The Importance of Visibility (and other things)

Sometime I have a very rough idea for a blog and I then really hesitate about writing it. Usually because its on a controversial subject and this one is no different. Over the past few weeks the internet has been going crazy over various revelations about sexual harassment, abuse and assault in BJJ and as a female blogger I would be remiss not to use my voice (no matter how small it is).

But rather than just regurgitate the situation I thought it might be a good time to look at some of the potential solutions including the importance of female visibility in the sport.

If you use social media you cannot have missed the various reports regarding sexual harassment and worse in BJJ. Whether is has been the situation with the Fight Sport Affiliation or reports closer to home. Linked to that has been various conversation about what can be done legally, by affiliation / governing bodies and generally. I have been sharing the voices and stories of those women who have survived and come forward so this blog is going to be more focused on the solutions. 

judgement scale and gavel in judge officeLegally there are obviously difference internally between US and UK law etc. In the UK the law is about to be changes to make it illegal for sports coaches to have sexual relations with 16-17 years that they have a position of trust over. In my past professional life I have had to deal with sporting safeguarding allegation and cases so was thrilled to hear this but it hasn’t happened yet and the bill the changes are included in (the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill) has lot of controversial changes within it which will slow its progress through the British system and its ultimate enactment in law. Until it comes in the Police need to find evidence of grooming pre 16 years of age in order to prosecute. Obviously depending on the circumstances there are other legal options (e.g. rape, stalking etc) but these can also be notoriously tricky to gain prosecutions for an are often traumatic for the individual. 

There has been questions about what role governing bodies can take. In the UK we do not have unified governing body for BJJ the nearest we have is the UKBJJA but not all clubs have to members and in some respects affiliations and linage have more influence. DBS checks are offered by the UKBJJA and are mentioned frequently as a solution but in reality they only really show when people have been caught and as mentioned above the criminal system will not capture everything – so they shouldn’t be waved around as a panacea.

Female Fighters Coaching PicThe solution in most sports is linked to coach licensing, without a license in certain sports your unable to coach or gain insurance. As part of the process you sign up to a code of conduct and have undertaken a certain level of training. In the event of an incident a disciplinary panel can meet and if your in breach of your license / code of conduct then your license can be withdrawn (an example of Athletics).  Obviously the individual can appeal etc but as it is a civil matter it can be done more effectively. Whilst UKBJJA have a coaches code of conduct and will investigate allegations the harsh reality is that being expelled for membership has limited implication beyond negative press and PR. A coach could still operate, gain DBS checks from another umbrella body as well as get insurance and compete etc. The IBJJF could possibly take a stronger stance as although it is not a governing body you cannot ignore it’s influence as competition organiser. Not recognising an individuals black belt (especially if convicted of an offense) and not allowing him to register a club / compete would have an impact. Admittedly he could still coach but a page similar to the UKA one mentioned above and the inability of their students to compete at IBJJF would raise queries and red flags to potential students.

Meg He Instagram Post PictureBut with the lack of a centralised approach with suitable reach and enforcement abilities it does come down a lot to affiliation and gym owners. Also as implied in my last post (about the Female Fighters Camp) as a community we still have broader issues whether that’s inappropriate advances, sexism or simply low level things that make women feel unwanted and unwelcome.  As part of the broader conversations about this Sam Cook highlighted a brilliant post by Meg He that explored the situation from a cultural leadership perspective and echoing my some of my thoughts re female viability.

Ultimately the key thing around female viability is to create the right culture. In an ideal world we would have females in leadership positions across gyms in the UK but the reality is there aren’t enough of us at the highest grades to full manage that (Yet)! So for now its about the steps that help create the culture and future. Ultimately we all want the same thing – busy gyms, full of people reaching their BJJ potential without worrying about sexual harassment etc.

Code of Conduct Signpost - Respect Ethics Honest Integrity

Codes of Conduct – I think all gyms / affiliations should have a code of conduct for coaches and members. There are dozen’s of examples via the internet setting the tone and values you want your club to be. Whilst not as structured as licensing they provide a useful tool when things go wrong etc. However, without a matching gym culture they can be meaningless documents;  a gyms culture isn’t just the owner or head coach but also all the advanced belts – working together to create the gym vibe but a code of conduct if enforced draws a lines and creates a starting point.  As the saying goes “your vibe creates your tribe”.

A way to raise issues – this is linked to safeguarding policies but have a way to raise issues or concerns that aren’t just the head coach (and/or their partner). Having at least two option (preferably of both sexes) that they can speak to / call or email can make a real difference. Hopefully, they are never needed but you never want someone to simply quit because they felt they had nobody to speak to. I know both the UKBJJA have a reporting email and various other athletes and groups have also offered support in dealing with issues but ultimately its about choice – depending on the situation or the individual some one might not want to feeling like their “making a fuss” or just want advice so will speak to someone their know, others will find it easier to speak to someone impartial and relatively unknown to them whilst others will want to go straight to the authorities / police. There is no right or wrong way for a person to feel when there in that type of difficult situation.

male and female signage on wall

Spaces and Places – Whenever I review a gym I mention the female changing space and have sung about the importance of changing spaces in previous blogs. This is because they are important! A female changing space being available instantly says “we want you to attend”. We know some gyms can’t provide spa esq facilitates and rose gold toilet roll holders but positive approaches and providing a clean appropriate space speaks volumes. On a more mundane note – stop the guys using the ladies loo (because its nicer and we use poo-pouri)!  Lets be honest there is no reason for guys to be in the female toilets or changing spaces unless its out of hours / empty and part of the cleaning schedule. 

Encourage inclusion – Just because as a country we don’t have enough higher grades to fill leadership positions in every gym doesn’t mean you cannot encourage inclusion. Have a look over your gyms social media and website. Do you include images of your female members? Do you celebrate their achievement equally to their male peers in publicity but also those in gym shout outs? Look around your open mat and rolling – Do females end up sitting out more rounds? do they struggle to get matched? do you do anything to help? Do you use female members to help demonstrate techniques either as an uke or in pairs (size /skills /safety allowing)? This isn’t about grand gestures but the little things that make big differences. 

man in blue denim jacket holding a megaphoneCalling Stuff Out – BJJ is a male dominated and hierarchical sport. A big thing that can change culture is simply guys calling stuff out. Whilst I have had some incredibly enlightening conversations about pornography and men’s perspectives of it through BJJ and martial arts it probably isn’t the best topic of conversation to have shouted across the mats during a class! Similarly many gyms have private Facebook pages and the like – keeping the banter and tone respectful is important. That’s before those chats and interventions about inappropriate behaviour – whether its giving a female referee more grief than there male versions (cause they might change their mind more) or just being a bit of a jerk (like blanking women in the line-up as even where there is religion reasons you can still nod / acknowledge).

Last but not least when case do happen don’t just stay silent – share the persons story in support, clarify your stance as a coach and gym. Often posts are shared by females but fizzle out and unfortunately without peer and social media pressure as certain gyms or coaches have waited the things to “blow over” to allow quote frankly horrific behaviour in some cases to continue.

As I mentioned above – this was a tough blog to write. Ultimately it’s one I shouldn’t have to write if it wasn’t for a small number of guys abusing their positions of trust and authority within the sport and having a fundamental disrespect for women not just as grappler but actually as humans. I don’t think what I have written is a magical solution to the problem’s we currently have but if it makes one person think, call something out or make a positive change then its a step in the right direction for the culture of the sport. 

PS It goes without saying my social media and messaging is always open to any female athletes who need someone to talk to. 

Photo Credit – Tim Mossholder on / Sora Shimazaki on  &



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