This is an archived article.

August 12, 1997

Learning self-defense teaches women far more than just how to protect themselves, it kick starts self- esteem

CHICAGO — It can pay to get your kicks, and maybe a few karate chops, out of life.

Learning self-defense skills benefits women in ways that extend beyond discovering how to protect themselves. It also boosts their self- esteem and positively affects their personality, according to a new University of Washington study.

Data from the study also contradicts critics of self-defense programs who claim such courses encourage women to be more aggressive and hostile. “People who feel vulnerable often use hostility and violence to protect themselves. They almost adopt the attitude that ‘the best defense is a good offense,’” said Ronald Smith, UW psychology professor and co-author of the study. “However, the women in this study who learned martial arts techniques of aikido and karate reported feeling more assertive, but less hostile and aggressive.”

“In evaluating the self-defense class and other programs in the past, researchers had only looked at the direct outcomes such as being able to defend yourself. But there are ripple effects that impact people’s entire lives. People told us they felt more effective as people,” explained Smith.

The primary investigator in the study was Julie Weitlauf, a self-defense instructor who completed her undergraduate work in psychology at the UW and will begin graduate school at the University of Illinois at Chicago next fall. Weitlauf conducted a six-week self- defense course — which focused on rape and sexual assault prevention — for the study.

The self-defense study involved 80 college students ages 18-23. Weitlauf said most of the women felt vulnerable to physical attack and few had any knowledge of fighting. Thirty of the women carried mace or pepper spray but had little or no idea about how to use either one. Half of those spray cans were empty or had expired.

The 12-hour course taught both physical and verbal resistance to rape. The women learned basic martial arts techniques, how to break free from an assailant and wrestling techniques for fighting at close range. They also were taught how to use their voices as a weapon for resistance, to seek help and to secure breathing space in an attack situation. The class also provided anti-panic training to help the women consider escape routes and fighting strategies in an assault situation.

“This was the first time that many of these women ever threw a punch and experienced hitting a target,” said Weitlauf. “A lot of them came to class with low-level fears that someone might knock them down while they were walking down the street or someone might jump out of the bushes and assault them. They had a distorted view of what could happen to them and of their own lack of strength. Finding out that a 4-foot-11 woman can knock down a person was an eye-opener.”

“Skills are important, but so is the perception that you have the skills to take care of yourself. What may be the most valuable lesson these women learned is not the expertise they picked up — like how to break a choke hold or kick someone in the knee — but the knowledge that they have the skills to keep a situation from escalating into violence and, if necessary, protect themselves,” she added.

Smith said the ripple effects seen in the self- defense students were noted in one of his earlier studies that taught UW students skills to master test anxiety. Those students not only mastered their test anxiety, but they also felt generally less anxious and more effective as people.

“We are looking at this in a personal empowerment framework. We are trying to discover what facilitates these ripple effects and see how learning coping skills has positive effects in situations that go beyond the target area. The transfer from learning about self- defense seems to be that these women go from feeling good learning these skills to appraising their bodies more positively and feeling more assertive and willing to stand up for their rights. The more global effect is increased self-esteem and feelings of personal effectiveness.”

Factors that seem to contribute to the ripple effects include how many different areas of life a new skill can be used in, how personally significant the skill is to individuals and to what extent a new skill is viewed as being part of a person rather than being external.

Smith noted that no ripple effects were discovered in another UW study involving a group of women who learned how to use handguns for protection. This research was conducted by Kim Wheeler, now a Seattle psychologist, as her doctoral dissertation.

“The participants achieved high expertise with a gun, but there was no effect on their assertiveness, their confidence in their ability to behave effectively or in feelings of being personally in control of their lives,” said Smith. “What seems to be important for a ripple effect is for a person to realize that skills reside inside of themselves. The women got this from the self- defense class, but apparently not from the handgun course.”

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For additional information, contact Smith at (206) 543-8817 or at resmith@u.washington.edu; Weitlauf at weitlauf@uic.edu or at (773)440-8864