Representation Matters: Diverse Voices in Self-Defense
Updated: Apr 26, 2022
Originally published September 6, 2020
Updated April 26, 2022 With New Titles!
In 2020 I made it a goal to read only self-defense related books by women.
Since so few women have written books explicitly about self-defense* it has led me to read books that were not always directly related to the subject. Nonetheless they are powerful works that impact how women move through the world. From a lawyer/art historian on situational awareness to a feminist geographer who studies how women do, or don't, occupy and move through public spaces.
It's not that I have anything against self-defense books written by men. I've read plenty of them. I learned quite a bit, but I got to the edges of their value for the day-to-day life of most women pretty quickly. As one of this list's featured authors, Mary Anne Franks, says:
...white men have never been the primary targets of violent crime, and yet it is their interests and their view of the world that now dominates not only the legal but the social understanding of self-defense.
Women are often the students in self-defense classes who defer their own authority to their male teachers. I once heard an internationally known self-defense instructor tell a class that men grab women by the shoulders, not by the wrists. Therefore, practicing wrist-grab escapes had little value. Clearly he had never been a young woman on dance floor. I told him that I had been grabbed my wrists a few times and that wrist-grab escapes were invaluable. He looked at me blankly and then just kept talking.
Women must own the conversation about their personal safety because we know better than anyone what we face.
A confession about this list: With just a few exceptions, this list is still pretty white. I want to expand this list to include BIPOC as well as more representation of LGBTQ+. As targets of violence and aggression on a regular basis, these are the real self-defense experts. Let me know what awesome authors should be added to this list!
This list will continue to grow, so check back! But more than anything, I'd love to hear recommendations from you.
Self-defense isn't the domain of tough guys.
It is your domain. And it is interdisciplinary.
* A recent Google search for, "self-defense books" returned
nearly fifty books on the first page. Three of them were by women.
We Too: Essays on Sex Work and Survival
by Natalie West (Editor), Tina Horn (Co-editor)
To understand violence against womxn, we must understand rape culture.
To understand rape culture, we must listen and learn from sex workers.
This may seem like a paradox to many. After all, can sex workers really be assaulted, raped and violated? Doesn’t that come with the territory of be a sex worker? To put it more bluntly, aren’t they asking for it because of their job?
But that line of thinking tacitly holds up the foundations of current self-defense with platitudes for beloved wives and daughters to not “walk alone”, “don’t go out after dark”… blah, blah, blah. When we follow the rules of traditional self-defense it basically boils down to, “live a small life”.
In the anthology, We Too: Essays on Sex Work and Survival we learn from sex workers – both the young and vulnerable to the experienced, wise and powerful – their tales and experiences of spotting red flags, setting boundaries and refining intuition. Their stories are master classes from the front lines that can benefit all womxn.
I created this list to counter the on-going narrative that centers self-defense and personal safety from the militarized white, cis, het, suburban, middle-class male point-of-view. Those views are then generalized for womxn and marginalized folks who are most likely to be targeted for harm – but whose lives, experiences and challenges look nothing like those supposed experts. Those most vulnerable to harm will not be saved by yet one more book from an old white dude about self-defense.
But this book, this book has that power.
This book has the power to reshape how you think of rape culture. This book will reshape how you define victim. This book will reshape how you think about and listen to red flags, boundaries and intuition in your own life. This book will deepen your respect for the expertise of womxn in running their own lives.
While you may not be a sex worker, if you are a woman, trans, Black or a person of color, you will recognize many of the experiences, threats and humiliations written about in this anthology as familiar in your own experiences. I won’t lie to you – this book is often a tough read and can be triggering for anyone with trauma. But it is also healing and empowering to learn from the extraordinary folks in this book.
From time-to-time I get asked to create a certification program for Asphalt Anthropology. That’s not really what I’m about – but I can tell you – if I ever did anything like that, this book would be #1 required reading.
Her Own Hero: The Origins of the Women’s Self-Defense Movement
Wendy L. Rouse PhD
This should be required reading for any women's self-defense instructor!
Rouse is a professor at San Jose State and a
historian whose scholarly research focuses on the history of women and children in the United States during the Progressive-Era. In Hero, she traces the roots of women's self-defense to the turn of the 20th century and explores the impact of urbanization and changing gender roles. She pulls no punches and examines the racist, classist and misogynist views that helped develop women's self-defense.
On racism: the focus on (rare) attacks on white women by Black and Asian men and immigrants in lieu of the more likely threat of white men that a woman knows. Progressives at the time called BS on this - and 100 years later we are now finally seeing more instructors acknowledge this. Racism does however still have a powerful grip in women's self-defense and we can see it most clearly in Florida's campaign for Stand Your Ground laws. For more details on this see the article referenced below in"Real Men Advance, Real Women Retreat: Stand Your Ground, Battered Women's Syndrome, and Violence as Male Privilege". My own personal growth: Asphalt Anthropology focuses strictly on street crime. With this focus I am more mindful than ever to avoid the trope of the scary man of color out to get you.
On classism: What was true then, remains true today - middle and upper middle class women have the time, money and access to train where as poor and working class women had to fend for themselves. Often classes for the poor and working class were seen as "projects" by middle and upper class white women who wanted to instill them with their own values. My own personal growth: Growing up in a blue collar family in a working class neighborhood of row homes, I feel this one acutely. While I have gone on to join the middle class through higher education, I still feel like that blue collar kid. That is why I these days I rarely teach physical self-defense classes via traditional channels and only work with those who couldn't otherwise afford classes. This requires a lot of self-examination on how I relate to those students to avoid the white-middle-class-lady-savior-syndrome.
On misogyny: Through her literature review of the period Rouse uncovers the patriarchal view of women's self-defense and it was (is!) everywhere. Classes were pink washed for women - they were taught watered down versions of physical combat so as to keep them feminine and to achieve a certain type of body. Many advertisements for classes touted training as a way to be a physically fit wife and mother with self-defense as a secondary benefit. My own personal growth: Rouse examines the lives of the few women who became professional competitors and the abuse they suffered for their path. I got into martial arts training because I liked it and I like training hard - self-defense was an after thought. While I don't hold a candle to a pro, I found kindred spirits from over a century ago who were judged for their pursuits.
This book challenged my own approach to teaching self-defense. By seeing patterns from over 100 years ago, it compelled me to see where I might engage in similar unhelpful patterns. If you want to make a true impact in the world of women's self-defense you cannot skip this book!
Widen the Window: Training Your Brain and Body to Thrive During Stress and Recover from Trauma
Elizabeth A. Stanley PhD
What do a Harvard-trained political scientist, an Army intelligence officer, an MBA from MIT, a certified practitioner of Somatic Experiencing and an ordained Buddhist nun have in common? They're the same person in Elizabeth Stanley, PhD. With her unique combination of life experiences, Stanley has written the survival guide for 2020. The book is in-depth and detailed on how to manage uncertainty and chaos. It is highly accessible with practical skills you can start practicing right away.
What does this have to do with self-defense? Most often we think of self-defense as lists of physical or observational skills we have to master. But Stanley shares how by widening our window of tolerance, we can most effectively spot and manage threats and stress - making personal safety accessible to everyone, not just the young, fit and athletic.
She also breaks down the fight, flight, freeze response in an original way that answers a lot of questions about why we go with one response or the other. She has really upped my game as a trauma-informed self-defense instructor.
Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle
Emily Nagoski PhD, Amelia Nagoski DMA
It is very much on purpose that there are two books in a row listed here that deal with managing the stress cycle.
Asphalt Anthropology is self-defense geared towards the city-dweller - an environment inherently chaotic and unpredictable. The age old self-defense advice of "keep your head on a swivel" is meaningless in dense public spaces where, in addition to normal everyday life challenges and to-do's, residents must navigate crowds, public transit, long lines and large crowds day after day after day. "Keep your head on a swivel" comes from the military experience where soldiers are sent out on short term missions. This approach may work fine for those short duration missions but does not transfer to the general population for 24/7/365 living.
While I love the deep dive and the Department of Defense evidence-based exercises in Widen the Window, Burnout is an intimate, intersectionaly feminist approach to stress and recovery told by two sisters, Emily and Amelia Nagoski. They walk you through the stress cycle, its impact on your body and mind in such a personal, like-talking-to-our-best-friend-about-life's-shitstorms kind of way. In fact, the girlfriend of mine who recommended it to me still periodically listens to it on audio as a way to unwind and reboot. This kind of self-care goes much further in developing resilience and creativity to mitigating threats than the "keep your head on a swivel" approach.
The reason I keep emphasizing the stress recovery approach over the "keep your head on a swivel" cliche is, as numerous neurobiological tell us, when you are walking through life with unresolved stress and trauma you are WORSE at detecting and managing threats. This approach allows you to build trust with yourself so that you know you can handle whatever comes your way!
Feminist City: Claiming Space in a Man-made World
Leslie Kern, PhD
Reading this book felt like I was talking to my best friend. Most often when women and cities are mentioned in the same breath it has to do with DANGER! But this book celebrates the adventure and opportunities that women have in cities more-so than any other type of geography. Kern doesn't gloss over the inherent risks of dense public spaces - she meets them head on - both the realties and myths. And then she goes deeper by blowing up the myths (created to keep women docile) and practical ways we can address the negative realities. This book normalizes women as intrepid urban dwellers rather than victims.
Favorite quote: "I know that as a sensible adult, I'm supposed to look back and say, 'That was ridiculous! What were we thinking? It's a miracle we weren't murdered!' Instead I can't help but see it as a moment when our young friendship allowed us to experience the city in a whole new way, to test our own limits, and to gain a sense that the city could be a place for us. Those moments taking charge in our lives were possible because we never questioned that we could count on each other... friendship made freedom in the city a possibility for us."
Hood Feminism: Notes from the Women that a Movement Forgot
At just a glance in media and social media, it is easy to note that the current paradigm of self-defense generally caters to white, middle-class women looking to feel empowered to battle the boogey man they are told will nab them off their nice quiet suburban streets. This observation became particularly painful in 2020 as many in the self-defense field fell silent or went full "all lives matter" when the cost of systemic racism so dramatically underscored how dangerous the world is for Black folks and people of color. The book's subtitle, "Notes from the Women that a Movement Forgot" all too sadly applies to the self-defense world.
Kendall covers a lot of ground in this book, from education, housing, gun violence, health care and reproductive rights and parenthood. As I read the multiple angles from which Black women are assailed in their every day, particular memories kept flooding my thoughts - that of self-defense instructors I've known over the years complain indigently that "no one is showing up for their self-defense classes". This is a common refrain I've heard frequently over the years to which my mind goes to "well, then you clearly aren't teaching something people want or need". As Kendall open my eyes to Hood Feminism, all I could think is "there is no shortage of work to be done or people who need support - it just doesn't look like mainstream self-defense."
That said, Kendalls' work clearly reminded me that what the Black community does NOT need is more white saviors (in this case, white folks teaching Black women mainstream self-defense) but rather that white self-defense instructors, particularly when they are teaching in marginalized communities, need to LISTEN and let the group lead. Marginalized folks, the ones most vulnerable to violence are in that position because of systemic oppression and an afternoon spent learning how to punch not going to move the needle for the long term.
If you want the world to be safer for the most vulnerable, start by reading Hood Feminism and follow her lead on dismantling oppressive structures.
Visual Intelligence: Sharpen Your Perception, Change Your Life
Amy E. Herman, JD, MA
Most often situational awareness is presented from a military or law enforcement point of view. For those who don't hold those jobs however, that perspective has some, but limited value.
Herman teaches Visual Intelligence to business professionals, medical personnel as well as federal and local law enforcement. What I love about her approach is that she presents environmental awareness in an accessible way for every day life without all the paranoia of "looking for the bad guy".
The book includes fun exercises that are family-friendly. And she takes awareness training further with sections on how to assess your own biases that may color how, and what, you see.
The Cult of the Constitution: Our Deadly Devotion to Guns and Free Speech
Mary Anne Franks, JD, MPhil, DPhil, Krav Maga instructor
Franks is a legal scholar whose work has profoundly re-shaped my thinking about the law of self-defense. And thank goodness we have her voice. The law, and the application of the law are not equal across race, gender and class. In fact, the self-defense community itself often perpetrates this inequality with interpretations of laws through a socially conservative lens that harms people who need the most protection - domestic violence survivors, BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ - while maintaining the status quo for the least likely targets of violence in the U.S. - white men.
In The Cult of the Constitution, Franks explores what she terms, "super rights" the 1st and 2nd Amendments of the U.S. Constitution that are revered at the expense of other constitutional rights.
More than a primer of the constitution, Franks' book decodes our current culture in the U.S. where owning a gun has become a full-on personality. In chapter four, The Cult of the Internet, she breaks down how the obsession with the 1st and 2nd amendments have shaped the online experience and how that in turn has negatively impacted, yet again those most vulnerable to threats, in favor of those least vulnerable. Back when I was getting my MBA with a focus in digital media management we studied deeply Section 230 of the 1996 U.S. Communications Decency Act. In our law classes this code ways revered as a shining example of democracy and free speech and I was part of a generation of business students steeped in this perspective. Franks turns this perspective on its head and breaks down the reality of this code and its uneven and unequal enforcement.
If you read only one book to better understand the U.S. culture - where we are, how we got here, and how we can make it better - read this book.
I'm not gonna lie, this was a tough read. This is the account from Chanel Miller about her assault and legal battle against rapist, Brock Turner.
As tough as it was, her writing is remarkable, both searing and at times delightful. She truly has a gift to write and makes this tough subject a page-turner.
I learned a lot about our broken and callous legal system and the toll it takes on victims. You will be inspired by her strength.
Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America
This book came out in 2015 which begs the question,
"In an era where true crime shows, podcasts and social media accounts are so popular, how on earth is it that so few people are talking about this book?!"
Leovy is a reporter for the L.A. Times who covered crime for over 10 years and embedded with LAPD's Seventy-seventh and Southeast stations in the heart of South Central Los Angeles. She is also the creator of the Times' Homicide Report. The main thread of the book recounts the true story of the murder of Dovon Harris, a Black teenager who was gunned down just steps from his own home. Sadly, there are many "side" stories in the book about the murder of other Black men and how they are all systematically, and often personally, connected.
Leovy takes us through the investigation's many moving parts for an inside view of an investigation exploring the roles of the coroner, ballistics and firearms experts, data experts, the community and police. If you want to understand the nuts and bolts of a murder investigation this book is for you.
But the reason I am putting this book on a list dedicated to self-defense education is because of the context Leovy provides into why being a young, Black man in America is so dangerous. Not because of anything they may have done or the amount of melanin in their skin - but because of the systemic racism that gave rise the cheap cost of a Black man's life. As we explore personal safety on the street level, this book reminds us who the real endangered folks are.
The Liar the Cheat and the Thief: Deception and the Art of Sword Play
Though highly recommended to me by a number of folks, I put off reading it because I'm not interested in sword work. But while the drills she covers are specific to sword work, the principles apply to movement in general and can work with a range of weapons.
The key differentiator with this book is in its title - its about moving with deception and misdirection to keep the threat at a disadvantage. This approach is invaluable particularly for women as we navigate public spaces.
Favorite quote: "If you are not in a position of superior power you must find another way to control the situation, because not leading the dance is way too risky."
Mindful Thoughts for City Dwellers
Lucy Anna Scott
I picked up this pocket sized treasure while browsing the gift shop at the L.A. Central Library. It is a delightful little book with passages that offer alternate perspectives to typical beliefs about cities.
Urban living it is assumed, is too boisterous to provide peace, too pressured to allow time to connect – to the moment, to others and ourselves. … it is my hope [to] show you how nourishing a metropolis can be – an environment with the potential to help us to see more, hear more, feel more.
Cities are just as adept at fostering trust & a sense of community as anywhere because they are so open & diverse. Trust grows out of people interacting with one another & the more of those interactions we have with others, the more at ease with humanity we can be...”
ROAR: How to Match Your Food and Fitness to Your Unique Female Physiology for Optimum Performance, Great Health, and a Strong, Lean Body for Life
Stacy Sims, PhD
This books has been a game changer for me as my own body ages and my life-long martial arts training was becoming harder. I was steeped in the philosophy of "no pain no gain" for decades which has more recently become unsustainable.
A central theme to Sims' work is that what we know about fitness and nutrition for woman is based off of studies done on young men. But as an exercise physiologist and nutrition scientist, in her research with women, she is finding new information and wisdom specifically for women.
That approach continues to inspire me to keep being specific in my own research. The challenges and needs of women in the areas of violence are not the same as men and we need to address that specificity in order to be effective with prevention.
How Stand-Your-Ground Laws Hijacked Self-Defense
Mary Anne Franks, JD, MPhil, DPhil, Krav Maga instructor
...the right to self-defense should not be based on fear. It should be based on principles of autonomy, which must in turn be based on equality and justice and efficiency.
...racial minorities, in particular black men, are placed at a considerable disadvantage when the right to self-defense is conflated with the right to be armed.
Real Men Advance, Real Women Retreat: Stand Your Ground, Battered Women's Syndrome, and Violence as Male Privilege
Mary Anne Franks, JD, MPhil, DPhil, Krav Maga instructor
So, while it is convenient to imagine a gun-toting woman thwarting a lurking rapist, such a scenario is extremely statistically unlikely...
And that is, of course, precisely why proponents of Stand Your Ground, conservative pundits, and gun activists use the stranger rape example. Its value is purely rhetorical. It allows proponents to claim concern for women's safety, and even more importantly, to label opponents as "anti-woman," without actually challenging entrenched, daily violence against women. It is utterly safe to condemn the stranger rapist he is an outlier, a monster; he has no legitimate authority and poses as much (or more) of a threat to patriarchal interests than he does to actual women. Stranger rapists have "real" victims, victims who are virgins or married or are assigned some other strict role within the sexual economy. Stranger rapists disrupt sexual order and destabilize men's entitlement to and control over their wives, girlfriends, or daughters. The stranger rapist can be vilified without indicting mainstream society. Women who fight back against stranger rapists pose no threat to social order or challenge cultural gender-disciplining norms. They do not, in short, challenge the average man's authority or make him consider whether he too is a legitimate target for violence.