For a disturbing number of people, sexual harassment isn’t just a buzzword in workplace meetings – it’s an everyday reality. A survey by Cosmopolitan revealed that 1 in 3 women has experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, and Stop Street Harassment found that 65 percent of women and 25 percent of men had experienced sexually-charged street harassment in their lifetime. You’d think that this issue would be non-existent in a jiu-jitsu gym, where gender should be irrelevant and mutual respect is taught every day, but you’d be wrong.
The sad truth is that many jiu-jitsu practitioners have been on the receiving end of inappropriate behavior from both teammates and coaches throughout their BJJ careers, and for some, it can be enough to turn them away from the sport forever. Although both men and women can be victims of sexual harassment in the gym, women represent the overwhelming majority of people who have dealt with it.
I spoke with numerous people in the jiu-jitsu community about this topic; although I’ve personally experienced it from numerous training partners and even coaches (mostly from academies that I’m not a member of), I wanted to see if it was really the widespread issue I thought it was. Their responses confirmed to me that, yes, it is.
The overwhelming majority of the women I talked to could easily recount times when they’d received inappropriate comments from male training partners, often in the middle of rolling or drilling. Many referenced incidents from when they were new and still getting used to participating in such a physical sport with members of the opposite sex. Jokes about “Do you always let men get between your legs this easily?” when they put someone in full guard and comments about what their “flexible bodies” could do in bed stuck out in their memories.
Between close friends or romantic partners, these remarks might not be a big deal. But coming from someone you don’t know very well, especially someone who is currently lying on top of you, such comments can quickly lose the “harmless joke” vibe and turn into something that is, at the very least, creepy and at the very most, threatening.
Jiu-jitsu is an intimate sport by nature; we are putting our very lives into someone else’s hands while putting our bodies all over each other. Especially for women, who are often smaller and weaker than their male counterparts, this can be as much of an emotional challenge as a physical one. When you consider how many women have started jiu-jitsu because they wanted to learn how to defend themselves or to reclaim their own bodies after being sexually assaulted, starting jiu-jitsu can be ridiculously intimidating, or even scary.
When someone is subjected to sexually-charged comments or inappropriate touching, it can be unsettling. When someone experiences it from someone who they are supposed to be able to trust with their own body, it can be terrifying. Once someone from your gym pinches your butt as you walk by or tells you that they “love this view” when you move into north-south, how are you supposed to trust them enough to roll with them again? Can you be sure that the time they “accidentally” grabbed your chest was really an accident? What thoughts are going through their head every time you get mount or any other position they might twist in their heads to be something more than jiu-jitsu-related?
Perhaps just as worrisome as these questions are the ones that usually follow.
“Am I just being too sensitive?”
“Will anyone take me seriously if I tell someone about this?”
“Will this affect my jiu-jitsu career if I speak up?”
For both genders, the answers are often no, no, and maybe. For men, the second answer is usually capitalized, bolded, and underlined.
While it’s not as common for men to be sexually harassed in jiu-jitsu, it does happen. They might not be afraid of being sexually assaulted on the way to their car after class, but it doesn’t make their discomfort any less valid. They, too, should be able to roll with any of their teammates without having to worry about receiving sexual comments or being touched against their will.
But if it does happen, their protests or comments to their coaches are likely to be dismissed.
“You should feel lucky,” they’re told.
“Why are you complaining about getting attention from a hot chick?” they’re asked.
The idea that unwanted sexual attention is “flattering” is nothing new. Women and men alike are advised to treat these incidents like compliments instead of harassment. In jiu-jitsu, it’s often implied that they should “toughen up” and take these interactions the same way they’d take a knee-on-belly. We’re supposed to be badass athletes, after all. We know how to take a ridiculous amount of pain and tap out only when we’re actually at risk of being injured. Speaking up about sexual harassment in the gym is often looked at the same way as tapping to pressure – you’re just uncomfortable, not hurt, so what’s the problem?
Anyone who tries to spit this BS at you is wrong. It is everyone’s responsibility to make sure that everyone who steps into your jiu-jitsu academy feels comfortable and safe. Your coach in particular should be making sure that opportunities for sexual harassment are stomped out before they can manifest, and that any incidents that do happen are taken seriously.
You, as a student, should feel that your coach will actively listen to you if you approach him with a complaint that another student has been making you uncomfortable. If you get the vibe that he’d just roll his eyes at you, or worse, that he could be the one doing the harassing, you are in the wrong place. Your coach should set the standard for behavior in your academy, and you can bet that if he doesn’t take your safety and comfort seriously, the students training under him won’t, either.
I recently visited Pride Lands BJJ Academy in Monaca, Pennsylvania and was particularly impressed by how professor and black belt Lou Armezzani made sure that all of the students who entered his gym was comfortable throughout their time there. From the moment I walked in, he was adamant that women must change in the bathroom with the door locked (since there is only one changing room and significantly fewer women than men). Because you have to walk through the changing room to get to the bathroom, men aren’t even allowed in the changing room when a woman is getting dressed in the bathroom just in case she were to come out at an inopportune time.
“It’s better to be proactive than reactive,” says Armezzani. “By removing the possibilities of an encounter, we have less chance of an incident.” He also prohibits men from being completely topless in the presence of a female student.
While the measures Armezzani has taken to ensure that his students are comfortable might seem extreme to some, they immediately made me more relaxed when I trained in his gym. I’m no longer intimidated by being the only woman on the mat, nor do I care if one of my male teammates is casually walking around the gym without a shirt, but the efforts made by this instructor ensured me that he was not the type to tolerate any inappropriate behavior from his students. Of course, I didn’t even have to worry about that, because all his students were just as respectful as him.
Even the best coach might not be able to prevent a rude student from harassing his teammates, though. Should this happen to you, speak up. Tell the person doing it to knock it off, and if it happens again or if the incident was serious enough, report it to your coach. Don’t let anyone dismiss it as “just a joke” or “guys being guys” or a “compliment.” Your professor needs to be the one to put the harasser in her place. If he doesn’t, it’s time to be a squeaky wheel until he does, or simply find another gym in which your comfort is a priority.
Should you see another student being sexually harassed, you also bear a responsibility to stand up for him if he seems unhappy. If you’re unsure, it’s okay to ask if he’s cool with what just happened. Let him know that you’re available if he wants to report the other student’s behavior and would like another witness.
However, it’s up to him to decide how to deal with the harassment. If he wants to give the person another chance before he complains to the coach, respect his wish instead of immediately speaking up about it. The most important thing is that the victim knows you are there for him if he needs you.
If you’re a coach, make sure that your students feel comfortable approaching you if they need help dealing with a situation in your academy. Complaints from both male and female students should be taken seriously rather than dismissed. How you deal with sexual harassment is your call, but it absolutely should be dealt with. Better yet, though, make sure that your students know from the very start that it won’t be tolerated, and stick to that promise. Your membership – particularly your female membership – will suffer if your students don’t feel they can safely train with their teammates.
Oh, and if you’re one of the people who thinks it’s okay to treat your training partners like pieces of meat, kindly get the **** out of this sport. If you can’t be in close contact with another human being without acting like a pervert, you need therapy and a reality check before you even think about stepping into a martial arts academy.
To be able to train in jiu-jitsu is an invaluable experience, and it’s horrible when that experience is poisoned by people who can’t keep their mouths shut or their hands to themselves. No matter what anyone says or how they act, you do have a right to train without having to experience sexual harassment while doing the activity that saves you both inside and out.