We would hope martial artists would honor a person’s boundaries and autonomy, as those are the basis of any self defense philosophy, but martial arts instructors and students can be perpetrators themselves. Knowing how to spot bad behavior and what to do about it can help protect you.

Understanding why certain behaviors–even seemingly innocent ones–can be red flags lies in consent, boundaries, spheres of influence, and power imbalances. The true intention or motivation behind an action can be the reason for concern, such as when a “friendly gesture” is used for manipulation.

You will see common patterns in these red flag 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.

Be wary of the following behaviors by martial arts instructors or students, especially when used to pursue a sexual relationship with you:

Aggressive pursuit of a relationship

  • Corners you or pulls you aside 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
  • 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 overly personal messages
  • Does not respect that you are already in a relationship
  • Sends you unsolicited sexual messages, pictures, or videos
  • Shows up uninvited where you live or work

You should not feel pressure to date or sleep with your instructor or anyone else at the school, and they should respect your privacy. Your consent and boundaries should be honored.

Harassment and violating boundaries

  • Makes inappropriate comments about your body or appearance
  • Blocks you from entering or leaving the bathroom or changing room
  • 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
  • Confides in you by telling secrets to force a “bond” between you

Off-color jokes and sexual comments put you on the spot to “act cool” even if they make you uncomfortable. A manipulator may overshare to elicit sympathy or draw personal details out of you.

Unwanted sexual contact

  • Initiates unwanted or inappropriate physical contact
  • Does not ask for your consent or disregards it to touch or kiss you
  • Touches you inappropriately under the guise of “coaching”
  • Offers to massage you or help you stretch as an excuse to touch you
  • Tries to get you to massage or touch them
  • Gropes you during training or sparring but plays it off as innocent
  • Touches you under your clothes or tries to undress you
  • Exposes themselves to you
  • Offers you sex or sexual acts
  • Solicits you for sexual favors or demands sexual acts

Sexual comments and touching are past being red flags. Ethical sexual contact demands consent between everyone involved and no coercion. An abuser may try to disguise what they are doing or make it difficult to say no. Being pressured, manipulated, or tricked into saying “yes” or going along with it is wrong.

Favors and flattery

  • Offers to drive you home alone
  • Offers to travel or stay together on a trip to a tournament or seminar
  • Offers you free after-hours private lessons or one-on-one training
  • Surprises you with favors and gifts to ingratiate themselves to you
  • Flatters and compliments you excessively
  • Promises to make you successful or a “star” competitor
  • Claims they feel a special connection to you
  • Offers you alcohol or drugs to lower your inhibitions

Favors and gifts are a common way gain someone’s trust and make them feel indebted. Flattery is used to lower someone’s guard. While we wish we could trust everyone’s intentions, recognize that “being nice” is a social strategy manipulators use to get what they want. You may worry you’re being rude, but it’s okay to say “no, thanks” when someone makes you uncomfortable.

Abuse, coercion, and gaslighting

  • Uses guilt or threats to coerce you into giving them what they want
  • Teases and “negs” you to make you interact with them
  • Insults and harasses you to undermine your confidence
  • Exhibits volatile emotions like anger and jealousy to control you
  • Threatens or intimidates you to get what they want
  • Hits, slaps, shakes, chokes, or grabs you outside of martial arts training
  • 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
  • Treats you poorly after you turn them down
  • Spreads rumors and lies about you, especially after you reject their advances
  • Roughs you up or injures you in sparring after feeling spurned

Abuse can be physical, emotional, or psychological. Coercion can be subtle, like using emotional blackmail, or as overt as threats of violence. Gaslighting is using lying, deception, and confusion to make someone doubt themselves and not resist their abuser.

Signs of a toxic school culture

You may not be the target of harassment, but you can judge the health of a school by how well its leadership ensures the safety of all its students and the culture it encourages. Be on the lookout for these bad signs:

  • Instructors or students engage in the red flag behaviors listed above
  • Instructors makes excuses for people who are guilty of bad behavior
  • An instructor or student has a history of sexual harassment/assault or a criminal record for it
  • Instructors and school staff are unwilling to seriously look into complaints and take action
  • Instructors and senior members use school as a dating pool for casual sex
  • Some 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 students, especially females
  • Demands for strict loyalty and shunning of people who leave the school

What you can do to protect yourself

Contact the police and get help. If you have been sexually assaulted, you can go to the police and report it. RAINN offers advice on how to report sex crimes and what to do after an assault. If you do not feel the harassment warrants going to the police, you can still take steps such as learning what to do when someone is pressuring you or stalking you.

Know your rights to consent and set your boundaries. Understand consent and your right to refuse sexual advances. Being taken advantage of by someone is not your fault. It is normal to feel embarrassed, like you did something wrong or brought it upon yourself, but the blame lies with the perpetrator, not you, even if you were tricked into going along with it.

Report problems to the head instructor or school owner. If the offender is another student or an assistant instructor, let whoever is in charge know. Make sure the school leadership takes you seriously and does not just brush it under the rug. Serious or repeat offenders need to be kicked out. Be warned though that many instructors are hesitant to question their friends or loyal students, and may try to stay out of what they consider “drama” or “he said, she said” situations.

Quit the school if it comes down to it. You may be willing to put up with some raunchy jokes or ignore “guys being guys”, but at a certain point you need to protect your safety and well-being from people who do not respect you. If the instructor is the offender, or they are unwilling or unable to handle harassment in their school, you’re better off finding somewhere else to train.

[This article was adapted from Confronting the Problem of Sexual Harassment and Coercion in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. The full article includes more actions to take as a student or instructor dealing with sexual harassment within your school.]