BJJ after sexual abuseLaurien Zurhake
Recently, Jiu Jitsu Times revealed the results of their survey regarding sexual abuse in BJJ gyms. At the same time, in the wake of Harvey Weinstein’s exposing, we read countless of accounts of women and men who are survivors of sexual abuse. #MeToo and #IHave movements show how real this problem is and that it not only “can” happen to anyone but unfortunately most likely already has. The first step to solving anything is to acknowledge that there is a problem first. The fact that there is now an open dialogue and confrontation between #MeToo and #IHave is therefore of paramount importance.
I too want to share my story. Although I have to point out that I am unfortunately no stranger to sexual harassment in BJJ gyms, in this article I focus on how the “arte suave” helped me dealing with sexual abuse before I stepped on the mats.
As no one is the same, a person can have many and different reasons to practice BJJ. That said, even if certain people have experienced similar things, that need not mean that BJJ will work for them in the same way, if at all. I have various reasons why I love BJJ. Regarding sexual abuse that happened before I stepped on the mats specifically, BJJ worked for me as a method to heal. Even though I know that I am not representative for every person who experienced sexual abuse, my experiences may be helpful.
I was twelve when it happened and I developed post-traumatic stress syndrome, trust issues and an altogether tendency to freak out when (older) men would come near me and touch me. Being at the same time tremendously stubborn and self-critical, I could not accept my own behaviour so I decided to start practicing martial arts. In this way I would confront myself with men and them touching me. Knowing that women would be scarce on the mats, it seemed to be the most effective way to overcome my troubles.
Up to a point it worked, but as these martial arts were the more traditional Budo sports, sparring hardly ever occurred. Yes, I learned some techniques but never got the opportunity to learn how to apply them and to get used to the stress that arises when rolling (See Alex Dincovici’s analysis on “Why we roll”). This changed when I, in my twenties, through my brother who already practiced for some time, started BJJ.
Being quite small and feather-light I was at first overwhelmed and a bit scared when observing my bigger and heavier training partners. The first couple of months I could not defend myself – I was surviving. Not only on a physical level but especially and most importantly on an emotional level. Due to specific positions one simply ends up in during rolling, I often got nasty flashbacks that vividly brought back my painful past experiences. After every training I was emotionally exhausted and on the way home my tears would flow, yet I also felt I was finally confronting myself to such an extent that I could not hide away anymore. I had two choices: stop or go through it.
I chose the latter and soon instead of surviving I started to defend and again some months later I started to be able to control certain teammates. For me, being able to control and feel safe was the biggest relief and empowerment I could ever wish for. I felt free, because I took back control. That moment of letting go and becoming comfortable with myself again and becoming comfortable in uncomfortable situations was a milestone and one for which I have to thank BJJ and my teammates for. They did not know, yet they played key roles in my healing process. As a result the flashbacks occurred less to hardly ever and when one does pop up it is much easier to deal with it straightaway. Rolling with men is no longer an issue – I enjoy rolling with every-Body (pun intended).
On a more practical level: a proper BJJ gym is a safe environment. That means that the instructor in charge, who has due to his/her position a lot of power and can easily abuse it, has to behave professionally towards all of his or her students on and off the mats. In so doing, the instructor makes sure amongst other things that everyone is safe during training and keeps sexual abuse and bullying at bay.
One should not underestimate the importance of feeling safe as it will help one to open up and tap into one’s potential to grow as a person and in BJJ. Speaking for myself, by rolling and automatically simulating specific traumatic positions, such as lying on my back, I could get emotional tension and pain out that I could not reach, let alone get rid off, by only talking about it. Learning that lying on your back, the guard closed, can be (I am ware of the dangers of lying on your back when fists are fired at you) an extremely strong position and that you can do something to protect yourself, is essential. Especially since many fights and sexual abuse attempts end up on the ground.
BJJ, therefore, could be considered a socio-emotional-physical therapy, because even though you have to go through it on your own, you are not alone. Although it is clear that BJJ can benefit you on many levels, there is no denying: it will not be easy as BJJ alone cannot get the job done. You have to do all the work. There are no shortcuts. It will be tough, rough at times and you sometimes may want to quit, but it will be worth it.