(Reprinted from Women’s Self-Defense Institute and Thomcat)

Physical Self-Defense

The issue of physical self-defense is something that activists rarely, if ever, think of as being an important part of being a successful activist. But physical self-defense is something that every activists (particularly activist wimmin and people of color) should think about seriously. An activist who is successful, an activist who is truly endangering the status quo will most assuredly make enemies of more than just the cops.

Agents provocateurs, hired thugs, and reactionary groups will all have an interest in not just damaging your work but damaging you physically. Every human being has the basic right to live and be free and therefore every human being has the right to defend themselves, to defend their individual right to live and to defend their individual right to freedom. This section is devoted to empowering activists to exercise these rights.

* Thoughts on Self-Defense
* Do You Need a Weapon?

Thoughts on Self-Defense

Self-defense isn’t about doing moves or using techniques — self-defense is what you think, and more importantly, HOW you think. Techniques are the easy part — any teacher could teach you the basics in a very short time. Self-defense techniques are simple, efficient, and straightforward — not difficult. Forget all the stuff you see in the movies.

The tough part is in your mind. Self-defense is about your body being yours and no one else’s, about making your own choices and controlling your own life, and about doing whatever is necessary to stop other people from hurting you. Self-defense is NOT about hitting and kicking people — though at times that may be necessary.

Self-defense is what you do to keep yourself safe, and in control of your own choices. Every time I have helped in a demonstration of self-defense, there is one person who ALWAYS says, “But I could never do that to anyone!” What they are thinking is, “I couldn’t ever put someone’s eye out!” The problem is, they aren’t thinking beforehand: “Could I do that to stop someone else from hurting me? From hurting someone I care about?”

That’s the real question. When we are talking about self-defense, we are NOT talking about picking fights, walking up to someone and beating them up, or whatever — we are talking about doing what you have to, to stop someone else from hurting you or someone you care about. It wasn’t YOUR choice to be forced to defend yourself. The other person made their choice to hurt you — but your body is YOURS, and NO ONE has the right to control you — to hurt you. You DO have the right to do whatever is needed to stop them from hurting you.

The point isn’t to hurt the other guy, destroy him, or whatever else TV and movies may tell you — the point is to stop them from hurting you. Efficiently, with a minimum of effort, a maximum of effect, and a minimum of danger to you and the people you care about.

I really can’t emphasize enough how much of self-defense is in the mind. Example, for you women out there: Ever been at a party, or at a bar, or at any place whatsoever when some guy comes up to you and puts his arm around your shoulders — and you didn’t like it?

What did you do? Did you stand there, and laugh it off — but feel uncomfortable? Did you try to slowly edge out from under it, or contrive something so that maybe he would go away? Or did you sit there, and take it, and try to be polite and talk to the guy — even though you either didn’t know him or didn’t like him — and DEFINITELY didn’t want his hands on you?

There are a LOT of women who would say the above has happened to them. And that those were EXACTLY the way they reacted. Does it make them feel good? No. Were they allowing other people to presume upon them, to make choices for them? Yes.

Is that normal? Yes. Unfortunately. Is it right that women should have to do that? No.

That is YOUR body, those are HIS hands. His hands do NOT belong on YOUR body unless YOU choose to let them. But it is HARD for some women to allow themselves to think that way — everyone is trained to be polite, to not make waves, to keep quiet and just deal with it.

It is ALL RIGHT to look the guy in the eye, stand up straight, and say in a clear, FIRM tone: “Get your hands off me.” You don’t have to be belligerent, angry, homicidal — you just have to be certain. And 80% of the guys out there will immediately take their hands off you.

You don’t have to be scary about it — just firm. And if you are, chances are that the guy will take his hands off you, and you will STILL be able to sit there and talk to him (if you want) or talk to others — because it didn’t make a scene.

But to do that, you need to understand that your body is yours — and YOU make your own choices. And that no one else has the right to do that for you, without your permission.

But, unfortunately, some guys aren’t going to listen the first time. For those who won’t listen at all, I have some simple techniques for you to use. However, many just need to be told again — in a clearer way.

In 90% of situations, violence is not necessary. (And, in many situations that seem to have incipient violence, 90% can be de-escalated. But I digress.) It just means that you need to explain yourself more clearly — and I do not mean by putting the person in the hospital.

If you are sitting down, stand up. If you are standing, step to the side (not forwards or backwards — sideways generally is easier to slip the grasp) turn and face the person, and again, say (louder, but again, don’t act angry or belligerent) “I said once, take your hands off me. I will say it one last time: take your hands off me.”

Most every guy at this point will do so. Most guys aren’t complete idiots, they are just a little thick sometimes.

The point here is simple: certitude and voice tone can make all the difference. Being able to trash someone in a fight is nice, but hey, the best fighter in the world can slip on some spilled beer and get murdered. But if you don’t fight, that’s not likely, hmm? And notice — the women doesn’t seem “bitchy” or whatever nifty word gets used by drunk guys who get turned down. She just says no. Period.

Notice, in all of these cases, I’m talking casual “attacks”. (Which is a hideous term — how can an attack be “casual”?) However, sometimes people get attacked, raped, beaten, murdered, whatever, by people who deliberately set out to do so. They catch you off-guard, and that’s it. Boom. I can’t show you how to stop people like that in three easy lessons. Later on, I can give you some simple techniques to use — and they are effective. But they aren’t perfect — nothing is. To truly defend yourself, you need to train, and most people don’t have the time or inclination to do so. (And in the end, even with training, you can’t be 100% safe. It doesn’t work that way. But you CAN increase your chances a thousandfold.)

The techniques I can tell you, and that you could learn from a weekend seminar, will help you get out of “casual” attacks, and the medium-type attacks, where someone just gets out of hand, or starts a fight, or is stupid and grabs you. Even then, no training is perfect, and without practice, no one gets good. But the most important part is still the mindset.

Just reading these won’t do you much good. Practice with someone. Anyone. Even if you only take 15 minutes once and try these things out three times each — that’s something. They are simple, and effective on anyone. But to know what you are doing, you need to TRY THEM. (I don’t mean go beat someone up — I mean practice with a friend. Sheesh. 🙂 (And the more you practice, the more chance you will have when using them.

Simple Techniques for Self-Defense

A few thoughts, first.

1) Disclaimer: Nothing works all the time, folks. None of this stuff is guaranteed. You make your own choices, and do what you decide. I’m not telling you what to do. And if you practice with a friend full-force like an idiot, what happens is YOUR fault. Don’t be sorry. Be controlled. Don’t be stupid. Think.

2) This stuff works (yes, I know what I said above) but: a) you need to know when to use it, b) you need to have the confidence to use it, and c) sometimes, it just isn’t enough. People, like I said, this little dabble won’t teach you to defend yourself in all situations. If you want to know how to do that, take a self-defense class, take a martial art — but do something. Do NOT think that just because you read this (or anything, for that matter) that you can handle yourself in any situation, because you “read that self-defense thing, and know a couple moves”.

3) These techniques are for escape and evasion. There are other things you can do with them, but the main idea here is to give yourself some room to run, and some time to do it in. Simple as that.

These are NOT for attack. These are nasty — that’s what makes them work. You do NOT walk up to someone and just do any of these. These are for defense.

Finally, one tactical thought: Women, if a guy grabs you, where will you probably try to hit him first?

I bet you said, “I’m going to kick him in the groin. Of course.” Would like like to know the one place you should NEVER attempt to first strike a guy? The groin.

Why? Simple. Every guy in the world has been kicked in the groin at least once — and he KNOWS that if a female gets mad at him, that is the FIRST place she is going to try to hit. Plus, every self-defense class in the world trains people to kick the groin. And every guy out there knows it. It’s a great target — for the second or third shot. But not the first one — he’s expecting it.

Standard Targets

There are certain points on the human body where no matter how big you are, how strong you are, or whatever, it STILL hurts to get hit there. This is, of course, where we want to strike. Here is a diagram (a VERY basic diagram) of the human body. The red points are where you want to strike.

Strike Points:

The nice things about these is that you already know where they are, and what they do. You’ve known since grade school. (You may not admit this, but it’s true.) If you poke someone in the eye, in the throat, hit them with a palm on the bridge of the nose, strike to the groin, kick them in the front or side of the knee — these will all hurt, distract, whatever — and it works on everyone. None of these points are covered by muscle, fat, whatever — size and condition does not matter. The only thing that matters is how hard you strike.

Striking eyes and throat:

Put index and third finger together, curl others to palm. Do NOT hyper-extend your fingers, merely hold them rigid. Strike (think like a spear) straightforward into the eye or right above the hollow of the throat. Don’t strike directly into the hollow — strike about 1/2 to 3/4 of an inch above it. (Note: you can also strike these points using only the thumb).

Bridge of the nose:

Hold out your hand, and spread your fingers wide. This tightens the hand, and pushes forward the palm side of the large knuckles. Feel how hard they are? Push your hand forward and strike with that area right below where the nose joins the brow ridge — basically the center of the nose.

Groin areas:

Many ways you can strike here: Knees, feet, or hands.

KNEES: If using a knee, simply bring it upward as hard as you can — but think of the end of your knee as a point — and drive that point into the groin. If your hands are free, before striking, grab the attacker’s hips, and pull the attacker into the strike as your drive the knee.

FEET: Simple. Bring your instep up into your attackers groin. However, if you are too close for that, but too far to use a knee, kicking straight up and striking with the shinbone of your leg works just fine also.

HANDS: Swing your arm in a straight-arm upward strike into the groin, either using an open-hand palm strike, or a closed fist — the closed fist strikes just the same as the open palm strike, except the fingers are curled — still a straight-arm strike.

Striking the knees:

Striking the knee is something self-defense classes always teach, because it is a serious weak point on the human body. However, it can be harder than it sounds. If striking the front of the knee (the kneecap) drive your HEEL forward into the kneecap, and drive it far forwards — just tapping it won’t give you enough time to get away. If striking the side of the knee, there are a couple of different ways to do it, but the easiest (note: this is according to me) is to sweep the INSIDE of your foot in a circular motion, striking the side of the knee — and strike hard, again. (That was for if you were standing in front of the attacker.) If you are standing beside the attacker, pick up your foot, and drive your heel sideways and downward (at about a 45 degree angle) into the side of his knee. Hard.

Note: all of the knee attacks can be difficult without practice — AND, you will be off balance more than if you were using a hand technique. So, they work — but practice them. Don’t try something and fall over. That’s not a good thing.

Now, remember, the idea here is not to destroy your attacker, beat him up and drag him by his collar to the nearest police station. Your mission here is to ESCAPE UNHARMED. That is your goal. So, if you hit him once, and he’s clutching his eyes and can’t see, then run. No sense staying around and giving him time to recover, hmm?

You might have to hit him a couple of times, and do some serious damage — but as soon as you have a chance, GET AWAY. That’s your goal. Get away unharmed. Remember — all you are doing is stopping this person from harming you. Do what is necessary, then escape.

Martial Arts for Self-defense

I think the martial arts are great: I enjoy the ones I do, I like the ones I see, and I think that just about every single martial art out there has at least SOME very good things about it — if not a LOT of good things about it. However, in this section, we are talking about martial arts for self-defense purposes, which is a very specialized thing — and not all martial arts have strengths in this area.

Now, in general, all martial arts will help you prepare to defend yourself, at least indirectly — you will be in better shape, more flexible, more able to withstand punishment, and have more control over your body. These are all good things.

However, being a football player will do much the same things. To me, for a martial art to be a good self-defense art, it needs to do several things:

It must directly teach you simple, efficient ways of dealing with common attacks.

It needs to prepare you for eventualities — meaning in class, you need to deal with the fact that in self-defense, no matter what you do, there is a chance (sometimes, a GOOD chance) that you are going to get hurt.

It needs to teach you when to react, when NOT to react, and when to attempt to de-escalate. (Some people might jump on me here — but seriously folks, sometimes it is a complete waste of time to attempt to de-escalate.)

MOST IMPORTANTLY, it needs to teach you the correct mindset to stand up for yourself, be in control of yourself, and to have the self-confidence to know you are worth defending, which allows you to do so.

Also, (personal bias) since most people who wish to learn self-defense will not stay in the martial art for years and years, my opinion is that the art should immediately start teaching basic self-defense, in the first few weeks of class. (If you are going to advertise yourself at a self-defense course, then students should start learning that — as opposed to waiting to add the self-defense curriculum until the student is “firmly grounded in the basics” about 2 years down the line.

I love Aikido, and think that Tai Chi is wonderful. However, are they good self-defense arts, in my opinion, according to the criteria above? Not really.

If you have taken Aikido or Tai Chi for 10 years, and practiced diligently, conscientiously, and continually, and thought about what you are doing with regards to self-defense, there is a fairly good chance that you will be just about untouchable. On the other hand, after one year? No. The way those arts are taught, the general mindset of the art and the things those arts emphasize do not teach self-defense — at least, not right away.

And most people can’t wait 10 years to learn to defend themselves. I highly recommend both Aikido and Tai Chi — there are some VERY important things you can learn from them. However, immediate self-defense is not one of them.

Things to check

When attempting to find a martial art that teaches self-defense, there are a couple of simple things to look for. Each martial art is different, and moreover, each instructor teaches their martial art differently — so WTF Taekwondo at one place might be completely different than WTF TKD at another. You just have to go take a look.

Attend a class — take a look. What do you see happening?

Are people practicing practical self-defense?

Are people practicing reactions to common self-defense situations? Or are they doing rote forms, practicing flying spin kicks, or using archaic weapons that you could never carry on the street? (Remember, your point here is self-defense — you are not looking for instructions on how to use a halberd. If the art teaches that as well, fine, but that is not the primary goal of your search.)

Are the lower belts practicing simple, efficient ways to deal with attackers?

Or is it just the higher belts who are working on self-defense? Yes, all beginners need to work on basics — however, you should ALSO see them working self-defense techniques. After all, if you join, that is where you are going to be — and you are here to learn to defend yourself.

Is the instructor teaching a mindset in addition to the moves?

Can you see the instructor making sure the students are understanding that they aren’t learning to beat up on people, they are learning to stop people from hurting them — and that it is OK to do whatever is necessary to accomplish that? (I’m not talking only about being able to seriously damage someone here — I’m also talking about the other end of the spectrum, so that people who are being harassed, manhandled, etc. — but not directly VIOLENTLY attacked, know how to deal with the situation — and are building the self-confidence to do so.)

Optional, but a good idea: Does the martial art (and the instructor) teach self-defense reactions in a way that makes sense to you?

Meaning, the way that particular martial art reacts to an attack — does that fit the way your mind works? Do the reactions make intuitive sense to you, in the style in which they work? Does it fit the physical limitations of your body? Example: 1) a very tiny person might become VERY good at judo — but won’t be able to do much in the way of self-defense in only a year. Size can make a difference.

“Size and strength don’t matter.”

NO. Sorry. Size and strength don’t matter provided you take your martial art, practice it diligently and accurately, for an extended time. Provided you understand the difference between street situations and class situations, self-defense and point sparring, and provided you learn the self-defense mindset.

If that is true, than yes — when you are a 4th or 5th degree black belt, it won’t matter how big your opponent is, really. (Unless they ALSO are a 5th degree. Then it might matter, but not necessarily.)

And yes, for certain techniques it doesn’t matter how big or strong the other person is. Poke them in the eye, jab them in the throat, lock back the knee, etc. — size won’t matter. So people aren’t lying when they tell you size doesn’t matter. Not necessarily.

But don’t believe it never matters.

When you are just starting out, it matters. When you’ve only been doing it awhile, it matters. When you are sparring people in your martial arts class, it matters.

A big guy (or girl) has a definite advantage in most fights. That’s simply how it is. If you take two people who have been taking the same martial art for about 6 months, and put them in a fight, MOST LIKELY, the bigger guy is going to win. You put a 6’4″, 220 pound street thug up against a 5’2″, 110 pound female yellow belt in a streetfight, the guy has the advantage. Obviously.

Though that doesn’t mean he is going to win.

A good big guy, in general, will beat a good small guy up to a certain point of experience and knowledge. Beneath five years (and actually way beyond that, but I don’t want to dishearten you too much) size makes a difference.

Size does matter — and so you have to adjust your techniques to your situation. If I’m fighting against a guy twice my strength and size, I’m NOT going to try punching him in the chest. (Which I really wouldn’t do anyway, it’s fairly useless, though it looks cool in movies.) I’m also definitely NOT going to stand there and attempt to trade punches with him. I’m not going to use strength moves, I’ll use soft tissue techniques (no matter how strong you are, your muscles will NOT cover the trachea) and I will NOT close with him until I have him stunned or off balance, because if he grabs me, I’m in trouble. (Not dead, not yet, but if he’s that much stronger, even if he’s an idiot, he can do serious damage.)

A small person can defend themselves against a big person. But it’s an uphill battle, make no mistake. The trick to winning is fairly simple: Be smarter, and be nasty.

A big person (mostly, but not all) has relied on their size to get by — most people don’t need much more than that to win, especially the type of person who would attack you on the street. And since you can’t beat them at size, you have to beat them at BRAINS. Because if you don’t, you’ll get killed.

In martial arts, it ISN’T about size or strength — it’s about using your brain to make your body do what you tell it to, effectively. In self-defense, the application of martial arts is simple: Do what is necessary to keep yourself from being hurt. What that means against bigger people is simple — you are probably going to have to upgrade the seriousness of your techniques, and go for soft tissue (fairly damaging) targets instead of simple disables. Because your margin for error just went down — a big guy hits harder than a small guy.

So the ending conclusion? In time, size won’t really matter. But no matter what, you must still keep it in mind, because even if it doesn’t matter, it still makes a difference. (And in the beginning, it matters, too.)

Do You Need a Weapon?

Most martial arts experts agree an armed fighter almost always has the advantage over the unarmed fighter — even if the unarmed person is proficient in empty hand self-defense.

One obvious lesson is to avoid any conflict against armed opponents. The other is that maybe you should consider carrying a weapon. Is this an option for you?

What if you are absolutely against using weapons of any kind? There are a number of choices you can make in the “non-lethal” category. Some of these items receive heavy promotion and they seem like they should work. Unfortunately, many of them don’t work at all and can’t really be considered weapons.

On the other end of the force spectrum, some self-defense weapons — like high-power rifles or combat knives – might not be the best choice for you either. Surprisingly, your choices will mostly come down to three types of weapons; impact weapons, edged weapons or projectile weapons.

Rule of Thumb

Still you ask yourself, do I need a weapon?

The rule of thumb is that you should use a weapon to defend against another weapon. In other words, you employ deadly force to protect yourself from deadly force. Defending yourself from someone with a weapon with only empty hand techniques could be the most challenging task advanced fighters will ever undertake. For the average citizen, it is almost entirely catastrophic.

For me, I think of weapons like my spare tire in my car. Of course I hope I never have to use it, but I want it with me when I drive.


There are a number of considerations when choosing a weapon:

Practicality. How useful is it? Can you carry it with you? It would be difficult these days to carry a six-foot staff to work, on the bus or in your car. On the other hand, firearms are portable and more powerful than other weapons.

Expertise. How well can you use it?

Effectiveness. Tear gas may be effective for some situations while firearms may be effective for others.

Concealment and carry. Your weapon won’t do you any good if it’s not with you. (A reason why empty hand expertise is so important, you are never without your natural weapons. Also a good reason for working with improvised weapons.)

Intimidating effects. Certain weapons, a shotgun for example, may produce enough shock value to make your opponent think twice about attacking. Although, it would be hard to imagine anyone who would not be intimidated by any sort of firearm.

Generally, weapons fall into a few broad categories.

Impact weapons are those used primarily for striking. This category includes night stick, ashtrays and beer mugs. You can also put flexible weapons like nunchaku and chains here. They are really a type of impact weapon, but their real advantage lies in the tremendous power generated by centrifugal force.

Edged weapons are obviously those designed to cut, slash or stab. Knives, swords, machetes and broken glass are included here.

Projectile weapons are anything that is propelled across a space allowing to reach an opponent without actually having to be in touching range. This includes firearms, crossbows, air tasers, and pepper spray.

Below are some weapons with which you should be familiar and some which you should forget:

Pepper Spray/Teargas/Mace
This is a great weapon that is easy to use and that you can carry with you at all times.

Baton/Night stick
This is a good impact weapon if you have the training, but how many of you will go out and become proficient with a night stick. Warning: if you use your baton just like a hammer or a club you’ll probably have it taken away from you. What you will want to consider is one of the heavy, ‘C’-cell police flashlight from Maglight.

Probably the single most equalizing weapon anyone can possess. There is a plethora of information surrounding firearms. There are continuing and raging debates about effectiveness of different calibers, makes of weapons and so forth. Don’t be intimidated. Educate yourself. A female firearms instructor named Paxton Quigley has a great book out called Armed and Female which is simply outstanding. Another great book on the subject is Massad Ayoob’s In the Gravest Extreme. Both cover all you’ll need to know about this weapon. Get good advice and test fire a number of handguns until you find one you like. A super important point here — Don’t let anyone talk you into a more powerful handgun than you are comfortable with. If you feel anxious with your weapon you won’t practice. And if you don’t practice, you won’t be competent. And if you’re not competent…

The 12 gauge shotgun has been called by Massad Ayoob the most destructive device a civilian can own short of a hand grenade. If you are smaller, a 12 gauge might be too much to handle and even a 20 gauge still kicks a lot. There are a number of 410 gauge models that you might feel comfortable with. You should consider this weapon for home defense, but you won’t be able to carry it with you anywhere else.

Typically a modern rifle is overpowered for most urban self-defense scenarios. A rapid firing .22 rifle can be a good weapon. If you live in a rural environment, rifles are probably the ultimate “reach out and touch someone” device.

Knife fighting is a particularly savage form of combat. A knife is such a lethal weapon that just flailing away with a kitchen knife can produce dramatic results. I have met some very proficient and very deadly knife fighters. However, for the rest of us mere mortals, I would not recommend taking up knife fighting — your handgun is about the same size as a fighting knife and you don’t even have to get close to your attacker to use it. Plus there is an old saying that you “don’t want to take a knife to a gunfight.”

Key Chain/Key Spike
This looks good and even sounds like a good weapon. These are the long chains which you put your keys on or those key rings with the spikes which come out between your knuckles. Unfortunately, the chain is hard to control unless you have previous experience with flexible weapons. The spikes which come from between your fingers are only effective if you have a good punch. My recommendation would be to pass on both unless you are working on serious martial arts skills.

Stun gun
This, too, looks like it would be very threatening and would require very little strength to use. In reality, however, you have to hold it against someone in an unprotected area. The small consumer stun guns don’t do much more than sting real bad. Don’t believe the ads that say it will instantly drop an attacker to his knees.

Improvised weapons
Environmental weapons can be found everywhere. You just have to open your mind to recognizing them. Basically, if you can smash somebody with it, cut somebody with it or launch it at someone, you’ve found yourself a weapon.

Improvised weapons can include:

Beer bottle/mug





Screwdriver/ice pick



You might even consider throwing rocks if you can. Don’t laugh. One bouncer claims someone hurling ashtrays like frisbees in one club in which he worked wreaked incredible damage to innocent bystanders and property as well.

Weapons are Part of Your Self-Defense System

When you are required to physically defend yourself or your loved ones, you have to have a full spectrum of options. This will most likely progress from empty-handed techniques to an impact weapons, to an edged weapon and then, finally, to a firearm. I don’t know of any martial artist who advocates NEVER using a weapon.