There are so many reasons we are all drawn to BJJ. Not only is it an individual martial art that allows us to evolve, there is a sense of belonging and being a part of a team. There are physical and mental strengths we gain and an emotional support we find through our involvement. BJJ can often fill that void that so many of us have. There is a level of intimacy and trust in BJJ that you don’t have with others in your day to day lives outside of maybe our family and loved ones.
Studies have shown that we as humans need touch from others to survive. Years ago there was a controversial study with groups of babies that were all provided with the same basic human needs including food and water. The only varying factor was the level of human touch they received. Tragically the babies that were completely deprived of any touch ended up dying. So maybe perhaps it is just the chemical reaction in our brains that BJJ triggers which makes those bonds even stronger, regardless it is something that we all crave.
We put our trust in the hands of our teammates and instructors every day we step on the mats. For a lot of women, especially those who have had that trust violated through sexual and physical abuse, the willingness to letting someone into their personal space is a hard hurdle to overcome. I have worked with several women who struggled with this. For some even though they desire to heal and find an outlet for empowerment, BJJ just wasn’t for them. Then there have been some that I know that were able to use BJJ as their tool and found unimaginable strength.
In a lot of ways we are putting our lives in each other’s hands each time we train. Let’s get real. This is a combative sport and there are real dangers involved in training. Initially having that trust in others is something that is not easy for both men and women alike. Very few people are comfortable with allowing themselves to be vulnerable.
How often do we willing put ourselves in a bad situation that could very easily result in extreme harm? This goes against every urge of self-preservation that we have, but it is because of that trust that we build over time with our training partners that we are able to let go and freely enjoy the martial art. Jiu-Jitsu culture also teaches us that the trust and love we have for each other extends beyond the mats. How often do you hear “we are a family”. As warm and fuzzy as this may make us feel, sometimes this sense of loyalty can led us blindly. I think that we forget that our instructors and teammates are capable of human error. We like to think that everyone that is drawn to BJJ is a “good person” or has “good” intentions, but that logic isn’t fool proof. Not to say that you shouldn’t trust your instructor or teammates, but I think that we need to remember that they are people too.
For instance let’s go back in time to the year 2013 when a female student of Lloyd Irvin’s team was out celebrating the New Year with some teammates only to later find herself left alone raped and thrown away like a party favor in a parking garage. All of this was caught on video which was available to the public. It was horrifying to watch and everyone that did watch it clearly knew there was no way this was consensual. Yet somehow the alleged were acquitted of all criminal charges. We were dumbfounded. HOW COULD THIS HAVE HAPPENED?! How could two teammates do this to a fellow teammate?! It should have been a clean cut case. The whole thing was caught on video! How are these men let go to walk free and do it again?
So why do I bring up this sad and tragic tale? Because if anything it should serve as a reminder that even though we are taught that our teammates are our brothers and sisters, not everyone in BJJ is GOOD. Hard to believe, right? Well I don’t think that for many of us, I included, ever thought about the probability of this happening, but we can’t take back the fact that it did and it could again.
Then there was an instance earlier this year, a woman who was severely roughed up by her instructor in class to the point where she had to be hospitalized. Yes her instructor! And in class! Prior to this occurrence, this instructor had been repeatedly harassing this student calling her racial slurs. When she went public about the incident, the harassment didn’t stop. Instead it got worse. Her instructor continued to publicly taunt and heckle her. He intimidated and threatened further physical harm. Fearing her safety she decided not to file charges and wanted to put this behind her and move on her life. Perhaps the worst part was no one at her academy backed her up. People that she thought were her friends, really weren’t and because of the experiences she is very selective about who she decides to trust or even let get near her.
I don’t bring up these examples with the intention to start to deter women from starting BJJ or to bring fear to your lives. Nor do I ever want to inhibit you from creating life long bonds with your teammates and instructors. I can’t tell you how much I value my BJJ family. They are the only family I have in Austin and I love them very much. But the reality is two young ladies lives will never be the same because of these predators. These two examples serve as a reminder that not all of the predators that we train to protect ourselves against in BJJ are “out there”.
The sad truth is that most rapes are committed by someone we know. We live in a false sense of reality where we think the only predators are lurking in a dark alley or a parking lot waiting for us. We forget that they could be right next to us the whole time. Who wants to think that someone you trust could violate you? I know I don’t. But it is the horrible reality of things in our society. This is something that we all must work toward changing.
Unfortunately there is no official entity policing academies or enforcing any sort of policies as to who is hired and how they operate their business. Most academies don’t do background checks or even check references on their instructors and staff. How many times have you heard of “fake black belts” being hired to teach? I’ve even heard of convicted pedophiles teaching kids. In the case of the abusive instructor that beat up his female student, he apparently had a known history of abuse yet the gym owner still choose to hire him because he was a fourth degree black belt from Brazil.
As for Lloyd Irvin, as the case unfolded with his students so did the torrid background of Lloyd. Apparently when Lloyd was a college student he too was prosecuted for rape. However even though he admitted to attempting to rape a girl along with several other of men, he too was acquitted because he couldn’t get “it” up, so he got off. As a result of these scandals surrounding the team several high profile black belts and affiliations left. However, many academy owners well aware of the circumstances were so enticed by Irvin marketing program and the promise of fortunes that that they willing aligned forces and became affiliations even in the middle of the scandal.
I think for a lot of us we don’t think about these factors and assume that a business is practicing in the best interest of its members. But how do we know if they are or if they are not? Shouldn’t an owner be held responsible for the credibility of their business and the employees they hire? Who should be held responsible when someone gets hurt as a consequence of their decisions to employ a known abuser, pedophiles or rapist? What if they are aware of events leading up to a student bringing harm to another student and they do nothing about it? Who is liable?
As we all know, the first rule of any self-defense is to pay attention to your surrounds and avoid bad situations. Not all can be avoided, but make wise choices like not walking down a dark alley by yourself. The same should apply in your academy. If you are being harassed by a teammate or instructor don’t tolerate the abuse and mistreatment. Do not sit quietly and let this happen or justify their behavior. Use your most powerful tool, your voice. Tell your instructor, gym owner, any one of authority in that facility. Make the situation be know. Don’t be afraid to report incidents. For those that witness this sort of behavior we have a responsibility to stand up and speak out.
If you report an incident and they choose not to do anything about it or if they blame you, then you don’t need to be there. Their reaction speaks for the type of culture that academy fosters. They do not have your best interest at heart. It is time to go! If the incident involves physical or sexual abuse report the incident to the police and consult legal aid.
Ultimately we are all responsible for our own safety and well-being. No matter how tight knit our BJJ family is, don’t let that deter you from self-preservation. Surround yourself with good positive people that have your best interest at heart and never ever put up with harassment. You deserve better. We do BJJ to enrich our lives and feel empowered. Do not stay in a bad situation hoping it will get better. Don’t stick around and find out what could happen next.
Girls in Gis staff writer
Shama Ko is a brown belt with Gracie Humaita out of Austin, TX. She has been a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu practitioner since November of 2003. She is a photographer, writer, community organizer and activist. She heads the Girls in Gis organization or as she calls it the “movement”. She describes herself as both a lover and a fighter. She loves to laugh and not take life too seriously.