Women’s Experiences in Jiu Jitsu

Starting this blog has helped me realize that there is no one experience for women in jiu jitsu.  This may sound pretty dumb because I knew before that there was no one experience for men in jiu jitsu.  But the way jiu jitsu is approached for women makes it seem like there is only one possible experience.

I have had the opportunity to experience jiu jitsu in many different ways – and I’m actually grateful I took so much time off because it gave me that opportunity.  Looking back at my own experiences and reflecting on my partners’ experiences has made me appreciate how different the jiu jitsu journey can be.

When I started jiu jitsu I was usually the only woman in class (and as I was 16 – calling me a woman was stretching it).  My instructor didn’t think I would stick around so discouraged me from starting in the first place.  I had a lot of men looking out for me – people learned very quickly that if they slammed me there would be consequences for the next 3 – 5 rolls.  People were very gentle with me and very technical.  I usually had the changing room to myself but would talk to my guy friends through the shared wall on Friday nights.  I had never met a woman with anything higher than a blue belt and this was around the time Kira Gracie posed in her underwear.  Mat justice seemed more prevalent then – the man who groped me and other women while rolling was essentially hazed out of the school.  I think if I had a woman roll model (haha) or had someone telling me (even though I didn’t know I needed to hear it) that I could do jiu jitsu I may have not taken my seven year break.  I needed to hear that it gets easier after blue belt and that I was paving the way for other women – if I had stuck with it I could have been my instructor’s first woman black belt (or purple belt or brown belt).  I just didn’t realize at the time that not only was I working through my jiu jitsu journey but also breaking the glass ceiling in jiu jitsu.  The blue belt blues hit me hard.

I visited another school recently and a lot of the feelings from my first school came back.  I asked about women in the gym and the higher level belts seemed to think it was odd that I was interested in the regular classes – not the women’s only class.  I got the impression I would be considered strange and maybe even a little unwelcome by some if I chose to go to the regular class instead of the women’s class.  There was also the guy manning the front desk.  I came into this gym with two men – one of whom I’m happily married to – and yet the guy at the front desk still kept moving closer and closer to me as we were talking and used every opportunity to look me up and down.  Despite this gym being brand new, gorgeous, and much closer to my home I’m not interested in training there.  The woman black belt instructor isn’t even enough to lure me.

One of my instructors (leaving this intentionally vague for her privacy) has a daughter who has been training since she was little.  She is a better grappler than most of the children but seems to be having trouble coming to terms with her adolescence and being able to beat up all of the boys in the class.  What I want to tell her: its ok to be strong and good at something.  You’ll be amazing at jiu jitsu when you’re older and anyone who thinks less of you for doing jiu jitsu doesn’t deserve you.  I hope she continues training through her teenage years.  I cannot imagine getting a blue belt as soon as you turn 16 and the shock of moving from the kids class to the adult class.

My first time training at my current school one woman really went out of her way to welcome me.  I didn’t realize at the time how much she had been through to be able to train.  She has to take months off at a time due to serious health concerns.  She’s also gay.  I know back when I was first training jiu jitsu was not the most welcoming environment for LBGTQ people.  It seems better now but I also imagine its easier for gay women than gay men – we have multiple openly gay women but no openly gay men at our school.  This woman also helps teach the kids class multiple times a week.  Fortunately she told me that no men had ever hit on her at jiu jitsu.  I hope it stays that way for her.  I really admire her perseverance.  She’s tiny but very good – I don’t know if she gets enough credit for how good her jiu jitsu is.  I would like to tell her that jiu jitsu is hard enough without all of the challenges she has had to face.  And that even if it seems like no one appreciates her skill – I do and I understand how hard it is to train jiu jitsu as a smaller person.

There’s a new woman who is so young she reminds me of myself when I first started.  Fortunately she’s older than I was and seems to have her life together.  I don’t know much about her right now and I sincerely regret that I haven’t been able to train with her yet.  Her goal seems to be primarily self-defense and to make friends.  I hope when I return to training that I can pass on some of my self-defense knowledge.  I would also tell her not to waste her time on people just because she thinks they are the only ones who would have her.  I am glad she is at this school because I feel like the environment will prevent her from making some of the mistakes I made.

There’s another woman who’s a young professional.  I have never asked her why she chose to start jiu jitsu (which is something I really should have done a long time ago).  I would guess she started because her partner started.  And now he trains much more often than she does.  She is very gentle and struggles to use force.  We have had discussions about how frustrating jiu jitsu can be and how it never really feels like you’re getting better.  I really just want to be there for her – I want to be her training partner.

There is one woman training partner who I sincerely regret my actions toward.  I had drilled with her multiple times and we were getting along very well.  But the first time we rolled she put me in her guard and she was much larger than me.  I got frustrated because I couldn’t do anything.  My coach was encouraging me to pass her guard but I was having trouble holding the weight of her legs and my frustration showed when I told my coach I couldn’t do anything.  She never came back.  So I feel pretty shitty about that.  I was frustrated with myself – not with her – I wanted her to be my training partner and I should not have let my frustration show.

The final woman I want to talk about trains at my current school.  She is a fantastic competitor and I have so much fun flow rolling with her.  She has a great attitude and laughs whenever one of her training partners does something unexpected during a roll.  She seems to have everything going for her but last time I saw her she said it must have been really hard for me to be the only woman at a school and that she’s feeling similarly because not many women are training right now.  I appreciate her empathy and she’s the reason I started this post – I had never really thought about how different our training experiences must be.  She’s been with her now-husband the entire time she’s trained.  The whole time she’s trained there have been other women training regularly.  And since white belt she has excelled at competition.  Our experiences are very different but I am really glad she is my training partner.

I guess my point with all of this is there is no single experience for women in jiu jitsu.  So although women often get grouped together we have different needs, goals, and backgrounds.  I think it is important to remember that when talking about women in jiu jitsu.

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