Self-defense college courses have been growing across Utah.
The Beehive State is above the national average for sexual violence. According to the latest crime statistics from the FBI, Utah saw 56.8 instances of rape per 100,000 people in 2019, ranking 11th nationally in its rate of rape and sexual assault.
The Rape Aggression Defense System offers programs at five different universities in the state, some for over 15 years. This year, Southern Utah University introduced a self-defense course through Smart Defense, a program from the Elizabeth Smart Foundation.
According to SUU News, President Mindy Benson of SUU expressed excitement over the new course.
“This training reinforces our commitment to student safety and well-being,” Benson said, “and it equips students with invaluable skills, strength and confidence that will benefit them in their college life and beyond.”
SUU is the first university to offer this course, as the Elizabeth Smart Foundation works to implement the course throughout universities and colleges in Utah. Elizabeth Smart founded the foundation in 2011, which works to eradicate sexual violence through its services including Smart Defense.
Smart was abducted when she was 14 in June 2002. Taken from her home in Salt Lake City and kept in seclusion for nine months, she endured constant sexual assault and abuse. Her case was one of the most publicized abduction and sexual violence cases in the past 20 years.
Providing self-defense training to college students ranks among the foundation’s major priorities. According to the online page for Smart Defense, 20-25% of college women and 15% of college men are victims of forced sex during their time at college, and nearly two-thirds of college students experience sexual harassment.
Miyo Strong, program director for Smart Defense, said the course at SUU not only teaches physical strategies but gives college women a support system and strengthens their confidence and sense of self-worth.
“I truly believe that at the core of effective self-defense, it starts with a really strong sense of self-love and self-worth,” Strong said.
The Smart Defense course at SUU focuses on three principal areas: physical defense, education, and mindfulness. Coaches use a blend of Brazilian jiu jitsu, muay thai kickboxing and krav maga.
Unlike other self-defense programs, Smart Defense is all female-lead, and all the coaches are trauma-informed trained.
“Trauma-Informed Care understands and considers the pervasive nature of trauma and promotes environments of healing and recovery rather than practices and services that may inadvertently re-traumatize,” according to the University of Buffalo.
Smart Defense believes that mindfulness is an important strategy that can be beneficial for college-age women specifically, so the course spends time focusing on that aspect.
Around 44% of college students struggle with symptoms of anxiety and depression. Within self-defense courses, students learn breathwork and how to move their body with the intention to heal.
Self-defense at Salt Lake Community College
Salt Lake Community College offers a self-defense course taught through the Surviving Assault Standing Strong (SASS) organization from South Carolina. The course, listed as SASS Women Self-Defense or HLAC 1405, is available to students who identify as women to take during the fall and spring semesters.
The Commissioner’s Office brought the SASS organization to Utah in 2018 in response to cases of sexual assault and physical violence towards women, including the murder of Lauren McCluskey. The SASS organization partnered with the Lauren McCluskey Foundation.
McCluskey was a student and track athlete at the University of Utah who was murdered by her ex-boyfriend on campus in October 2018, despite McCluskey reporting his abuse and extortion to authorities beforehand.
The SASS organization set up event-style classes at SLCC in the spring of 2019. Event-style classes were usually one-time self-defense classes available to students and clubs to get a feel for the program. Those classes later became a semester-long self-defense course available to women and femme-identifying students, starting the fall of 2021.
Like Smart Defense, SASS uses krav maga, an Israeli martial arts style. “Krav Maga training focuses on principles rather than techniques because no two attacks are ever the same. No two people are the same,” Krav Maga Worldwide describes.
The course spends time educating the students on the statistics of sexual violence, red flags and manipulation tactics used by abusers, as they do in Smart Defense courses as well.
Brandi Mair, who teaches the course at SLCC, explains the non-physical aspects of self-defense taught in the class.
“We also go into the psychology of sexual assault, sexual harassment and dating violence,” she said. “We teach that no is a full sentence, that you should use your voice when you’re defending yourself, and not stay silent.”
The course is available to around 16 students each semester. While Mair is currently the only instructor teaching course, other women at SLCC have received training through SASS. Event-style classes are available to organize if a club or group on campus wants an introduction to self-defense as a club activity.