"Let the harasser know your boundaries," teacher Carol Middleton said, her outstretched arm marking a clean circle around her upright frame as she pivoted to face her stalking, would-be assailant, co-instructor Sam Frances.

"The attacker is testing your victim potential," said Middleton, who has held a black belt in karate and taught self-defense for 20 years. "Better to be tough than overly open."

The students, 35 women in sweat pants and baggy shirts, paired up on this first night of the Rape Crisis Center's self-defense class to act out common street confrontations.

Women are accustomed to taking care of other people, Middleton said, squatting in a semicircle of students on the tile floor of the basement of All Souls Church in Northwest. "Now it's time to take care of yourself."

The eight 90-minute sessions are no crash course in karate kicks. For women in urban areas, they amount to more of a survival plan, divided into practice sessions on verbal confrontations, physical combat and confidence building.

The first three sessions work to dispel myths about attacks and sharpen awareness; the other five teach how to repel assailants, using choke holds, surprise counterattacks and ground fighting.

And, because up to 80 percent of rapes are believed to be committed by someone the victim knows, instructors devote extra time to date rape. "There is no cookbook of self-defense," Middleton said.

Laura Payne, who moved here from Birmingham, Ala., and now rides the bus and walks home from work at night, said she decided to sign up after her boyfriend was assaulted. "I've always been too trusting," she said.

Chris Nichols, 30, a brown belt who helps Frances teach the physical portion of the class, trains students to listen to their sixth sense, that split-second alert to danger.

Then she teaches them to walk accordingly.

"Put on this magical armor and take to the streets," she said, walking with her chin forward and swinging her arms at her side. Be confident, have a clear destination and stay alert to your surroundings, she said, and if approached, "make a public service announcement," a loud warning that will alert passersby.

"Stun them with your voice," she said. "Be a broken record and keep repeating, 'Go away,' again and again and again."

A study of convicted rapists in Alabama prisons found assailants were more likely to choose targets that looked timid, "someone whose shoulders were hunched and head was down," said Martha R. Burt of the Urban Institute. "For a rapist, the postural and attitudinal image the person gives off is crucial."

And if the situation escalates into assault, it helps to have a repertoire of options.

"Remember the targets," said Frances, coaching the students in a choreographed series of jabs, kicks and stomps directed at vulnerable points: the eyes, chin, groin, knees and feet.

"A good poke in the eye is worth a thousand words," said Nichols.

Students must practice the motions until they become part of their "motor memory," the instructors stressed. As one woman lunged forward, thrusting her palm at the chin of her partner, another curled to the floor to prepare for ground fighting.

Women used to be taught to stay on their feet if attacked. But Middleton, who studied exercise physiology at the University of Wisconsin, said ground fighting is now considered a woman's best defense because women's legs are five times stronger than their arms.

Frances, who works days as a science teacher, said the course is reassuring because it channels women's feelings of fear and frustration into active prevention to counter lifelong lessons not to be confrontational.

And against all traditional advice that women have received to act cool and talk their attacker out of rape, a study funded by the National Center for the Prevention and Control of Rape advances the view that women who resist an attacker are more likely to escape rape.

"I've lived in my little ivory tower my whole life," said Catherine Hung, who moved to the District from California two months ago. "I think this is very therapeutic."

"As you practice the moves in class, it takes away the anxiety," said Gail Kennedy, who took the course a year ago.

The same percentage of women fight back effectively regardless of whether they have a weapon, Middleton said. In fact, women who use Mace are more likely to get attacked because they are lulled into a sense of security, she said. And, if the device malfunctions, it can aggravate the assailant.

Teaching women to carry weapons "is dangerous because women become overconfident and cocky," Middleton said.

Of course, there are times when the best advice is to avoid confrontation, as when, for instance, the assailant is armed.

"There are no absolutes," said Frances.

Neither is there a remedy for the fear that attends women daily. But know-how is empowering, Frances said, adding, "Self-defense is not about beating up men but about giving yourself options."