I came across a Vice article titled “Why Women Need Self-Defense Classes of Their Own,” by Meg Mankins, which details the sexism she encountered during several free trial Krav Maga classes. Mankins was encouraged by one of her coworkers who already attended classes, after she had an uncomfortable late night encounter with a creepy guy on the street. During her trial classes, she found the culture of the Krav Maga classes to be less-than-welcoming to female students. While I agree with the need for self-defense classes for people from all walks of life, I will also add that she likely be misinterpreted the standard and normal treatment of all beginner students as sexist behavior. While she might have really been treated poorly in her KM classes, I wanted to explain and rationalize what she experienced in class from the perspective of the coaches and other students. Here are her comments with my counterpoints beneath her comments.
“Krav Maga isn’t practiced exclusively by men, and I’m sure there are many fine classes out there for women, but in my group of 13 men and four women, it was hard to escape the impression that I didn’t belong. When Sammy (the coach) practiced with me and my female coworker, he’d be playful—soft, even. When he showed the class how to get out of a chokehold with another man, however, they were equals. He didn’t go easy on him.”
When coaches are drilling techniques with beginners, coaches will drill the move slowly in order to demonstrate the techniques and details and to instill the message that drilling needs to be precise, not fast. When students drill with each other, they aren’t going full clip. They are going half-speed in order to make sure they are executing the moves properly and to reduce the risk of injuries. When a coach is demonstrating a move like a choke hold to the class, the coach will usually demonstrate it to the point of getting a tap from their training partner. So there is a reason why he didn’t go easy on the training partner.
“I was paired with women the majority of the time due to “our similar height and weight,” according to Sammy (the coach).”
Regardless of gender, most training partners will pair up based on weight. It is not uncommon to see a 130 lbs female paired up with a 135 lbs male for a class. It is easier to drill technique on a training partner that is a similar size. In BJJ, it is tough for a 200 lbs training partner to drill a berimbolo on a 130 lbs training partner. In a class full of beginners, it is also safer to train with similar sized training partners, since there is the occasional, large, agro male who will violently spaz if a smaller training partner gets the better of him. So it is more of a size and safetly issue rather than gender issue at most schools.
“When I was eventually partnered with a 60-something man towards the end of the lesson, he repeatedly asked if he was exerting too much strength on me. I was learning, but it felt watered-down and unrealistic.”
I have been asked several times by my coaches to train with male and female first-time beginners. The first class can be very difficult for first-timers due to the intense cardio drills, foreign movements, new terminology, not wanting to look silly, and general discomfort of trying something for the first time. I will routinely ask my novice training partners if they need a break or if they have any questions regardless of my partners’ gender. As a 200 lbs person, I will even ask smaller, male, upper belt, training partners if I am using too much weight or strength on them. It is normal in martial arts to have overly-courteous training partners who are looking out for your comfort and safety.
“I left my first session feeling a sense of empowerment that was like a placebo effect: The most exciting thing about self-defense class was that I was taking a self-defense class. It was hard to even pretend this stuff was useful when it was clear I was being treated as inferior in this controlled environment.”
While the author felt she was being treated as “inferior” in a controlled environment, she needs to understand it was her first class. Most martial arts academies will bring new students along slowly regardless of gender. When I work with new students, the coaches will focus on drilling 1 to 2 basic fundamentals while more experienced students are drilling 3 to 5 moves in flow sequences. You have to learn to crawl before you can even come close to walking. Martial arts is a long journey where even black belts are still learning to master their craft.
“I’m sure Sammy (the coach) knew a lot about the mechanics and physics of violent encounters, but I didn’t know if he knew what it felt like to be confronted by someone bigger and stronger than him.”
While Mankins sees the coach as a tough martial arts master, it was likely a long and humbling journey that in many cases started from being bullied, physically abused, or assaulted. Many great martial arts champions including Bas Rutten, Georges St. Pierre and Nick and Nate Diaz took up martial arts after being bullied or assaulted as children. This is why many students who eventually become instructors initially started training. Also, you won’t reach a high level of skill and technique without testing yourself against larger training partners and opponents. The author shouldn’t blindly assume the instructor can’t relate to being confronted by a bigger and stronger adversary.
“According to Leanne Brecklin, an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of Illinois, while self-defense training can help women who have been attacked, it’s far more helpful for them to enroll in classes designed just for women.”
If the author seriously committed to training KM or BJJ for 6 to 12 months, she would be at a stage where live sparring and rolling with both female and male training partners will be fun and beneficial. She will have techniques and skills in her tool box that she can practice against male training partners in a safe and controlled environment. If she trains exclusively with women, then how will she get to practice and simulate a situation where a larger and stronger male attacker is trying to attack her from her feet or on the ground? I have been submitted by numerous smaller female training partners who catch me in foot locks and other submissions. I wish I could say I was going easy, but that was not the case. My female BJJ training partners have gotten to that level of skill and confidence by continually testing their technique and skills against larger and stronger training partners.
“The following class wasn’t much better—there were just three women, me included, and our warmup stretching sessions was dominated by a discussion of sports scores during which the women were ignored. It felt like gender gentrification as the guys physically and socially forced me to relocate from where I was sitting on the Krav mat.”
Being the newcomer in class can be tough regardless of gender. Students have formed tight bonds and will talk about shared interests prior to class that can range from sports, tv shows, current events, etc. If the topics veers towards sports or Joe Rogan, it isn’t an attempt to alienate and ignore the female students in class. It is more a case of long-time friends having a conversation with each other to kill time.
“When Sammy put me in a group with two men, he bowed flamboyantly, and mockingly asked, “Would you kindly ask the young lady for this dance?” Maybe he was trying to be charming, but it came off as patronizing—as did my partners’ labored explanation of technique.”
I will say you will only be offended if you want to be offended. As far as her male partner’s labored explanation of techniques, martial arts is very technical. For beginners there will be major deficiencies in techniques and it is the small, labored details that will refine the techniques. For instance, throwing a punch requires proper placement of the feet, rotation of the hips and shoulders, while still keeping the hands up for defense. This takes months to develop. It is common for training partners, both male and female to critique each others’ techniques to make each other better.
“It’s not as blatant as, ‘Women are inferior.’ Instead, it’s more like, ‘Let me help you, little lady. Let me give you extra attention in this self-defense class.’ It’s protective and condescending where people keep positioning women as being unable to do anything. It’s not obvious to a lot of guys and it’s this thing that nobody seems to notice, but it’s there. It’s probably the most common form of sexism in 2015.”
I can’t speak for everyone. I will just say, beginners in martial arts, regardless of gender, will receive extra attention and instruction during class time and coaches will be more protective of the newcomers for the safety of all students in class. Learning martial arts is a life-long journey. There are no shortcuts and learning even the basic fundamentals can take years of training.