A Self Defense Guide for College Students

I have a few friends and relatives enrolled in undergraduate/graduate programs and it really got me thinking about the unique self defense environment college offers. I spent four years in a university, living both on and off campus, so I’ve had time to reflect on this. The mixture of predictable patterns, money, close quarters, and questionable decision making makes for a volatile stew for individuals who aren’t properly prepared.

college campus

This guide is designed to point out ways in which college students can assess their own risks and adopt responsible behavioral patterns to minimize threats. This is not a prescriptive technique guide, but more of a thought exercise with technique ideas intermingled.

Please keep in mind that while I am qualified to provide ideas on this subject, I am not liable for injuries incurred by the reader nor am I the only resource available on this topic. I’ll be citing multiple subject matter experts who warrant further reading and discussion.

Grab a piece of paper and pencil, then read on!

Your Self Defense Profile

The first thing we need to do is get a real assessment of your tools, skills, environment, and disposition. Once we understand that we can explore how predators may interact with you. So let’s build your profile.

Asses Your Physical Tools

This seems so obvious that you are probably tempted to skip it and go on to the next point. Wait!

Being honest with ourselves regarding our strengths and weaknesses is trickier than it seems. Also, the way we assess ourselves reveals something about our preparedness and self confidence levels.

First, conduct a physical checklist for your assets and liabilities. For example, I’m 5’10” and about 140lbs. I’m a pretty standard white male with a fairly young appearance (verified by getting carded all the time). I have better fast twitch muscles than slow twitch. I can be picked up and overpowered. I have no particular injuries or disabilities. I wear clothing that leans toward professional or nerdy. My fitness level is above average.

What about you?

After you are done with your checklist, ask yourself this – how easy was it to be honest about yourself? Did you mentally avoid some of your weaknesses, or come to them begrudgingly? Conversely, did your list consist of almost entirely positive traits? These factors can weigh in on your day-to-day level of self confidence, which can trigger different kinds of predators (as we will discuss shortly).

Assess Your Surroundings

This one also seems obvious, but let’s not overlook it. Surroundings don’t just mean the hypothetical dark alley we all talk about in self defense classes. Consider the following:

* Do you live on or off campus?
* Is your dorm co-ed?
* How many roommates do you have and how often are they home?
* How far must you walk or drive to class? What kind of areas do you travel through?
* How’s the neighborhood surrounding your campus?
* Are recreational activities/bars/arenas on campus or off campus? How would you get there?
* Where do you go for fun?
* Do you have a daily or weekly routine that takes you to the same places?
* Do you know anyone who also follows that routine and travels with you?

Jot down your most common locations and how often you are alone. Take note of the people you travel with also.

Assess Your Demeanor

Question: would you sooner inconvenience yourself than seem rude to somebody else? I would most of the time. I’ve grown up inside the same Western social contracts as most of you. I’ve been taught to be polite, kind, and giving, just like most of you. The catch is, most predators have a deep understanding of our social tendencies and can use them against us at will.

Here’s something interesting – most people imagine themselves as something of a Bruce Banner (aka the Hulk). They function in their day-to-day life as the affable (or at last tolerant) scientist Bruce…but should they be put in a corner they would release their inner demons, a Hulk that would make their aggressor pay for their transgressions.


When teaching self defense I have noticed this reliance on “hulk mode” frequently. There’s truth to it. When faced with danger the human body undergoes extreme adrenalization, increasing physical strength and tenacity. The problem with relying on hulk mode is threefold:

1. Most people have very little experience getting into that mental and physical frame, making them extremely ineffective while there
2. Experienced predators know how to keep you in a social loop while conducting their crime, circumventing your hulk powers
3. Utilizing the hulk assumes you had a chance to see the attacker coming

Adrenaline can be very useful in a tight spot, but not if it is allowed to go unchecked. As Marc MacYoung explains, there is a critical difference between fear and panic. Fear is an aid to alertness and provides a chemical boost to the body. Fear keeps us in a mindset of options (run, fight, yell, etc). Panic, on the other hand, is a mental state that disables options. It is also referred to as an Amygdala Hijack – when the hindbrain has such a fierce flood of chemicals that the body can no longer perform simple tasks. Unfortunately, untrained individuals can think they have “hulk mode” available to them when they are really setting themselves up for panic-induced failure.

Of course, a criminal needn’t worry about you approaching an adrenalized fight level if they control where you mind goes. Rory Miller explains this phenomena in “Logic of Violence“.

A predator looking to acquire something from you is known as a “resource predator”. The resource predator will often use one of two approaches to get what they want. First, they will utilize a common social script to begin a conversation (“do you have the time?”). When they are close enough they will brandish a weapon or go hands on, providing you with instructions for how to escape the situation (“give me your wallet and I won’t have to kill you”). At this time your mind enters a state of negotiation, trying to avoid giving up your possessions or at least minimizing the chance of getting hurt. While you think you are getting your way, the predator is comfortable in continuing to rob you because he knows you are operating under a negotiation social script. He will quickly get some/all of your belongings and escape.

The other alternative is that the resource predator uses shock and speed to avoid any discussion at all. They may attack you from behind or jump you as part of a group. In this case, the damage occurs faster than you can respond to, making your adrenalized state irrelevant.

To assess your demeanor, you have to take an honest look at how you follow social scripts and how able you are to make decisions that might seem “rude” to others. You also have to determine if you give off an air of awareness and physical capability.

Your Predator Profile

As important as understanding yourself is understanding who might be aiming for you. Common belief holds that we are all potential victims of violence at any time, which is true but not to the extent we think. Random acts of violence like the Boston Marathon Bombing puts everyone equally at risk. However, outside of mass attacks or the rare psychotic predator with no touchstone on reality we can inform ourselves to the kinds of violence we are most at risk for.

First, let’s utilize a predator list as developed by Rory Miller:

predator types

It’s critical to note the left hand column labelled “Asocial” and “Social”. Asocial predators are not trying to prove anything with their crime (for the most part). Instead they are looking “for the things you could put in a wheelbarrow”, as described by Marc MacYoung. That means your money, phone, clothing, watch…even your body. Resource predators are your muggers and thieves, while survival predators are those that believe their life depends on getting something from you. Process predators are rapists and serial killers that are after your body or the thrill of injuring you.

On the other hand, social predators seek status or influence by conducting violence. They wish to prove their dominance or establish a position in a certain group. Social violence can also be used to enforce perceived rules or territory.

That being understood, let’s look at the most common predatory risks for men and women in a college atmosphere.

Predator Considerations for Women

This link leads to a general Google search for the term “College Student Attacked”. Click it and glance through the findings.

I have no idea which specific stories you will see, but I guarantee that if you browse you will see two primary events:

1. A female student being followed and then sexually assaulted, or assaulted by a “friend” in her dorm room
2. A male student being assaulted after an altercation at a bar or between two groups of men

It’s like clockwork and we can use this information to understand and avoid common gender violence. Let’s look at the female perspective first.

woman_leaving_aloneA college setting puts young men and women in close proximity to one another. Men of that age (late teens – early twenties) are high testosterone individuals with limited social IQ. In addition, they are often in group male settings which lead to enabling and peer pressure. Women of that age find themselves in similar social situations with high amounts of peer pressure and a desire to fit in. Furthermore, they often express their new found freedom via suggestive clothing choices and partying habits.

These are generalizations, but true enough for us to work with.

Anyone who has heard about sorority behavior realizes that women solve their social issues with violence less frequently than men. They tend to prefer mental and social pressure. Furthermore, men rarely pick fights with women in a crowded environment as there is little reputation to be gained by physically beating a woman (in fact, the opposite is likely to happen). As such, we find that women are at lower risk for social violence than men.

Conversely, the naturally smaller frames of women make them much better prospects for mugging and theft. A modern addition is the likelihood of absorption in phone calls or texting, removing awareness of surroundings (note – sociological studies suggest smart phone distraction is not a solo problem for women, but is applicable to both genders. Read more here and here). Individuals looking to commit resource crimes will assess women based on the following factors:

* Awareness of their surroundings (ease of surprise)
* Physicality (lack of perceived strength or technique)
* Clothing (awkward shoes, spaghetti strap purse, etc)
* Likelihood of social conditioning (not wanting to make a fuss)

Socially women are often conditioned to be polite, elegant, and understanding. These are considered desirable “feminine qualities”. Good attackers will work off of those tendencies to get in and out before the female has a chance to switch out of her socially conditioned behavior.

The Threat of Routine

While women have the potential to be attacked anywhere if they are in the wrong place at the wrong time, a university atmosphere adds the danger of routine. A predator who is either a student on campus or a nearby local resident can easily memorize the most common times of day to find women walking alone (or inebriated). They also have the ability of hanging around campus unnoticed and monitoring the class routines of specifically interesting targets. From there it’s a simple matter of waiting for the right time to make a move.

This routine threat is most potent in terms of sexual assault. The predator may scope out the location and time for easy prey with minimal witnesses and struggle.

Rory Miller points out something interesting. The two most common questions asked in social college situations are “what’s your major?” and “what hall do you live in?”. These are standard and seemingly innocent questions, but if the individual asking has dangerous intent it’s more than enough info to plan an attack. Even worse, if the predator is a campus student he will know the ins-and-outs of how campus security works, making it much less effective at protecting you.

If you have a routine around campus, remember the following action steps to reduce your vulnerability:

* Travel with a group, especially during night time
* Keep a close eye on campus news and avoid common crime areas
* Avoid traveling home from parties alone
* Switch up travel routes from time to time
* Don’t be afraid to lie about your major, living location, etc.

The Trusted Threat

Sadly a large percentage of sexual violence against women occur via men they already know. It’s a matter of trust and proximity. A group of friends can develop quickly in college without any of the members truly knowing each other. Group hangouts occur all the time, which can casually turn into solo encounters. Often, sexual predation of this manner is patient and opportunistic.


The difficult thing about this threat is that we all know it’s unhealthy to be suspicious of everything and everybody all the time. Imagine if a friendly guy is hanging out with you and suddenly you become paranoid and start pepper spraying him. What if he is getting ready to ask you out and you Taze him and run away?

This is a subtle problem; one that is very important to be aware of. The key to managing trusted threats is monitoring behavior patterns. Human intuition is a powerful tool and many women have a highly developed “gut feeling”. You’ll get a sense for the common body language, humor, and demeanor of the people around you. If you sense a change in that do not be afraid to make an excuse to be somewhere else. In fact if you have a paper and pencil in front of you right now come up with two excuses you could use at will. Write them down so your brain is reinforced with how important they are. Once you are done, write them down again. You don’t want to forget them when you get nervous.

You’ll also want to have a few self defense tools handy in your dorm room, but we will discuss that later.

Predator Considerations for Men

We talked a lot about how resource predators might focus on women as mugging targets, but men certainly aren’t immune. If a predator notices distraction, self doubt, or weakness he’ll just as soon take down a man as a woman. Also, keep this in mind. A resource predator can be turned into a survival predator under the right circumstances, and a survival predator losses almost all sense of barrier between themselves and their target.

Consider a drug addict who is coming down off of a high. That drug addict quite literally feels like he is dying, and the only way to save his own life is to get a few hundred dollars fast for the next fix. If you happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time your confident stride won’t save you. He is attacking.

Most men think of muggings as one-on-one showdowns. The attacker walks up, shows you the gun or knife, and demands your stuff. You give it to him, but if he looks away for a second…wam! Chuck Norris kick to the hand or head and it’s on. Realistically, when a mugger wants to attack anyone (especially a man) they want as little fight as possible. That means the attack is coming as a suckerpunch or quick stick in the ribs. No muss, no fuss. Your stuff is theirs and they are on their way down the road.

Alternatively, criminals who hang out in a pack will overwhelm you with sheer numbers. This is useful for two reasons:

1. They get your stuff
2. They get to enforce territory and prove to each other how “bad” they are

A robbery like this is both asocial (for monetary gain) and social (prestige gain). We’ll discuss some tools men can use to avoid resource predation later on.

The Social Paradigm For Men

We mentioned earlier that women tend to solve social problems via mental and emotional means moreso than violence (although violence can happen). Men tend toward the reverse. While mental and emotional manipulation does happen, the likelihood of violence to put things in order is much higher.

If you refer back to the predator chart shown above, you’ll notice the terms “monkey dance”, “group monkey dance”, “educational beatdown”, and “status seeking shill”. These are predominantly the domains of men. Monkey dancing is something we have all seen and felt. When one male feels threatened by another they begin a display of chest puffing, finger pointing, loud noises, etc. This dance can be activated over territory dispute, rule infraction (educational beatdown), or some other perceived slight. In fact, it can start with no provocation at all if the monkey in question wants to prove a point to everyone around them or to their particular group (status seeking shill).


The interesting thing about social violence for men is that it isn’t just the little guys who are susceptible. True, smaller men can be pushed around and beaten for fun, which is essentially grown up bullying, but large men can prove more valuable prey. When a large man is beaten a real point is proved and the individual/group doing the beating gains even more prestige.

Avoiding social violence is more feasible than most men think. Rory Miller points it out aptly: “if you are given instructions on how not to get beaten, take those instructions.” For example, if someone tells you to shut your mouth or you’ll be eating a fist, you could try shutting your mouth. Doesn’t sound very cool does it? It’s not, but it works unless the predator is already so deep in monkey dancing that they HAVE to prove their status to those around them. Your other option is an apology for offending, followed by leaving the scene. Again, not a sexy solution. But it is a solution.

Always remember Michael J. Fox in “Back to the Future”. Nobody calls him chicken…and he repeatedly gets into bad situations because of it.

 Self Defense Tools

We’ve done a lot of work establishing what kinds of predators may be on the look out for you. We’ve also considered what kind of person you are and what tools you have at your disposal. Now I’d like to give some hard advice on how to lower your chances of getting involved with a predator and improving your odds of survival if you do.

First and foremost, Marc MacYoung talks about a key idea he calls The Paradox of Willingness. Quite simply it states that if you have tools to defend yourself and are willing to use them you stand a much better chance of never having to do so.

nofunzoneWe humans are sensitive creatures, especially to the subtle cues given off by one another. A criminal’s job is to find viable prey in the right place at the right time. If you have the tools to raise their level of risk or doubt then they will likely pass you up for a better victim. It’s not guaranteed, but it ups your chances. That being the case, you want as many tools as you can fit into your toolbox.

Tool #1: Training

This is going to seem obvious, especially to the martial artists reading this. Martial arts training can provide you with physical assets to defend yourself. Even more than that, they can give you a sense of confidence that exudes from your posture, eyes, mindset, and walk.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I’m not an intimidating person in size or appearance. Nevertheless, through martial arts I have developed a gaze and motion that has helped me dissuade trouble on more than one occasion. Like I said, it’s not bulletproof, but it helps.

In terms of choosing a particular martial art to aid in your self defense skills, I’m not going to recommend one over another. This article can help if you need a starting point. In truth, it’s going to be the quality of the teacher moreso than the art that helps you develop a potent skillset. Some arts like Krav Maga tend to get right to the point in terms of rape prevention, mugging assault, etc. Arts like Aikido take a more long-term path, but offer higher levels of personal serenity (useful for social encounters, right?). You need to take stock of yourself and your potential predators in order to find the art that will help you most. If all else fails, enroll in a self defense course locally and start building from there.

 Tool #2: Habit Changing

While reading this article I hope you’ve come up with a few ways in which you are vulnerable. Perhaps you park in a bad neighborhood. Maybe you’ve walked home alone at night a few times. Whatever it is, you need to have the courage and willpower to make improvements.

Walking alone from Class A to Class B may be convenient for you, but is it so unthinkable to inconvenience a friend to go with you? Are there no arrangements that can be worked out? This isn’t just for women. A lone male that looks like he has money and isn’t paying attention is just as vulnerable.

Tool #3: Personal Presence

Fake confidence is useless. Any decent criminal will see through it. Conversely, excessive bravado may instigate a social situation where you get an ego-deflating beatdown. What you really need to develop is personal presence.

Personal presence is a smoothness and seriousness that indicates you’re not looking for trouble but are willing to participate if it finds you. Presence requires acute awareness. It isn’t jumpy, lazy, or angry. A smooth glance and a wry smile with serious eyes. These are presence.

Prolonged training helps develop presence but you should work on it whether you have training or not. Start with the honest thought that if a person attacks you, you will fight back until you are dead. If you can genuinely adapt that mindset presence will come eventually.

Tool #4: Implements

Self defense needn’t be empty handed all the time. Any woman would be remiss if she didn’t travel with a convenient tool such as a Tazor, pepper spray, Kubotan, or even a gun if they are allowed on campus. The key here is learning how to use them in a pinch.

As we mentioned earlier, assaults and muggings can occur quickly. In addition, most people aren’t used to their own adrenalized state and don’t realize the loss of fine motor control that happens. As such, a tool deeply buried in a purse or one that has finnicky gadgets is essentially useless. To make an implement valuable the individual MUST train with it and become routine in it’s usage.

red-oak-joDorm rooms are a must-have location for some sort of self defense weapon. What’s allowable will depend greatly on the university’s specific rules, so check them ASAP. I usually recommend a jo to anybody and everybody. To read more about why, click here. In short, the jo is a piece of solid wood about three feet long. It attracts zero attention from RAs, roommates, friends, or anyone else. Why would it? It’s just a dowel rod that looks like you might hang clothes on it.

Thanks to its compact size, the jo can be placed conveniently near your bed or doorway. Imagine if you were escaping from an aggressor where you might try to escape to, or where someone might try to take advantage of you. Have it near there. The length of the jo can keep the assailant out of arms reach until you gather your wits and are ready to really fight back.

As a quick note for the jo, I recommend using a thrusting motion to the opponent’s face followed by repeated swinging motions to beat them into submission. Do not start with a swing as most people’s flinch reflex will block it or catch it. The straight thrust causes a better flinch and is much tougher to catch.

Tool #5: Smart Decisions

No one deserves to be assaulted, sexually harassed, or mugged. But that doesn’t mean it won’t happen or that your choices won’t effect the outcome. If you’re a woman and you find yourself walking around in high heels, a short skirt, half drunk and alone…well you know. It’s bad. If you’re a guy and you’re dressed very nicely, looking studious and nerdy, with an air about you that you’d really rather not fight…well you know. It’s bad.

Keep cell phone usage to a minimum. Dress intelligently for your circumstances and if you need to be at risk in terms of clothing or activity utilize a group.

Final Thoughts Before You Head Out

You probably noticed that this article focused heavily on preparation and mindset over actual technique. One thing I’ve learned is that the mental aspects of self defense tend to be neglected for the more vibrant and exciting physical aspects. We instructors often say “use awareness to stay out of danger, but if something happens do the following…”

Why did we skip over that awareness part?

Individuals who are crunched for time and money may not be able to enroll full time in martial arts…but they can practice their awareness every single day, improve their personal presence, and make smarter decisions so as to dissuade their most likely attackers. When you know who is aiming for you steps can be taken to make their lives a lot harder.

Use this guide as a first step to better understanding the world of violence and self defense. Build on the tools presented here to enhance your capabilities so that you can maximize the Paradox of Willingness and make yourself a truly unappetizing target.