McGill's Self Defense Course for Women: Still Relevant, Still Valuable

Published Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Kateryna Gordiychuk, Sarah M Mah, Camylle Lanteigne


The question of women’s safety, with the well-known reports of sexual assault and harassment on campus, has sparked interest in the existing resources for women - including the popular self-defense course offered by McGill Security Services, the Rape Aggression Defense (RAD) class. Recently, we have observed some questionable reporting about the program by student-led publications, and wondered whether those writers had, in fact, taken the course themselves at the time of publication.


As women that have taken the course between 2016 and 2017, we want to share our thoughts and experiences about the RAD program, and what it means for women’s safety at McGill.






I believe in the good intentions of people. In my everyday conversations with people, my  naiveté makes for a good story rather than an unfortunate coincidence.


And yet, I never leave my front door unlocked. Even though we are trying to work toward a society where “there should be no thieves in the first place,” I know better than to act as though we already live in a world without violence. When philosophizing and acting upon the dangers of the social life for women I prefer to keep my blinds shut and my ear on guard.


I do the same with my self-security. As distrustful of others as it sounds, my personal safety as a woman is a precaution I’m obliged to take in today’s predatory society, where those identifying as women are disproportionately tracked, hunted down, and targeted for sexual assault. Just like closing the door and shutting my blinds, I exercise self-defense while condemning the structures obliging me to do so. Taking measures to protect myself does not render me ignorant of patriarchal dominance, nor a supporter of victim-blaming.


One of the most influential actors in my personal decision to combine self-defence with fighting against systemic violence against women was the RAD course, offered by the McGill Security Services. This experience never left me thinking that a sense of empowerment and temporary in-class safety are there to last unconditionally. What it did do, however, was unchained my movements, intensified my voice, and dismissed some of my culturally ingrained norms. The “NO!” I heard myself repeat over and over again was clear, confident, and there to last.


To those of you who are about to take the course I would say - don’t use it as a universal guide to solving the world’s sexual assault issues. Rather, take it as an opportunity to explore what your body can and can’t do, and how you can learn to say “NO!”, so that it locks the doors and shuts the blinds when you need it to.




With my background in martial arts, I decided to take the RAD course in the fall term of 2016 because I wanted more practical self-defense training that was tailored to women. I also wanted the scoop on the politics of a program that is explicitly targeted for women.


My first observation was that the RAD program’s theory is rooted in an analysis of women’s inequality and violence against women. While the information presented in the group discussion might have appeared “outdated” with some of the statistics and graphics from the 90’s, the reality is that rape and sexual assault rates remain changed. For example, the presenter showed Holly Johnson’s pyramid of attrition for sexual assault leading to court convictions in Elizabeth Sheehy’s “Sexual Assault in Canada: Law, Legal Practice, and Women’s Activism” from 2012. Having been involved in equality-seeking women’s organizations over the last few years, I found the session to be highly accurate and a useful reminder about why a women’s self-defense class is necessary, and social change is crucial.


My second observation was the group size. With roughly twenty women in the room for the first day and slightly fewer than that on the second day, it appears to me this is an essential service to women that is underutilized.


Lastly, I went into the class knowing generally what I thought about self-defense classes: that it was a shame women had to take them at all. To my surprise, this point was echoed by the instructor upfront. She reinforced that a women’s self-defense class is never a substitute for real social change - to end rape and male violence.


The course gives women an opportunity to learn and practice simple self-defense techniques, both verbal and physical. As women, we are socialized to fear sexual assault, told to dress conservatively, and watch our drinks. On the other hand, the poor are told to compromise their safety and bodily integrity for the benefit of men. Some of us are told to just stay home. For me, this course is a welcome invitation for women to defend ourselves, see sexual assault through the lens of women’s equality, and take back our space on campus.




As I attended the first part of the Rape Aggression Defense (RAD) class, which focused on various factual aspects of sexual assault, I was once again confronted with the disturbing evidence. Even though the information provided in the package may have seemed dated, its relevance and persisting accuracy largely outweighed this element, as we discussed the fact that the evidence on violence against women had not changed much in roughly two decades. This troubling reality strikes me as a reminder that we may not have come as far we like to believe when it comes to women’s equality, thus emphasizing the relevance of an initiative like RAD.


Additionally, the focus of the program is to equip women with practical skills in case of aggression. At first glance, what is detailed in the booklet we received looks complex and overwhelming. However, its purpose is to serve as a reminder of what we had already learned: simple, yet effective, movements, repeated frequently throughout the second day of the course which might help women counteract our natural reactions of freezing and panic when confronted by a violent man.


There is a long road still ahead of us on violence against women. Although I wholeheartedly agree that education is key in defeating rape culture and sexual assault, we simply cannot pretend that initiatives like RAD don’t have their reason for being, or that RAD itself isn’t a resource to help women avoid or fight back against sexual assault.