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10 Self Defense Strategies Every Woman Needs To Know

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

By Gemma Sheehan, Founder of Girls Who Fight.

You might not prevail against a pro MMA fighter in the octagon; but everyone has the power to survive or avoid the most common attacks that occur in the real world. This power comes not from being stronger but by understanding strategy. Strategy is what allows you to succeed without fighting- and what gives you the advantage when fighting is necessary. Here are ten of those strategies.

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

Strategy #1 - Awareness of Surroundings and the People In Them

Awareness is as simple as it is powerful. It deters criminals, lets you detect threats ahead of time and gives your intuition the information it needs to protect you. An alert person is more difficult to attack than a distracted person and therefore less likely to be selected for crime.

This woman was able to avert a kidnapping because her awareness allowed her to see danger ahead of time.

Predators aim to catch victims off guard so that by the time they realize what's happening it's too late. Your eyes, ears, and intuition have been perfected over centuries for the sole purpose of keeping you alive. They are highly effective survival tools- never allow them to be shut down in public.

Strategy #2 - Trust Your Instincts

Many women who were attacked say they had a bad feeling beforehand but ignored it. In order to not appear rude or paranoid we so often interrogate and deny our own survival instincts. But that gut feeling that something isn't right is the most important warning sign that you are not safe. Instincts work faster than intellect when it comes to your safety and require no further validation. Always listen to your gut feeling about a person, place or situation.

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

—This is a short story about a woman who was on a date with Ted Bundy. She got such a bad feeling about him that she called her brother to pick her up mid-date. It doesn't matter if your gut instinct is wrong, what matters is that it could be right.

Tip #3 - Present Yourself Confidently

Body language is one of the most important indicators of a persons willingness to fight back. Studies show 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 and capable of standing up for themselves. Someone who hangs their head, avoids eye contact, and walks with a sense of defeatedness is perceived to be unlikely to put up a fight. Confident body language is what tells a predator within a seconds glance that you are not an easy target. 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

Attackers don't look for fights, they look for opportunities.

Finding attack opportunities involve considerations like:

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

  • positioning themselves to surprise you or attacking when you're distracted

  • using lures to bait victims into approaching willingly

  • attacking when the victim has no capacity to defend themselves (intoxicated)

Criminals spend their lives honing these tactics while the average person spends little time considering their vulnerability to them. Like a master checkmates a novice, the criminal is usually ten steps ahead of the victim when setting their trap. Our defensive strategy needs to include actively denying openings for attack.

  • Other people are your greatest protection. Stick with friends and take paths with 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 surprise or 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.

  • You cannot defend what you cannot see which is why most attacks come from behind. Consider what's behind you.

  • When waiting for a bus stand with your back against a wall so you can see all angles.

Positioning yourself so that you cannot be surprised or cornered makes it difficult for a predator to find an attack opportunity.

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

Strategy #5 - Recognize Lures

Lures are used to lower your guard and give the attacker an excuse to get close enough to attack. They are much more common than physical force attacks. For example:

  • Ted Bundy used the 'help me' trick by 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 entice children to approach their car by offering free stuff, showing animals, asking for help, or by simply starting a conversation.

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

  • Fake emergencies are a guise used by criminals like abductors and home invaders.

Lures lower the criminals risk by reducing the amount of time an attack will take and eliminating escape options. They work so well because they exploit our virtues: our desire to help others, to reciprocate, to be nice and not offend. Recognize lures 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.

Strategy #6 - Say No and Mean It

Predators use conversation to 'interview' you to see if you will be an easy target. When someone speaks to you, speak with confidence 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 or going in their house. 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.'

Also, someone who refuses to accept no as an answer is showing you that they are trying to control you, and that's a very important danger signal.

"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 hurt you they must first get close to you. 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 potential threat. If someone speaks to you in public respond from your safe distance. If they inch closer to you maintain distance by moving away. If the attacker is far enough from you that they can't 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.

Distance is your first defense

Strategy #8 - Be The Threat

If an attacker chooses you he has made the calculation that 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. Their window of opportunity is small and vanishes with each passing 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 put your hands up to a 'stop position' at temple height (or a fighting stance).

If they attack you fight back with as much aggression as you can. Your goal isn't to win the fight but to create an opening for escape. When you have enough space to turn your back, run. The last thing that an attacker expects is a vicious counter-attack. Never forget how much of a threat you are to the attacker and show them that from the first moment.

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 (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. This woman escaped her attacker by kneeing him as hard as she could.

  • 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 space.

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. As soon as they give you an opening to escape, take it.

Strategy #10 - Never Go to a Second Location

The secondary location is the place that an abductor is trying to take the victim. It's usually a private place that allows them to commit their desired crime without risk.

As soon as the victim is taken to the secondary location the chance of survival plummets to almost zero.

You must do everything you can to defend yourself where the attack first happens. This is where you have the most advantage over the attacker and where the attacker has the greatest chance of getting caught or giving up. The attacker may threaten to hurt you if you don't comply, or promise not to hurt you if you do. This is only to remove the possibility of successful resistance. If an attacker is willing to hurt you in public with risk, imagine what he is capable of doing in a risk-free isolated location.

In self defense, options equal survival. Never let an attacker remove your options. Don't allow your hands to be tied. Don't allow yourself to be put into the car or taken to a second location. You must fight back while you have the option to and while your chances of success are still high.

I hope you learned something new about how to protect yourself and your loved ones today! I'd like to finish with a powerful quote by Sun Tzu: "you don't need to destroy your enemy — you only need to destroy their willingness to engage." This is my all time favorite quote on self defense because it's true, accomplishable, and leads to the best outcome of never having to fight. Think about how you can destroy an attackers willingness to target you on your every day routes. Ask yourself the question, "am I hard to attack right now?"

Girls Who Fight Self Defense Programs:

Written by Gemma Sheehan, founder of

Girls Who Fight. Our mission is to help women and girls lead safe and confident lives.

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Adam Coyl
Adam Coyl
3 days ago

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