If you participate in any of female grappling groups on social media, you’ve no doubt seen the stories about coaches or teammates who have been accused of inappropriate behavior, domestic violence and/or sexual assault. While many of these posts have to be labeled with the word alleged, it’s no secret that these situations do occur and that is understandably frightening for many of us. With the momentum of the #MeToo movement, jiu jitsu has seen its own surge of women coming forward and bravely sharing.
Whether women have experienced this trauma within their gyms or in other parts of their lives, it is important for all of us as teammates to understand how to best support them. Chances are pretty high that if you haven’t been affected by domestic violence or sexual assault directly, someone you train with has. Here are some things to consider when seeking to support your jiu jitsu friends who are recovering from these types of violence.
They are the experts of their story.
When someone confides in you about a trauma of intimate partner violence or sexual assault, the best thing you can do is listen without judgement. It is not your job to investigate. It is not your job to give suggestions without being asked. Listening and empathizing is often more powerful than we realize.
Help them find resources (if they give you permission).
It would be amazing if every jiu jitsu gym had the sexual assault and domestic violence hotline numbers listed in locations like lobbies or even in restrooms. Offer to make the call with them if they feel safe enough. Adults have the right to refuse help, but children are another story.
Depending on what state you are in, you may be considered a mandated reporter. This means that if a child or teen discloses to you that they are being abused in any way, you must report this to your designated child welfare agency. In the state of Oklahoma for example, ALL ADULTS (regardless of career) are considered mandated reporters when it comes to children experiencing abuse.
Foster a culture of safety and respect.
In this sport, survivors of sexual assault or domestic violence may often find themselves in physical positions that become triggering for elements of panic, fear, and anxiety. If your partner has disclosed a trauma history to you and suddenly backs out of the drill or wants to sit out, give her the space to do so without judgement. Understand that if someone turns down a roll, it may be about that trauma history and not ego. Promoting the idea that people can turn down a roll whenever they feel the need to gives the power back to survivors who may not have had that kind of autonomy over their bodies when they were in an abusive situation. Being allowed to say no without fear of judgement is so important to this kind of healing.
Gym Leadership and Safety Policies.
While it would be ideal if every person who trained jiu jitsu had a background check prior to enrolling at a gym, this just isn’t possible for many businesses. That said, getting to know who you are training with is another critical way that coaches can keep an eye on potential problems before they start. If members are speaking inappropriately about other members, call the behavior out and make it known that this is not tolerated in your gym. Demeaning words are often the first steps into dehumanization and abuse. You have the unique ability to set the tone for what behavior is acceptable in the culture that grows out of your gym. Please take this responsibility seriously.
The amazing thing about Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is that it offers so many healing concepts to people who have been hurting from so many different things. A woman who was once trapped in the web of shame and intimidation can grow beautiful confidence from training in this sport. A woman who may have suffered in isolation can find a dependable community of good-hearted people who just want to get better at something, together. Let’s continue to support one another and be a life-giving community for people on a journey of healing.
The National Sexual Assault Hotline: 800-656-HOPE (4673)
The National Domestic Violence Hotline: 800-799- SAFE (7233)
RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network): https://www.rainn.org
Next Step Domestic Violence Project: https://www.nextstepdvproject.org/home
Danielle is a blue belt at National Martial Arts in Norman, Oklahoma. She is a veteran, military spouse and social worker. Jiu Jitsu has brought her the best friendships. When she’s not training, you can find her spending time with her family. She hopes to one day start a non-profit program using BJJ to help people work through the effects of trauma.