Stop Assuming That Women Only Train Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu For Self-Defense

Photo Source: Giulliana Fonseca Photography

Jiu-jitsu is often touted as one of the best martial arts for self-defense, especially for women. As many poor unsuspecting waitresses and hair stylists I’ve encountered can tell you, I promote the concept of jiu-jitsu for self-defense relentlessly — I initially signed up after nearly being sexually assaulted, and it has since gotten me out of another sketchy situation. I teach the women’s “BJJ fundamentals for self-defense” class at my home academy. I really need to hammer home this fact that, yes, I really believe that if you’re a woman, learning jiu-jitsu gives you a major leg up in violent hand-to-hand encounters.

But sometimes, I really want all of us to shut up about it.

Not forever, of course. Just for, like, a few minutes. Just long enough so that we can also talk about the benefits that training jiu-jitsu for sport can offer women, or how it offers a ton of physical and mental health benefits. You know, all the reasons that men are encouraged to sign up.

The reason we need to shut up about BJJ for women’s self-defense is that people assume that it’s the only reason women should train, and they often take it upon themselves to impose that assumption on women in training. You hear it a lot from male practitioners who undoubtedly have great intentions, but bad execution: “Even though I’m 215 lbs, I still go 100 percent and put all my weight on my 115-lb female training partners. If she gets into a street fight and has to defend herself, her attacker isn’t going to go easy on her.”

Again, usually the guys who say this have their teammate’s best interests at heart. They don’t want her to get hurt, and they want her to be as prepared as possible, should the unthinkable occur. But imposing this assumption on their female training partners is rude at best and dangerous at worst. Regardless of your and your teammate’s respective genders, an experienced grappler should know how to control their weight and intensity to make practice rolls challenging and rewarding for both people involved. Smashing your lighter female training partner isn’t doing either of you any good, just as it wouldn’t do either of you any good if she were simply a lighter male training partner. Unless she specifically asks you to give it your all, all you’re giving her is a five-minute beatdown that puts her at risk for injury.

This approach is especially detrimental to the many women who train to compete. Not only do they now have to worry about their much larger partner injuring them and derailing their athletic careers, but they’re also rolling with (or rather, getting flattened by) someone who’s imposing upon her his own theory of why she should be there. Yes, we all roll with people who are nothing like the competitors we face at tournaments, and yes, we all roll with people who go a bit harder or “spazzier” than they should, but if someone feels that he has enough control over his body to alter his rolling style for self-defense scenarios, he should also have enough control to train with a smaller person in a way that benefits both of them.

The way that jiu-jitsu is marketed to women almost exclusively as a self-defense method is also alienating other groups of women who aren’t interested in the self-defense aspect. What about the women who want to pursue a competitive athletic endeavor? Or the women who want to get in shape or lose weight, but don’t like the options that a conventional gym has to offer? Or the women who just want to try something new or are looking for a stress reliever or just really like to watch UFC? These are all ways that BJJ is marketed to men, but you see it far less when academies try to recruit women. I’m not saying to stop promoting the self-defense aspect, because it’s clearly an effective way to get more women to sign up, but you have nothing to lose and everything to gain by promoting it in other ways as well.

Maybe it’s this assumption that helps lead to the virtually empty female brackets at tournaments as well. Unless you already have a solid female competition team in place, a lot of newer female students don’t even consider competing. Maybe it’s because they signed up for self-defense purposes and haven’t thought about other sources of motivation, or maybe it’s because their coaches and teammates didn’t suggest it because they assumed their female students wouldn’t be interested. It’s completely possible that a lot of women just don’t want to compete, but it’s also possible that they just haven’t been pushed to do it as much as their male teammates.

I’m not blind to the fact that many women do train jiu-jitsu for self-defense. And I think that’s wonderful. This sport was created with the intention of enabling smaller people to dominate larger, stronger opponents, and it’s been proven time and time again that it does work. But then, there are also plenty of men who train for self-defense purposes, and no one just assumes that that’s why they’re there. If you’re really that concerned about giving your female teammates exactly what they want or need out of their roll with you, just ask. Use all the other benefits of jiu-jitsu to persuade your female friends to come give it a try. Cater your advertising to women using self-defense as one of the reasons they should sign up, not the only reason. Regardless of how good your intentions are, it’s your actions that can help build a larger, more varied community of female grapplers that can achieve their own version of success through jiu-jitsu.


Featured photo by Giulliana Fonseca Photography


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