PORTLAND — In this month dedicated to raising awareness of domestic violence, I find myself pondering — as a self-defense instructor for the past 20 years — what relevance self-defense training has in preventing and responding to abuse in relationships.

Many self-defense classes still emphasize physical fighting skills, focusing on public attacks by strangers.

Certainly, physical skills are highly effective in stranger assaults or abductions. Yet the majority of attacks on women (and all relationship abuse) involve the weapons of manipulation, social pressure, intimidation and isolation — not brute strength — and are perpetrated by someone we know, often intimately.

How to “defend” against such violence, be it in the form of a sexual assault perpetrated on one night or relationship abuse perpetrated with ever-growing intensity over months or years? In either case, there may never be a black eye. The damage is often entirely internal, depleting the spirit and leaving the survivor to blame themselves, to lose confidence and agency in their lives.

By making available self-defense classes that combine awareness and prevention skills with healing and self-care, and balance verbal and physical response skills, I believe we can both prevent and interrupt domestic violence. In this frame, participants find a safe space to try out “what if” situations and to set limits with bosses, exes, family and peers.

By learning physical skills that do not rely on strength or fitness to be effective, participants gain confidence in themselves and their abilities. We all hope that we will never be called upon to use our physical training, yet the knowledge of those skills affects how we carry ourselves in the world.

By learning to express what we want, need and feel in a range of situations, from dealing with telemarketing calls to negotiating for a raise, we gain assurance in our opinions and instincts.

By engaging in exercises that raise awareness of what constitutes relationship abuse, sexual assault and sexual harassment, we come to see these issues more clearly in their early stages, making intervention much more likely to prevent the behavior from escalating.

Those who experience relationship violence, experience it largely alone. They are isolated from family and friends, who may know their abusive partner as a likable, social person. They may actively try to shield their children from the abuse.

In self-defense classes, on the other hand, we cheer for one another after every exercise, role play, and grab release. For participants, many of whom are survivors, to hear the cheers of those around them who believe in their ability and their power is a revelation. I hope that they carry those cheers forward into their lives and hear them when faced with future challenges.

The slow, insidious nature of relationship abuse means that any one of us could find ourselves feeling trapped with an abusive partner, isolated from support and questioning our abilities.

Physical self-defense is generally not a feasible option for someone in an abusive relationship. Their confidence has been eroded. They are purposefully isolated, emotionally and often physically from support. Their abusive partner may be threatening them physically.

The relevance, then, of self-defense training in addressing domestic violence is in prevention of abuse, early intervention in escalating abuse and healing from past abuse.

The most moving feedback I ever received from a participant came from a young woman who had clearly struggled during a session when we discussed perpetrator tactics, relevant law, impacts on survivors, and healing around sexual assault.

At the end of the course, when asked to share something she was taking away, she said, “I no longer blame myself for what happened to me.”

When participants can absolve themselves of blame for the past, they can go forward with the knowledge that they are worth defending and deserve to be treated with respect and love by everyone in their lives. They also know that when they or someone else is mistreated, they have the tools to stand up, step in, speak out and fight — if need be.

Clara Porter is the coordinator of the University of Southern Maine’s Campus Safety Project and founder of the Portland-based organization Prevention. Action. Change., which works with people of all ages to prevent, respond to and heal from violence.

– Special to the Press Herald