Years ago, I had a pop up contact form in the corner of my website that let visitors ask me anything. Most of the time, I got the typical “How do I escape side control?” and “What BJJ workouts can I do at home?” questions. But one day I received a serious message I was not entirely prepared to answer.

A young woman was a white belt at a gym where a male student was stalking and harassing her, making sexual comments during training, and even using threats of suicide to get her attention. Her concerns were not being taken seriously by her instructor, who was aware of the male students problems, but just told her the guy was just having a rough time lately. She was turning to me for guidance.

Here is her messaged (shared with permission):

I am not sure what to do about one of the other people who rolls at my gym. I’m one of two girls who trains there, and I’m fairly new. This guy managed to get my phone number early on (I’m not certain how), and unilaterally decided that we were friends. The problem is that he makes inappropriate comments (i.e. after rolling, commenting that this is the closest he’ll ever get to having sex with me, asking me out repeatedly despite firm and explicit responses that this won’t happen), and he’s fairly unstable psychologically. He can become so angry that I’m almost afraid he’ll show up at my house and hurt me (he knows where I live), and he becomes angry like this because I didn’t roll with him, or I “beat him” at something, or my face looks angry while I roll with him. He also will brush it off and pretend nothing happened or that everything is perfectly normal the next day, and he doesn’t behave this way toward any of the other guys, and more importantly he doesn’t behave this way when any of them are paying attention.

He’s pretty good friends with the instructor who has brushed this behavior off as just part of his personality and not something to worry about, though he said I could contact him if it happened again in the future and he would deal with it (since the anger/insanity is not occurring at the gym).

I’m not certain how to address this without setting off an even more dramatic reaction (the last time he became angry with me he also became suicidal). I am just not sure how to address this situation at this point and any advice would be appreciated.

Having never dealt with a problem like this before, I reached out to Val Worthington through my friend Marshal Carper to share the woman’s story and ask for advice. Val sent back this message:

The more I think about it, the more concerned I am for her and the other woman at that academy, particularly because the instructor is condoning the behavior. The women there have no allies. So here’s what I suggest you tell her:

1. Run, don’t walk, to the library/bookstore/Kindle and read The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker cover to cover. And I don’t mean when she gets around to it. I mean NOW. If she says she doesn’t have time, tell her to do it the next time she would normally train. Have her bring the other woman, too; have them read this book. de Becker is a personal security expert, and he would likely argue that she should be limiting this man’s access to her. It will also give her other suggestions about what to do next to defuse the situation.

Have her also watch these videos, especially if she hems and haws about reading the book. I suspect these stories will resonate because they will share some similarities with what she’s experiencing, in terms of her feelings/intuitions. They’re maybe 5 min each.

2. Once she gets her immediate next steps straightened out, she should find a different academy. That place is no good. But first things first.

3. I have a couple friends who have worked with de Becker and/or are security experts. I’ll reach out to them and see if they are willing to give me some suggestions for her and even to chat with her if/when she’s ready.

Thanks,

Val

I forwarded Val’s message to the woman along with my own, which read:

Your story has me seriously worried, and I asked several friends in the BJJ community for advice, and all of them are very concerned, too. I don’t want to be alarmist, but I can’t take this lightly. If you follow BJJ news at all, you’ve likely read that two BJJ competitors were arrested on New Year’s Eve for gangraping a teammate, and I know of too many similar cases. This is a real problem, and I can’t just brush you off.

It would just be an awkward social situation if he had simply asked you out and been turned down, but this has gone far beyond that. He’s found out where you live, he’s using his anger and threats of suicide to control you, and you fear he will physically harm you. Those are all very serious.

I understand that you are worried about “causing drama” and fearful of retaliation, but you have done nothing wrong, and you owe nothing to this guy or your instructor. Your primary concern should be your safety and well-being. I don’t see how you can achieve those without leaving this gym and taking steps to protect yourself against this man. Your protection is more important than “being nice” or “not causing problems.”

If you insist on staying at this gym, then you need to have a serious conversation with the head instructor with all other staff members present so there is a record of your concerns. The “closest we’ll come to having sex” comment alone deserves a serious reprimand from the instructor, but this goes far beyond that. Honestly though, if you think the instructor will side with his buddy, and they will continue to treat this like a “he said, she said,” I don’t see why you would even want to stay at this gym.

I have a few questions for you.

Do you live alone?
Do you have a friend whose house you could stay at if needed?
Do you have any male friends you trust to stay with you?
Do you know if he is treating the other girl at the gym the same way?

If my response seems overly serious, realize this was right after the news broke that two of Lloyd Irvin’s “medal chasers” were accused of raping a female student in a parking garage on New Years Eve, and Lloyd’s own gang rape trial was coming to light, so the problem of sexual abuse in BJJ was a hot topic. You can read about this in the The Miami Times article The Cult of Lloyd Irvin.

Here is the woman’s response to my questions and Val’s message:

To answer your questions:

1. I don’t live alone. I am studying at a university, I live with one other female roommate.
2. yes
3. yes
4. I’ve spoken with the other girl, she was out of town when he started and after she got back she said that he obtained her phone number as well and is somewhat annoying about contacting her all the time, but when I talked to her about this she said she hasn’t observed any of this behavior in relation to her. The other members of the gym that I discussed this with say that he either has their numbers as well and contacts them incessantly or that he tried and they had already figured this out and refused to give him their number.

In response to Val:

I am already familiar with The Gift of Fear, and recently read it cover to cover so we’re good there.

Prior to your response, I spoke with a few of the other higher ranking members of my gym about this just so that people would be aware of how I feel and what is going on. It’s a relatively small gym so at this point there will always be people around who are aware of this, though I haven’t been quite as specific as I was here. I don’t think that anyone really knows how to approach it since the black belt who is officially in charge is in Brazil but at the very least he won’t be allowed to roll with me.

When I said that the instructor said I could contact him if this happened again, what I meant was that he gave me his personal phone number and said to call him if the other guy starts behaving this way again (even if it’s in the middle of the night which is what happened to cause me to start trying to sort this out). I think the reluctance to take any more extreme action stems from the slew of psychological problems that the guy has going on which are no secret, and they do make an effort to ensure that they are informed about his current state of medication. I don’t know if this is a good enough response, and I don’t know if I made myself as clear as I have been here.

Thanks for your response. I’ll make sure that this gets sorted out, which unfortunately I may have otherwise given up on, so I really appreciate it.

Like Val mentioned, she got in contact with a friend who works in security and personal protection, and he wrote this advice:

Sorry to hear about your friend. Sounds pretty much like a classic stalker situation to me. Not the best write-up, but this:

Coping with Various Types of Stalkers

…is a good starting place to at least figure out what type she is dealing with. She has to be willing to take some serious measures should she really want the guy to leave her alone:

1) Cut off contact – Unfortunately, this is going to mean finding a new place to train or a different time to train. She should also change her phone number IMMEDIATELY and not give it to anyone except her closest friends. She basically needs to ignore him. I would go so far as to walk out of a room he is in.

2) Her instructor sounds like an a-hole or a complete wimp. The fact that he is not concerned about a female student being harassed says A LOT about him as an instructor. Next school, please.

I can’t give too much more help without more info. At the very least, she needs to inform her friends of what is going on and start paying attention to her surroundings when she is coming and going from work/home/training. If she has been physically threatened she can file a police report, but it might just be easier to walk away from the situation.

Tell her to hang in there. It’s a disturbing situation to find oneself in and every bit of support she can get will be helpful.

Years after her original message, I remembered this story and sent an email to ask the woman how she was doing these days. Here is her answer:

First of all, wow, this really feels like a long time ago. This guy that I was having problems with ended up lying his way into the apartment of the other girl I trained with at the time (gave her a ride home because she was drunk then asked to use her bathroom), then cornered her and she had to physically push him out. He got kicked out of that academy, so I didn’t leave, but then another student there started the same overly pushy, and then onto threatening behavior so I left. But not before trying to talk to the owner/instructor, who cornered me in his office after asking me to come in during off hours to discuss the issue. He ended up standing in the doorway and blaming me, saying that I needed to find it in me to forgive this second guy, and that this guy was just “trying to be funny”. This conversation/lecture lasted more than an hour. After that conversation, I never went back. Things have been great since then, I changed gyms, then moved out of that city to a different academy that’s even better and more professional. I got my purple belt a few months ago and still train nearly every day. Thanks for checking up on how this turned out.

Also a somewhat relevant and ironic twist to this story: the first guy I had an issue with (the one who got kicked out) apparently had a track record of trying to force himself on girls in high school. And he has now been a police officer in that city for a few years, though he wasn’t at the time this was occurring.

If this story sounds uncommon, you do not talk to enough women. The threats of suicide may take it to the extreme, but many women have dealt with some level of creepy or predatory behavior from men they train with, or even their instructors. Start asking the women you know in BJJ and you will hear many similar stories.

My goals for the remainder of this article are to lay out what red flags to spot when someone at your school is trying to manipulate you, how to spot if a gym has a toxic culture that normalizes abuses, and what you can do as students or instructors to address these problems.

Warning signs of sexual coercion and harassment from instructors and students:

  • Corners you to speak alone
  • Pressures you to go on a date or spend time alone together
  • Will not take no for an answer and persists despite your disinterest
  • Offers you free after hours private lessons or one-on-one training
  • Offers to drive you home alone
  • Persists in asking for your phone number or to add them on social media
  • Asks others about you or gets your contact info from someone else
  • Uses the contact info you provided to the school for personal reasons
  • Adds you on social media to send personal messages
  • Does not respect that you are already in a relationship
  • Sends you unsolicited sexual messages or pictures/videos
  • Shows up uninvited where you live or work
  • Does not respect or ask for your consent
  • Initiates unwanted or inappropriate physical contact
  • Touches you inappropriately under the guise of “coaching” you
  • Makes inappropriate comments about your body or appearance
  • Surprises you with favors and gifts to ingratiate themselves to you
  • Flatters and compliments you excessively
  • Claims they feel a special connection to you
  • Offers you alcohol or drugs to lower your inhibitions
  • Flirts when you cannot easily turn them down or get away
  • Makes sexual jokes or innuendos at inappropriate times
  • Shares unsolicited personal problems to gain sympathy
  • Asks prying questions about your personal or sex life
  • Tells you inappropriate details about their sex life
  • Uses guilt or threats to coerce you into giving them what they want
  • Acts like you’re making a big deal out of nothing when confronted
  • Pretends nothing bad happened when you see them later
  • Blames you for making them hurt or abuse you
  • Lies about what they did or said when called out on it
  • Exhibits volatile emotions like anger and jealousy to control you
  • Insults and harasses you to undermine your confidence
  • Treats you poorly after you turn them down
  • Spreads rumors and lies about you especially if you reject their advances

You will see common patterns in these behaviors: working to get you alone, testing your boundaries, disregarding your lack of consent, breaking down your barriers, gaining your trust (or at least compliance), and establishing control over you.

Many of these are the signs of predatory grooming, where the abuser takes the time to lower their victim’s defenses by building trust and creating emotional dependency. These tactics are often seen when men are in positions to abuse their authority over boys and girls (such as sports coaches and priests), but it can also be used on grown women. The victim can come to feel like it was their fault, not understanding the undue influence the abuser held over them and how their consent was being subverted.

While you may not be the target of unwanted sexual advances or abuses, you can evaluate if your school’s culture is healthy or not by seeing if problematic behaviors are tolerated.

Signs of a toxic school culture:

  • Instructors or students engage in the red flag behaviors listed above
  • Instructors makes excuses for people who are guilty of these behaviors
  • Instructors are unwilling to seriously look into complaints and take action
  • Instructors and senior members use student body as their dating pool
  • People know a member is a problem and blame their victims for not knowing better
  • Instructors make sexist or homophobic jokes or are OK with others making them
  • Use of sexist or homophobic insults and slurs
  • Jokes about sexual assault, abuse, molestation, rape, and domestic violence
  • Female students are not taken seriously or given the same respect as men
  • Instructors and students make sexual comments about female students

What you can do as a student

When you hear inappropriate comments about another student, do not “be cool” by staying quiet or laughing it off. Tell whoever said it that they are being offensive and that they need to treat people with more respect. Do not worry you are being “too serious” or killing the mood. This bad behavior often persists because people let it slide as “locker room talk” or “boys being boys” or they are afraid of starting an argument. Confronting them may mean having an awkward or tense moment, but silence is often taken as agreement, and someone needs to call them out. There are plenty of other topics to talk and joke about that do not involve objectifying or degrading women, especially your classmates.

Do not tolerate a known creep at your school. Some guys gain a bad reputation, yet people just learn to work around them. This is sometimes called the “broken stair” analogy, where instead of fixing a broken step, people get used to stepping over it, and tell people who trip on it that it’s their fault for not knowing better. Examples of being a creep include being too handsy during training and “accidentally” grabbing women’s chests and butts too often, hovering around the less experienced girls, and appointing themselves as the “mentor” to the newer girls and giving them unsolicited coaching during sparring, in addition to all of the red flags above. Rather than let it be an “unspoken rule” to avoid him, talk to the instructor about your concerns.

If you want to date another student, consider the dynamics at play. Do you have higher social status and authority than them? How would a break up affect them — would you drive them away from the school or from BJJ entirely? Will your relationship be disruptive for others? If you burn through all the single girls at your school and pounce on every new one who comes through the door, you are contributing to a toxic culture. Instructors do not usually police relationships between students, but they can be forced to step in when they are losing income because female students are being driven away.

If the problem is the instructor, leave the school. This is a difficult one, especially if the instructor is good at BJJ or you do not want to lose your BJJ friends. You may overlook bad behavior because you are just there to learn techniques and you do not care what the instructor does in their personal life or feel “that’s just Brazilians being Brazilian.” You may also not have anywhere else to train if it’s the only good school in town. This is a very difficult personal choice, and you will need to listen to your moral compass here.

What you can do as an instructor

As an instructor, you need to recognize that — for better or worse — you are the role model for your students and you set the tone for your school. You may just want to teach martial arts techniques, but your school will evolve into a social group for many of your students, and you are its central authority figure. How you act and what you say influences the culture that your school develops.

When reading the warning signs listed above, did someone come to mind? One of the hardest jobs an instructor has to do is kick out problematic students, but that is one of your responsibilities. You may want to give people a second chance after minor offenses, but at a certain point you have to lay down the law and tell them to leave.

Take complaints by your students seriously and look into them. You may be uncomfortable with this because you trust the person being accused or you don’t want to stir up “drama.” While you may not have realized it when you started a school, this is one of your duties as a leader. Many victims hesitate to come forward with their stories because they fear no one will believe them or they are ashamed of what happened to them. You do not need to act without first investigating to confirm the facts, but victims should feel safe coming to you because you respect what they have to say.

Do not date or have sexual relationships with your students. Even if you are sure you are a good guy and would never abuse your privileges, the problems inherent in romantic relationships between teachers and students make them a bad idea. This is a controversial point for some, since they may know of happy couples that started as a teacher-student relationship, but the potential for abuse or other problems is very high.

Should instructors be free to date students?

Some will defend an instructor’s freedom to date students and point to successful marriages that started this way. The argument usually goes: “Love can blossom anywhere. Who are we to tell consenting adults what they can and can’t do in the privacy of their bedroom? Aren’t a lot of those supposedly ‘problematic’ behaviors just normal for romance and dating?”

The problem with those arguments is that they ignore the power dynamics at play, where the teacher has much greater power over the student. We are not talking about what adults do in private, but how a teacher acts towards his students. Focusing on the few times these romantic relationships work out fine ignores that much greater number that do not. Recognize that these are not two adults meeting on level ground in a socially neutral setting. There is a high potential for manipulation and abuse.

What power does an instructor hold over a student?

  • Teaches a special knowledge, but can also withhold it
  • Can award or deny your rank promotions
  • Can give or withhold attention
  • Can praise or shame you in front of your peers
  • Has the final word on decisions that impact your life at the school
  • Can kick you out and severe your ties to other students
  • Likely to be sided with in disagreements or conflicts
  • Likely to be believed when spreading rumors
  • Hold these powers over all of your peers in the school

An instructor can also have physical power over their students, which is usually part of the job description for teaching people to fight.

Relationships with students can also cause problems for the school. Students can develop jealousy and resentment if they feel their instructor is showing favoritism towards their new romantic partner, such as getting extra attention or faster belt promotions.

In My Personal Code of Ethics as an Instructor, I wrote the following:

Do not get into relationships with students.

In my previous post, I briefly mentioned “don’t bang your students” as an obvious rule, but many readers wanted to hear more on that, which is partly why we are getting this second post.

Let’s look to what the code of ethics for Olympic coaches says about this:

Coaches do not engage in sexual intimacies with current athletes.

The code even goes one step further to ban sexual relations between coaches and former athletes for two years after the coach-athlete relationship ends, explaining it like this:

Because sexual intimacies with a former athlete are so frequently harmful to the athlete, and because such intimacies undermine public confidence in the coaching profession and thereby deter the public’s use of needed services, coaches do not engage in sexual intimacies with former athletes even after a two-year interval except in the most unusual circumstances.The coach who engages in such activity after the two years following cessation or termination of the coach-athlete relationship bears the burden of demonstrating that there has been no exploitation, in light of all relevant factors, including:

(1) the amount of time that has passed since the coach-athlete relationship terminated,
(2) the circumstances of termination,
(3) the athlete’s personal history.
(4) the athlete’s current mental status,
(5) the likelihood of adverse impact on the athlete and others, and
(6) any statements or actions made by the coach during the course of the athlete-coach relationship suggesting or inviting the possibility of a post-termination sexual or romantic relationship with the athlete or coach.

A BJJ gym is not held to the same standard as an Olympic training center, but it is still a bad idea for instructors to sleep with students for the same reasons. The teacher-student dynamic — like any with one person having more authority, control, and influence over the other — has too much potential for abuse. Students (especially women) should not need to worry that their coach has other intentions than to teach them what they signed up to learn.

I will admit I know of a few times where a BJJ black belt dated a student and they ended up happily married, but I have many more stories about nasty break-ups, rifts breaking up the gym, jealousy, angry wives, and all the drama you would expect from a Brazilian soap opera. It’s better to just keep it in your pants.

Women should feel safe joining a martial arts school without needing to keep their guard up against being pressured into sex by instructors or other students. Women want to learn martial arts so they can protect themselves against predators, not surround themselves with more.

The aim here is not to portray every instructor with a romantic interest in a student as an abuser. It’s not uncommon for people who spend a lot of time together with a shared interest to develop feelings for each other. The point is that power imbalances make the breakdown of personal and professional boundaries so prone to negative outcomes, even when no one set out with bad intentions. Thinking she can just say “no” if she’s not into you ignores that she has to worry how her answer changes her relationship with her teacher who holds power and influence over her.

What about students who pursue instructors?

The instructor-student relationship is a two way street, and the student can be the one making advances on the instructor. You may have run into so-called “black belt chasers,” women whose goal seems to be to sleep with black belts. They get brought up when this topic is debated to try to get instructors off the hook. This muddies the waters, because the instructor could be manipulated, too, but issues of power dynamics and consent still apply, and the best policy is still “do not get romantic with students,” even if they want it.

What about romantic partners or spouses who start training?

Relationships that started outside the school without teacher-student power dynamics that later move into the gym are not what we’re concerned about here.

What about women who commit abuse?

This article was written from the perspective that men are more likely to cause problems than women. Of course, a woman engaging in inappropriate behavior is wrong, too. But even if we assume any single woman is just as likely to offend as a man, just going by the numbers, men are the bigger problem because they are the majority in BJJ, especially among instructors. All demographic data I have seen for BJJ (and I have collected much of it) puts the ratio at about nine men for every one woman.

What about abuse of men and boys?

Going by those same demographics, abuse of men and boys is a problem, too, though they may be even less likely to report it. The abuse can be sexual, such a groping and rape, but more common between adults are bullying, abuses of power, or ripping off money.


Closing Thoughts

Martial arts instructors need to realize that to teach self defense and personal empowerment with any integrity, they have to ensure their schools and their own conduct are free of coercion and harassment. Students are placing a great deal of trust in you, and you are betraying that trust if you exploit it for personal gain and sexual indulgences.

As a student, you can insist that your instructors and your fellow students are held to higher standards. The relaxed, non-traditional attitude of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu is what drew so many of us to it, but we should see that this blurring of boundaries does not give those with power the freedom to abuse it.

If you are currently having problems with people at your school, feel free to contact me or Valerie Worthington, and we will do what we can or put you in touch with people who are better equipped to help you.

If you are an instructor who needs the advice on how to address issues like problematic students and toxic gym culture, you can reach out and I will put you in touch with leaders on their topics.

In future articles, I will talk more about how the power imbalances between instructors and students can lead to abuses, not just for sex, but also for power and money, and how men are victimized, too.

Further Reading

Cathy Chapaty has written Athletes at Risk, a five-part series for Bullshido about the problem of sexual abuse and misconduct in martial arts. While my focus here was mainly on what happens between adults, hers is mostly about adults who coach children, though the patterns of abuse are often the same. I highly recommend reading these, especially if you are a parent of a young student and an instructor who who works with kids:

  1. Convincing Olympic Athletes to Report Sexual Abuse, Misconduct a Hard Art
  2. The Evolution of Abuse of Power
  3. Education, Boundaries Key to Ending Sexual Abuse, Martial Arts Leaders Say
  4. 7 Tips to Prevent Sexual Abuse, Misconduct
  5. Time to Hold Abusers and Enablers Accountable
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