Most of us who read this blog are used to moving around in male-dense environments. We know that just being a female in motion on land, sea or air often attracts attention, some of it unwelcome and discouraging.
For this post, I interviewed Karen, a 30-year-old black belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ).
BJJ is a grappling sport, like wrestling. It involves a lot of close physical contact, mostly on the ground. I mean a LOT—I don’t know of other sports in which two people are in such close and prolonged contact, body parts all in a tangle.
Karen trains and works at Clockwork BJJ in New York City, and she runs a regular women’s open mat there (their facebook page is here). I wanted to know what her experience was like: training in the high-intensity, often high-testosterone combat sport of BJJ, and also achieving a black belt in the sport. Here’s her perspective as a high-level sports practitioner.
How did you find your way to BJJ?
I grew up swimming—competitively from age 9. I played high school softball, too. Swimming is a team sport, but you swim by yourself; BJJ is like that, too. I started BJJ at age 20—it was something different for exercise, and I like the fighting and self defense.
I saw the movie Kill Bill and loved the female character—she’s sensitive but brutal, too. She does kung fu, and I wanted to do something like that. There was a good BJJ school in Atlanta where I lived, and it looked hard and challenging. I like that. I started competing 7 years ago. You get 6 months of progress in one day of competing—you learn a lot!
What are workouts like at your gym?
I get there early to stretch and warm up. There’s a women’s locker room here, which is unusual. Usually women’s locker rooms are a closet. When I started 10 years ago I had to change in a unisex bathroom.
When I take a class, we learn two techniques. We spend 30 minutes learning and drilling, and then 45—60 minutes sparring with partners. We do 6—7 minutes of sparring, then switch. We do this 4—8 times with a few minutes between bouts. In the learning part, the teacher spends 15 minutes to show the technique, then you get 15 minutes with a partner and do it back and forth. We might do an escape and then an attack. You stay with one partner the whole time during the drill. You tend to stick with the same people. As a woman you find the handful of guys you feel most comfortable with. I’ll spar with any new or experienced woman, and I train with the same 5—10 guys.
What’s it like sparring with men vs. sparring with women?
Some men want to kill you when they spar—they don’t want to get beat by a woman—or they treat you like the most delicate thing they’ve ever encountered. I’ve found guys who were in the middle. For the first few years, I was defending myself all the time. As I got better and stronger, it leveled the playing field. They couldn’t go delicate. And I could go rough, and they couldn’t kill me because of my skills. As a black belt, there is nobody you can’t handle. It’s rewarding to have worked hard. And when you can go for the attack, it’s a good turning point.
Rolling with women is different— because we are such a minority, and are defending all the time, we get technical skills. It’s a different side of BJJ—less use of strength, more balance of strength and technique. This is less so for men.
Low-level men go crazy, trying to win, and they don’t have to defend themselves as much because the strength disparities aren’t so big [between them and their sparring partners].
Rolling with male black belts is awesome and fun! They see you as equal, and they go as hard as you go, back and forth. Men tell me they don’t go easier on me. I don’t care—I do what I want to do.
Women aren’t as strong, but technique comes in; there are positions using my legs that I’m better at. In BJJ, being in your guard on your back is an offensive position. By the time you’re a purple belt, the fact that women are more technical comes out; you get good at a guard, or a position for attacking them.
Have you experienced sexist treatment in BJJ?
At my old gym, I was sparring with a kid. I put him in a triangle and he tapped out [conceding defeat]. [In this position] his face is in your crotch.
From across the gym another guy laughed out loud and said to everyone that this was the best moment of the kid’s life, so he would never want to tap out. I went over to him and said, “don’t ever say anything like that again.” He got defensive, like I was overreacting. His response was we don’t need to talk to each other ever again.
That night my instructor called and asked what happened. I told him. He said that was gross, and you don’t have to talk to him. But, he never said anything to the class or to the guy. Things like that happened on a regular basis. I was always on my own.
At my current gym, [Sensei] Josh has created an atmosphere where that doesn’t happen. People like that don’t last here. I get lots of support. Some 17-year-old kid was disrespectful to me once while rolling and I corrected him; I said, “don’t be that guy.” He later apologized. It was a cool moment.
At my old gym, when I was sparring with one guy, I could feel him looking me in the eye. It’s not typical to make eye contact. He said, “you’re getting angry at me, aren’t you?” I said no. He said, “no, you’re very frustrated.” I told him, “don’t talk while sparring.” It felt disingenuous; he was maybe getting something else out of it.
Like it was foreplay?
Yes. But that doesn’t happen here [at Clockwork BJJ]. When I started publicizing the women-only open mat on Facebook, I got guys saying oh, that sounds fun—can I come? But other guys would post, saying that was gross. It was cool.
Does being a black belt affect how you feel as a woman out there in the world? Has your sense of self-confidence changed?
It makes me feel more in control of my experience walking down the street. I don’t feel intimidated by anyone I see. That’s maybe a bit naive but …
Have you ever had to fight anyone?
I was in a situation at a party; two girls picked a fight with me and I kicked their asses. They were the aggressors but I didn’t want to hurt them. But I had to—I broke someone’s nose. At one point, I mounted one of them, took a breath, and thought what should I do? The fight was interesting— because I had experience with people being so close to me in BJJ competitions, I could see what she was doing. I was not going wild but in fact was fighting. Having the experience of someone in my personal space so much—with the adrenaline, fear, discomfort—I can feel sure of myself walking down the street.
How do you think we can make BJJ more open to women?
I want to open my own gym in the next year or so. I can create an environment where misogyny isn’t tolerated. Being a woman draws more women, and makes them more comfortable. There are two women-run gyms in California. They’ve been doing BJJ a long time and won lots of championships. One is women-only, and the other is coed. I think BJJ is headed that way, but because so few women are high enough [in the sport], it is only happening now.