But fighting back is fraught with dangers, as cases, including the deaths of headmaster Philip Lawrence and teenager Anthony Erskine in Stratford, show. Go too far and you also risk trouble with the law yourself. This month alone, at least two householders have been interviewed by police after they killed intruders on their premises.
For this reason, many "personal safety" courses avoid teaching any physical moves. Instead, they emphasise reading a situation, and escaping before it comes to blows.
Anyone looking for a course should see that it is recognised by either the Suzy Lamplugh Trust, which stresses non-contact and personal safety methods, or the British Self-Defence Governing Body, which covers more traditional self-defence, usually based on the martial arts.
Heather Wright (above right), who teaches personal safety in Lancashire, is unusual as she is accredited by both organisations.
Wright became a safety instructor after she was attacked at gunpoint in Spain. A second dan in karate, she escaped, but it spurred her on to investigate personal safety.
She found that she survived as much because of her mental attitude as her karate skills.
"Having confidence without being cocky is important," she explains. "If you have confidence, you will be able to talk your way out of a situation."
Someone who is confident can read aggression and antagonistic body language. But they will also be smart enough not to walk into trouble. This also makes it easier to stay within the accepted boundaries of self-defence. The legal definition, Wright explains, is that you can do what is "necessary" to protect yourself from injury, but no more. If you floor an attacker and give him a good hard kick, before running away, that is a kick too far, and you will be guilty of an offence.
"One of the problems with too much physical teaching is people feel they can get out of anything," Wright warns.
But if you do have to stand and fight, the techniques Wright teaches include blocking moves and quick ways to escape an attacker's holds. Blows can be blocked with any part of the body, and releases rely on skill rather than strength. Crucially, all the physical moves are easy to remember. As Wright points out, no one but the most skilled martial artist will recall a complex throw during an attack.
Wright advises victims to shout a positive instruction when attacked, such as "phone the police". Screaming will most likely be dismissed as kids messing around. She says the most effective cry is "fire", and certainly not "rape", which deters bystanders from becoming involved.
Some people are afraid that they might freeze up. Losing your voice is quite common. If you do, Wright suggests vomiting. This frees up the vocal cords, and has the added advantage of putting off the attacker, or as she puts it, regaining the element of surprise. When escaping, she suggests you start by walking briskly away from the scene. Muscles are weakened by shock, and walking allows them to regain their strength before you run.
Heather also teaches her students about the true risks of violent crime, and ways to minimise them. Keeping to well-lit areas, walking home with a friend, and carrying an attack alarm are among her suggestions. But, she says, the chance of being attacked by a stranger is very small indeed. Most attacks come out of an aggressive situation between people who know each other.
Men are also far more likely to be attacked than women. Even so, Heather sees few men at her classes, perhaps because they feel they can look after themselves.
But it is far better to avoid a violent situation from the outset. "That is why I stress that personal safety is more important than the physical side," she says.
Heather Wright can be contacted on 01772 613066. The Suzy Lamplugh Trust (0181-392 1839)Reuse content