Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Women in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu: A Guide for Dudes

My fiancee and two my favorite female jiu-jiteiros striking a fighter pose
with a knight at the Pittsburgh Renaissance Festival.
I apologize for my absence. I've been working on some big projects, which you can hear more about by listening to my interview with Inside BJJ.

For much of my career, I have given little thought to women in jiu-jitsu. I trained with female jiu-jiteiros at home and abroad, and I read interviews with talented female competitors and watched instructionals featuring gifted female instructors, but I never paid much attention to the challenges that they faced. My thought process stopped at, "Oh, it must be kind of awkward to be a female in a male dominated sport like jiu-jitsu--Oh, sweet. A new armbar video."

Recent months have changed my perspective dramatically, and now something seems very clear to me: Jiu-jiteiros everywhere, we have a problem, and that problem is how we treat the women in our sport.

Emily Kwok working with Stephan Kesting on their
collaborative DVD set, a unique resource for the
BJJ community. http://emilykwok.com/
When news broke of the alleged assault and rape of a female Lloyd Irvin student by two high-ranking Team Irvin competitors, the sane among us immediately denounced this behavior as contradicting the spirit of jiu-jitsu, an art designed for the weak to protect themselves in the face of the strong. As jiu-jiteiros, we all seemed to agree that we had a responsibility to maintain a certain standard in our community. The mat should be a sanctuary, a place where we can trust our training partners and grow together, and any individual that soils that sanctity has no place in our community.

It's very easy to say that rape and violence are wrong, so easy in fact that we miss the many small battles that can make jiu-jitsu a welcoming community for everyone.

A recent article from Pedro Sauer black belt Keith Owen titled "Can Women Really Handle BJJ?" stirred up great deal of controversy and highlighted just how far we are from having a sport that is truly open to women. Owen, according to his Facebook, maintains that the article was designed to motivate women to stick it out, but the ensuing comments (around the internet) reveal that many jiu-jiteiros have no idea how hard it is to be a woman in this sport.

Disclaimer: I am a dude (just double-checked) that teaches and trains with women. I can't pretend to know what it's like to be a female jiu-jiteiro, but as an instructor I can relay the lessons that I have learned from the women in my mat life.

If you are a male jiu-jiteiro, some things that you should remember:
Valerie Worthington is quickly becoming a thought
leader in our sport. Visit her blog to see why:
  • You have a responsibility to maintain a positive community standard for jiu-jitsu, both in your gym and at large.
  • Men that are nice and respectful to other men are not always nice and respectful to women. A training partner that you know and trust could be a closet creeper.
  • Any degree of creeper behavior directed toward any student should not be tolerated. If "that guy" insists on drilling with one of your female training partners, address your concern with your instructor immediately.
  • Women can handle jiu-jitsu just as well as a man when they are given the chance. See the examples of Kyra, Worthington, Staack, Kyra, Kwok, Dern, and Rousey.
  • New female students not only face the challenge of jiu-jitsu but also face the challenge of centuries of gender stereotypes, so be patient. For example, a young boy may pick up grappling faster (initially) because he was encouraged to wrestle and play contact sports from birth, while a young girl may struggle (initially) with the coordination that grappling requires because she may not have ever been encouraged to pursue athletics.
  • A small women's program is not indicative of a failing women's program. In many parts of the U.S., women's BJJ is a relatively new community within our community. It is growing rapidly, and it should be nurtured so that we can benefit from additional perspectives on our art.
  • Provided that you live by the tried-and-true motto of "don't be a douche," you should not train with female jiu-jiteiros any differently from male jiu-jiteiros. Adjust your approach to rolling by experience and by size, just as you would (or should) with a male jiu-jiteiro.
  • Your gym should not be a frat house. Making fun of someone for getting beat up by a girl or making sexist/discriminatory remarks is not conducive to a positive training environment.
I make these points because I know, firsthand, that many men in our sport are by accident or through willful ignorance failing to make jiu-jitsu accessible and welcoming to women. We can fix this, and our sport will be better for it.


  1. Great article, Marshal! The way I like to think about it to is to treat your female training partner like you would treat a sister - because essentially, that is what she is.

    1. I agree entirely, Dan. It doesn't have to be as complicated as some people make it.

  2. Great article Marshal. The number 1 rule in all BJJ is RESPECT.

  3. Thank you for writing this incredibly thoughtful article. I think attitudes are beginning to change with regards to women in the sport because people are starting to take the time to think about us - we're not going away! lol. I personally appreciate your voice and hope that many more will echo it.
    -Emily kwok

  4. Thank you, Emily. Your compliments mean a great deal to me.

  5. So am I supposed to treat them like everyone else, or assume every new female is a delicate flower for whom everything is exponentially more difficult and will quit at a moment's notice? Contradictory advice here.

    1. Where did I say that they are delicate flowers and that they will quit at a moment's notice?

      I said that we should be aware that female students will in many cases like the combat background that many male students will have, which touches upon the point of training with them in such a way that is appropriate to their skill level. If they are really new, our approach is different. If they are experienced, our approach is different. If they are much smaller than we are, our approach is different.

      Which is what we do with male students as well.

      Unless you are referring to something else, please share. I am happy to clarify my meaning for you.

    2. Um...where exactly did he say any such thing? There was no contradictory advice...he said to treat your female teammates like anyone else, and to adjust for size/strength/experience level like you would for any shorter/lighter/less experienced male partner, and to - in some cases - give less athletic women a chance to catch up when they start out. That doesn't apply to all women, and it does apply to plenty of men too. But there's no contradiction. Just be a good teammate and training partner. To everyone. And give a little leeway to beginners since different people learn at different paces.

      Marshal, nice article! I don't necessarily agree with the above point about girls picking up the sport slower than guys but I've been involved in numerous sports since the age of 5 and most of the women I've seen in jiu jitsu are very athletic, so I guess I'm just not personally familiar with such a scenario. Other than that though, I think this is a really good post.

    3. Hi Reese, I don't think that they pick it up slower. I just think in *some* cases a new female student may come in with less of a foundation than a male student. Some cases. Not all. Just some.

  6. this is amazing, hits it right on point.

  7. I'd be interested then to hear, based on above comments, your take on the comments that took offense to Keith Owen's post. Is it just sensitivity, a rush to find something to get angry with? I feel like he gave an accurate account of his experiences in training women, but many commenters just seemed to take a line or two out of context and reframe it to fit their argument.


    1. I found the following lines to be sexist:

      "The problem is that they never seem to stick."

      "The ladies always stay for a short time but they ultimately quit. Some of them have gotten pregnant (from their husbands or boyfriends), some move and some just find out, just like the men that it’s very hard to do Jiu-Jitsu (even though my class is very technical) and they simply quit."

      "It then makes me want to do a male only class because we don’t want to waste time on someone who is just going to quit even though we are excited to have her and we try to take care of her and make her feel welcome."

      "My male students are usually married and take a bit of a risk with their spouses by wrestling around with the opposite sex."

      "But I always seem to accept women into the fold and try to do my best hoping that they will be the kind of person that can handle the challenge of Jiu-Jitsu."

      'I’m to the point now where I just say “I will do my best to take care of you and make your experience a safe one while you’re here but you need to look internally to see if you can handle wrestling with men.”'

      "If you are a women and you get a purple belt or above in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu then I want you to know that you are a very special and awesome person because you have the intestinal fortitude to be able to stick with something that’s difficult for many stronger men let alone a women."

      Most of these lines pretty clearly suggest that women are somehow inferior to men on the mat, especially the last one.

    2. I think we just disagree. I think he's doing his best to come across as someone who would like nothing more than to have female practitioners coming through the doors and he's basing his statements from real-life interactions.

      I think some are accusing him of painting with too broad a brush, but if these are his experiences within his academy, I don't understand why he can't characterize them as such. He sounds frustrated if anything. I think the title put a lot of people off and got them primed for defense-mode.

      The only line I can take issue with is when he says he always seems to accept them into the fold, as if he's doing them a favor. Maybe I'm going against popular opinion, but to me it comes off as a guy who embraces the idea of female jiu-jiteiros and wants more, if for no other reason than to temper the alpha-male mentality that some academies (maybe including his?) can sometimes foster.

      Questioning the "stick-to-it-ivness" of females is dangerous waters, I concede..but from where I am, the worst offense he looks to be guilty of is not forming his concerns eloquently enough to guard from ire that has followed.

      I feel like it's kind of similar when my fiance and I argue sometimes. My logic and intent is there, but one verbal misstep and before I know it, the fight is 500 yards down the road and on a completely different topic. I think female jitz players are some of the nicest and inspiring figures I've met since I began this journey, and I also think that saying something may be harder for someone isn't generalizing THAT population for being weaker, but rather as point of praise and kudos for those who persevere and have the stick-to-it-ivness...maybe I'm being overly-positive?

    3. I tried to give his presentation the benefit of the doubt, but it was very difficult because of the lines that I highlighted previously. I see only one way to take this line:

      "If you are a women and you get a purple belt or above in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu then I want you to know that you are a very special and awesome person because you have the intestinal fortitude to be able to stick with something that’s difficult for many stronger men let alone a women."

      It seems pretty cut and dry to me.

      As for his experiences within his academy, I don't think anyone was arguing that he was basing his perceptions on anything else. The problem most people seemed to have was that he took a "most women just aren't tough enough" approach to the problem rather than a "what could I be doing better?" approach. Those mindsets are very different. He seems to suggest that his gym is the perfect environment (saying something to the effect of, if a women can get a black belt, it's from me), so therefore women just need to toughen up.

      As for how well women "stick" with the sport, that's an unfair conversation to have without some hard data to start from. Based on my experience in jiu-jitsu, I know that the dropout rate for the sport is incredibly high. I wouldn't be surprised if it was upwards of 80% per belt rank. From what I gather (and this is the point that most commentators make), women are probably dropping out of jiu-jitsu at the same rate as men.

      If for some reason women are more likely to quit then to men (which I doubt is the case), we should then start talking about their experience with jiu-jitsu. It's no secret that female grapplers are often subject to harassment on the mat and may not be welcomed as readily as a male grappler. The conversation, as Keith seemed suggest, should not shift to: are women just not tough enough for jiu-jitsu?

    4. It just seems to me that the reason for this article was to begin a meaningful dialog, not to draw vitriol or ruffle feathers. As you pointed out, females practicing BJJ is still a growing community, and I'm very thankful for my training partners (I often watch the women practice the drill if I'm not sure of a sequence of movements, their technique and grace help me understand complex movements).

      Just seems to me he posted this because, again, women in BJJ is still developing, and because when you might only have 3-4 women per class as opposed to 20-30+ males, the attrition is just more VISIBLE. I know I've wondered what's happened to a few guys that used to come, but there's so many that you barely notice. But being that the female population at most any academy is already low, when one or two stop showing up, for any reason, their absence is glaring and much more noticeable. I think that is more the impetus for this post in the first place.

    5. I can't speak to the intent of the article, but the presentation of the article was not such to suggest that a dialog was the desired outcome. He posed no questions, suggested no direct uncertainty in his opinions, and did not consult experts in this area (female black belts that teach and run gyms). Also, as stated before, he took the stance of "there must be something wrong with women" rather than "what can I do better?" which also implies a disinterest in dialog.

    6. Here is my reaction to your article. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IrqFqdTG0cA -Keith Owen

  8. Great article Marshal, and even more so, I agree with your comments and exchanges with Ronatellobjj. Thanks for getting it :)

  9. This article is awesome. A delight to read! I am a woman in BJJ and there are so many things that need to be brought to light and a push needs to made to get more women in this sport!