The Call Is Coming From Inside The Gym

Image by Stefan Kuhn

How many women and girls would’ve gone their entire lives without being sexually assaulted if they hadn’t started jiu-jitsu?

This is a question that regularly keeps me up at night, and if you think I’m being dramatic, you’re not talking to enough women in BJJ.

The jiu-jitsu marketing geared toward women is overwhelmingly focused on the self-defense component. The easy way to sell jiu-jitsu memberships to women is to prey on their fear that the outside world is terrifying. Dangerous Men are waiting in bushes and parking garages and dark alleyways, and the only thing standing between you and Them is your knowledge of a triangle choke.

Of course, statistically speaking, strangers aren’t the ones who are most likely to abuse people. The Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) reports that “eight out of ten rapes are committed by someone known to the victim.” For juvenile victims, just 7 percent of perpetrators were strangers to their victim(s).

There are some jiu-jitsu programs geared toward self-defense that address this, focusing on, say, how to use jiu-jitsu to defend yourself in a car or using bedsheets. Even very basic gi jiu-jitsu teaches us how to choke someone unconscious using their jacket — a strategy that someone who hasn’t trained would likely not expect. Understanding how to use jiu-jitsu techniques to submit a person who would do us harm is what makes BJJ so empowering for so many women, and especially for those who have experienced abuse or assault. But that empowerment comes with the assumption that our attackers don’t know what they’re doing.

This past week has brought on a long-overdue reckoning for the jiu-jitsu community, with many people realizing for the first time what many others have known all along — sexual assault and harassment happens a lot within our own ranks. And not in an “every sport has a few rotten eggs” way, but… a lot.

Don’t just take my word for it, though — an individual who prefers to be known as “Valkyrie BJJ” (no affiliation to the academy in Wisconsin) conducted a survey titled Shut Up & Train last year that resulted in over 1,500 respondents from around the world sharing their experiences (or lack thereof) with sexual assault and harassment within the BJJ community. While only 17 percent of men who responded knew of someone who had been sexually harassed by someone within the BJJ community, 43 percent of women said that they knew someone who had been harassed. The vast majority (87 percent) of the targets of harassment were white or blue belts, and black belts made up 21 percent of the practitioners who reportedly perpetrated both harassment and assault. The rest of the survey results can be found here.

I’ve experienced my own fair share of harassment and creepiness from white to brown belt, even, at times, with my six-foot brown belt partner training in the same room with me. At least once a week, I get a message from some woman in jiu-jitsu telling me about her own experience with sexual assault from within the sport. When I publish articles about the topic, I accurately predict that I’ll get at least one such message per day for the following few days. This week, I’ve been inundated with horror stories. This, of course, doesn’t include what I stumble upon while browsing social media, even in quieter times.

These women walked into a jiu-jitsu gym for the first time anticipating empowerment, hoping to be able to take control of their own safety in a world that we know is unpredictable and dangerous. We know that our training isn’t a guaranteed key to get us out of danger, but we like to think that, if all we had to defend ourselves was our own flesh and bone, our time in the gym would give us a fighting chance.

But what happens when the person trying to hurt us also knows jiu-jitsu? What happens when they’re better at jiu-jitsu than we are? What happens when the “technique over size and strength” mantra we’ve heard repeated for so long is completely negated, when the person hurting us has more size and strength and technique and social influence than we do?

What happens when the sport that was supposed to empower us leaves us powerless?

The problem would be far less complicated if it were just a matter of having an occasional predatory black (or white, or blue, or purple, or brown) belt here and there. Every industry has a few bad apples, right?

We tend to forget the full phrase, though: “A few bad apples spoil the bunch.” And the problem is that the jiu-jitsu world has a habit of keeping the bad apples in with the good ones.

You can argue that this happens everywhere. People in power abuse people below them, and their powerful buddies protect them and enable the abuse. But again, look at how jiu-jitsu is marketed to women, because it works. Ask your female training partners why they started training, and a lot of them will tell you that it’s because they were abused or assaulted, or they’re scared of being abused or assaulted in the future. Many of these women are extremely vulnerable, and they walk into a gym and put their safety in the hands of a black belt — you know, those people who are revered in pop culture and within the martial arts community. A supposed paragon of wisdom and honor and goodness.

Many of us know by now that this is a load of nonsense. A black belt just indicates that you’re really, really good at your chosen martial art. But that doesn’t stop the cult mentality from running rampant in this sport. People aren’t just scared that they’ll get physically hurt if they criticize their coach or one of the “famous” grapplers out there — they’re scared that they’ll lose their favor, as though the disapproval of some guy unrecognizable to anyone outside of their own sport is the ultimate form of dishonor.

This is the double-edged sword of the closeness of the jiu-jitsu community. On one hand, it’s relatively easy to take seminars and photos with the top athletes of our discipline. Hell, the might even respond to us (us!) in an Instagram comment section. On the other hand, these surface-level interactions can be emotionally magnified, making the “commoners” of the jiu-jitsu world feel compelled to defend the honor of their favorite athletes under any and all circumstances.

When you scale this down, you see how it happens in local gyms, too. People are often very eager to defend their coaches and training partners even after credible accusations of abuse come up. Women and minorities will come forward with absolute horror stories, backed up by evidence, and what they’ll hear in reply is, “Well, he’s always been nice to me.” As if niceness was ever an indicator of kindness.

Over the past week, many people have become aware of what many other people have known for years: jiu-jitsu as a whole is not a safe space for women. Not the way it is now. Not with this hierarchy of complicity that has enablers defending perpetrators and supporters defending enablers. Not when so many women have horror stories from their time on the mats, of instructors allowing their attackers and harassers to train while the victims get kicked out of the gym to “avoid drama.” Not when, during a week when harassment and assault and enablement are finally overshadowing trash talk and petty drama, many of the biggest influencers of the sport are still silent (or, if we’re lucky, brave enough to say, “I don’t support sexual assault”).

There are pockets of safety within the community, and they are growing along with the sport itself. Oftentimes, these safer spaces are the result of others’ own negative experiences within their former gyms, creating the environment they want to see in the jiu-jitsu world. But right now, the chances that a day-one white belt will end up in one of these gyms is like playing a game of Russian roulette with more than one bullet in the cylinder.

I ask again: How many women and girls would’ve gone their entire lives without being sexually assaulted if they hadn’t started jiu-jitsu? And how are we going to change that? What is it going to take for us to look critically at the sport we love and the people we admire and make it clear that bad apples need to be discarded the moment the rot starts to show? At what point are we going to recognize that being trained in an art of violence is a privilege, not a right?

There has never been a better time to ask these questions of yourself, your teammates, and the wider community. Continue the dialogue and take steps to be better and do better. Call out the BS where you see it, and put pressure on people in power to take action. Speak up with your wallet, and have the courage to walk away from people and academies when they let you or others down.

The “gentle art” has been too gentle on abusers and enablers for far too long. It’s time to make them tap to pressure.


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