So there’s a bit of debate raging on the Internet about an article by Keith Owen, a Pedro Sauer black belt called Can Women Really Handle Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu?

Spoiler alert: Here was my face as I read the article. But wait – there’s actually a professional reason for this, in addition to the emotional one! Read on!

Not surprisingly, there’s a “healthy debate” over on Reddit about the article, with 143 comments and counting. Similarly, there’s a reaction piece called Women Can Handle Brazilian Jiu Jitsu!

Edited to add more related posts: the Bullshido thread on this, Reeseny’s post on it, SheBeast’s article agreeing with him, Inner BJJ’s take on it, A Skirt on the Mat’s post with the great 300 quote “Clearly you don’t know our women.”
Leaahh wrote a great article including the line “Stop making me responsible for my entire gender.”

There are two levels I believe need to be addressed:

The first part is more reactionary than the second, because I am responding personally and a more emotionally to the sexism – though I sincerely tried to avoid snarkiness, and the second part is me responding professionally to his teaching.

The Sexism

I sincerely wonder if he was trying to issue a challenge to women to stay in jiu jitsu and if he hoped they would respond personally by staying in or by posting CHALLENGE ACCEPTED. Unfortunately, this was NOT my reaction, nor the reaction of any of the women I know who read it.

Barney accepted, will you?

Yeah, not so much.

The title clearly sets a tone and tells me it’s all about my gender and whether we can hack it in this sport. So the title has me ready to be angry and wanting to read the article, which is clever – after all, get a bit of controversy and you get more readers. However, the sexist language does not stop there. I’ve put his words in italics and my comments in regular print. Again, his article is here.

The ladies always stay for a short time but they ultimately quit. Guys also will try this out and find it’s not for them. It’s not uncommon for men to quit, and as other ladies have said, the women stand out more because they’re more unusual, so it’s more obvious they’ve quit. But okay…let’s concede this point about his gym.

I treat the women students like any other male student . . . I never force them to roll until they are comfortable. So which is it? Do you treat them alike or different. You don’t “force” women to roll, but do you “force” men to roll? It is entirely possible that the women who join would have been absolutely fine rolling with men until you put out there that they don’t “have to” roll. Do you tell men they don’t have to roll if they don’t want to, or is there an expectation that everyone except women have to participate fully in class. If so, you’ve set up your gym in a way that means you don’t treat women like a full teammate, but instead as someone who must be coddled. Anyone should be able to sit out if they feel uncomfortable, but please don’t treat women with kid gloves.

I find this disheartening because if any women can get a black belt, it’s from me. This sentence struck me as extremely sexist. Are your standards so low that if a woman hangs around your gym long enough that they’ll get one by virtue of them being a woman? Is this the same for the men? If not – that’s sexist.  [Note: It’s been pointed out that this is a logical fallacy – and I concur that there are more ways to read into this, but this was my flawed feeling as I read it.]

I have given out a number of blue belts to women as a matter of fact. Congratulations – you’ve assessed some students as being at blue belt level, as every instructor should do. You do this for the men students as well, yes? So why call attention to it? To point out that you’re not being sexist?

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. This is what really enraged me. It’s saying “Gosh darn it, I care so much for the wimmins but they frustrate me so dang bad that I wanna toss out the whole baby with the bathwater because I don’t actually want to address the real problem.”

My male students are usually married and take a bit of a risk with their spouses by wrestling around with the opposite sex. The author says this, but later in the article says Your significant other has to be comfortable with you being in a class full of men. There is a strange discrepancy here. I wonder if he’s conveying to the women that he feels they are endangering their teammates’ marriages, but that their own boyfriends need to simply deal with it. Does he convey to the men how glad he is that they are willing to “risk their spouses?” If so, it may very well be subtly or not so subtly conveyed to the women that the men feel this way. I know I’d feel incredibly uncomfortable if I knew my coach felt this way.

Let me fix this article. I’ve crossed out things, added my own words in italics. I think it makes the article better. Note: This is only 3 paragraphs of the original article.

Can Women White Belts Really Handle Brazilian Jiu Jitsu?

Make no mistake, I WANT women white belts in my Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu program.  The problem is that they never seem to stick.  They will even come in and DEMAND to try it out.  I politely let them know what BJJ is and what it’s all about up front.  I let them know that they will be grappling with men and women.  Many of them say they understand, but when they get on the mat and I’m not sure they really do.

My guys students are very nice, respectable gentlemen people (some schools are not)  and treat the ladieseach other with respect (or I’ll kill them kick them out of the gym).  I treat the women students like any other male student, everyone equally, having someone show them the positions of Jiu-Jitsu and showing them basic moves.   They know they will typically be the only ladies in the class. I never force them to roll until they are comfortable.  I let the ladies my students know that they can ALWAYS confide in me if a man someone does something that makes them feel uncomfortable.  I have never had a complaint! The ladies white belts always stay for a short time but they ultimately quit. Some of them have gotten pregnant (from their husbands or boyfriends)prioritized their families, 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.

I find this disheartening because if any women one can get a black belt, it’s from me.  I have given out a number of blue belts to women my students as a matter of fact. It then makes me want to do a male an upper belts 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 them and we try to take care of her them and make her them 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 white belts 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.

Ultimately this article should be more about WHITE BELTS than about women specifically. He wants higher retention rates. However, after reading his article, I’m NOT shocked that women aren’t staying. Here’s what I read into this –

1. He treats women differently than men. Women are not expected to roll with the men. He feels that men rolling with women puts the men’s relationships at risk. I can all but guarantee this comes through loud and clear to his students. He is frustrated about women quitting, so if a woman walks through the door, in his eyes she represents ALL THE WIMMINS.

2. There is no personal responsibility taken. He is blaming his students rather than examining what he is doing. He is loudly defending his actions. I heard once that the only things all of your exes have in common is YOU. If I’m a teacher and all my male students are leaving, I can choose to believe OMG MEN ARE SO SUCKY AND QUIT THEY HAVE NO HEART or I can examine my own behavior, which leads into the second half: the professional aspect of this.

The Teaching Aspect

The problem is, there exists a gap between what teachers think they are doing and what they are actually doing. If you are a teacher whose female students are quitting in droves, I suggest a few points:

1. Keep actual records. Rather than GUESSING that women are quitting more, get some statistics. Out of the 25 guys who started last month, how many of them quit after a month? Two months? Out of the 5 women who started last month, how many of them quit after a month? Two months? If 15/25 guys quit within the first 2 months – that’s 60%. If 2/5 women quit, that’s 40%. Know your real numbers rather than going by how it feels. It may all be in your head.

2. Observe your behavior. This should be a neutral thing and no judgments put on it. Keep a journal. During class examine how you interact with the women vs the men. After instructing a woman ask yourself if there was something you did differently because they were a woman. Do you flirt?  Do you use sexist language? Do you call attention to the fact that they are women? Do you talk to them exactly the same way as you talk to men or do you find yourself mentioning their looks/gis/bodies?

3. Ask a neutral party to observe your behavior. This one is tricky and potentially embarrassing. You need to cultivate a situation where they’ll tell you the truth. Ask them to observe how the women vs men are treated, how you speak to the students, how you roll with the students, your eye contact, language, etc.

4. Observe how the teammates interact with one another. Do they treat women the same as the men? Better? Worse? Do they interact with her as frequently? Does she stand off by herself? Does she have trouble finding a partner or is she being stared at and people are jumping at the chance to be her partner?

5. Note the atmosphere. Would you feel comfortable if you invited your sister/mother/girlfriend/grandmother to your gym? Is it clean? Is it well lit? Is there a place for them to change? Do people swear a lot or is it very rough?

6. Get feedback from your students. Especially the ones who quit. Have a sit down and ask some neutral questions. Note that how you ask may influence their answers. Do not react with anger or frustration or defensiveness or you will shut down all their answers. I strongly recommend reading NonViolent Communication if you decide to do this because it will give you tips on how to listen empathetically and how to hear with an open mind.

7. Read a book on Reflective Teaching. You are essentially a language teacher if you teach jiu jitsu. Jiu Jitsu is a foreign language for the body. Reading these will definitely impact how you teach. I highly recommend Thomas Farrell’s articles or books or websites. Here are some suggestions:

Ultimately, teachers need to take responsibility for their own actions and how they influence and impact others, and while we may think we’re super awesome, our students may not feel the same way. You will have both men and women who start and quit – jiu jitsu is not for everyone. But if you are specifically interested in retention rates of women, it may very likely be time to examine what is actually going on in your school, and do to that exploration with an open mind and open heart and be willing to change and not be defensive about it.

At my gym, the instructor pairs everyone up for everything. This sometimes includes them choosing our drilling partners, but for every single round of sparring the instructor picks partners for everyone and everyone rotates. This means a different partner every round. The cool thing is that it avoids the uncomfortable feeling women sometimes get that boys don’t want to spar with them.

I’ll admit – I more often than not get partnered (for drilling) with the best guy in class or the white belt women. But I don’t mind – after all, I have the most advanced partner or I’m helping out another woman.

The guys roll with me and don’t refuse if I ask to roll (well, one did once). They don’t roll with me terribly differently than they do with the other guys. They don’t go limp and have me just practice my moves. They don’t get angry if I submit them. They don’t (afaik) mock the other guys for rolling with me.

In other words, I feel like a full teammate. Period.

I’m curious as to your thoughts on this subject. What was your reaction to the article? Have you found this true at your gym? If you knew women who quit – why did they quit? If you are a woman who quit or is thinking about it – why?