*Disclaimer: This article does not encompass the experience of every female in the BJJ community. There are many positives for the women in our sport. This article is instead an attempt to recognize areas of our culture that need healing. Some intense material is included within.
For me, this article is daunting. As a male, I dont feel well qualified in my attempt to portray the many unique issues women face in our sport. I have asked numerous women who have participated and competed in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu for their input regarding their challenges. I hope to be able to do justice to these wonderful people who have attempted to help me better understand what life on the mats is like for them. If something is poorly stated, or misunderstood, it is no fault of the women who have offered their stories, but the fault rests on me as the writer.
Whenever one demographic of people holds a majority, the minority demographics often suffer from inequities. In Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, women make a small portion of active practitioners and competitors. As such, they face a variety of challenges unique to them. I believe the most shocking I found as I asked and interviewed various female members of the sport was the level of sexual harassment they seem to face. This article will focus in on those issues specifically.
First of all, what is sexual harassment? It is defined by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission as, unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.
So just how common is sexual harassment among women in the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu community? Disturbingly common. Of all of the women who shared their stories, only a few didnt have a story of being sexually harassed by a teammate or coach. It doesnt mean all men harass women, but it does mean that its a big enough issue that all women have to worry about it.
How far does it go? It ranges from inappropriate joking, to rape, to victim blaming, to threats of sexual violence. One woman reported that she went to her car after a training session only to find someone had placed violent pornography on her windshield with a threatening note.
Another woman reported that a teammate, who had previously asked her on dates, intentionally put his hand up her shirt in an attempt to unhook her bra in the middle of a roll.
Even another woman stated to me that one teammate started to send sexual texts to her. He threatened her with rape if she wouldnt consent to intercourse with him. She reported it to her head coach and showed him the text messages. The head coach didnt want to kick the male out of the academy, because he had been friends with the man for years.
Too many other women to list here have also told stories of feeling extremely uncomfortable with comments made towards them by training partners. Others have reported inappropriate physical contact. Yes, there will be accidental touching at times, but that isnt what were talking about here. There is a difference between an accidental touch that comes with the nature of grappling and the overt groping these women have told me about.
Understand this: in no way is any of this the fault of these women. They are not responsible for males touching them, making lewd comments, or otherwise assaulting them. The fault lies solely with the men who perpetrate these actions.
Women are an incredibly important part of our Jiu-Jitsu community. They provide tremendous value to their individual gyms, and to the sport as a whole. Dont they deserve better?
Finally, what do we do about it? How do we make this sport safer for women? I would argue that the answer doesnt lie in teaching more anti-rape classes. The answer lies in teaching the men of the sport to be respectful of their female training partners. The answer lies in coaches creating a culture in their gym that is safe for women, and in letting their students know what is and what is not tolerable.
This isnt a call for special treatment. This is a call for respectful treatment; equitable behavior. Treat the women in your gym with respect. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is supposed to be for everyone. Unfortunately, it wont be until we, as men, step up our game and behave towards the women of the sport the way that we ought to.
Fear, discomfort, and other negative feelings should never be part of a persons Jiu-Jitsu experience.
In the next article, we will be discussing other unique issues to women in the sport as well as how to bring healing and create a more positive environment for all members our community.