It is an exciting time for women in BJJ in the United Kingdom. In recent years a critical mass of players has developed, and seminars and women’s open mat events in 2009 included white to purple belts and women and girls of a wide age range. Though still very much a minority presence, the increased visibility of women in clubs and at competitions has attracted the interest of the wider (male-dominated) grappling community with blog and forum threads responding to the emergence of a larger female presence. These discussions are interesting and, to my mind, highlight the broad base of support for women by their BJJ brothers, yet a discussion around Slideyfoot’s article, Kyra Gracie and the treatment of women in BJJ, demonstrates continued gender tension in the BJJ/MMA/grapple-verse.
‘Juan (Pancho) Valquez’, a respondent to Slideyfoot’s analysis of women in BJJ, which highlights the emphasis that is placed on female athletes’ appearance at the expense of interest in their skills, makes a number of claims in an effort to demonstrate a hypocrisy of gender equality in BJJ/MMA/grappling. Valquez’s expressions of malcontent regarding female grapplers’ retelling of experiences of sexism in their sporting community is incited by Emily Kwok’s suggestion that female grapplers struggle to be taken seriously as athletes and receive less media attention than male counterparts. There is little doubt that the main hurdle women in sport face is ‘to be taken seriously’, or that the greatest attention of sports media is on men’s sporting achievements, and Kwok’s claims are certainly supported by studies of gender and sport. Valquez’s argument seems to centre on two themes: 1) women objectify men, so discussion of female athletes’ appearance is not a sign of sexism; 2) women are physically inferior to men and therefore aren’t men’s equals.
I certainly find male athletes sexually attractive, and find athletes’ bodies inspirational. However, I think it is naive to suggest that because men and women can find each other attractive, there is no difference in how this notion influences popular perceptions of male and female athletes. The salient question here is not, ‘do women objectify men’, or even, ‘do men objectify women’, it is, ‘does the objectification of women often obscure other qualities of a woman in a way that is both different than for men and more distracting from women’s athletic achievements’. I believe that it is. While the double standard surrounding the influence of appearance on popular perceptions of male versus female abilities is a wider societal phenomenon, let’s focus on its manifestation in sport (in Anglo-North American culture). Chris Isidore has discussed how marketing drives to increase female athletes’ sex appeal has, ultimately, detrimental effects on popular perceptions of female athletes’ abilities. Similarly, Laura Robinson notes, ‘The media is not interested in covering strong women, it is interested in covering naked women’. What is significant is not that male bodies are never objectified, but rather that portrayals of female athletes tend to emphasise passivity rather than the performance of sport (as is more common in representations of male players), and work to highlight the pleasingness of women’s bodies to men within a hetero-normative context while obscuring a woman’s athletic achievements.
Valquez argues that female grapplers can never be regarded as equals because they can’t ‘win’ against men. It is difficult to unpick exactly what Valquez’s argument is here. He oscillates between suggesting that women can never beat men, ‘They’d [female athletes] be unable to compete against the men and so, as kids, would steer away from sports that they knew to be a dead end for them’ and that women can beat some men, ‘Most professional level female bjjers/mma competitors could probably make a hobbyist like me look like a fool’. In the end, the core of his position seems to be an affirmation of sexual segregation in sport (which in some subtle unarticulated way seems to demonstrate, for Valquez, female inferiority) and the assertion that if women are equal to men, they should be able to best male competitors, as unlikely as he believes this to be, ‘Generally speaking male athletes usually win against female athletes if they are at the same skill level. That’s why we segregate sports by gender in the first place.' I believe this assertion is untested, at least in Britain, as the opportunity to compete against men is rarely available to female grapplers in the UK. As Camilla Hansen’s excellent posting on EFN demonstrates, women are barred from competing against men at most UK tournaments. While Hansen notes that the Nordic Open allows mixed competition with a 5 kilo advantage, it remains aberrant in Anglo-North American grappling tournaments to offer mixed competition.
I believe that the subtext to Valquez’s comments is offence at women entering what is perceived as a masculine arena. While women’s agency in the public sphere has increased since the Victorian and Edwardian women’s movement, the public sphere is still in many ways elided with maleness and performances of masculinity. Female grapplers ‘intrusion’ into the male-dominated grappling space can therefore be viewed, by some men, as a threat to and a disruption of their masculine identity. In other words, the ability to undertake these masculine performances can, for some men, be ‘cheapened’ by the inclusion of women’s grappling performances. The insecurity which can arise from this perceived attack on masculinity can give rise to belittling attitudes towards women and women’s sporting achievements. I, like Kwok, have been accused of practicing an inferior form of ‘girl jiu jitsu’ and of having been promoted to a ‘girl blue belt’. Yes, as a lighter practitioner, my path is different from many of the men that I train with. There are no easy wins, ‘muscling it’ is never an option, and in common with other lighter grapplers I have to make the technique work to make progress. My approach may be different to larger grapplers, but ultimately everyone’s BJJ is unique and male or female we all have our own games, strengths and weaknesses.
In the final analysis, some peoples’ views are so entrenched that no amount of persuasion can bring them round to accept me or other female grapplers as valuable training partners or equally important athletes. I can only seek to ‘be the change I want to see’. I organise women’s open mats to provide a place for women to come together and train with one another, and I train hard with an incredible group of (mostly) men at Dartford BJJ, secure in the knowledge that I have their love and respect, just as they have mine.
 Slideyfoot, Kyra Gracie and the treatment of women in BJJ (2010).
 See Laura Robinson interview by Ellie Gordon-Moershel, The reality of women, sport and sexuality (2009). Author’s note, I heartily disagree with Robinson’s moralistic and pejorative description of women’s fighting, however, I find much of her argument persuasive and cogent as one would expect from a veteran analyst of women in sport.
 For example, Kate Fox, in her summary of SIRC findings, has argued that ‘women are judged on their appearance more than men, and standards of female beauty are considerably higher and more inflexible’. See Kate Fox, Mirror, mirror – a summary of research findings on body image (1997).
 See Chris Isidore, Sex in play in women’s sports (2002).
 Robinson and Gordon-Moershel, The reality of women, sport and sexuality.
 Robinson and Gordon-Moershel, The reality of women, sport and sexuality.
 Juan (Pancho) Valquez response to Slideyfoot, Kyra Gracie and the treatment of women in BJJ.
 Valquez response to Slideyfoot, Kyra Gracie and the treatment of women in BJJ.
 See Camilla Hansen, Should women be allowed to compete in men’s divisions (2009).
 See Megan Smitley, The feminine public sphere: middle-class women and civic life in Scotland, c1870-1914 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009).
18 Jan 2010 @ 5:35 pm
Your final para says it all.
18 Jan 2010 @ 5:40 pm
Thanks, Meerkatsu. I'll admit I've been insecure in the past and struggle not to come onto the mats with 'something to prove', but I am starting to take my training partners' respect and friendship at face value. Really there are many more good eggs than bad 😀
18 Jan 2010 @ 6:22 pm
Well said!! Great blog. I hope Juan takes the time to read it.
18 Jan 2010 @ 6:28 pm
Thanks very much, A.D. McClish. I really liked your comments on Slideyfoot's blog 🙂
18 Jan 2010 @ 7:28 pm
I just wanted to note that the Kate Fox link is dead. Fortunately, Internet Archive to the rescue, as they've got a copy.
18 Jan 2010 @ 7:39 pm
Thanks, slideyfoot! Blogger added some weird characters (and I didn't test the link) when I first added the link. Should be fixed now.
18 Jan 2010 @ 10:49 pm
Meg, this is an amazing response to the comments by Juan. I wish that I was as eloquent and well researched as you.
Thank you for writing this post.
19 Jan 2010 @ 9:28 am
Thank *you* for reading, Laura! I really appreciate your kind words 🙂
Juan (pancho) Valquez
19 Jan 2010 @ 3:48 pm
I debated even posting anything here. You addressed one of my points, the rest of the time you put words in my mouth. The only point you did address was the objectification of combat athletes. You simply decided to conclude that male sexuality is harmful while female sexuality is harmless. I don't feel like repeating myself, but; here I am anyway.
Please point out where I said women aren't men's 'equals'. You can't because I never made that claim. I simply said that on average female athletes lose to male athletes. If have taken part in organized sport's activities in which men and women train together but compete separately then this shouldn't even be in issue. If you have ever taken to time to research the outcomes of mixed gender competition then this shouldn't be an issue. Holding everything else equal a 150 lb male fighter can usually beat an equally skilled fighter 150 lb female fighter. This is why segregation by gender exists in sports in the first place. Nature isn't politically correct.
If you think you are the exception to the rule then get on the mat or in the cage and prove it, instead of whining about how unfair it is that no one is interested in you're athletic abilities. In other words you should put up or shut up; that's what men are expected to do.
Also don't give me the excuse that you can't find a venue that will allow you to compete with men. If promoters can find an organization that will allow a fighter with all of his limbs fight a parapeligic fighter; then I'm sure you can find a venue to go up against male grapplers. If a certain promotion that you want to compete won't allow intergender competition, then; shame on them! But the rules they play by aren't my fault.
I simply stated that if women want the fruits of equality, then they should give up the special privileges afforded to them because of their sex and deal with the hardships of equality. It's that simple. Equality means the same standards and the same rewards. As I said before: Female athletes certainly deserve the chance to go up against male athletes to prove that they are among the best in the world. But you can't have it both ways. It's hypocritical to expect the privilege of being shielded from potentially physically superior opponents just because of your gender, while; at the same time demanding the rewards of a system based on equality. Women are either men's equals or the weaker sex who must be coddled and protected. But you can't be both of those things at the same time.
As far as the objectification issue I stand by what I said earlier:
Assuming that your premise is correct who's worse of a 2nd tier female athlete who's only valued for her appearance, or; a 2nd tier male athlete that has the exact same level of capability who isn't valued at all. If women are sex object then that makes men success objects.
Again if you believe that you are a top tier grappler, and you aren't getting the notoriety that you deserve, then get on the mat and prove it by beating top ranked male grapplers. That's what men have to do. If you consistently beat highly ranked male grapplers I promise you that people will take notice of your abilities.
Lastly it's unfortunate that you choose to demonize male sexuality, while portraying female sexuality as benign. I refuse to apologize for my sexuality. You exist because of male sexuality; I exist because of male sexuality; and male sexuality has allowed us to accomplish everything that we have achieved as a species. Before we could cure devastating diseases or travel to outer space we first had to ensure our survival as a species. If men's interest in sex suddenly disappeared then the human race would become extinct with in 90 years.
Paraplegic mma fighter: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DFWCZJyP1vE
19 Jan 2010 @ 4:31 pm
Thanks so much for your response, Juan, I appreciate you taking the time to prepare such a lengthy reply. I apologise if you feel that I have put words into your mouth. It was my intention, and I believe I succeeded, to use your words, quoted from your comments, to discuss both my disagreement with what I understood of your position and to touch on wider issues of gender tension in grappling. Indeed, I have linked to your original comments so readers could easily view your writing and judge for themselves without relying on my interpretation. I am also sorry that it is important to you to mount a personal attack against me and to attempt to make this discussion personal. While I may have attacked your words, I did not attack you, and this is because I am interested in your comments as a starting point to discuss issues of gender and grappling.
Regarding mixed competition. My point, and the thread that I referred to, was that your assertions regarding segregation in grappling are untested. For myself, I agree that men and women should have the opportunity to compete against one another, however, in Britain and, as I understand, the USA, mixed competition remains controversial and unusual. For me, personally, mixed competition would likely allow me to have more fights and be placed in a fuller division (often, due to low numbers, women's divisions are absolute by belt with no gradation for weight and age). In my own limited competition experience, when I have been the only woman, I was refused fights. I recount this without bitterness and not as an 'excuse' but simply describing some personal experience as evidence that it is not at all straightforward for women to compete against men. Indeed, not only do I have experience of men not wanting to fight women, but I know several female grapplers that support segregated competition. So my argument, simply and without offering judgment, is that your claim is untested.
Regarding male sexuality. At no point do I 'demonize male sexuality' or portray 'female sexuality as benign'. I do discuss how women's grappling could pose a threat to some men's masculinity. Perhaps this is what you are referring to. Masculinity (or femininity), as opposed to male or female sexuality, describes the roles and socio-cultural characteristics associated with maleness or femaleness. Of course there is no single masculinity or femininity, and identity is as varied as human beings are themselves, but this is not the place for a discussion of fundamental concepts in understanding gender. To clarify, I commented on how some men's masculinity (read sense of manliness or sense of male identity) can be disrupted by female athletes. I believe this is especially so for those individuals who subscribe to a worldview of hegemonic masculinity.
19 Jan 2010 @ 5:25 pm
In response to Juan: "Please point out where I said women aren't men's 'equals'. You can't because I never made that claim. "
How about here:
"I simply stated that if women want the fruits of equality, then they should give up the special privileges afforded to them because of their sex and deal with the hardships of equality. It's that simple."
20 Jan 2010 @ 1:14 pm
Thanks. A good read! I think you both make some good points. The ones I wish to comment on are Meg's observation that men have a strong tendency to over emphasise women's appearances and Juan's counter that men should equally be considered 'success objects'. You both show that we are obsessed with sex and status. Nothing earth-shatteringly new there, but then I am not claiming to be a philosophical heavyweight. I will further consolidate my position as 'Master of the Obvious' by suggesting that this is not likely to change much in the near term.
What happens if I ask myself some pertinent and difficult questions? Do I respect and value women's ability in MMA and BJJ? Absolutely! Does this even slightly interfere with my enjoying some highly superficial aspects some of their appearances? Jeez… There is no hope for me. I am going to hell.
But then, unfortunately, my ability to clumsily observe how shallow human nature can be doesn't help me escape it. And some of these women have exactly what I desire for myself – high status through success in a sport I love AND a physique to die for.
I guess the point I am tring to make is that we have two fighters discussing a contentious topic from behind a keyboard. I suppose it was going to be hard to keep it light. However,
we all want women to do well in the sport we love and wish you every success. Sorry if some of you find the whole 'pin up' thing distressing sometimes. I am not saying that you shouldn't challenge it and fight against it, just that I am pessimistic about this changing anytime soon. It has been one of the longest wars and will continue to take up some of our time and energy. Does it makes sense to try and enjoy it where we can?
When men step into the feminist firing range, I feel we are dressed like circus clowns – we present a large, easy to hit target. I like to bring plenty of ammunition to shoot back, but make sure most it is custard pies.
20 Jan 2010 @ 2:18 pm
Thanks for your comment, Anon (20/01/10). I appreciate you taking the time to contribute to the discussion. I agree that sexuality is an innate part of the human condition, and, personally, I embrace this notion. As you state, it is not the idea that men and women can find each other attractive, but rather the idea that sexualised portrayals of women, for this discussion sporting women in particular, have much different implications for popular perceptions of those women's abilities than in the case of male athletes. I offer no judgment on whether or not I personally find 'the whole "pin up" thing' distressing or not, but rather suggest an analysis of representations of male and female athletes that provides some evidence of a double-standard. A double-standard which in turn reveals, to my mind, a sexist cultural undercurrent.
20 Jan 2010 @ 4:29 pm
Hi Meg, thanks for your reply. It is a pleasure to continue to read such well thought out eloquently expressed views. You invite further analysis that you feel may uncover evidence of a double standard and sexism.
In light of the fact that you are clearly highly intelligent and extremely well educated, this proposed cultural analysis feels like your home turf. And your implicit invitation to defend sport fighting, one of the last bastions of male pride and machismo in a politically correct world against a charge of double standards and sexism feels like an offer to play David to your Goliath. I suspect that you will have any fool crazy enough to accept your challenge tapping hard in short order.
But while I am pulling on my size 18 shoes, defiantly putting my red nose on and filling the pockets of my oversized patchwork trousers with custard pies, I can't help wondering what your motivation is.
You are manifestly more than able to hold your own in both intellectual debate and on the mat, you have clearly earned and won the affection and respect of your club and colleagues, you enjoy success and high status in a male dominated field, and yet, somehow, it's Just Not Enough…
I am beginning to get the feeling that for you there seem to be many things about men that need fixing? Improvements that need to be made to the male psyche? Many problems that need discussing? At length?
To be honest, I am having a deja vu moment…
But I am afraid that pointing out my shortcomings is a privilege that my wife guards jealously and there would be a huge fight if she found that you were doing this.
Actually, thinking about it, that would be spectacular! Tickets anyone?
20 Jan 2010 @ 7:27 pm
Thanks for your comments today, Anon, sardonic as I may have found them, but I do not believe that my personal motivations, as you've sought to elicit with assumptions masked as questions regarding my views on men (as distasteful and inaccurate as I find said assumptions), are relevant, nor do I require a free session with 'an Analyst', as mid-20th century folk might have put it.
20 Jan 2010 @ 8:23 pm
(*Sigh*) Tap, tap, tap.
Hi Meg. Well, I was trying to push my tongue as far into my cheek as it would go with my last post, none of it was meant to be taken seriously, but I can see that my attempt at humour has failed. I threw custard pies, you threw egg and now that is what I have on my face.
I am not trying to trivialise your topic, I just hoped to inject a sense of play and have some fun. With you, not at you.
In retrospect, it seems I have been a troll and taken a serious thread off-topic. It is your blog, please feel free to delete my (on reflection, rather puerile) posts.
My sincere apologies.
21 Jan 2010 @ 7:48 am
Anon, an apology is not necessary, but it is kindly accepted. I accept, too, that public forum will invite all comers and all points of view, and all are welcome to express themselves on my blog (except spammers). Thank you for clarifying your intentions, and apologies if I have made you feel contrite. I don't think you've acted a total troglodyte, but on this occasion I was unprepared to lighten up. Thanks again for your contributions and all the best with your training.
21 Jan 2010 @ 8:52 am
Likewise, no apology necessary – after all, if I choose to act the clown and run around in size 18 shoes, I shouldn't be too surprised about putting my foot in it…
Similarly, good luck with your training and more so with promoting BJJ to women – it would be great to have more of you involved.
21 Jan 2010 @ 9:10 am
There is only one Meg, Anon, but I'll surely do what I can to get more women and girls and on the mats 😉 Thanks for your support.
21 Feb 2010 @ 4:47 pm
Thank you for bringing up an issue that I have noticed in my own realm of BJJ training here in the United States! Most of the men I train with are feminists themselves and understand the term "feminism" enough to treat me and my fellow women with more than enough respect and admiration. I am very proud to roll with these men who, even though they probably have not studied feminism on their own, they have encountered it and thought about it enough to understand how sexism effects both men and women. They are the most encouraging, friendly, and respectful guys I have had the pleasure of sharing a sport with.
That said, I would like to mention that there are men who come into our gyms without a clue about sexuality and gender issues in sports (or society as a whole, for that matter). They are the ones who shy away from talking to or rolling with us women, and who muscle their way through moves when they lack the technique.
These fellows, I have noticed, usually are newbies with either white of blue belts. Though there still is the occasional sexist here and there in the upper ranks, it seems like the men at my gym gradually learn how to be respectful towards women, the more they train. The more they roll with us, the more they realize that we are not a threat. They discover a few things: 1) getting beat by a girl is not a big deal, 2) The other guys lead by example on how to be respectful to women, and 3) we girls tell them when they are being pricks (please excuse the terminology).
Anyways, my main point in writing all of this is to thank you for sharing your opinion! It is always nice to read intelligent thoughts about issues that are important to me and my fellow females. It was refreshing. Also, I commend you for being smart and to-the-point when responding to various comments made to this blog post. You set a perfect example of how these types of debates should be handled.
Thanks and good training!
22 Feb 2010 @ 3:19 pm
Thanks very much for your thoughts. I appreciate you reading and commenting. I am with you, 100%. I am proud to consider the men I train with, brothers, and by and large men in the grappling community are supportive and loving and want nothing more than to women do well. I also share your perception that those with a masculinity that can't hack working with women don't last long; either they go to a gym without women or they get over it (for some this can take years, but killing with kindness and good technique seems to work it out in the end).
All the best, sister, rock and roll!
Camilla Hansen versus Steven Burton UK Premier BJJ Open | MegJitsu: A Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Blog by Meg Smitley | Women in BJJ | Women in Martial Arts | BJJ Gi Reviews
3 Mar 2011 @ 8:44 am
[…] for two reasons. Firstly, mixed competition is rare in the UK. Secondly, as noted in my reflections on the status of women in BJJ, Camilla, herself, posted on EFN in 2009 regarding competition between men and […]
‘Sexism’ in Representations of Women in BJJ | MegJitsu
2 Nov 2011 @ 1:21 pm
[…] for the purposes of this post, the BJJ community. I have taken part in discussions around the representation of women in BJJ in the past and most recently, kicked off the fracas related to Manto’s public posting of a […]