are never unarmed.

Mostly, I hope I’ve helped deconstruct some dangerous myths and inspired you to contemplate this crucial topic more intensely and frequently. And, of course, please remember the pledge:

I will resist and I will survive, by any means necessary.


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