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5 Self-Defense Tips Every Woman Should Know

Yes, it is possible to be a badass without karate.

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two women practicing self defense near a lake
Jens Nieth/plainpicture
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When you think of self-defense, you probably think of karate chops. A bad guy approaches, threatens, and whammo! — a swift kick to the solar plexus. While being a martial arts ninja would be a very cool skill set, chances are most of us are not going to earn black belts and disarm menacing strangers.

Which isn’t to say as women we won’t be threatened, especially by someone familiar. According to U.S. Justice Department statistics, 1 woman in 4 will be a victim of intimate partner violence in her lifetime.

How to fight back? There’s some new thinking on that called “empowerment-based self-defense,” which focuses on assertiveness and de-escalating situations before they get ugly. (Not that it’s your fault if they do. It’s absolutely not your fault. No victim blaming here.)

As it happens, my sister-in-law Susan Schorn in Austin, Texas is exactly that martial arts ninja — a black belt and author of Smile at Strangers: And Other Lessons in the Art of Living Fearlessly. She encourages the timid to “grab darkness by the throat, kick its ass, push it down the stairs and laugh at its haircut.”

As someone who would probably invite darkness in for tea and inquire after its mother, I asked Susan and some of her fellow badasses for empowerment advice. The takeaways:

1. Practice boundary setting every day. “Say no, ask for more space, opt out of something you don’t want to do. Don’t worry about being perceived as being rude,” Susan said. The more you practice assertiveness and give yourself permission to have needs, the easier it gets to defend them. The problem isn’t having boundaries— it’s people who don’t respect boundaries.

2. Trust your gut. “Our instincts are often totally on point, but we override them with second guessing,” said Aishah Shahidah Simmons, an abuse survivor and author of Love WITH Accountability: Digging Up the Roots of Child Sexual Abuse. “Women are socialized to play nice. We have to resocialize ourselves to say, ‘That’s not OK. I don’t like this.’ ”

The danger of being nice when you want to disengage, said Simmons, is that nice gets interpreted as “yes.” Assess the situation. “If you’re uncomfortable, get out. Don’t feel like you must appease the other person.”

3. Support survivors. Changing the narrative begins with sharing experiences and listening to those who’ve survived abuse. “Talk to others about situations that make you feel unsafe, and look for community solutions to violence,” said Susan. “We’re apt to focus on dramatic media stories, when in fact the majority of violence against women involves everyday situations and relationships.”

4. Believe that you absolutely can defend yourself. Women can and do prevent attempted assaults. Just ask self-defense instructor Lauren Taylor of Defend Yourself in Washington, D.C., who’s been teaching for 33 years. Giving yourself permission to fight back is “life-changing” Taylor said. “We explore options and give people other ways to look at situations.”

The vast majority of violations are not physical, noted Taylor. They start with “micro-aggressions” — like harassment, criticism, staring and stalking. But abusers can be derailed. “Tell them what you want them to do. Name the behavior. ‘I need you to stop talking to me like that.’ Or, ‘Stand back.’ ”

5. Stomp on their foot or break their nose. When words aren’t cutting it and a situation escalates to violence, Taylor offered a few go-to moves anyone can master. “Make a fist and hit them in the nose. Strike down like a hammer.” The pain and bloody mess provide an opportunity to escape. “Another super easy move is to stomp on their foot — it works, whatever your age.”

The biggest advantage? “They aren’t expecting it.”

Darkness, you better run.