Gender and Jiu Jitsu: Helping Men Understand Newbie Women
You may have noticed I’m on a kick about how we as grapplers can better understand each other: the perspectives we need to know about one another so we can hear and feel heard. In short, I’m preoccupied with how boys and girls can play nicely with each other, not just tolerating one another, but actively deriving benefit, such that they come to prefer to have access to both the male and the female perspective. I firmly believe we all, regardless of plumbing type, have a responsibility to know ourselves and to learn to communicate our needs and boundaries to one another. Further, we have a responsibility to respect others’ needs and boundaries, striking a balance between what we want, what others want, and what’s good for our community and the world. It requires constant effort and monitoring, like staying upright on a Swiss ball. It’s difficult. And it’s worth it.
This understanding kick is, probably unsurprisingly, inspired by the events in our community of the past few months, but the issues are timeless, and they are important far beyond the grappling world. But how do we make the “aha” moments happen? Well, sometimes we have to be willing to share and hear things it would be easier not to talk about.
Let’s begin with a little potentially revelatory information for the menfolk. Make no mistake: there’s plenty we ladies need to understand. We just have to put a stake somewhere in the ground, so let’s turn convention on its ear and start with gents first. At Women’s Grappling Camp/Groundswell Grappling Concepts, we are huge fans of Gavin de Becker and his seminal book The Gift of Fear and Other Survival Signals that Protect Us from Violence. Heck, lots of people around Breaking Muscle are big fans too, and with good reason. I strongly encourage any men out there who want to understand how better to co-exist with and enhance the experience of women in BJJ or in life to pick up a copy, hard or electronic.
Or, if you don’t want to read it, just process this one observation from de Becker (which he shares with Oprah Winfrey at 0:35 of this video): “Men, at core, are afraid that women will laugh at them. And women, at core, are afraid that men will kill them.”
Read it again.
The men reading this may not want to think the above statement applies to them, and to the women who know them, that’s probably true. But to any woman who encounters even a kind, upstanding man late at night on a deserted street, for instance, it likely does. We can’t tell that he’s kind and upstanding. For all we know, he may be one of the predators de Becker describes in his book. And we must err on the side of caution - our lives may depend on it.
Now, this is not to say all women believe all men are dirtbags. And maybe not all women are quite this afraid. But as a rule, women have to be far more aware of what men are doing and planning, and where and when and why, than men have to be of what women are doing and planning. We have to spend more time being vigilant. Reading into a man’s motives, even when it just seems like he’s being friendly on a bus or in an elevator. We have to make men earn trust.
And that’s just in normal interpersonal interactions. Move this dynamic inside the personal “safety bubble,” where physical domination is the overt goal, and perhaps it’s not surprising a woman might feel skittish at first. When they first start training, women are far more likely to be dominated than to dominate, finding themselves immobilized in vulnerable positions - and having to take a partner’s word, or the word of the coach, both of whom are probably basically strangers, that this is appropriate and safe, despite the fact alarm bells might be going off.
I’m hoping this context might help some men understand a bit more what it could be like for a woman to come into a testosterone-laden grappling academy where they are almost certain to be placed in physical situations they would normally avoid at all costs. Particularly if that woman has been assaulted in some way (some women come to jiu jitsu for self-defense purposes), she could be mustering every last ounce of courage just to get inside the door. I’m not saying the more experienced men at the academy have to be her best friend, but if they are kind to her and work with her every now and then, who knows what she might end up having to share about bravery? Remember, in jiu jitsu we subscribe to the mindset that we can learn something from anyone. At least, that’s part of the implication of leaving our egos at the door.
Yes, sooner or later the new female student will have to “woman up” and get used to the expectations of a very physical sport, something I’ll cover in more detail elsewhere. But just like with any complex knowledge domain, that can take time, and it helps to have support. And if any readers - male or female - are still hesitant about helping the new woman because they’re concerned it will cut into their own training time, keep this in mind: Want to know who was kind of annoying to have to train with back when they first started?
EVERYONE. (Including you. And me.)
But enough people did train with the annoying new people to get us to where we are today. And, if we’re lucky, people will continue to help us going forward. Training with the new chick every now and then won’t kill anyone. And it will confer some good karma. Yes, there is a very good chance she won’t last. There’s a very good chance most of the new people won’t last, as I’ve discussed elsewhere. But what if she’s one of the few who does? You were.
Of course, this is just the tip of the iceberg regarding how men and women might be able to understand each other, and I’m hoping people will not just read, but think and talk and start to come up with their own questions and concerns so we can do more work. To start, if you are a man reading this, see if you can imagine how your perspective on the world might be different if you were concerned about your physical safety pretty much all the time - and how that might affect your orientation to jiu jitsu. Start to pay attention to how a grappling academy might look and feel to someone who is more physically vulnerable than you, and, if you can, maybe start to appreciate just a bit how ballsy (deliberate word choice) that timid, awkward-seeming woman really is, given what she has to face. And if you are a woman reading this, imagine how this revelation might affect the way a decent man would feel about training with you and what you might need to communicate to make sure you both get the training you want.
Watch this space for more about what (I believe) women can do to contribute to mutual understanding and respect.
Photos 2 & 3 courtesy of Shutterstock.