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‘If not me then who?’ Why Elizabeth Smart says self-defense should be as common as fire drills

No one is safe from sexual assault, but Smart says this new training program can help

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Elizabeth Smart talks at the Elizabeth Smart Foundation office in Salt Lake City on June 3, 2022.

Elizabeth Smart talks at the Elizabeth Smart Foundation office in Salt Lake City on June 3, 2022, about her life and partnership with the Malouf Foundation ahead of the 20th anniversary of her kidnapping.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Elizabeth Smart said a new program called Smart Defense is designed specifically for women and girls to learn how to defend themselves against sexual assault.

“In the U.S., a person is sexually assaulted every 68 seconds, and 1 in 6 American women have been a victim of or almost completed rape, and that is terrifying,” Smart said on KSL NewsRadio’s “Dave & Dujanovic” show on Tuesday.

The first thing Smart wants people to learn from her self-defense program is that it’s not their fault if they become a victim of sexual assault.

“That is the No. 1 thing I want any and every survivor and victim to know. There is nothing that makes what happened to them OK. It is not their fault,” Smart said.

Smart said she developed this program because while in her case she did not know her attacker, most other cases of kidnapping and sexual assault involve a person the victim is close to.

“If not me then who? I feel so incredibly blessed and lucky because what happened to me came at the hands of a stranger. They weren’t people that I knew, they weren’t people that I love, they weren’t people I had a relationship with,” Smart said.

Because sexual assaults can happen to anyone, the next lesson she said everyone should understand is that self-defense is empowering but can only become useful if practiced over long periods of time. 

“Should you ever find yourself in that moment of panic, of stress, of fear, your body just reacts and unless this is trained into your muscle memory, these tools may not be available to you unless you have continually practiced them,” Smart said.

Smart said that while public spaces such as schools or businesses often practice safety drills for emergencies like fires or earthquakes, nobody is teaching what to do in the event of a kidnapping or sexual assault. Smart Defense is a new resource to help fill the void in this area of safety preparation.

“Where these statistics and these numbers are so high, nobody teaches you what you should do if someone does try to sexually abuse you, and not many people are teaching the difference between enthusiastic consensual sex versus sexual violence,” Smart said.

Understanding the difference between consensual, enthusiastic sex and rape along with a self-defense class was something Smart said might have helped her in her story. While she didn’t speculate on whether it would have prevented the kidnapping and violence, she said she knows that it would have helped her feel empowered to fight back.

“As we were developing this program and as we were piloting this program, one of the coolest experiences for me was being able to hold pads for the other women and girls to hit. Each of these women and girls were strong and they could hit. What a difference there was between their strikes at the beginning of the class to the end of their class,” Smart said.

Smart said the ultimate goal is to provide an opportunity for someone to get away from a bad situation. She emphasized that it is not to destroy or kill the other person but to allow the victim to get to safety. Along with the physical actions, Smart also discussed the importance of teaching your kids how to draw attention to their situation through continued vocalizing distress practices.

“It’s so important to me that (children) know how to utilize the skills that they already have, and certainly our voices are a great place to begin,” Smart said.

Smart Defense courses are offered online and in person at different locations in Colorado Springs, Salt Lake City, Riverton, St. George, Pocatello and Kansas City, with a new location opening up in Utah County in August.

These courses will officially become part of the university curriculum for students at Southern Utah University starting this fall. Registration for online or in-person self-defense classes can be found at elizabethsmartfoundation.org