On the Problem of Sexual Harassment and Coercion in BJJ: Five Ways to Be Part of the Solution

On the Problem of Sexual Harassment and Coercion in BJJ: Five Ways to Be Part of the Solution

Question: I read Matt Kirtley’s article on the problem of sexual harassment and coercion in BJJ. One thing that struck me is how the harasser was able to avoid the notice of many of the other men. Do you have any specific thoughts on how the rest of us can do a better job of proactively noticing these patterns, so that we’re not just relying on someone to get creeped out enough to flag it for the coach?

Answer: Thank you for your question. The first thing you can do is what you already did: care enough to want to contribute to a solution to the problem, even though, as you indicate, you could probably remain unaware if you were so inclined. Matt’s article provides many suggestions on how people, in this case male teammates, can start to identify and eradicate abusive and threatening behavior. I strongly suggest you revisit the suggestions in it, and then consider the suggestions below as well. Note that the following are more about creating a respectful culture in your gym than they are about ferreting out specific creeps, but the two go hand in hand.

Read up: As you have implied, and as Matt describes in his article, it is easier for men to remain unaware of sexual harassment and coercion in a BJJ setting than women because they are not the likely targets. But women have a harder time letting their guards down, whether in BJJ or elsewhere, because they are constantly subjected to unwanted attention, appraisal, and even physical threats, often for the audacious act of trying to live their lives and mind their own business.

So, the first thing you can do to help stem the tide of sexual harassment and coercion is recognize how prevalent it is in general. Google “sexual assault statistics.” Google “sexual harassment statistics.” Click and read when stories like this one come across your feed. Or this one. Or this one. Or this one. Or this one. Or this one. Or this one (which I will admit infuriated me after I made myself read this one.) Ask a woman with whom you have a mutually trusting relationship about her experiences with sexual harassment and/or coercion. Chances are her answer will not be about whether she has experienced this, but rather how often and how recently.

Then you can Google “sexual harassment in BJJ” and “sexual assault in BJJ” to get specific about these behaviors when they occur in the BJJ world.

I am bringing up these examples to make us all feel uncomfortable. To drive home the point that this kind of thing happens all. The. Time. In order for us to eradicate this kind of behavior in our jiu-jitsu academies, we have to believe it is possible for it to happen there—not just those other academies that “you read about.” People we know are capable of this and other people we know have been subjected to this. It is a difficult thing to come to terms with, but if we are not willing to believe it, the conversation stops there, along with any opportunity to help.

So, read up, and be willing to investigate things that feel distressing. To do otherwise is to stick your head in the sand and leave the people who are not in a position to be able to ignore threatening behavior to deal with it alone. Our discomfort at becoming aware of sexual harassment and coercion in BJJ pales in comparison to what women must go through who have been subjected to it.

Be vigilant for things that are seemingly minor: Transgressions do not have to be “major” to have major consequences. Many men believe they are on the side of the good if they have never raped or attacked anyone. But coercion, disrespect, and predatory behavior do not have to rise to the level of rape or physical assault to be real and threatening, and men who consider themselves “good guys” may be responsible for more minor affronts. Here are a few experiences I have had and other women I know have had over the years in our interactions with men on the mat:

  • While choosing training partners: “I can’t roll with you. I’ll get a hard-on.”
  • While rolling: “My wife would be so pissed if she saw us in this position.”
  • In response to a seminar advertisement for a female practitioner: “What could a woman possibly teach me about jiu-jitsu?”
  • In between rounds: “You’re lucky you don’t have big tits. I don’t understand how women with huge racks can train.”
  • Male students/instructors trying to make sustained eye contact with female students during training, especially in the more suggestive positions (e.g., triangle, mount) and then smirking suggestively.
  • Male students/instructors making jokes while rolling along the lines of, “Why would I want to try to pass your guard?”
  • Male students/instructors refusing to take no for an answer when female students reject their social or romantic overtures.
  • Male students/instructors becoming disproportionately and inappropriately angry and defensive when called out for sexist comments or jokes.

Examine your language: Matt’s article indicates that any condoning of sexist/homophobic jokes and/or jokes about abuse and rape is a bright red flag. But different people have different ideas of what falls into these categories, and some well-meaning people may let words and phrases slide because they seem to be no big deal and “everybody says them.” However, just because something is ubiquitous, that does not automatically mean it is innocuous. Here are a few examples of words and phrases I have heard people use freely in front of me—and some of which I have used at times myself—that I would like to invite us all to examine and really think about:

  • “Like my wifebeater? It’s new.”
  • “Don’t be a pussy.”
  • “He’s got sand in his vagina.”
  • “He must be on the rag.’”
  • “Don’t get your panties in a wad, bro.”
  • “Dude, you’re gonna let a girl tap you out?”
  • “She’s a total butterface.”
  • “Did you see my tournament match? My opponent raped me for 10 minutes straight.”

To my mind, these comments are problematic because they disparage some aspect of being female, or they normalize beliefs about women that are detrimental to all of us. What kind of message does use of these words and phrases and others like them send to both men and women? The main one is that men do not want to be told they resemble women. If they do not want to resemble them, what does that do to their capacity to respect and empathize with them?

I am not the word police, and I know some people will chalk this up to me not having a sense of humor. Cool; let’s say I don’t. That does not negate the potential value of considering whether there is a connection between this kind of language and the seemingly endless parade of news stories like the ones linked above. I also invite you to think about how you would feel about being compared to a woman. Is there any resistance or defensiveness there? What about among the men you train with? If the answer is yes, commit to thinking about why. Finally, I invite you to consider how these and other comments might sound to someone who does not know you or your teammate well enough to know that “it’s just a joke.”

Do not take silence for assent: Gender scholar Deniz Kandiyoti coined the term patriarchal bargain, which refers to those times women may make concessions in a sexist system in order to thrive or even just survive. Women make them often. I have made them in order to be able to train. Oftentimes this translates into keeping my mouth shut if a man in my training environment uses some of the language described above (or something similar) or debating whether the benefit of asserting my right to be seen outweighs the cost of a man ignoring or talking over me.

Yes, I could call every man—and every woman, for that matter—on every sexist thing they say or do, but doing so would be a full-time job, especially when coupled with the work I must continue to do on myself in this regard. Not to mention the fact that then I might get a reputation as a troublemaker because “no one else has a problem with it.” If I want to maintain my access to good training, I must choose my battles and strategize about how to fight them.

If you hear or see something that does not look or feel right to you, act on it. I am willing to bet any woman in the scenario you are questioning just performed a lightning-fast calculation in her mind to weigh the factors in making this incident her hill to die on. If she decided in favor of letting it go, it is not necessarily because she is not affected by it. It could be because she does not feel safe saying anything or cannot find the words to explain why it was wrong or has even chalked up these kinds of occurrences to the cost of doing jiu-jitsu business. If you say something, it is more difficult for the men in question to chalk up the complaint to a woman being unreasonable or emotional.

Enact a code of ethics for your school: You know your school is great. You know you do not tolerate disrespect and lousy behavior, but there are some people who do not know this: would-be students/visitors, particularly women who have never trained at your academy, and would-be creeps, who may have pulled their creepy crap at other schools precisely because they know they can hide in the shadows and discount women’s experiences. Since I have traveled a lot to train, people regularly reach out to me to find out if I know of a safe place to train in X area. Oftentimes I do, but it would be easier for all of us who want to train while we are on the road but do not want to take our safety into our hands to do so to be able to identify those places that have made safety and respect a top priority.

One overarching thing you can do to let the world know that your academy is safe is to enact a code of ethics. Notice that “enact” is different from “write.” When you enact a code of ethics, you write it and then you LIVE it. You discuss your school in terms of it. You make it visible for everyone, and you refer to it when there are issues. Your school’s code of ethics does not have to be only about sexual harassment, of course, but you can put a big fat section in there about mutual respect and standards of interpersonal conduct. You can refer to it when you are welcoming strangers to your school to try out training for the first time.

Enacting a code of ethics will require three things that are important: Communication, collaboration, application. The communication comes in when you as an academy decide what kind of place you want to be and how you will inform the rest of the world about who you are, and who you are not. What do you stand for, and what do you stand against? What will the process be for enforcing your ethical code? What will be your process for enabling academy members to report violations of your ethical code or reporting them yourself? Answering these questions as a group, under the leadership of your instructors, could be a very informative and enlightening conversation. The collaboration comes in when you as an academy commit to the principles and beliefs you have written into a code of ethics for yourselves. The application comes when you find a way to ensure that every student understands and agrees to abide by and enforce this code of ethics, that it becomes one of the characteristics for which your academy is known.

This may not deter the most determined of creeps, but it will at least put them on notice, and it will let the rest of us know that if we have a problem, we will be supported.

We ALL have work to do to eradicate unacceptable behavior in BJJ and in the world. It is hard, uncomfortable work, because it forces us to look inward and at the people around us, maybe seeing things we would rather not. When patterns of behavior and expectations are deeply entrenched, it takes a lot of effort to change them, much like prying a rock out of the ground, but I believe the effort is worthwhile. I’m glad you do too. Thank you for your question.

Got other ideas about how to be part of the solution to the problem of sexual harassment and coercion in BJJ? Post your ideas to comments.

Valerie Worthington

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