Sexual Harassment IS A Problem In Jiu-Jitsu, But You Don’t Have To Accept It

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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.

9 COMMENTS

  1. Wow, so you are telling us that there are assho*** in BJJ too. What a suprise. No matter what you do or where you are from you can find a low percentage of shitty people everywhere. That is not a BJJ Problem.
    Also to me it sounds like a joke that you quote cosmopolitan as a source. That is not even close to a scientifically accurate evidence.

    • She wasn’t saying it was strictly a BJJ problem but how to deal with it in a BJJ setting. Especially since the amount of respect surrounding martial arts would make one think that there would be less of a chance of being sexually harassed. Sexual harassment in any form, any setting is NOT ok, and sexual harassment in a setting where – lets be honest, your legs are wrapped around someone, as mentioned above you’re in an awkward spot in north south, things on both parties involved sometimes get kicked, grabbed, smashed etc. Making comments about said things that HAPPEN in a contact sport and making it sexual can make it extremely uncomfortable! As for scientifically accurate evidence, if you check out the Cosmo reference – it’s from a survey taken from 2,235 women. Any collegiate level and above research article would do the same thing – take a survey using different factors and areas (which was done in the survey on Cosmo) and create numbers from it.

      Yes there are assholes everywhere, yes there are assholes in BJJ. That doesn’t mean it should be acceptable and that doesn’t mean everyone knows how to deal with it.

      • “Especially since the amount of respect surrounding martial arts would make one think that there would be less of a chance of being sexually harassed. ”

        If somebody really think that way he/she is very naive. And of cause it is not ok. Most people know that and don’t need such a articel and the few ones who are acting like assho*** will not change because of a text. It’s called self reflection. Some people have it, some people don’t.
        Also i see the same words under different topics in the last time. That’s why i wrote that it is not a BJJ problem. They take a general problem and post something about it under a
        specific topics. That doesnt help at all.

        “As for scientifically accurate evidence, if you check out the Cosmo reference – it’s from a survey taken from 2,235 women.”

        I checked it already. You think cosmopolitan as a woman magazine is of cause as objective as possible and the parameter under which they defined “sexual harassment” is accurate?
        For them “1 in 3 woman” is much better as an headline then “1 in 8 woman” or “1 in 20 woman”.

  2. You could just train with women. I personally avoid rolling with women just to avoid the possibility of any misunderstanding.

    • That would leave about one person for me to train with at my gym. The guys at my academy don’t have any problems behaving like adults, and I expect no less from any man I train with.

    • If I didn’t train with men, most nights I’d be sitting in the corner by myself. Don’t avoid women just for general purposes. Most won’t think anything about it unless you are being strange. If a woman is there for self defense reasons, you are actually doing a disservice to her. She will need to train with guys. You can’t learn to fend off a grown man if you never train with one. Men are usually just way stronger.

      When I read stuff like this, I’m thankful for my gym. They are all awesome and I’ve never had an issue with anyone and never seen any issues.

    • At the great majority of small gyms in small towns, you’re lucky if there’s one other woman. I’m the only one at my school. I never have to think twice about the guys I train with – they are all emotionally mature human beings who deal with women as people and jiu jitsu students first. It’s actually hugely refreshing to be in mixed company and have my gender not mean a damn thing (except that I’m so small, ha!).
      Neither women NOR men should be denied the experience of training with each other. We move differently, use techniques differently, we have an endless amount to teach each other, if we’re all paying attention where we should be.
      I had a guest student ask if we could roll simply because he came from SUCH a small school that he’d never had the opportunity to roll with a woman. He was clearly completely cool – just curious what the differences would be. We each came out of the roll going, that was AWESOME! He was blown away by the agility and speed even a white belt woman brought to the sport, and I had a great time working against a guy who had a stable of different techniques he was modifying on the fly for a tiny fast scrappy opponent.

      Now, why in the world would either gender deny each other that kind of variety of experience??

      And why in the world should women not expect, for even a moment, that the men they roll with be anything other than excellent human beings.

  3. This is some sort of firebrand topic, that people want to make into “men vs women.”

    Thankfully, I haven’t ran into anyone who has made issues about technique or touching. I imagine that ‘touching’ can be an issue, if a woman feels that she has been touched inappropriately, there should be an example of that shown, a reason why it’s wrong, and maybe the solution the to the issue.

    I will be honest, in that the women I train with are hard nosed, and don’t register anything. If I inadvertently touch a breast, and I pause, that basically means, I’ll get setup for a sweep or submission.

    The women who want to train are tough, and I respect them. Baybing them will only insult them, especially when they want to learn how to defend against an abusive male partner.

    • 😀 I had to walk a fellow student through ‘how to grab the latissimus muscle on a female body’ – there was no way for him to see that under the gi, there pretty much IS no lat on your average woman. He would never have intentionally grabbed a breast, yk? And, just as you said, 20 seconds of chilled out, ‘hey, how about set up you grip this way instead’ common sense conversation saved him from his conscience clobbering him with embarrassment (shy fellow!).

      Similarly ‘how not to rack your male partner’ is a quick ten second tutorial I was given early on when it was needed.

      It’s simple. It should be simple 🙂

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