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Why teach classes “just for women,” when there are so many excellent co-ed classes available? After all, nobody offers classes “just for men,” so what’s the deal with women’s classes?

Because of who I am and what I do, let me start with a disclaimer. I do teach women’s classes, but I am thoroughly qualified to provide defensive firearms instruction to both men and women, and have done so for many years as an instructor at the Firearms Academy of Seattle. Because Cornered Cat provides firearms training for female students, this article may appear somewhat self-serving. But talking people into one of my classes truly isn’t the goal here. Instead, I want to discuss why a defensive firearms instructor of either sex might want to offer classes developed and intended for—and limited to—a female audience.

Three reasons

Personally, I offer women’s classes for three reasons. The first one is a simple business decision based on a sad truth: men-in-general are less willing to take defensive firearms classes from a female than from a male, and there are a lot of male firearms instructors competing for students. Women also seem to enjoy women-only classes, and are perhaps more likely to take such classes. It just seems reasonable to believe that I’ll be able to help more people get the training they need if I reach out to the people who are most likely to hire me, especially when the bulk of my work complements rather than competes against those already in the field.

The second reason I offer women’s classes is that women have traditionally been poorly served by the firearms training industry. Oh, I don’t mean we’ve been unwelcome in classes. Far from it! Most trainers are thrilled to have female students, and will brag about those students at the drop of a hat. Unfortunately, because most of the students are male, the perspectives offered in co-ed classes tend to center around masculine needs rather than feminine ones. As a practical matter, instructors with limited time must focus on information that will meet the needs of the majority of their students. When the majority of students are male, crucial aspects of self-defense may not be well communicated in terms most appropriate for female students, and concerns unique to women may not be addressed at all. More about this in a bit.

The third reason I offer women-only classes is because women can be such wimps. Oh, not all of us! And not all the time. But when I talk to my instructor friends all over the country, I consistently hear two things about their female students. First, I hear that they have an increasing number of women in their beginner-level classes. Awesome! But immediately after telling me this news, my instructor friends typically add something terrible, something that sounds like this: “… but, of course, women don’t take advanced training.” At the intermediate to advanced levels, the levels where every person interested in self-defense should end up, female students are rare. Very rare. Why is this? Maybe we find the classes inconvenient, or maybe we don’t like getting cold, hot, dirty, or sweaty on the range. Or we might be put off by “tactical” this and “OODA Loop” that. Maybe we think it will cost too much money and take too much time or that it is, frankly, all a bit silly. We might simply lack confidence, and cannot will ourselves to do this thing anyway. We might even think being marginally safe is enough, or erroneously believe that we don’t pose a risk to anyone but ourselves when we are poorly trained. Whatever the reason, many of us don’t put in the work to learn more. We wimp out rather than taking our personal protection as seriously as we ought.

Breaking out of the frilly pink ghetto

That third reason doesn’t sound very nice, does it? Sorry about that. I don’t know how else to express it, and it’s something I’ve thought about a lot. I once had a man say to me—granted, this was on the internet, where anyone can say anything to anyone about anything—that if I didn’t like “being treated the way men treat each other,” I should quit shooting and go find another hobby. Well, that’s nonsense. I don’t like being treated like a guy. I’m a woman and happy to be one. 1 But there’s something that men do for each other that they often can’t or won’t do for women: they push each other to excel. Sometimes, to my feminine eye, that process between men can look downright brutal. But it gets results. Female students often don’t get enough impetus to reach excellence from their instructors. When a woman faces a challenge with her shooting that she can’t seem to overcome, her instructor can easily make one of two errors. Both are equally devastating. The first (and frankly most common) is that the instructor wimps out. “Oh, the poor dear, she’s really struggling with this. I’ll help her past this rough spot.” The instructor steps in and fixes the problem for her and the class moves on … but she never does. She stagnates, feels unready to take the next class, and drops out of learning. The second way instructors can handle the struggling female student is to treat her like one of the guys. Tough talk! Competition! Embarrassment in front of the other students! Ooh-rah! This gets good results for some students. But more often, a woman subjected to this treatment quietly endures the class and decides not to take another. End of story.

So how does a for-women firearms class change that paradigm? Answer: it doesn’t always. That’s the truth. Sometimes, the unstated but real purpose of a class “just for women” is to provide social support for female wimpiness. Make everything as easy and as sugar-coated and as non-challenging as possible. Provide a cute little social club for the girls. Let the sweet little darlings entertain each other inside their frilly pink ghetto, while the real training—training for manly men!—takes place elsewhere.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

Instead of becoming a frilly pink ghetto, a class for women can challenge women to succeed and excel. It can directly address concerns common among women and provide solutions to uniquely feminine challenges. A female instructor can step more surely through an area filled with landmines for a male. She can—if she’s brave enough and willing to do it. For one thing, a female instructor can lead her class to excellence using a natural advantage unavailable to men: her own experience. For example, when Eva Subido of Ladies First Safety Training LLC takes the range, she instantly removes several excuses her female students may have been quietly nursing. Weak-willed excuses like “My hands are too small…” or “I don’t have the strength to…” or “I’m too thin to carry…” all fade away when this 4’11″ instructor faces her class. Simply by being who she is, doing what she does, Eva encourages her students to discard their excuses and do the work it takes to succeed.

Male instructors may not enjoy the same natural advantage as female instructors find when working with other women, but many of them do excellent work with female students in women-only classes. For example, Marty Hayes at the Firearms Academy of Seattle taught dozens of women-only classes before he developed a solid core of female instructors prepared to take on the bulk of that work at his school. Marty writes that he, a 6’3″ male, taught women-only classes when he first started teaching, “…because I recognized the need that many women had to learn this life saving skill within an environment free from over-powering testosterone fed men. Many women were picking up the gun for the first time, and were doing so out of an experience of being a rape victim, or an early childhood incest victim. I felt they needed all the encouragement they could get to take this step, so I offered these courses. Being a male though, I had to revise my personality to one of ‘Uncle Marty.’ That personality served me well, until I had developed a staff of female instructors proficient enough to teach on their own.” Marty, like other talented instructors all over the country, has found ways to challenge his students in women-only classes without becoming either the overbearing scary guy or the do-everything-for-you enabler.

Despite such success stories, women have sometimes been poorly served by the defensive firearms training industry, a world created almost entirely by and for males. This failure, when it happens, has little to do with personal instruction styles or finding ways to challenge the students. Instead, this one goes clear back to the actual contentof the class.

Criminal mindset and victim profiles

Here’s the crucial fact: criminals approach women differently than they approach men. No, I am not simply talking about rape! I am talking about every type of violent crime and the entire criminal episode, from intent to interview to approach to action and reaction. 2 When a predatory criminal forms the intent to attack someone, he creates his plan based on his victim’s profile: male or female, young or old, in company or alone, strong or weak. Regardless of the crime involved, every one of these factors influences the criminal’s decision process. They strongly influence the criminal’s method of “interviewing” his target for the job of victim. They influence how the bad guy positions himself and how he approaches his victim. They influence the method he uses to attack; does he need a weapon, or can he simply intimidate this victim into compliance? The sex and age of the victim deeply affect how the criminal reacts to the crime and how he reacts to his victim’s response. Put simply, criminals view female potential victims quite differently from the ways they view male potential victims, and this results in different behavior from the criminal before, during, and after the actual crime.

Because time is limited and the audience strongly male, when an instructor discusses the subject of crime with his students, or uses examples of actual crimes to illustrate his points about defensive mindset, he usually talks almost exclusively about male-on-male types of crime. Many of these lectures fall flat for female students. They rarely hit women where they live… because they aren’t intended to. They are created to fit the needs of the “typical” student, who is male. Worse still, the mindset lecture appropriate for most male students may actually prompt female students to do the wrong thing, reinforcing a common female pitfall rather than challenging it.

Rory Miller, in his brilliant book Facing Violence: Preparing for the Unexpected, talks about the dynamics of interpersonal violence. Miller breaks violence down into two wide categories: social and asocial. Social violence, he contends, is often a ritualized jockeying for territory or status. It is participatory in nature, and includes acts to prove or reinforce group solidarity and enforce group rules. In contrast, asocial violence is predatory. Asocial violence does not target the victim as a person, but as a resource. It’s a lion looking for a meal, not two rams in heat butting heads with each other.

Men are disproportionately affected by violence, both as criminals and as victims. According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports, 90% of known murderers are male and 77% of their victims are male. What does this have to do with mindset lectures in the defensive handgun training classroom? Everything! Women are less often the targets of criminal violence. But when women are assaulted or killed, they are far more often the victims of predatory, asocial violence than they are of participatory, social violence. This has huge implications for how both men and women can effectively avoid victimhood and for how we should prepare to defend ourselves. It has even bigger implications for the defensive firearms instructor giving a mindset lecture to a mixed class of students.

Because men, especially young men, are more likely to face social violence—the participatory type—a mindset lecture appropriate for male students should always include a brutally simple component. John Farnam famously summarized it as, “Don’t go stupid places. Don’t hang out with stupid people. Don’t do stupid things.” Stupid things, of course, include engaging in the status seeking show of social violence, the dance that begins with a hard glare and the angry rhetorical question, “What are you looking at, asshole?” It escalates with a shove to the chest followed by a wild overhand swing, and concludes with friends separating the fighters. That is the pattern of most male-on-male violence: social, predictable, and readily avoided with an entirely unpalatable dish of crow. Male students must learn to de-escalate these status shows and avoid situations where they are commonplace behavior.

Men also face asocial, predatory violence, just as women do, but this happens at a much lower rate, and men are often already enculturated to deal with predatory violence using appropriate levels of assertiveness and aggression. They need only the tools and training that allow them to do so. The instructional challenge is to teach men to distinguish between these categories of violence, and the motivational challenge is to encourage them to back down and step away whenever their instincts call for inappropriate aggression.

Not so for women. When a woman is a victim of violence, remember, she is most likely to be the victim of predatory violence. The criminal does not plan to challenge her social status or engage in an angry show for his friends. He simply intends to take whatever he is after, including her very life. And he will often approach her in a way that tricks her defensive impulses and fools her instinctive desire to protect herself. Further, she is more likely enculturated to back down, to placate, to appease—even when doing so marks her as an easy target. She needs encouragement to act with decisive aggression in the appropriate circumstances, and she needs clear incentive to do it. But she is unlikely to hear this encouragement from conscientious firearms instructors in a predominantly male teaching environment, because those instructors are working hard to put the brakes on inappropriate aggression responses in the majority of their students. Worse, because of her cultural conditioning, a female student may be primed to hear the “putting the brakes on” part of the lecture very loudly and very clearly indeed. This dangerous combination of factors can actually reinforce victim behavior and mindset among female students.

Practical challenges

There are other ways women may struggle within a predominately-male learning environment in defensive firearms training classes. For example, a very curvy woman once described to me the difficulty she had learning to draw. The problem was that her very full breastline got in the way of an efficient drawstroke. For safety and efficiency, she needed to move her breast out of way with her non-shooting hand as she drew. She told me, “It was quietly amusing… to have two range officers, southern gentlemen both, attempting to solve the drawstroke problem without actually mentioning what the problem was.” Is a problem with the drawstroke appropriately addressed by a firearms instructor? Certainly! But is this particular problem easily addressed by a male firearms instructor to a female student in a class where she is surrounded by male students? Notsomuch.

Similarly, I have often worked with women struggling to find a way to carry in business clothing—clothing that, for females, almost never includes belt loops no matter how diligently one shops. In male-dominated classes, instructors (especially male instructors) tend to handwave past such issues: “You just have to dress around the gun…” Too many of them never realize just how serious these practical issues can be for women, or how challenging. Perhaps the student has a dress code at the office, and her financial investment in her existing wardrobe is substantial. Should she avoid carrying a gun until she can replace every item in her closet, or does she have any realistic alternatives? Without a practical answer, this student hasn’t been well-served by her class, and is very unlikely to carry her firearm on a daily basis. (She’s also unlikely to take the next class. Why would she, when she can’t carry anyway?) To be fair, female instructors who do not usually wear business clothing may be equally unprepared to deal with such a student. But these women are, at least, more likely familiar with the details of female business wear than their male counterparts are likely to be. Instructors of either sex are more likely to take the question seriously in a women-only class, where every student in the room is listening intently for an answer because they each face similar challenges.

Physiological differences

Shooting techniques themselves are neither masculine nor feminine—the same gunhandling skills apply equally to everyone. Or do they? I submit that techniques originally developed by or for well-muscled young men in their 20s may not be the best and most appropriate techniques for petite women of any age. A stance that relies on muscle strength rather than skeletal support for recoil control, for example, may be best suited to someone with lots of upper body strength—someone more likely male than female. 3 Racking the slide is a matter of technique, not strength, yet instructors rarely take the time to teach (and don’t always even know) the easiest method, because students with good upper body strength don’t need it. A shooting style that angles one or both elbows downward may not provide adequate stability for a well-endowed woman, but is unlikely to cause problems for the flat-chested of either sex. Most shooting techniques were developed by men, who are more likely to fall at certain points of the bell curve for size and strength than women are, and that means some adjustments will almost certainly be needed for the majority of female students. 4 Within the time-limited confines of a class, instructors must necessarily teach to the majority of the students, and will add personalized adjustments only on the fly. Common adaptations may be taught systematically, but uncommon adaptations become afterthoughts rather than building blocks within an organized and well-considered presentation. A quiet student’s particular needs may even be overlooked entirely.

To be sure, male students also encounter physical challenges common to men but less common among women. Very large hands, for example, can produce serious issues for some students. This physical variation, nearly unique to males, can create some really interesting (and sometimes dangerous) grips on small firearms. But in a class predominantly filled with men and taught by a man, large hands are a common challenge, and the instructor may even address it during the initial lecture segment. A female student encountering a mostly-female challenge in the same circumstances might be left to create a solution for herself.

In a similar vein, a student with long fingernails may find she needs to adapt or modify her grip on the gun to match her physical abilities. She may need an altered technique for filling a magazine, or for placing the magazine into the butt of the gun. She may struggle with manipulating speedloaders for her revolver. Should she instead clip her nails short? Perhaps—but realistically, she probably won’t. People take self-defense classes to learn how to protect the lives they already love and the lifestyles they currently live, not to throw away their existing lives and transform themselves into someone else entirely. We can mention the benefits of changing a personal style, but we also need to find and teach realistic workarounds for practical issues like these. While enlightened instructors realize this, there’s little in a male-dominated training environment to encourage instructors to develop targeted solutions for female students who have personal styles that include long nails or lots of hand jewelry.

Please note: I am not asserting that every female needs to use shooting techniques adapted to fit some generalized idea of female physiology. Rather, I am saying that every individual student, male and female alike, sometimes needs to make minor changes in techniques, with the goal of making those techniques better fit his or her unique personal physiology. Because most shooting techniques were developed by men and refined in male-dominated environments, the techniques presented in most classes will most likely work well for the majority of male students without any adaptation, or with an adaptation so common that the instructor builds it into the lecture. The techniques are less likely to be optimized for female students, who are more likely to need adaptations that are not part of the lecture.

The bottom line

So that’s the rationale for women-only classes, especially women-only classes taught by female instructors. Because there are important differences in the ways men and women are approached by criminals, female students should hear a mindset lecture designed to address their unique defensive needs. Because there are practical wardrobe and holster challenges that are common among women but rare among men, women often need additional, accurate information about carry methods best suited to their practical needs. And in view of the physical differences between individual students, including personal style issues, gun-handling techniques should be tailored to match the students’ physical needs on a realistic level. All of these factors mean that there is a place for serious, practical firearms training intended to specifically address the unique needs of female students.

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Footnotes

  1. Well, most of the time. Sometimes on camping trips, I have wished for the convenience of being able to use the world as my outhouse. But that’s a minor inconvenience compared to the luxury of being flexible enough to chew my own toenails.
  2. Read more about the Five Stages of Violent Crime from the man who first articulated them, Marc MacYoung: http://www.nononsenseselfdefense.com/five_stages.html
  3. Of course there are exceptions. There are tall, strong women and short, weak men—and everything in between, at all points along the spectrum. But on average, men are taller and heavier; they have more lean muscle tissue and less fat. Research on male and female strength potential reveals that women possess about two thirds of the strength of men on average. (See the study titled “Physiology of Strength,” by Theodor Hettinger, M.D. at http://jbjs.org/article.aspx?Volume=44&page=812-a.) Research also makes it clear that nearly all women can improve their upper body strength by working at it.
  4. And also, of course, for male students at the lower end of the bell curve for either size or strength. But we are not here addressing the question of how firearms instructors can improve their work with mixed groups of students. That’s a subject for another article entirely!