Empowerment Self Defense

Unapologetically Surviving spoke with Lauren Taylor, a specialist in de-escalation techniques, LGBTQ cultural competency, and teaching empowerment self-defense (ESD) to individuals with a disability. Lauren got into self-defense after a friend recommended she attend a class before participating in solo travel. In 1997, Lauren quit her day job to pursue ESD full-time and is the founder and current director of Defend Yourself based in Washington, DC. Lauren encourages everyone, but especially women, to trust their intuition and, if necessary, reprogram their brains and/or what they have been taught about abusers and abuse. The focus should be on how someone behaves and how they treat others, rather than what they look like (i.e. race) or what their status is (i.e. class). Lauren recommends that women “look at behavior, not identity. Men who want to be abusers will do it in whatever sphere they are in – the boardroom or the street corner.”

Empowerment Self Defense (ESD) emerged from second wave feminism when women began to feel that physical empowerment was a crucial part of empowerment. In the 1970s, a set of guiding principles of ESD were developed and components have been added over the years (for example, understanding of trauma and trauma competency, including being aware that there are survivors in every room).

ESD is part of a network of people around the world – ESDA –  who participate in an annual conference where workshops are taught and experiences are shared based on every member’s specialties. Many of the people involved in ESDA have martial arts training but don’t strictly teach martial arts. ESD is, in essence, a variation of martial arts that is experiential and participatory and includes a holistic set of skills that individuals can use day-to-day (from the most “minor” affront to a major attack)


What does a typical ESD class look like? Every class should follow a similar format including building a safe space, including trust and connections among class participants; understanding where the “real” risk is involved (i.e. the ‘risk’ of violence is predominately in the people closest to you rather than ‘stranger danger’ such that knowing how to de-escalate in personal relationships is of more importance than most people may realize); focusing on verbal techniques, including assertiveness, boundary-setting, and de-escalation; and developing physical skills. Click here to read about how to pick an ESD class.

How is ESD unique? The classes are not taught by law enforcement and it works from an intersectional lens. Additionally, anti-racism is one of ESD’s core values. ESD also takes into consideration that some identity groups may not feel comfortable with certain facilitators because of systemic injustice and oppression.

Where can I take an ESD class or meet an ESD practitioner? The directory can be found here.

How can self-defense be “intersectional”? By way of an example: If an ESD class is comprised of all white women, the instructor will discuss that – though white women can and are victims of sexual violence – historically, sexual violence, has been used to perpetuate violence predominately against black women and other WOC. The instructor will discuss how women have been taught to see young black and brown men as threats. Additionally, the instructor will discuss how one’s risk of violence increases with how marginalized of an identity they have (i.e. white women have less risk of violence than indigenous women or black trans women). ESD providers try to identity match the instructor to the class when possible.

What’s next for ESD? Expanding access so that those who cannot access a class in person can have the opportunity to access a class online through multimedia.

Do you recommend any books involving women’s stories of self-defense? No Self to Defend is an anthology of stories focusing on how women of color have been criminalized for acting in self-defense. The book is available in PDF format here.

Are there any non-profits that help women who, after defending themselves, find themselves being punished by the criminal justice system? Yes. Survived and Punished is a non-profit that campaigns for the abolition of custodial sentences for victims of abuse who defend themselves from their attacker(s). You can keep up-to-date with Survived and Punished on Twitter.