Soalt herself served as an expert witness in a trial where a young woman sued a self-defense instructor and won. According to Soalt, the instructor was not properly trained, and he caused the woman to become re-traumatizated. “Safety is number one here,” says Soalt, who stresses that this was an extreme case. Nonetheless, she adds: “When choosing a self-defense course, it’s essential to check out the instructors.”
Indeed, when self-defense is taught with or by professionals with a background in trauma treatment, “the few studies that exist consistently demonstrate its potential,” says Shames, the clinical social worker in Israel, though she acknowledges that self-defense as a therapeutic modality remains a tough sell.
To encourage further standardization, Rosenblum and Taska’s paper describes the features of an IMPACT self-defense class. “The next step for research would be to obtain a grant [to] create a formal therapeutic class protocol and have that same protocol used in a number of locations by staff who had all underwent the same training,” says Rosenblum.
The now-defunct National Coalition Against Sexual Assault (NCASA) developed guidelines for choosing a self-defense course. While originally written for women, they were later updated by a member of the original NCASA committee to include men as well. These guidelines stress that “people do not ask for, cause, invite, or deserve to be assaulted.” Therefore, self-defense classes should not cast judgement on survivors. Further, during an assault, victims deploy a range of responses. Many even experience a state of involuntary paralysis. According to the guidelines, none of these responses should be used to cast blame on the victim. Instead, “a person’s decision to survive the best way they can must be respected.”
Read: The psychology of victim blaming
Ideally, a course will cover assertiveness, communication, and critical thinking, in addition to physical technique, the guidelines state. And while some women may benefit from a female instructor, “the most important aspect is that the instructor, male or female, conducts the training for the students geared to their individual strengths and abilities.”
Self-defense courses and instructors that say they aim to meet these or similar criteria are currently available through IMPACT, and through the U.S.-based National Women’s Martial Arts Federation and the U.K.-based empowerment self-defense nonprofit Action Breaks Silence.
Sabag recently turned 60. She currently works as a fitness coach for older persons, and she assists students who immigrate to Israel. She is a devout yoga practitioner and has developed an interest in Eastern philosophy. Over time, she says, she has gradually managed to reconnect with her body.
Sabag estimates that she trained considerably more than 100 women and teenage girls in empowerment self-defense. “In the future, or in my dreams, I would like to go back to teaching girls how to set boundaries and show self-confidence,” she says. “I believe that this is where everything starts.”