A Woman’s Place: Part 1 of 2

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*Disclaimer: This article does not encompass the experience of every female in the BJJ community. There are many positives for the women in our sport. This article is instead an attempt to recognize areas of our culture that need healing. Some intense material is included within.

For me, this article is daunting. As a male, I don’t feel well qualified in my attempt to portray the many unique issues women face in our sport. I have asked numerous women who have participated and competed in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu for their input regarding their challenges. I hope to be able to do justice to these wonderful people who have attempted to help me better understand what life on the mats is like for them. If something is poorly stated, or misunderstood, it is no fault of the women who have offered their stories, but the fault rests on me as the writer.

Whenever one demographic of people holds a majority, the minority demographics often suffer from inequities. In Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, women make a small portion of active practitioners and competitors. As such, they face a variety of challenges unique to them. I believe the most shocking I found as I asked and interviewed various female members of the sport was the level of sexual harassment they seem to face. This article will focus in on those issues specifically.

First of all, what is sexual harassment? It is defined by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission as, “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature”.

So just how common is sexual harassment among women in the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu community? Disturbingly common. Of all of the women who shared their stories, only a few didn’t have a story of being sexually harassed by a teammate or coach. It doesn’t mean all men harass women, but it does mean that it’s a big enough issue that all women have to worry about it.

How far does it go? It ranges from inappropriate joking, to rape, to victim blaming, to threats of sexual violence. One woman reported that she went to her car after a training session only to find someone had placed violent pornography on her windshield with a threatening note.

Another woman reported that a teammate, who had previously asked her on dates, intentionally put his hand up her shirt in an attempt to unhook her bra in the middle of a roll.

Even another woman stated to me that one teammate started to send sexual texts to her. He threatened her with rape if she wouldn’t consent to intercourse with him. She reported it to her head coach and showed him the text messages. The head coach didn’t want to kick the male out of the academy, because he had been friends with the man for years.

Too many other women to list here have also told stories of feeling extremely uncomfortable with comments made towards them by training partners. Others have reported inappropriate physical contact. Yes, there will be accidental touching at times, but that isn’t what we’re talking about here. There is a difference between an accidental touch that comes with the nature of grappling and the overt groping these women have told me about.

Understand this: in no way is any of this the fault of these women. They are not responsible for males touching them, making lewd comments, or otherwise assaulting them. The fault lies solely with the men who perpetrate these actions.

Women are an incredibly important part of our Jiu-Jitsu community. They provide tremendous value to their individual gyms, and to the sport as a whole. Don’t they deserve better?

Finally, what do we do about it? How do we make this sport safer for women? I would argue that the answer doesn’t lie in teaching more anti-rape classes. The answer lies in teaching the men of the sport to be respectful of their female training partners. The answer lies in coaches creating a culture in their gym that is safe for women, and in letting their students know what is and what is not tolerable.

This isn’t a call for special treatment. This is a call for respectful treatment; equitable behavior. Treat the women in your gym with respect. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is supposed to be for everyone. Unfortunately, it won’t be until we, as men, step up our game and behave towards the women of the sport the way that we ought to.

Fear, discomfort, and other negative feelings should never be part of a person’s Jiu-Jitsu experience.

In the next article, we will be discussing other unique issues to women in the sport as well as how to bring healing and create a more positive environment for all members our community.

Read Part 2 Here

 

15 COMMENTS

  1. This is a very unfortunate situation that these women have to deal with, for me I have a different issue. I am a white belt and I am one of the few women that attend our gym (1 of 7 regulars) and my husband is also in class with me he’s a brown belt. The issue I run into is the men we train with seem to avoid me at all cost, either do not come off as sexual or touch me inappropriately or because they may not feel that they would be able to train as “well” with me. The days there are no women in class are truly my worst days, my husband doesn’t always want to train with me, we have a huge weight difference and the other white belt guys in class avoid a women like the plague they don’t want a women to get the better of them and I could get hurt if they get too frustrated. I feel awful that women have to deal with this in our sport and I would do anything to prevent that from happening to any of my team-mates.

  2. An issue I faced was more about discrimination than sexual harassment. I trained at a club where I was one of only two women. A major section of the men would not train with women due to their religion. Some men wouldn’t even acknowledge me and shaking hands at the end of a session turned into a real mess as people dodged me. My training suffered grately as I only trained with a handfull of people ,most of them less experienced than I. I was injured frequently as none of the less experienced guys wanted to be dominated by a woman on the mat. Fortunately I have since found a club where such attitudes are not tolerated as the club promotes BJJ as a game for anyone regardless.

  3. Wow! Dangerous ground upon which to comment. So many issues here. I support the values which secure to all practitioners their right to experience training and development free from harassment. Our academy has several women who train regularly some of whom are white belts and others at the purple belt level. I happen to be a new academy member, less than 6 months. At my stage of enlightenment and practical skill – zero – I grope regardless of who I roll with or what technique we are reviewing. Grope as used here means there is too much information for my tiny brain to process to simultaneously be thinking about technical elements & avoiding all physical contact which can potentially be perceived the wrong way. This is true regardless of whether I roll with a man or women. Of course I want to be sensitive, but in my personal experiential process I find myself in awkward situations and simply choose to ignore myself and continue focusing on what I consider necessary to “practice” the techniques. Yea I’m laying on other men! And women! My limbs make contact with breasts, chests, butts, hips, and etc! Do I get into grinding? No, I’m not an advanced black belt and have not seen that one demonstrated in the academy. I have seen it demo-ed at the Hard Rock Cafe however!! Keep on rolling… To mis-quote Julio Iglesias – kinda – “to all the girls I’ve rolled with before,…” well back to my earlier statement, “I support the values which secure to all practitioners their right to experience training and development free from harassment.” Serious subject. I’m glad that the women in our academy apparently feel comfortable enough around me to want to kick my butt! Thanks for putting up with the necessity of physical contact. I respect your fighting spirit!

  4. Power respects power. Luckily there’s more than one way to create it.

    If your gym has a competition team, start organizing the fund raising activities and the war wagons for out-of-town tournaments. Get and distribute copies of the rule books for the various grappling organizations where your team competes. Put up a bulletin board with competition news. Organize a team newsletter. Put together a medical kit. Run a Facebook page for the school to promote tournament activities. Act as a press liaison and prepare press releases related to your team’s competition activities. Do enough of these little organizational things, and pretty soon you’ll be in charge of the booster club (official or otherwise).

    Nobody will object to you doing these things, because they’re thankless chores that nobody else really wants to do. But when they get done, everyone benefits.

    There’s a relationship between the number and quality of athletes a school can field and how well those athletes are supported organizationally and financially. BJJ is not like college athletics: most competitors are self funded. Very few get corporate sponsors prior to black belt. This means that most sponsorship is in-house, and it comes from things like car washes, bake sales, and small scale activities. Any school with a serious competition team therefore needs a pool of volunteers to do everything from tournament organizing to fund raising to gi repair. A disproportionate number of the people doing this work happen to be female: they’re either female athletes, or parents of athletes.

    Even the biggest dunce in the world knows what side his or her bread is buttered on. As soon as a competition team has even a minor support structure, that entire team starts viewing its female athletes as an asset instead of a nuisance (although, to be fair, most of our male teammates DO respect us and view us as an asset from day one). Having a booster club simply gives the more senior team members something to point to while explaining the facts of life to the new guy who maybe has to be taught how to show respect.

    The second an unwanted boob grab becomes a threat to the team’s support infrastructure, the entire competition team will defend its meal ticket. If the in-house sponsor ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.

  5. Why do so many sexual advances occur towards women in BJJ? Is it simple because men completely lack respect and objectify them at every opportunity? Sure that is definitely part of it. However, I’ve been in the art for well over a decade and have NEVER seen an unmarried heterosexual woman, who achieved at least a blue belt, NOT date a man from their gym. If a girl trains beyond her initial six months she is almost certain to select a mate from her training partners. I’ve seen half a dozen men meet their future wives at BJJ class.

    When this sort of thing happens men take notice. They learn that women at BJJ are in the market for men at BJJ. The way our world works is men pursue and women choose. When every girl that walks in the door starts dating a man at the gym guys begin to think the women are going to the gym chiefly to find a man. If a guy doesn’t make any advances towards a woman he will not be chosen by her. The line between “unwelcome sexual advances” and “true romance” is often whether or not the girl finds the man attractive and NOT the fact that he is pursuing her at BJJ. Women who do BJJ enjoy being pursued by guys who do BJJ that fact is nearly indisputable. Many women openly flirt with men in class, generally only the purple belts and above. Over the last 14 years I’ve hooked up with a small handful of women who trained and each of them confessed that they were after me from day one. I didn’t harass them or follow them home, but I certainly noticed them smiling or flirting with me.

    Many men don’t know how to respectfully interact with a woman they find attractive. Additionally, many men do not know how to handle rejection or even respect the fact that women are entitled to reject them. Some of these men do BJJ. However, acting like the problem exists solely because of men oversimplifies the issue. If women at the gym NEVER dated or hooked up with men from the gym they would face far fewer advances and be taken far more seriously. No this wouldn’t solve the problem entirely since many men are dogs that will bark up any and all trees. However, as long as women in BJJ continue to mix training and romance men will continue to aggressively pursue them.

    Additionally, the men who refuse to train or partner with women are often simply trying to send the message that they are in no way shape or form going to pursue them romantically. They realize that women at the gym will eventually date someone and they are voluntarily removing themselves from the list of eligible bachelors. Or the woman is already dating someone from they gym and they are attempting to avoid creating drama. These men are simply at BJJ to do BJJ and ironically they are the ones women complain about the most. Sure they don’t want to train with you and that is frustrating, but ask yourself why. Yes, there are those who don’t like training with someone much smaller than them (a difficulty most women will never understand since they are typically the smallest) and yes there are those who are ashamed or afraid to tap to a woman. However, there is a sizable minority that is simply trying to avoid the BJJ dating game altogether, a game created by and for women in BJJ.

    I don’t think women train ONLY to hook up with a guy. I don’t even think all the women who do hook up with a guy at BJJ were even looking to do so when they started. However, the fact remains that they can, and more often than not will, eventually be convinced to do so. The guy who flirts, shows his personality and lets them know he is interested is the one who eventually gets selected. In life you take the good with the bad and if women want to continue dating athletic attractive guys at BJJ then they will have to deal with the losers and crazies who will throw themselves at them as well.

    I don’t blame the women. If I did yoga or some other activity where I was surrounded by tons of young in shape women fighting for my attention I’d probably hook up with one of them too, but then I couldn’t complain too loudly about the crazy cougars headed my way.

    • Pretty much no one is upset by smiling and flirting. Groping, rape, threats, insults, being treated as a person less worthy of training – this is upsetting.

      Women should not have to limit themselves any more than men do in pursuit of sex or relationships; people meet romantic partners in places they frequent. It makes sense that this might happen and common interest in a sport could be a good foundation for a relationship. How one achieves this is the determining factor. There are guidelines for proper behavior for both sexes; these should be used by both.

      It would be nice if more men could step outside of their own perspective and try to imagine how it feels to be such a significant minority on the mat. It can be a struggle, even without the sexually offensive behavior described in this blog, just to be different, not one of the boys, if you will. Those of us who stay despite this are staying because they love the sport and are willing to wait out the discomfort.

    • Blaming women for the “BJJ dating game” is a load of crap. Relationships form anywhere there are people. You cannot say that women are asking for it by dating guys in the gym.
      Also, I am a female blue belt and I have been in the sport for over 5 years. I have always had a personal rule against dating inside of the gym for the same reason I won’t date at work; drama if there is a break up. However, I have been groped multiple times, been asked for nudes, had someone try to force his way into the changing room with me, and even had the head instructor try to convince me to sleep with him when I was 14 years old.

      The whole tone of your post sounds to me like you are claiming BJJ as a male sport to which females are allowed to participate. If you consider men and women to have equal rights on the mats, all of your arguments for how it is the women’s fault is dismissed.

    • Well, you could – and should – complain against crazy cougars (LOL) headed your way. No one complains about men flirting/asking out/texting or whatever. If somebody wants to flirt, it’s his/her right, come on, even if he/she is creepy or not exactly the guy/girl you’d date.

      Problem is when some guy (or girl, please apply this to a man too) texts you 24/7, touches you in some weird way during sparring, waits for you outside the gym, doesn’t take a “no” as an answer, specially if the question is “would you have sex with me?”.
      Hell, everybody should complain about it, being male or female and being harassed by a male or female.

      I’m a girl and I am NOT embarassed by guys flirting or texting or asking me out. I’m not 12, I can manage these things and say NO if I don’t wanna date somebody. Problem is when they are big, more skilled than you, psycho as hell and won’t accept your no.

  6. What saddens me is that we live in a culture where women worship bad boys. And Unfortunately, this custom is a multicultural fault among women and men of all ethnicities.
    Women tend to worship bad boys and men tend to further enable this behavior by becoming those bad boys that women worship. And this behavior has found it’s way into Brazilian Jiujitsu dojos in many places. This is a disgrace to the art, and all Martial Arts in general.
    As represenatives of the Brazilian JiuJitsu Community, both female and male practitioners have a greater responsibility and obligation to rise above this kind of degrading behavior. If women don’t learn to treat nice men with respect, and men don’t learn to demand the same respect in return, this will destroy the art of Jiujitsu by turning male practitioners into thugs and female practitioners into victims. But that is not all. The negative impact of such events will continue to perpetuate the miscommunications of both genders, and in time destroy the quality of life in general. Change starts from within us. Men, treat a woman and her sexuality with respect no matter how liberal or conservative she is with it, and women, learn to respect men who respect you.Until this fundamental principle is heard and understood, the Jiujitsu community cannot move forward.

  7. This post makes me really grateful to train at the gym that I train at. I’m one of four girls that trains at my gym, and more often than not I am the only female in class. My coach really makes an effort to insure that the females at my gym are treated as equals. “They’re not made of glass.” “They’re wearing the same gi as you are.” He makes sure that everyone is treated with the same respect. I had an issue with one of my teammates tickling me while we were rolling. I understood that it was all in good fun and he wasn’t trying to harass me or anything negative like that, but I really felt like it was hindering my training. I had only been there for two weeks and he was a blue belt, there was a lot I could be learning from him. I told my coach and the tickling stopped immediately.

    It makes me sad that there are women out there in this sport who have to deal with these types of interactions.

  8. It infuriates me when a picture of a female grappler is posted there are always responses like “She can put me in a triangle choke! I’ll eat my way out!” Seriously dude, go f*** yourself. Or when known female athletes like Roussey do an article with a photo of her butt in the air that brags about how much sex she needs before a match; These things diminish the hard work that female athletes put into their sport and prevents other women from ever giving it a try.

  9. I have to say, that women in BJJ is a key pillar in keeping the art on its true course and mission. If I am in a class that has women in it I make it a point to roll with them. The reason for this lies in that inevitable size difference and the resulting skill the women achieve. Rarely are women tempted to overcome a bad position and an opponent with size or speed and are forced to rely 100% on proper technique. With this being almost the only path to victory for women, they achieve technique mastery very quickly. (I am generalizing here).

    Consequently, I learn a great deal about the subtlety of solid technique on just about every roll
    with women. I have taught kids bjj classes for about 5 years now, and once every six months I invite a fellow instructor from another town who is about 5’2″ and 110 lbs. to visit. She is a belt rank above me and has absolutely solid technique.

    she and I stand in front of the kids and ask them that if we fought, who would win? They inevitably say I would, and when I ask them why, they say “because I am bigger and stronger”

    They then watch as we roll kinda hard and they quickly see those advantages disappear into her technique. then within three or four minutes the inevitable tap by me.

    They are speechless. They will even come back the next class or week and ask me if I let her win. I explain that with her level of technique, me losing is unavoidable. that is the Gracie way.

    P.S.
    BJJ in east Idaho has come on strong in the last 10 years or so, and behind that is a particular incidence my instructor had in Provo, Utah with a women blue belt.
    You will have to ask him to get the full story though.

  10. Super huge stereotype. Not saying it’s not an issue, as it is in every crevasse of society. Almost insulting that it makes it sound like it’s like this everywhere. And I’m sorry, if it’s like this where you train, vote with your feet and your check book immediately because this is not the “norm” in a good school.

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