Should You Resist a Violent Attack?


Greg Ellifretz over at Active Response Training has a fascinating post today about the topic of resistance by victims of violent crimes. Greg takes a good look at the available research and concludes that, while each person must make their own decisions about whether, and how, to resist in any given assault, the standard advice that “the criminal won’t hurt you if you do what he says” is almost certainly wrong.

I’d like to quote part of Greg’s post, and then I’d like to talk about something he doesn’t discuss in detail: The empowerment that comes from fighting back, whether or not it increases the physical injury.

Greg writes:

Almost all studies show that resistance is successful in preventing the completion of a personal crime. This holds true in rape, robbery, and assault. Resistance is an especially effective tactic in preventing most rapes. A woman who physically resists a rapist doubles her chance of escaping rape.

Another study asked resisting victims of violent crimes whether their resistance helped or hurt their situations. The responding victims overwhelmingly stated that resistance helped them in the majority (63%) of cases. This statistic holds true for all of the crimes examined (rape, robbery, and assault). Resistance only hurt their situations about 9% of the time.

Certainly this research meshes with my experience. I have been the victim of multiple attempted and completed physical and/or sexual assaults. In one of the instances where I accepted the “conventional wisdom” and didn’t fight back, my attacker was successfully able to complete a knifepoint sexual assault. In another instance where I didn’t fight back, the only reason the attackers were unable to complete their physical and sexual assault was because of a chance interruption that derailed the attack. In other cases where I did fight back, verbally or physically, I was able to defuse or escape from the situations without injury.

But here’s something I think Greg didn’t really talk about in his article: The benefit of fighting back doesn’t just come from the reduction in physical harm to a victim who resists versus one who passively allows herself to be victimized. There’s also a net positive psychological benefit, I think, for victims who resist, whether or not that resistance is effective in ending the assault. Let me explain what I mean.

When I speak about the experiences I’ve had as a victim of violence, people often ask me this question: “What was the worst part of the attack?” They’ll ask if it was the knife, or if it was this sex act or that one. They’ll ask if being physically assaulted was worse than the rape. (Usually, it’s men who ask this question; my experience, at least, has been that women have a visceral understanding of the horror of rape that relatively few men who haven’t experienced it possess).

What I answer often surprises the people who ask these questions. The absolute worst moment, I always say, was that instant of exquisite, excruciating clarity when my conscious mind said, “this is what is going to happen to you, and there is absolutely nothing you can do to stop it.” That moment of absolute, overwhelming helplessness and powerlessness was responsible for far worse, and far more lasting, trauma than anything that came afterward.

That’s not to say that it’s not possible there could be a circumstance where I wouldn’t make a choice to comply with an attacker in the short term, if I felt that temporary compliance would buy me the space and time to improve the tactical situation. But for me, all else being equal, I’d much rather fight back even if the chances of injury are higher because I know only too well what psychological price I pay for passive compliance.

What do you think? When would you choose compliance, and when would you choose resistance even at the risk of injury? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Photo credit: stock.xchng


  1. Comply only when it is to your advantage. If the guy only wants your wallet, there is no reason to get into a knife fight. Know where you will draw the line, and then fight. If you don’t fight you are at the mercy of some scumbag. If you don’t fight you know the start of what will happen. If you fight, you have a chance of stopping the act, if you don’t fight it will happen and maybe worst. Fighting back is your only choice once the line is crossed.

    • This is good advice, Ben – thank you for it! I definitely think we need to consider what our boundaries are, the lines we won’t cross and the places where we’ll take a stand no matter what.

      The challenging part is that sometimes compliance will escalate the attack. I don’t know if you’ve read any of A Girl and Her Gun (, but when she describes her attack, I can’t help but think that her compliance to a demand for money emboldened her attacker and that, had the assault not been interrupted, rape or worse might well have followed.

      So I think the choice to comply to avoid further violence is a moment-by-moment one in each situation, and sometimes we can’t know until we find out whether we survived whether we made the right call.

  2. “That moment of absolute, overwhelming helplessness and powerlessness was responsible for far worse, and far more lasting, trauma than anything that came afterward.”

    Absolutely! The greatest destroyer of the human spirit is powerlessness, the degradation of being psychologically or physically helpless (or both). Yet our society seems very determined to instill this helplessness on everyone as much as possible.

    Everything we can do to increase our own sense of worth, as well as improve our understanding of HOW and when to resist – along with having the necessary tools… these are the things that will defeat the cloying coils of those who would love to see us remain powerless victims.

    • “The greatest destroyer of the human spirit is powerlessness, the degradation of being psychologically or physically helpless (or both).” Very well put! I think it’s hard, though, for people who’ve never experienced that to really understand on a visceral level just how devastating that experience can be. But when you think about it, the helplessness, powerlessness, and lack of choice is what separates a force-on-force fighting class from a physical assault, and it’s what separates sex from rape.

      My own sexual assault wasn’t traumatic because of any special level of pain or damage that my body endured. It was traumatic precisely because I was so helpless to stop what was happening. This seems a difficult lesson for people to understand sometimes, and so too many people learn this lesson the hard, painful, traumatic way.

  3. Very good points Tammy! And the research echoes your experience. Most studies of crime victims conclude that rates of PTSD are much higher in victims who complied or froze as compared with those who tried to escape or fight back. It seems that placing yourself completely under the control of a violent predator causes some long term psychological consequences. Doing anything, even if it fails, produces less psychological trauma for the victim.

    Thanks for your comments! I’ll have to update the article in the future with some additional research along these lines.

    • I think it’s hard to underestimate the power of doing SOMETHING vs. doing nothing in terms of trauma. I was a rape crisis counselor for seven years, and saw many rape victims who struggled with whether they were brave enough to testify against their attackers in court. I saw many who later regretted not testifying, but I don’t remember any – win or lose – who regretted standing up in court and letting their voices be heard.

      Thank you for all you do to bring out this data, Greg – I suspect your work does not get near the recognition it deserves.

  4. I was just attacked by 3 guys in the Philippines three days ago. I chose to fight and some people criticized me for it. The usual reasoning.. that I could have gotten killed. Well, putting my hands up and cooperating.. also could have gotten me killed. What criminal wants a witness? What are the odds a criminal has a hateful streak in him and might stab you just for the hell of it?.. pretty high. So as I see it.. if a person CAN resist with a reasonable chance of success.. give it EVERYTHING you got.

    I have no mercy for someone who assaults me. They are putting my entire future on the line and if they come out of it with a broken knee or smashed face.. it’s their fault for attacking me in the first place. When I was attacked the other day I was able to knock out the leader and the other two backed off. They already had my backpack, had my wallet and weren’t going anywhere. To me that means they didn’t want to leave a breathing witness. Fortunately, I came out without a scratch while the other guy had a busted up face and a smashed nut-sack. Do I feel sorry for him? No.

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