I discussed in my last post that there may be historical reasons for the disparity between the number of male and female practitioners of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. However, I don’t think the sexist attitudes of the early pioneers of BJJ are solely responsible for the scarcity of women in the sport. In this post, I’ll discuss some attitudes and behaviors (of both male and female practitioners) that I’ve encountered in my several years of training that likely also contribute. In one way or another, all of these experiences trace back to the stereotypical “women can’t/shouldn’t fight” attitude.
This first experience is something I’ve encountered many times – and although I describe a situation that occurred during a kids BJJ class, I’ve seen similar attitudes in adult classes as well. A few weeks ago during a children’s BJJ lesson, the students were preparing for the sparring component of the class. When the children were told to shake hands and begin sparring, I noticed that one boy was refusing to spar with his partner, and instead was intent on watching two girls spar. When instructed to focus on his own sparring session, the boy replied “No, I want to watch this. It’s hilarious when girls try to fight.” This, of course, was coming from a boy who was approximately the same size, strength, and skill level as both of the female students he was watching.
This particular student hasn’t competed yet, though I think if/when he does, he’ll have an eye-opening experience. Since young boys and girls compete in the same divisions in most BJJ tournaments, I’ve seen lots of boys walk off the mats crying after being easily handled by their female opponents. One of the head no-gi instructors at our academy has a young daughter that competes regularly, and I can’t remember the last time she didn’t take home a gold medal. Needless to say, I doubt that any of her male opponents still think “it’s hilarious when girls try to fight,” since most of them came away from the match with a loss.
Disappointingly, I sometimes hear male practitioners refer to other male students as “ladies” or “women” jokingly during class, in an effort to encourage them to work harder (e.g. “come on ladies, you can do better than that!”). It’s a seemingly innocuous expression coming from well-intentioned men. While the expression doesn’t offend me personally (having had the accusation leveled at me before), I wonder how female onlookers (or worse, female students) feel about being compared to unmotivated, weak, or inattentive men. Furthermore, comments such as these, however well-intentioned they may be, only serve to reinforce harmful stereotypes in impressionable students. For example, I know I’ve heard younger students and kids called “ladies” in jest, even when other female students were in the room. I doubt that these types of comments are entirely responsible for the attitudes of the boy in my first story above, but they certainly can’t help.
Finally, and perhaps most frustrating of all, I’ve encountered several male practitioners who are not opposed to female participation in BJJ, yet refuse to train with women themselves. I’ve had several men tell me that they are completely fine with training alongside female students, but would never actually roll with them. In some cases, men have told me that grappling with women would make them uncomfortable – almost always due to anatomical differences between the sexes. Some men have told me that their wives or girlfriends would be jealous if they knew they were “rolling around on the ground with other women.” For example, guard passes that require placing a head on an opponent’s chest would be out of the question when training with a woman.
From my perspective, this is no different than the claim that “Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is gay because you are rolling around on the floor with other guys.” This attitude is so immature it barely deserves addressing. Nevertheless, apparently it needs to be spelled out: there is nothing remotely sexual about training to break people’s joints in self defense situations. When you see stars after getting caught in a neck crank, I can promise you that sexual thoughts about your training partner will be the last thing on your mind.
Ideally, we could chalk these types of concerns up to immaturity, say “good riddance,” and find other willing training partners for women interested in training. However, even as a man I sometimes have a hard time finding willing training partners – especially when I want to gain experience against a variety of body types. Having large class sizes is a luxury not enjoyed by BJJ schools in many areas of the country, and further limiting the training of a particular group of students due to juvenile uncomfortability with the opposite sex is just a shame.