Culture Shock, Guest Article: Sexism (and Sexual Predation) against Women in Martial Arts

I’ve received, and continue to receive, a lot of great feedback on my Guruism article. Chief among those who have shared their stories are a number of women who have endured abuse in what is still, primarily, a male-dominated hobby. Rather than attempt to place myself in their shoes and speculate as to their experience, I reached out to Violet Revile (not her real name, for reasons you’ll soon see) whose story was particularly powerful.

As always with Culture Shock articles, content warning from here on out. This one gets a little messy.


Nick has very kindly invited me to talk about my experience as a female martial artist.

I have recently left my martial arts school after two female students alleged sexual assault against the head instructor. I can’t go into details of exactly what happened, because there is currently a police enquiry. As for me, I am from a city in the UK, I am a woman, and you may call me Violet. We will call my two friends from the class Polly and Ari, and the head instructor in question Greg.

I joined Greg’s school – let’s say he taught karate (he didn’t) around five years ago. Greg is not affiliated with anyone; it’s his school. I spent a lot of my free time there, training multiple times a week. There were about 15-20 regulars and we got to know each other very well. I felt at home there, and I’m heartbroken at leaving.

Or rather, I’m heartbroken at leaving the school I imagined I was at. The reality was less than pleasant.

While I can’t go into Polly and Ari’s allegations in detail, I can tell you that they involve:

  • inappropriate touching while grappling or in close contact
  • online harassment on social media
  • threatening behaviour (including death threats)
  • coercing and manipulating women into sex acts
  • drugging women and then raping them

Nice, huh?

After I talked to Polly and Ari I realised there had been other female students who just suddenly…stopped coming. People quit for all sorts of reasons, sure. But there were quite a few of these women who abruptly stopped showing up. In some cases, students who had been at three training sessions the week before.

Let’s face facts – if someone enjoys sexually assaulting women, and feels pretty much okay about that as a lifestyle choice, then he’s probably going to do it every chance he gets.

Now, realistically, I’m not going to solve the problem of sexism and sexual predators in this blog post. If I could do that, you would have heard of me already. And I would be making a great deal more money, and would not be living in a grotty studio flat with a landlord who charges me £600 a month for not fixing my shower.

So BIG AND IMPORTANT DISCLAIMER: I am not an expert. I am not an expert in sexism, or gender politics, or sexual predators. I’m certainly not an expert in martial arts. I’d be the first to admit that I didn’t rank as “reasonably good” even in the context of my own small school. I’m just a woman in her 30s, who works in a cubicle in the back office of a large manufacturing company and loves to punch bags in her spare time. Everything in this article is either my personal opinion, or something I found by typing various phrases into Google.

This article is intended for several groups of people; it’s for women who want to take up MA, it’s for women who are already involved with MA, and it’s for men who don’t want to watch women getting harassed but aren’t sure what to do.

I’m also writing it for the people who just want to train, don’t care who they are training with and are fed up with drama. If everyone was like you, I could pack up writing this right now and we could all go to the bar, have a nice pint of lager, and enjoy a deeply nerdy discussion about whether MMA or TMA is “objectively better”.

Sadly, today we have to talk about gender, fighting, and Shady Dudes of Martial Arts. I know no-one really wants to get involved with this particular piece of dirty laundry but if you don’t pick it up then it’s just going to sit there and smell.

First, let’s talk about the differences between women and men in a martial arts context. I’m going to leave the physiology out of this; the differences between men and women physically are well documented elsewhere.

There are, however, two specific biological differences I would like to mention; one is the effect periods have on a woman’s sporting performance.  I find I noticeably under-perform if I train on the heaviest day of my period, which makes sense as I think most people would find it difficult to train while having a haemorrhage. I started using a period tracker app (MyCycle) to predict my worst days and plan my training.

And the other is the biological difference stuck to our chests.

Women learning martial arts need a good-quality high-impact sports bra. Especially if, like me, your body decided to sprout ludicrously large breasts at the age of 11 (and that’s a whole other Shady Dude horror story). Sometimes I’m about to spar with a new male student and I catch the split second of absolute horror in his eyes. I’m sorry, honestly. If I was able to take them off and put them in my handbag before a class I would, but I can’t. You’re just going to have to man up and ignore them.

Psychology

There’s an interesting article here about women’s karate schools in 70s New York. 

The author makes an observation:

In your typical karate class you begin by tearing the ego down, but in women-only classes you build the ego up [……] women’s karate was about trusting your gut and taking action, a pretty novel lesson in an era when marital rape was legal and women were subject to their husbands’ whims via “head and master” laws.

This is something I’ve seen myself. Men need to be broken in, but women need to be encouraged to trust their own judgement. We all have habits we need to unlearn, but for the women I have trained with over the years, these often relate to traditional feminine values

We are taught open anger, violence, and conflict are unacceptable. This is not to say some women aren’t comfortable getting angry and expressing anger, but in traditional female culture you are meant to be about sweetness and light and rainbows and unicorns. Covert competition and passive aggression are fine among traditional women – even encouraged – but obvious anger and blatant attempts to take first prize are very much frowned upon. A group made up just of women will usually organise itself (at least superficially) into a committee rather than a dictatorship.

When you start training in MA, you have to learn to openly try as hard as you can to defeat another person. This can be very tricky, because women are trained not to do that. The impulse can be to let your opponent win or to apologise or say it was luck when you beat them.

Being taught to suppress anger and accommodate other people really affects the way women respond to violence. We are very susceptible to the “freeze” response, which is the response an animal has when you can’t outrun or outfight a threat. When I was at school, girls were told: if someone tries to rape you, let him. Once he’s done it he might leave you alone. If you fight back, he might kill you, and that’s worse.

Women spend our lives looking up at bigger, stronger, more violent people. We know these people can penetrate us, even if we don’t want that to happen, and we know we do not have an equal ability to hurt them. It’s not impossible for a woman to rape a man, but it’s difficult. It can’t be done on impulse, the way men can rape women.

This knowledge can lead to feeling helpless; accepting what happens, believing that you have no control. Fatalism. For example, when you grow up watching action movies as a woman, you see all the people like you handed out like prizes at the end of the film, to the guy who killed the most people, or whatever. You don’t see these women choosing the men; the men choose them, and they are happy to be chosen. No-one asks you if you fancy Jake Gyllenhaal, you just get handed to him by an assortment of men (yes, I’m looking at you, Prince of Persia). Guys win by defeating a threat; girls win by being beautiful enough to be a trophy (or, possibly, being the source of all evil in the world. But obviously still hot).

But being hot goes hand in hand with terror, because it’s the hot girls who get targeted by creeps every day of their lives. Creeps who are bigger than them, stronger than them, and more violent than them. You only need to look at the news to know this. When a woman is murdered by a man who is (or wants to be) her partner, it rarely makes headlines. And that’s because it’s not news. It happens every day. 

This is not a level playing field, so you learn to flirt, smile, and respond even when they frighten you. Especially when they frighten you, because your survival depends on keeping them happy. So, when you’re the only person on the bus, and a man takes the aisle seat blocking you in and then looks you in the eye and says “Hello, darling,” you smile. You have to smile. You want to please him so he lets you live.

This is one of the things MA changed for me. I don’t feel the need to do that any more, because I’m not afraid of men any more. They still outweigh me, and they’re still stronger than me, but I know what it feels like to get punched now, what it feels like to be knocked over, what it feels like to be pinned on the ground by someone. It’s just pain. I can cope with it. Under the right circumstances, I now have the power to retaliate; to put someone on the floor myself. My front kick tips over a 270-pound free-standing bag. On a good day, I can score 230 punches a minute.

This feeling is huge for me. I feel safer walking home alone. I feel more able to tell a guy who is bothering me to take a hike, rather than needing to spend hours placating him. I feel more in control of my own life and I have far more confidence in my own skills and decisions.

Of course, I could always take the Saudi Arabian option and be chaperoned by male relatives every single place I go, but a good uppercut is more efficient than having to pry Uncle Henry away from the football every time I need to buy knickers.

Martial Artsholes

heh heh heh

I’m so sorry. That’s a truly terrible pun. I have shamed myself and my family.

We do not live in an ideal world. If you are a woman and you are serious about training as a martial artist, sooner or later some dude is going to hassle you.

It’s going to happen. You could have the least sexist and most supportive school in the world, and that will not stop a new student off the street who doesn’t like training with women/ doesn’t like losing to women/ thinks grappling is a really great way to grab your boobs and then tell you it was an accident.

All-female classes are good, but difficult to find. They also might not be offered in the discipline you want to learn. There’s a strong chance you will be learning in a mixed class and a distinct possibility you will be the only woman in a room full of men.

And one day you will end up facing a man you’re supposed to be training with who doesn’t think you have a right to be there. And he will expect you to justify yourself.

To go back to the story I started with: Greg never sexually assaulted me, but he did constantly chip away at me. About my age (men don’t like older women, better stock up on cats) about my lefty feminist politics (men have it harder than women these days, women can just make up rape allegations and send men to prison and that’s all the fault of feminists), and about my short hair. It was always framed as a joke, always said with a smile, which didn’t change the fact he thought it and then he said it. I put up with it because the one thing he never chipped at was my karate, and that was all I wanted from him.

Now, taking the decision to put up with an instructor because the instruction is worth a certain amount of bullshit is one thing. Taking shit from another student is entirely another.

Sooner or later in class a man will sidle up to you and say something. Perhaps a comment about how women “can’t” do martial arts (because science), or a derogatory comment about women in general. Could be something dismissive about another female student’s performance. Or perhaps something framed as helpful: “Step back further when you do a roundhouse,” despite the fact that he’s not an instructor and has been training for less time than you.

There is a complex and important concept at play here. I could attempt to explain it badly, or I could let Toni Morrison explain it well. She is talking about racism here, but the underlying point is universal:

The function, the very serious function of racism, is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language, so you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly, so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Someone says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of that is necessary. There will always be one more thing.

Or, to put it another way, every time you engage with this dude instead of concentrating on your own training he’s winning.

He’s distracting you, and he wants you to jump through hoops to prove him wrong. Notice they are his hoops, and he is the one deciding which jump you need to do.

There’s no point arguing. None. You could be a world champion, and guys like this will find a reason why it doesn’t count, because they don’t want it to count. You will never be good enough. It’s a rigged game. Don’t waste your time.

Coping With Attraction

If you are in close physical contact with an attractive person of your preferred gender, it’s difficult to not have feelings about that.

I know this from personal experience. There have been some very attractive men in the class over the years; one in particular was so paralysingly hot that working with him made me completely forget how to martial arts. I’m fairly sure he walked away thinking I had an illness.

Attraction happens. You can’t control your response to another person. You can control what you do about your attraction.

People sometimes say women should not grapple or wrestle men, because they will end up getting groped. This reminds me of “women shouldn’t walk home on their own, it’s not safe”. It’s another attempt to dress up “it’s your fault if you get assaulted” as “we’re just concerned for your safety”.

Asking women to take responsibility for the problem of men assaulting women is ridiculous. We can’t reason with and police a subsection of male humanity whose entire attitude is that we have no authority and we’re not worth listening to. Women don’t have the problem, we deal with the fall-out from the problem, in much the same way as black people deal with the actions of racists but the racist mindset is a white issue in white culture.

We also see here a deeply misandrist and insulting myth; men are unable to control themselves around women. This is crap. If it were true, all men would be too busy having to rape women every time they had a sexual thought to hold down a job.

The sole beneficiaries of the “men can’t control themselves” myth (and the people who have a vested interest in pushing it) are male sexual predators. It allows them to hide in plain sight, molesting whoever they choose and then using “But she was being female and I couldn’t control my actions, Your Honour” as an excuse.

Which brings us to…

Sexual Predators

I don’t think it’s any secret that MA, as a whole, has a problem with sexual predators.

It’s a combination of things. Some of them can’t be changed, and some can.

Some of it is in the nature of the training, which is intense, close quarters and involves a lot of physical contact. When you are working with someone who decides to touch you inappropriately, that’s not really something you can predict before it happens. The only way to completely avoid it would be to outlaw close contact between men and women in classes. That would be counter-productive, and would mean women missing out on useful training.

What we need instead is a culture where women feel able to immediately call out the person, knowing that there will be back up from the school.

Another problem is one Nick discussed quite thoroughly in his post on guru culture; a culture of hero-worship and groupthink. In martial arts the rank system means you don’t challenge people senior to you, because that’s seen as disrespectful.

Instructors absolutely should get respect. Respect means: you shut up and listen when they’re talking, you take their instruction and don’t argue, you follow the training schedule they’ve set out in the class, you follow the rules of the school, and you’re polite.

It does not mean they have the right to expect unpaid labour, personal worship, or the sexual attention of female students. Those things show a lack of respect for you, and the respect should be mutual.

How Men Can Help

“So, how should we treat women, then?”

This article must leave well-intentioned men feeling in a really difficult place. How do you relate to female students? It must feel like defusing a bomb; one false move and the woman will explode in your face and you will be covered in patriarchy. And we all know how hard that is to wash off.

Well, let’s start by forgetting “women” and thinking about “people”.

There is no homogenous group called “women”. Sarah Palin and Annie Sprinkle are both women, but I really can’t imagine them getting together for a cappuccino. The only thing all women have in common are their XX chromosomes, and now I have rudely forgotten about trans women and people with androgen insensitivity. I meant to say women don’t even all have XX chromosomes, don’t @ me.

When you meet new male students, you don’t think about their gender, you just assess them as people. Who is this? He has a cool tattoo. Oh, he’s ex-military, does that mean he’s going to go really hard, I don’t want to lose teeth here? Why on earth is he wearing a My Little Pony t-shirt? Like that, but with girls.

TL:DR: Treat all women on a case by case basis and if you meet a woman you don’t like, don’t put her bad behaviour down to being a woman. It’s because she’s an asshole.

Handling an Accidental Bad Touch

Let’s get one thing straight – a woman can tell a grope from an accident. Everyone can. YOU can. If you’re training and someone accidentally gets too personal with you, what happens? They remove their hand like it was on fire and say some variation on: “Oh my God, I’m so sorry.”

When the hand stays there for a second or two too long and is then withdrawn without any kind of acknowledgement, you just got groped.

Any reasonable woman understands, when you are tumbling about on the floor fighting people, a hand ends up where it shouldn’t sometimes. True story: I once accidentally grabbed the gentleman’s area of a huge meathead who closely resembled Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane. He responded with: “hurr hurr hurr, guess it’s my lucky day” (SPOILER: it wasn’t).

How To Help Protect Other Students From Predators

Spotting a predator
You need to check out their feet. If their toes are webbed, then that’s a definite yes. Also, all sexual predators have a large red “X” tattooed on the back of their neck.
LOL!
There’s no way to spot a sexual predator. If there was one sure-fire red flag, we would all know about it and no-one would ever get raped.

Be aware
Predators pick victims they think they can intimidate into silence. They are well aware assault is against the law, and the ideal victim is someone they can bully into doing what they want and then bully into keeping quiet about it. Ari was in her late teens; Polly had just gone through a nasty breakup. Both were vulnerable people. Be aware of who’s spending time with who, and how people are relating to each other. Be aware of men as well as women; while I was asked here to write an article about women, men are vulnerable to sexual assault too. Be especially aware of who’s hanging round any teenagers or very young people, as they are at high risk.

Call it out
Men who prey on women are often the ones who demean women. The guy who tells the “funny” story about the time he deliberately got a girl drunk and had sex with her, or the guy who decides everyone really needs to hear, at length, about how all women are only interested in tall men with money, or the guy who ranks all the women in the class in the order in which he’d shag them.
If you say nothing, Mr Sexism 101 will keep right on rolling his views out, they’ll seep into the class culture, and one day you’ll look round and realise all your friends have left and you are now training with 15 incels who call you a beta cuck every time you suggest that maybe it’s not necessary to be a total asshat all the time. But by then it’ll be too late, and you’re going to have to go to all the trouble of finding a new school.

You’re better off with the slightly awkward two minutes after you tell him to shove it.

Speak to people you’re concerned about
If you’re worried about a particular person, ask them if they’re OK, find out what they think of everyone in the class and if there are any specific problems with one person. Keep it casual, they might be fine. But let them know they can come to you if there’s a problem.

Speak to the person behaving badly
If a member of the class is being disrespectful and making people uncomfortable, then an instructor needs to talk to them and make it clear the behaviour is expected to stop. If the behaviour continues following that conversation, that person needs to be banned.
The one exception to this is if someone comes to you and accuses another member of the class of something very serious (Greg-level). In that case, a talking-to isn’t going to cut it. You need to suspend the person named immediately. The potential risk to other students outweighs the need to give someone a chance to mend their manners.

Keep an open mind
Human beings don’t want to believe someone they have spent time with – perhaps someone they even thought of as a friend – is capable of assault or rape. Psychologically speaking, “she’s lying” is much easier. We all understand lying. Nobody understands that someone they know and like could commit a cold-blooded sexual assault. You feel like if someone was that weird you would just know. You wouldn’t be friends with someone like that. And you’re friends with this person.
So he can’t have done it.
This human tendency may mean your immediate response is to dismiss the allegation out of hand. That’s natural, but you should keep an open mind and consider whether it may be true. After all, if you want to know what a charming, handsome, popular man can get up to in his free time, two words: Ted Bundy.
Predators are very, very good at passing for normal. They have to be. If they didn’t look and act normal, none of their victims would ever be alone with them.

If someone discloses an assault to you:
Just let the person talk. Don’t judge anything they tell you about themselves, keep an open mind, and listen. The more information you have, the more you will be able to form a picture of what is going on, and the better you will be able to make a decision about what to do next. Be led by the person as to what happens. They can report to the police and instructors, but they are under no obligation to do so. Some people won’t be comfortable doing this.

Take action
If you personally know of shady behaviour, let the instructors know as soon as possible. If you aren’t comfortable doing that (ie the shady person is an instructor) you can report to the police.

Protect yourself
If something does come out, doing nothing and continuing to train with the alleged offender sends the message: “I’m okay with this.” Even if you aren’t okay with it, that’s how your choice will be interpreted by the person who is misbehaving – and also by any victims in the vicinity.
Now, depending on the law where you live, if something serious gets to the police and they are satisfied you knew what was going on and you didn’t do anything, there is a possibility you could be charged yourself. Failure to report, perverting the course of justice, negligence, or even accessory after the fact could all apply, depending on the circumstances and exactly what this person has done. This scenario is unlikely but definitely not impossible.

Leave
If you believe that someone at your school is a sexual predator, you’ve taken it as far as you can, and it looks as if they will continue to operate freely, you need to leave. Immediately.

Firstly, your cash is funding the school. That means you are keeping his safe space to attack people open. You are supporting him (even if that isn’t your intention). I have had some very difficult conversations with two of the male students at my former school, who are aware of Greg’s, erm, habits and are continuing to train with him anyway. I have come to the reluctant decision I can no longer be friends with these men. They are good people themselves, and they talk about being angry, but when it comes down to it…they’re staying. They’re glossing over it rather than disrupt their training. And I cannot forgive them.

The second consideration is: when potential victims turn up you will need to make the hard decision about whether or not to warn them. This is an utterly unfair level of responsibility for someone who hasn’t done anything wrong and is just another student. Watchdogging a predator is way above your pay grade, and it will be extremely bad for your mental health.

If he chooses to assault someone, it’s not on you; it’s on him. He’s the one who chooses to raise his hand, and he’s the only person who should carry the can for that choice. Prioritise your own health, get in touch with your moral standards, and get away from that toxic atmosphere.

Finally

Learning the truth about Greg was horrible, but if I stopped doing stuff every time something like this happened, I’d never go out of the house. Every woman I know has been assaulted, ranging from the most minor (someone repeatedly grabbing your breasts in a bar, being cornered in the street, getting flashed, getting sent unsolicited dick pics) to major (I know three women who have been roofied, with two of these incidents resulting in rape. I know a woman who went to sleep on her date’s sofa after a night out, and woke up at 3am to find his flatmate raping her. I know a woman whose then-boyfriend got upset she didn’t fancy anal, so one night he just held her down and did it).

I very much doubt the enquiry will even result in a prosecution. Only 1 percent of rape allegations in the UK last year went to court – let alone resulted in a conviction. Those of you who are good at maths will know that means there is a 99 per cent chance Greg will be allowed to continue his roofie-and-rape career completely unbothered by the British legal system.

I occasionally amuse myself imagining what would have happened if I’d turned up back in the day, banging on the door of an old martial arts school and demanding to be trained. If I was lucky, I might have found a teacher who was genuinely not bothered about gender, and got the training I wanted. This is how the female martial artists sprinkled through TMA probably happened.

Or the ancient master might have chuckled, given me a slap on the ass, and said to his students: “She wants to learn to fight! Isn’t that cute?”

Or he might have beheaded me for daring to insult the purity of his ancient tradition by bringing my disgusting vagina anywhere near it. That’s always on the cards for women. See: European witch trials 1500-1800, honour killings, FGM, menstrual taboos, and Victorians locking up women in lunatic asylums for masturbating.

So, yes, I love martial arts, but I love it as a tradition which now includes me. The history of it interests me, but it’s an academic interest rather than an emotional connection. Men who do martial arts are following a very traditional male path. Women who do it are punk. We’re breaking the rules; we are not traditional women; the female martial artists back in the day are remembered for being women. Their achievements are secondary.

Training also feels subversive – like something I’m stealing. Sometimes I looked around at the men in my traditional martial arts class and I could see them feeling in touch with the history. While I love the idea that I’m learning something thousands of years old, the whole fantasy of being an ancient warrior monk is a bit lost on me.

I do not intend to stop training. I love pushing my body and what I am capable of. I love how powerful and safe MA makes me feel. I love how much more confident I am in every area of my life. I love that I have muscles now, and I can run for the bus without getting out of breath. And most of all, I love how much fun it is.

Ultimately, all you can do is try your best, hold your head up high, and hope. And, if you can’t rely on the police, it’s probably a good idea to learn how to punch people.


Violet Revile is into writing horror stories, watching movies, kicking bags and having loud opinions. She views social media with deep suspicion, and you won’t find her on most platforms. However, if you really want to talk to her, you can do so via email at violetrevile.blogspot.com or on Reddit at u/violet_revyle.

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