Male privilege in jiu jitsu is something that I started thinking about a few months ago. First, there was an argument on my Facebook page, where guys were arguing against womens-only jiu jitsu classes, and second was the article written by Keith Owen, where he said “It then makes me want to do a  male only class.” I felt angry and flustered but couldn’t exactly put my finger on why it was so upsetting that men were playing devils advocate and saying there was nothing wrong with men’s only classes. Then it hit me. It really came down to privilege, and the men who were arguing these points were unaware of that privilege that they were exerting it carelessly. I went about researching it, and it’s more than I can say in a single article, so I will be untangling this snarled knot in a few articles.

My goal in writing these is to raise awareness about male privilege in jiu jitsu. Yes, learning about privilege makes you responsible for it. Yes, it makes life harder. but but but – when I didn’t know about all the racism/sexism/ism stuff, life was so much eeeeaaasssierrrrr…. I want life to be eeeeasy againSimply put, it affects all of us. If you’re a man and you are unaware of what privilege you have, it’s easy for you to inadvertently marginalize women. If you’re aware of it, you can go about being more careful with how you wield this privilege!


What is privilege?

By far the best primer article about privilege is John Scalzi’s article called “Straight White Male: the Lowest Difficulty Setting There is.” The whole post is brilliant, and I STRONGLY suggest you go read it. Here is the BASIC premise:

In the role playing game known as The Real World, “Straight White Male” is the lowest difficulty setting there is. […] the default behaviors for almost all the non-player characters in the game are easier on you […] You automatically gain entry to some parts of the map that others have to work for. The game is easier to play, automatically, and when you need help, by default it’s easier to get.

Another very excellent post about this is at Feminism 101: FAQ – What is Male Privilege. This is from a feminism site, and it comes across more strongly than the Scalzi article, but it’s still an excellent primer. In it they quote Betty Brown’s article “A primer on privilege: what it is and what it isn’t.”

Privilege is not: About you. Privilege is not your fault. Privilege is not anything you’ve done, or thought, or said. It may have allowed you to do, or think, or say things, but it’s not those things, and it’s not because of those things. Privilege is not about taking advantage, or cheating, although privilege may make this easier. Privilege is not negated. I can’t balance my white privilege against my female disadvantage and come out neutral. Privilege is not something you can be exempt from by having had a difficult life. Privilege is not inherently bad. It really isn’t.

Privilege is: About how society accommodates you. It’s about advantages you have that you think are normal. It’s about you being normal, and others being the deviation from normal. It’s about fate dealing from the bottom of the deck on your behalf.

Let’s think of this in terms of diets. The “easy” setting is someone who eats anything and only chooses food based on taste. The more difficult settings are: vegetarians, raw foodists, paleo, and celiacs. I was vegetarian from age 15-25. There was a lot of stress with this. Would work parties order veggie pizzas? Was my boyfriend yet again going to insist on going to a steak house? Ewww he wanted to kiss me with meat-mouth. Oh god – there’s nothing on this menu I can eat but fries and salad. Oh yay. Here’s another person who is going to tell me why I’m wrong to be veg.

So, you as a person with no dietary restrictions decide to host a dinner party. After your guest arrives you learn they are vegetarian, and you have literally only mashed potatoes to serve them. You might feel annoyed that no one told you, or annoyed that those damned vegetarians are so pushy, or embarrassed that you hadn’t considered that they might have different eating styles, or any other number of reactions. The second time you host, you’re now aware, and you could choose to make a menu that is vegetarian friendly, you could just choose the same menu, or options B through Y.

A respectful way to deal with eating privilege means that if there’s a veggie in the group, you don’t go to steak houses, you perhaps learn to cook some veggie meals, you don’t argue with them about dietary choices, etc. Third dinner party you find out there’s a vegetarian, a paleo person, and someone allergic to wheat. Now things are complicated whereas once, your life was simple. As the person with the privilege, the poor response to vegetarians is to roll your eyes or sneak the meat in there because – it’s not like they’ll REALLY know. Unfortunately, I think some folks have a bad reaction to trying to juggle awareness of more than one group and their final reaction is: “SCREW ALL YOU GUYS – IT’S MY HOUSE AND IF YOU DON’T LIKE WHAT I SERVE, GTFO.” Think that’s extreme? Well, essentially what Keith Owen’s response was: “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.”

It’s really easy to look like this dude when you carelessly wield privilege

Life was once simple and easy. Being aware and trying to be accommodating of people in your life makes life complicated and hard, but even that level of complexity is nowhere near what that other person has to deal with every day. Do the people around you appreciate it when you try to be respectful and become more aware of your behaviors? HELL YES. And that’s what we’re talking about here – being kind to those whose life is not quite as simple/easy as yours.

The more aware you are, the more responsible you can be with that information. As one of my favorite bloggers, Captain Awkward, recently wrote in her article called “I have anxiety that women will have anxiety about me approaching them.”:

Gaining awareness about where you fit into an oppressive system is just painful and hard to deal with. Like, as a white lady who tries really hard not to perpetuate racism, when I accidentally do something racist, or see something racist happen in front of me that isn’t my fault but makes me aware of the degree that I benefit unfairly from having white skin in a racist time and place, it is seriously uncomfortable. If it’s not uncomfortable, something is wrong. That discomfort is mine to carry and to deal with and hopefully repurpose into making shit less racist.

How Does Privilege Benefit Men in Jiu Jitsu?

This list was adapted from “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” The key to remember here: overall women cannot count on these to be true to the extent that men can. If we go back to the Scalzi article, this is the game description of the “easy” setting in jiu jitsu.

How choosing MALE will affect your game play in The Real World: BJJ

1. I can if I wish arrange to exclusively drill and roll with people of my own gender most of the time.
2. I can avoid drilling or rolling with time with people whom I was trained to mistrust and who have learned to mistrust my kind or me.
3. I can go to class pretty well assured that I will not be sexually harassed.
4. I can turn on a jiu  jitsu event and see people of my gender widely represented.
5. I can be pretty sure of having my voice heard in a group in which I am the only member of my gender.
6. I can be casual about whether or not to listen to another person’s voice in a group in which she is the only woman.
7. I can go online and find gis based on my height and weight, and in general I will have a large selection of brands and styles available.
8. I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my gender.
9. I am never asked to speak for all the people of my gender.
10. I can remain oblivious of the needs and requests of women in jiu jitsu without feeling any penalty for such oblivion.
11. I can be pretty sure that if I meet the head instructor at a jiu jitsu gym, I will be facing a person of my gender.
12. If I am asked to train with a specific person, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my gender.
13. I can go home from most bjj classes feeling somewhat tied in, rather than isolated, out-of-place, outnumbered, unheard, uncomfortable, or held at a distance.
14. If I declare there is a gender/sexism issue at hand, or there isn’t a gender/sexism issue at hand, my gender will lend me more credibility for either position than a woman will have.
15. I can choose to ignore developments in women’s jiu jitsu, or disparage them, or learn from them, but in any case, I can find ways to be more or less protected from negative consequences of any of these choices.
16. If I am socializing or joking during class, it will not reflect on my gender.
17. If there is one communal dressing room, I will generally not have to wait as long or feel rushed to finish up.
18. I don’t question if my gender is why someone wants to be my partner or not.
19. I am not made acutely aware that my clothing, shape, hair style, etc will be taken as a reflection on my gender.
20. I can get a promotion without having my teammates suspect that I got it because of my gender.
21. I can laugh or have an emotional outburst without having it reflect on my gender.
22. If I have low credibility as a jiu jitsu instructor, I can be sure that my gender will not be blamed.
23. In general, people will not question my involvement in jiu jitsu based on it not being appropriate for someone of my gender.
24. I will feel welcomed and “normal” in jiu jitsu clubs or online forums.
25. If I have sex with a teammate I will not be called a “mat whore.”
26. If I socialize after class rather than drill, it does not reflect poorly on my gender.
27. Internet threads about grapplers of my gender are most frequently about their skills rather than their looks.
28. Advertisements for gis or grappling products featuring people of my gender generally do not use them in a way that is suggestive or sexual.
29. I am generally not exposed to videos or pictures of non-grapplers of my gender demonstrating a technique in inappropriate clothes, such as bikini beachwear.
30. I am unlikely to see pinup style photos of grapplers of my gender at my gym or online.

Knowing this information, what can I do?

Excellent question! Making a laundry list was easy. What you can do to help is not so easy, but these are starters.

  • The first step is that you have to care that there actually is a problem to be fixed. You have to think the status quo is not ok. You have to care about respecting jiu jitsu and the people who want to practice it. If you don’t see sexism as a real, tangible problem in BJJ, you won’t be able to make any genuine contributions to fixing it. You have to make an internal decision to be an agent of improvement.

  • Make sure you always treat your training partners equally, don’t stay quiet when you hear bigoted language in the academy and do what you can to support those who do not have the benefit of privilege.
  • As much as you can, remember that women are individuals and one or two people (or even everyone at your gym) should not reflect on our entire gender. If you had a bad experience rolling with a woman, it doesn’t mean you should give up rolling with women – perhaps just THAT woman.
  • Don’t be afraid to tell people, “Dude, that’s not cool” when they do things that marginalize women, say sexist comments, etc.
  • If a woman comes to you with an issue she’s facing, listen respectfully without dismissing it, even if you don’t really think her problem is an actual problem.

“Privilege is when you think that something’s not a problem because it’s not a problem for you personally,” he said. “If you’re part of a group that’s being catered to, you believe that’s the way it should be. ‘It’s always been that way, why would that be a problem for anyone?'” –  David Gaider

I want to thank everyone for reading. This is a Big Important topic for me that I still haven’t entirely untangled for myself, so my apologies if this was clumsy in some spaces. Yes, I know it’s an uncomfortable topic. Yes, I love jiu jitsu. Yes, I think that overall the dudes who do it are super rad awesome. Yes, they still have privilege. If you’re new to my blog and wish to leave a comment, AWESOME! I have no problem with respectful discourse that disagrees with me! I’d be very interested in hearing your thoughts on this whole matter, in agreement or not.