10 Self Defense Strategies Every Woman Needs To Know

Updated: May 29

Practical strategies for avoiding, identifying, and surviving a violent street attack.

By Gemma Sheehan, Founder of Girls Who Fight.

Many of us might not prevail if we were locked in the octagon with a pro MMA fighter; but all of us have the power to survive or completely avoid the most common types of attacks and abductions that exist in the real world. This power comes not from being stronger than those attackers- but by being smarter and understanding strategy. A long-term dedication to martial arts skill development is one of the best things you can do to prepare yourself for worst case scenarios. But strategy is what allows you to win without fighting- and what gives you the advantage when fighting is necessary.

"One need not destroy his enemy, one need only destroy his willingness to engage" - Sun Tzu

Here are some of the most important strategies you can use to protect yourself from violence.

Strategy #1 - Always Be Aware

Awareness is the minimum requirement for avoiding and responding to violence. Awareness is a critical deterrent because it makes you difficult to surprise. It lets you see danger early enough to escape it, it lets your intuition pick up important signals, and it gives you time to mentally and physically prepare yourself to fight back. The attacker's strategy is to remove these powerful options from you. They are not looking for a fight, but to simply overwhelm. They aim to catch the victim off guard so that by the time they realize what's happening it's too late. Someone who is actively aware of their surroundings and the people in them is less likely to be targeted in the first place. Your eyes, ears, and intuition have been perfected over centuries for the sole purpose of keeping you alive. Your senses are highly effective survival tools- never shut them down in public.

You can't defend what you can't see

Strategy #2 - Trust Your Instincts

Many women who were attacked recount that they had a bad feeling beforehand but ignored it. In order to not appear rude or paranoid, we so often interrogate our own survival instincts and tell ourselves "it's probably nothing". But that gut feeling that something isn't right; that this person or place seems dangerous; or that you simply just don't want to do something- that feeling alone is the most important warning sign that you are not safe. It requires no further validation. Instincts work faster than intellect when it comes to your safety. When you feel that something isn't right, listen to that feeling.

"Your instincts get two things right: they are always based on something, and they always have your best interest at heart" - Gavin De Becker

Tip #3 - Present Yourself Confidently

Body language is one of the most important indicators of a persons willingness to fight back. Many studies have shown that predators judge vulnerability by observing how people walk. Someone who walks confidently with their shoulders back and head up and moves swiftly with purpose is perceived to be likely to stand up for themselves. Someone who keeps their head down, avoids eye contact, and walks with a sense of defeatedness is perceived to be unlikely to stand up for themselves. Confident body language is what tells bullies and predators that you will not go down without a fight- and a fight is precisely what they try to avoid. When you move, move with confidence.

"Given the same amount of intelligence, timidity will do a thousand times more damage than audacity" -Carl Von Clausewitz (On War)

Strategy #4 - Deny Attack Opportunities

The process of selecting or creating an attack opportunity is the most crucial part of the attackers strategy. Because under the right circumstances, even the most invulnerable target is accessible. Choosing an attack opportunity involves considerations like:

  • finding a place and time where no one is around to intervene

  • using tactical positioning to surprise or corner you

  • deceptive lures to bait victims into approaching them willingly

  • attacking when the victim does not have the capacity to defend themselves

Criminals spend a significant amount of time honing these tactics, whereas the average person spends very little time considering their vulnerability to them. This gap in understanding is a huge advantage to the criminal. To deny attack opportunities, remember that other people are your greatest protection. Stick with friends and take the paths with the most people around. Observe those around you- if someone seems to be following you, paying too much attention to you, or is in a position where they could trap you, stay away from them. If someone on an elevator gives you the creeps, wait for the next one. If someone is lingering by your car or front door, wait for them to leave. Remember that you cannot defend what you cannot see, which is why most attacks come from behind. Be aware of what's behind you. When waiting for a bus stand with your back against a wall so you can see what's happening at all angles. These strategies make it difficult for a predator to position themselves to surprise you.

"Don't rely on the enemy not attacking, but on your position that cannot be attacked" -Sun Tzu

Strategy #5 - Recognize Baits

A lure is when a predator tricks the victim into approaching them under some sort of guise, and they are much more common than physical force attacks. For example:

  • Ted Bundy used the 'help me' trick by pretending to be injured and asking women for help putting things in his trunk. The help me trick can look like asking for directions, looking for a lost pet, asking to use your phone, etc.

  • Unsolicited offers for help are also very common. Offers to help with groceries, give you a ride, help you with your car that broke down, etc.

  • Child predators heavily rely on tricks that entice children to approach their car, including offering free stuff, animals, asking for help, or simply starting a conversation.

  • Home invaders bait victims to open the door by pretending to be a salesman or friendly neighbour.

  • Fake emergencies are a guise used by all sorts of criminals from abductors to home invaders.

Lures are by far the most effective and lowest risk strategy that criminals have. They are so effective because they exploit our virtues: our desire to help others, to reciprocate, to be nice and not judge. Strangers who offer or ask for help don't always have malicious intent; but that is exactly what their approach would look like if they did. Recognize baits for what they are- an excuse to be allowed into your personal space. The street is the most common site of abduction,