Why Women's Self-Defense Training Is More Important Than Ever

From improving confidence to effectively resisting assault, here’s how women can stay safe.


Jackie Bruce didn’t want to know about self-defense moves or martial arts when she was in high school.

“My brother and dad did it. I was the cheerleader in high school and thought it was all too macho,” says Bruce, 24. But when her much larger boyfriend attacked her in her own home, in her bedroom, she didn’t have pepper spray or a pocketknife on hand. All she had to rely on was her own physical strength.

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Today, the 5-foot-4-inch, 120-pound critical care nurse from Wilmington is a purple-belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and a passionate teacher of self-defense techniques at 302 Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu in Wilmington. And she believes that everyone—from children to senior citizens—should learn it, but especially women.

RELATED: Local Experts Share 10 Fundamentals of Self-Defense

She may have a point. According to the Center for Family Justice, one in four women will be sexually abused in her lifetime. The Bureau of Justice reports that a person is abused in the United States every nine seconds. RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization, says one in five women will be raped at some point in her life.

“It’s not just happening somewhere else, it’s [happening] at your local Walmart,” says Erin Pieshala, of Harrington, a 45-year-old mother of a 10-year-old daughter. She signed up for a self-defense class after she read about an attempted child abduction at a Middletown location of the large retail store. “You need to be more aware of what’s going on. On the news and online, you hear about crime on the rise, abductions and human trafficking.”

It is happening in Delaware. Statistics from 2017 show nearly 200,000 people reported some sort of violent crime in Delaware. A little preparation can make a huge difference. That was clearly shown in late winter and early spring of 2017. The Pike Creek area and all of New Castle County were living in fear after two women were abducted at gunpoint, sexually assaulted and forced to take money out of the ATM, by a mask-wearing kidnapper. The only information that police had to go on was that the kidnapper had an accent. Women reported being terrified to go outside.

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A third victim, though, had a different outcome.

“You need to be more aware of what’s going on. On the news and online, you hear about crime on the rise, abductions and human trafficking.” —Erin Pieshala, self-defense class attendee

After hearing how the other victims had been attacked while walking their dogs at their apartment complexes, she came up with a plan in case it happened to her. She and her boyfriend devised a plan that if the kidnapper was trying to force her into her apartment building—as he had done to the others—she should hit the door buzzer to alert him.

That’s exactly what she did, hitting the buzzer with her shoulder as the perpetrator held a gun to her head. Her boyfriend confronted the kidnapper who fled, leaving the woman shaken, but unharmed.

Women have to be prepared to fight back, says Chanan Smith, owner of Magen Tactical Defense in Wilmington. He tells the story of a woman who took only one of his self-defense classes. Months later she called to tell him how his class had helped her. A man tried to attack her, but when she got into the fighting stance—the only thing she could remember from Smith’s class—her attacker ran away.

“You must show them you are going to put up a fight,” says Smith.

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Studies agree with his analysis. “Women who participate in self-defense training are less likely to experience sexual assault and are more confident in their ability to effectively resist assault than similar women who have not taken such a class,” according to Jocelyn A. Hollander, a professor at University of Oregon in a 2014 study.

Awareness is the first and most important step, according to all instructors and experts consulted for this article.

People tend to think it won’t happen to them, says Ronnie Wuest, owner of Delaware Self-Defense Academy with locations in Dover and Middletown. He teaches regular women-only self-defense classes that begin with information and statistics. Women with higher educations and higher income levels are targeted more because they don’t expect it to happen to them, he says.

It’s only after his clients accept that attacks can happen to anyone, that he starts teaching defensive moves. Self-defense training is like an insurance policy, he explains.

“I always like when girls come in and we get them aware of all the things they didn’t know. That’s knowledge. No one can take that from you.” —Gabriela Valdes, self-defense instructor

Cell phones are a huge problem for self-defense, says Lee Clarkson, owner of Delaware Tang Soo Do Academy, a martial arts academy located in Milford. They make people easy targets. People are too busy paying attention to their phones and not their surroundings, says Clarkson, who has been teaching for 37 years.

Clarkson’s self-defense classes are geared toward the average woman with no self-defense or martial arts training, right down to the lingo. He teaches them to hold their hands up like they are going to run their fingers through their hair rather than tell them to take a guard position. He also teaches them different ways to hit—with a hammer hand or the heel of the hand, rather than trying to punch their attacker. Punching can go wrong even for experienced fighters, he says.

“You don’t have to be super fit,” says Pieshala, who took two of Clarkson’s classes. “In an hour you were empowered.”

No woman should have to be afraid of taking a class, says Spencer Cook, 27, who helps teach self-defense courses at 302 Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. Most women are a little nervous when they come into a class for the first time.

“I’ve never seen anyone who didn’t want to take another afterward,” she says. The fact that she’s 4-foot, 11-inches and shows her students how she can take down a much larger man is usually helpful in building others’ confidence.

Women are going to have to get outside their comfort zones a little in order to learn new skills, she says. “No one is born with everything.”

Practice and awareness are key.

“You have to get your body used to reacting,” says Gabriela Valdes, 25, an amateur fighter and self-defense instructor. She teaches her students not to rely on weapons, which can be taken away from you. “I always like when girls come in and we get them aware of all the things they didn’t know. That’s knowledge. No one can take that from you.”

The following places offer women-only self-defense classes:

*Phone numbers listed without an area code should be dialed using Delaware’s sole area code, (302).

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