A thread in the r/relationship_advice subreddit has jiu-jitsu’s corner of the internet abuzz. The whole story can be read here, but the abbreviated version is this: a guy (who doesn’t train BJJ) and his girlfriend (who has trained BJJ for about five years) were play-wrestling. She put him in a “headlock” and applied the choke enough for him to tap out, at which point she released the choke. The man was upset at his girlfriend, and it seemed that the situation uncovered a deeper issue about him feeling “weak” and vulnerable in a situation that, had it been in a less playful context, could have rendered him injured or worse.
Both the “normal” online community and the BJJ community have weighed in on this quite a bit — the original post now has over 1.6k comments, with many of them offering vastly different perspectives. There’s a lot to unpack in the post, but the big takeaway from the responses is a reminder that the way we (as martial artists) see certain events far differently than The Rest Of The World.
My first reaction to the post, like many others in the BJJ community commenting on the related thread on the r/bjj subreddit, was that the boyfriend was being a bit ridiculous. They were playing around, and his girlfriend let go of the choke when he tapped, so what’s the big deal? From the way those comments were going, I thought, these people would probably advocate that both my partner and I call the cops on each other for the extent to which we take our “play-wrestling.”
But then, there’s the difference: my partner and I both train. We both know when we’re in trouble and when we can work our way out of a submission. We’ve both been choked and armbarred and heel hooked plenty, and so when our “play-wrestling” ends with one of us giving the other the middle finger from inside a triangle choke, it’s still fun.
Think about the first time you ever trained, though. For many people, going from “What is this person doing?” to “Oh sh*t, I can’t breathe” is at least a little bit scary. It exposes your vulnerability and fragility as a sentient pile of bones and flesh. It makes you realize that all it takes to effectively end your life or send you to the hospital is a little more knowledge than you currently have. For some people, that’s motivating. It makes us come back for a second class, then a third, and before you know it, hey, you do jiu-jitsu. For others, it’s terrifying. It’s not their thing. They never come back.
When we look at situations like this, we view them through a distorted lens. Most people don’t know what it’s like to be choked, certainly not from a position that made them feel unable to escape. We go through it so often that being unable to breathe feels almost as normal as actually breathing. If you’ve ever demonstrated a rear naked choke on someone (We all do that to our cousins after Thanksgiving dinner, right? Right?) and watched them freak out, though, you know that this is a weird sensation the first time it happens to someone. It’s probably why there are so many accounts of school bullies running away crying when their victim fights back with the jiu-jitsu they’ve learned. Even if the bully isn’t physically hurt, they’re likely very confused and very scared.
Basically, it’s easy to say “Don’t be a little b*tch” when you’re a few classes past your own “little b*tch” stage.
So what could’ve been done in the case of The BJJ Girlfriend vs. The Untrained Boyfriend to make the situation better for everyone involved? Did the girlfriend really do anything wrong? And what should someone do if they find themselves in the boyfriend’s position?
From a BJJ-based perspective, the girlfriend is in the clear because, simply, she respected the tap and didn’t hurt her partner. From a human-to-human perspective, though, she could’ve done better. Consent is important for situations like this, especially when things escalate beyond what’s “normal.” Just as you would hopefully have a chat with your partner before kinking up your sex life (even if leather and whips are normal for you), the girlfriend should’ve brought the topic up with her partner before introducing actual submissions into play-wrestling. Concepts like tapping out and not being able to breathe are normal for her, but not for her boyfriend.
When we walk into a gym, we’re immediately taught to tap out and respect the tap. The trust is established amongst ourselves and our teammates because it’s a part of that environment, but in this case, it clearly hadn’t been between the boyfriend and girlfriend. Having a quick chat about this before actually applying a choke would have likely saved them a lot of grief.
In that conversation about consent, the woman could’ve also shown her partner what a choke felt like, and maybe even shown him how to do it on her. The feeling would’ve been less alien to him, and the rush of emotions might have not been so strong. To be fair, the boyfriend seems like he has some underlying insecurities that need to be addressed, but that’s a whole other can of worm guards.
If someone you know has been in the boyfriend’s position of feeling helpless against a trained “opponent” (whether in a silly situation or a genuine moment of self-defense), they really only have two options: make peace with the fact that they don’t want to train and will continue to feel vulnerable in these situations, or start training. Neither option is wrong, and they both require different kinds of work. If they choose the latter, you can volunteer to go with them so they don’t feel so alone in a strange environment.
As you venture forth out into the “real world” from inside the gym, keep in mind that, for better or for worse, we’re weird. Most people don’t spend their time rolling around on the ground with a bunch of sweaty people for fun. If you want to spread the weirdness, by all means, try your best, but do it in a way that makes it a positive experience for everyone involved.