Research shows that women's self defense training works to reduce sexual assault. Unfortunately, victimization data shows that girls need this training young for it to be a factor in preventing the majority of assaults: 55% of rape victims are under 20 years old.
Victimization by Age: The Data
Sexual Assault & Rape
Women are at their greatest risk of sexual assault and rape while they are under 20 years old. According to the FBI Crime Data from 2013-2022, including 635,462 rapes reported by 6,396 law enforcement agencies (only 29% of the total population):
13% of rape victims were age 0-9
42% of rape victims were age 10-19
21% of rape victims were age 21-29
55% of rape victims are under 20 years old
Of these victims, 89.15% were female and 10.75% were male. The following chart shows the number of people in the United States who were victims of a sex offence in 2022 by victim age (Statistica):
Women are most likely to be victims of abduction before age 30. According to FBI Crime Data from 2013-2022, including 227,207 kidnappings reported by 6,396 law enforcement agencies (only 29% of the total population):
10% of victims were age 0-9
17% of victims were age 10-19
31% of victims were age 20-29
In 48% of kidnappings the victim was under 30 years old
Of these victims, 75.93% were female and 23.72% were male.
While the highest age demographic for victims of domestic violence is between 25-54, the intimate dynamic, complexity, prevalence and severity of domestic violence demands early intervention:
45% of all female homicide victims are killed by an intimate partner
Between 1993 and 2007, 18% of female victims of intimate partner homicide were under age 25
"Females are generally murdered by people they know. In 64% of female homicide cases in 2007, females were killed by a family member or intimate partner; 24% were killed by a spouse or ex-spouse; 21% were killed by a boyfriend or girlfriend; and 19% by another family member. In an additional 25% of cases females were killed by others they knew. An estimated 10% of female murder victims were killed by a stranger." (US Department of Justice)
The need for early training is exacerbated by the phenomena of repeat victimization: the number one predictor of future victimization is past victimization.
"While most people and places do not get victimized by crime, those who are victimized face the highest risk of being victimized again. Previous victimization is the single best predictor of victimization" (Deborah Weisel, 2005).
A review of 80 studies of child sexual abuse survivors found that across all studies the mean re-victimization rate was 48%; meaning that almost half of childhood sexual abuse survivors are sexually victimized in the future
An estimated 44% of domestic violence victims are repeat-victims
An international analysis of repeat victimization found that 40-50% percent of sex offences are repeat offences against the same women
The study 'Psychopathy and Victim Selection' showed violent criminals videos of different women walking down the street in order to study the criteria used to select targets. "Targets who displayed vulnerable body language were more likely to report past histories of victimization, and psychopaths identified these individuals as being more vulnerable to future victimization. These findings may account for why some individuals become repeat victims; social predators are attracted to external displays of vulnerability (Book et al, 2013)."
Women's Self Defense Training: Is It Effective at Reducing Victimization Rates?
Stopping the cycle of victimization and re-victimization before it starts is critical. Self defense training is the only sexual violence prevention strategy with solid evidence of reducing rates of victimization. Perpetrator-focused strategies are important but have failed to prove effective at lowering rates of sexual assault.
The fact is— while men continue to assault women, women cannot rely on top-down approaches, policy changes, campaigns, or cultural shifts to protect them from violence that is here and now. They need their own physical and mental strategies to deter, detect, and resist a real physical attack to the best of their ability.
This is not victim-blaming, nor is the victim ever to blame. This is the practical approach to personal safety. No parent has ever said, in response to child safety concerns: "don't worry, the UN world leaders have pledged to eliminate sexual abuse. Haven't you heard about orange shirt day and the global petition to end gender-based violence?" Instead, they're likely to tell their child "be alert, walk confidently, never get close to anyone's car, and scream and fight as hard as you can if an adult ever tries to take you somewhere or hurt you".
And that's what they should tell them— a study of over 8000 attempted child abductions showed that "83% of children who escaped their would-be abductors did something proactive. They walked/ran away, yelled, kicked, or pulled away. This means the best thing a child can do if someone tries to abduct them is take action instead of being passive or polite (NCMEC)."
67% of these incidents involved a suspect driving a vehicle, and in some age groups luring children with verbal ploys was more common or slightly less common than physical force. Furthermore, several studies have shown that predators select targets for their perceived vulnerability which they accurately assess by the way they walk.
Taking safety and wellbeing into your own hands isn't just the effective approach— it's the empowering approach. Self defense training gives girls the knowledge to recognize dangerous behaviours and situations early and make informed decisions; the permission to listen to their instincts about a person even if it seems mean; and a toolkit of defensive options for a range of situations, from saying no clearly and assertively to physically resisting an assault.
These aren't skills girls should have to need. But they are the skills girls need and the skills that give girls agency to navigate their life safely in the violent world we've got. But does self defense training work? Here's a few studies that tested training outcomes:
The First Kenya Study
A study of 522 high school girls in Nairobi, Kenya found that girls who received empowerment based self defense training (ESD) were 63% less likely to have experienced a sexual assault 1 year later than girls at schools who did not. The 16-week training course included awareness, verbal resistance strategies, boundary setting, and physical resistance strategies. Over half the girls in the intervention group reported having used the self-defense skills to avert sexual assault in the year after the training; in most cases, verbal skills were sufficient to avert the assault. Rates of disclosure increased in the intervention group, but not in controls.
The Second Kenya Study
A second study of 1978 adolescent girls at high schools in Kenya found that annual rate of rape among the trained participants deceased from 17.9 to 11.1 per 100 persons between the year before and the 10.5 months after the training; there were no significant changes in the rate of assault reported by the control group. Again, the majority of participants reported using the skills learnt to stop an assault and increased willingness to disclose an assault.
The Canadian University Study
A study of three Canadian universities found that women who completed a self defense course were nearly half as likely to report being raped during the 1‐year follow‐up period than the control group. Unwanted sexual contact and attempted rape were also significantly lower for women who completed the training, indicating that study participants were less likely to be targeted for assault in the first place.
For a list of published research on self defense training click here. Now that we've established that self defense training works at reducing victimization, and that it's most beneficial to get this training early on, what should that training look like?
How Should Young Girls Learn Self Defense?
There are many great approaches to teaching kids self defense and martial arts, here's ours.
Our core mission with every girl is to transform her self-image into someone who can and will be her number one protector— her own superhero— whenever, and with whomever she needs to be. This isn't just a buzzy 'empowerment' marketing gimmick. The core belief that one can and will defend themselves is the absolute foundation on which prevailing in self defense, against a larger and stronger attacker, is made possible.
Studies have repeatedly shown that predators select for vulnerable body language, a visible indication of an 'easy target'. However, research also suggests that the identification of oneself as a victim is more influential on body language than is actual history of victimization. Past victimization may only lead to an increased chance of future victimization if victims perceive themselves as vulnerable or self-identify as a victim. And theoretically, a vulnerable self-image— even without a history of victimization— can drastically increase the likelihood that a person will be targeted due to external displays of vulnerability which predators seek.
Self image is a hugely important factor in self defense. We need to create strong, confident victors from the inside-out. The vehicle through which we accomplish this is a combination of fun, energetic, and effective martial arts training and age-appropriate 'street smarts' education that girls can use to make good decisions for their safety and well-being.
What Martial Arts?
We teach an MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) based program that includes kickboxing, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and wrestling. As a self defense focused program it's critical for us to give students a well-rounded skillset that's applicable to the real life physical confrontations and assaults that women and girls are most likely to face.
Self defense objectives are often different for men and women. Many men think of self defense as the ability to win a street-fight. The association of 'self defense' with 'winning a fight' contributes to the false idea that it's impossible for women— let alone girls— to defend themselves against men. But self defense for women is not about winning a fight at all— it's about honing the specific skills to protect, disengage and get away as quickly as possible. Women don't need to be professional fighters or even physically stronger to accomplish this as is repeatedly demonstrated by myriad women who have successfully evaded or defended a violent assault.
Women's self defense training must consider the specific ways men commonly attack women and girls, always considering the attackers' objective. Self defense strategy is based on defeating the objective, not defeating the attacker. Primarily, our female students hone the techniques from mixed martial arts needed to be hard to hit, hard to pin down, hard to choke, and hard to transport.
Physical Training Objectives
Our objective is to give young girls the physical capacity and technical foundation to set them up for successful skill development in the longterm while building a strong and confident self image in every class. The priority is to develop:
comfort being physical with others and the capacity for controlled aggression
co-ordination, balance, strength and general athleticism
proficiency in basic, powerful techniques and movements
Non-Physical Training Objectives
Our objective is to transform each girls self image, develop their voice, and provide knowledge for good decision making. The priority is to develop:
a self image of strength: to see one's self as capable, courageous, and victorious
an assertive voice that can say no, set boundaries, and stand up to friends, bullies, adults, or anyone who tries to pressure or harm them
core protective habits, or what we call "super hero skills", like awareness, walking confidently, and trusting your instincts
The Irreplaceable Role of Parental Protection
Even with training and education, young girls are susceptible to the conniving manipulation of predators— especially the most common type— the predators they know and trust. The majority of abuse against women and children comes from someone the victim knows: only 11% of kidnapping offenders are strangers, 2% of statutory rape (rape of a person under 18) offenders are strangers (FBI), and virtually half of women that get killed are killed by their own spouse. Parent vigilance coupled with open communication are crucial to child protection, even when they have immense training. Here's some tips to protect your kids as a parent:
Predators often use private messaging to groom victims. Minors social profiles should be private without exception, and children must know that it's not normal or appropriate for any adult to have conversations with minors privately online. Read more: how predators use social media
Communication is essential. If your child thinks you'll get mad, punish them, or take their phone away if they tell you about a situation, they won't. Make sure your kids know that when safety and wellbeing is concerned, they will not be punished for confiding in you and that they should always tell you when someone—anyone— makes them feel uncomfortable for any reason
Predators tend to target children that they already have access to. No matter who it is or how much you personally like them (doctors, pastors, teachers, coaches, etc), pay attention to the adults who are around your kids and trust your instincts, and your kids, about signals that something isn't right. Read more: Don't put anyone on a pedestal
As a parent you want to prepare your kids with every skill, tool, and bit of information they need to navigate the world safely and smartly on their own. Self defense training is proven to be effective at lowering rates of sexual assault even among young girls, and given the data on on victimization, childhood is when women need this intervention the most. However should everything fail, your best defense against child predators is maintaining vigilance about the people who are around your children and ensuring an open line of honest communication so that if something does happen, you will find out early.
Written by Gemma Sheehan, founder of
Girls Who Fight.
Our mission is to help women and girls lead safe and confident lives. Learn about our programs >