10 Self Defense Strategies Every Woman Needs To Know

Updated: 5 days ago

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, and lures are the most common strategy- therefore as a rule, you should never get close to someone's car when the driver starts a conversation with you, regardless of what comes out of their mouth.

My safety first, your feelings second.

Strategy #6 - Speak Assertively- It's OK To Say No!

Predators may start conversations as part of their 'interview' to see if you will be an easy target. When someone speaks to you, speak with confidence, assertiveness, and firmness. Don't shy away from eye contact. Say no to anything that you do not want to do or to anything that would put you in danger like getting close to someones car. Remember that no is a complete sentence requiring no explanation or negotiation. The ability to say no and mean it is as fundamental as self defense gets; it says 'your will will not be imposed on me.'

"If you let someone talk you out of the word no, you might as well wear a sign on your chest that says "you are in charge" -Gavin De Becker

Strategy #7 - Protect Your Personal Space

Understanding distance is a key skill in martial arts and self defense. If someone wants to attack or abduct you, they need to get close enough to touch you. And the closer they get they fewer options you have. Aim to keep people at a two arms length distance away. That's your personal space. Anyone within that space is a threat. If someone speaks to you respond from within your safe distance. If they inch closer to you maintain your distance by moving away. If the attacker is far enough from you that they cannot reach out and grab you from behind, run. If you can't run away without being grabbed, keep as much distance from the attacker as you can but face them head on so you are ready to defend yourself to the best of your ability. Without the distance required to run away, fighting is the only option.

Strategy #8 - Use The Element of Surprise: Be The Threat

If an attacker chooses you, he has made calculations that make him believe that in this moment he can get away with the attack. This is where you prove him wrong and show him that you are the threat to him- not the other way around. Once a physical attack is predicted delay it as long as you can by running, keeping your distance, or forcing them around physical obstacles. The window of opportunity to get away with the attack is small and vanishes by the second. Draw attention to the attack by yelling things that alert others and frighten the attacker: "HELP", "GET AWAY FROM ME", "RAPIST", "POLICE"; as loud as you can. If you can't run away, face them head on and raise your hands in an open palm, non-confrontational position (the 'stop' position). Be ready to protect your face and fight back, but do not yet take a martial arts stance. Doing so will indicate that you have fighting skills and cause them to attack more aggressively. If they get close enough to grab or strike you, fight back with as much aggression as you can until you have space to run. The last thing that an attacker expects is a vicious counter-attack. Where ever you can, take advantage of the element of surprise.

"The criminal does not expect his prey to fight back. May he never choose you, but, if he does, surprise him" - Jeff Cooper

Strategy #9 - Use Simple Weapons

Even experienced fighters are wise to stick to the most simple and effective tools available in a real life situation. Use the hard, pointy parts of your body to strike soft parts of your attacker. Some safe, easy to learn strikes:

  • With the point of your elbow, elbow the face or head (chin, temple, back of the head). Turn your body with the elbow to increase power.

  • Knee the groin, stomach, or head. Using your back leg, bend your knee to make it as pointy as you can and drive it forward with all your power.

  • Eye poke: using your rear hand, drive your first two fingers aggressively towards the attackers eyes. Just the threat of this is enough to make an attacker move back and give you the space you need.

These are all close range strikes, meaning they can be used when someone is grabbing or choking you. Also, a groin strike usually opens the opportunity for an elbow to the face and vice versa. This strategy is called 'high-low'. If you strike, do so aggressively and without hesitation the first time. Force them to respect your attack and shift into defense mode. Throw 1-3 strikes as hard as you can and then use the space to escape or improve your position. There are many other techniques that can be learned for attack situations that require physical training- I highly recommend joining Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and/or Muay Thai to learn some of these skills.

Strategy #10 - Never Go to a Second Location

The secondary location is the place that an abductor is trying to take the victim. It could be their house, a lake, an alley way, a building; usually somewhere that is completely private and allows them to commit their desired crime without risk or restraint. As soon as the victim is taken to the secondary location the chance of survival plummets to almost zero. Although it is scary, we must do everything we possibly can to defend ourselves where the attack first happens. This is when we have the most advantage over our attacker, and where the attacker has the greatest chance of getting caught or giving up before they do. Because the attacker knows this, he will say anything to convince you not to do the only things that will help you escape: yelling and fighting. They might threaten to hurt you if you don't comply, or promise not to hurt you if you do. Similarly, attackers may promise not to hurt you if you tie your hands behind your back. This is only to remove the possibility of resistance. Remember that in self defense, options equal survival. Never let an attacker remove your options; whether by force or coercion. Never allow your hands to be tied. Never allow yourself to be put into the car or taken to a second location. Just remember: if an attacker is willing to hurt you in public, with risk- imagine what he is capable of doing in a totally private place without risk. You must fight back while you have the option to and while your chances of success are still high.

Learn Self Defense With Girls Who Fight!

Thanks for reading! Strategy is the first step to understanding self defense, fighting skills are the next. Check out our women's self defense courses, our MMA classes for girls and women, and our girls self defense summer camps in Dallas Fort-Worth and Toronto to start building physical fighting skills of your own!

Suggested Reading:

If you liked this article, you might like our post on situational awareness, our post on confident presentation, and our post on predatory tactics.


Author: Gemma Sheehan, Founder of Girls Who Fight Inc.

Gemma is an ex-MMA fighter who started Girls Who Fight Inc to bring the value of martial arts and self defense training to the female audience.



The Girls Who Fight Film, By Jennifer Roberts

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