As the new year began, one woman’s trust in her team mates was shattered. As many readers will no doubt already be aware, two BJJers from Lloyd Irvin, Matthew Maldonado and Nicholas Shultz, were caught on CCTV in Washington DC sexually assaulting a woman. This woman, drunk after a NYE party, put her trust in the guys from her gym to take her to a friend’s for the night. You can read a full report of the incident here

This sad and shocking news has ignited debate and controversy within the BJJ community and the martial arts world more generally, with some excusing – at least in part – the actions of the alleged* rapists because:

  • the woman was drunk
  • the woman is alleged to have been sexually uninhibited in the past

For me, I’m firmly in the ‘it is in no way her fault’ camp along with fine BJJ bloggers such as Megan (Tangled Triangle) and Georgette (Georgette’s Jiu Jitsu World).

For the record:

  • it’s not her fault
  • bad things don’t just happen to ‘bad’ people / those who deserve it
  • it is a reasonable expectation for a woman to assume personal safety, as men do, during a drunken night out in the company of friends

As already noted by Megan and Georgette, there is pernicious victim-blaming at play in aspects of the discussion around this crime, which might seem at odds with the self defence rhetoric integral to martial arts and BJJ. I believe, however, that one of the most problematic aspects of self defence discourse is exactly its tendency to justify blaming the the victim. This was highlighted to me most clearly when I sought to share a ‘real life’ experience of a simple purse-snatching on the street, which I am in no way equating to this assault or any violent crime, but using as an example of victim-blaming in marial arts culture. While I’d hoped to offer an alternative perspective to the ‘this is how it will happen’ assertions of instructors and students alike, the discussion didn’t, as I’d hoped it might, reflect on the some of the masculine perspectives and fantasies that can inform discussions of ‘self defence’, but rather the emphasis was on my failings as a person and a martial artist. Be that as it may, I reject the fallacy that individuals who train are immune to being the victims of crime because of their ‘special powers’. I mean, the reason ‘Master Ken’ is funny, is because he hits pretty close to the mark.

Sure, instructors and students can share valuable insights into likely scenarios based on their own experiences and research into violent crime, however, all too often discussions of likely scenarios are presented in a language of certainty. In turn, a (false) confidence in foretelling ‘what will happen’ can engender a belief among martial artists that they themselves can foresee, prepare for, and instantly respond to any and all situations in the manner of Jason Bourne. I believe it is this sort of thinking, prevalent within our community – the belief that danger can always be foreseen/avoided/countered – that helps to support, within the martial arts world, wider societal tendencies to blame the victim in cases of sexual violence.

There are alternative voices responding to this disgusting and tragic happening, and there have been some prominent (male) voices coming out in condemnation of this incident. Ryan Hall’s Open Letter to the Martial Arts Community and Rener and Ryron Gracies’s video response to the assault provide a lot of food for thought from the perspective of instructors and academy owners on the obligation to create a culture of love and service, rather than predation and domination within their clubs (something I’m proud to say is a central priority for my instructor, Dave Birkett and his club, Dartford BJJ).

As a woman in BJJ, what I find most horrifying about this crime is the betrayal of trust between team mates. THESE PEOPLE TRAINED TOGETHER! BJJ practice is dangerous. While BJJ can be practiced to high intensity in relative safety, ACLs get snapped; pectoral muscles get detached; elbows get dislocated; eyes blackened; noses busted; and sometimes much worse. As BJJers we enter into a bond of trust with our team mates, we agree, every time we train together, that we will apply submissions with respect and STOP as soon as our partner asks us to, for any reason. Grappling is an incredibly intimate art and through all the awkward 69s, boobs in faces, and sweat drips into eyes, we trust each other to respect each other. It’s the only way it works. At least, that’s the only way it works for me. I would feel 100% confident to get hammered with my team mates and make and arse out of myself, knowing that we’d look after each other; shoot, I took off on a ‘lad’s weekend’ abroad with a dozen of my male colleagues and never once considered that I would be in any danger – we partied and drank and there was no sex and no rape. Men are not beasts enslaved to their baser instincts, any more or less so than women, and men and women have the right to expect to be in each others’ company, doing stuff like BJJ, or disco dancing and body shots, without fearing for personal safety. So, I write again, it is not her fault.

Finally, I appreciate that this post may spark debate and high emotions in all sorts of ways, but today I must disable comments for this post. All things being equal, I encourage open discussion here, but with the new baby in my life, I could not give your feedback and comments the attentive and careful response that you deserve. Thanks, as ever, for reading.

* This is a formality. Maldonado and Schultz have not yet been convicted. But let’s keep it real, people, the evidence is about as uncompromising as it gets.