Now taking questions...
After our recent article on inclusivity in BJJ, there were points being raised that seemed to resonate with some people. We asked Kat Hill to answer 5 of the most common responses.
By Katherine Hill
‘Men should have their own classes if women do. It’s just unfair otherwise.’
Simply saying there should be men’s classes because there are women’s classes and this is unfair, is a simplistic response to a complex issue. Women’s only classes and spaces in sports do not exist because of a special privilege being granted to women, but rather precisely because of male privilege. The argument for female only spaces in many sports has arisen to give them room to enter into realms traditionally dominated by men and sometimes specifically to protect women from sexism, harassment and even violence. If you don’t think this is a reality, you need only look at the data from a project such as the Everday Sexism Project or comments on Sherdog forums(1). Around 24% of women have stopped exercising outside because of harassment. (2)
But just because there has been a need for female spaces in sport, it also doesn’t follow that what they aim to do is give women a special privilege or perpetuate division based on gender. Protecting women from aggression or sexism is very different from arguments proposed by the male members of Muirfield golf club who voted against membership for women in 2016 (3). They argued that accepting ‘lady members is bound to create difficulties’ and would disrupt ‘our foursomes play, our match system, the uncompromising challenge our fine links present, our lunch arrangements.’ Only a ‘very special lady golfer’ could rise to the task. Their complaints were about protecting privilege; having female only hours at a swimming pool is about protecting women from behaviour by some men which is insulting, aggressive or upsetting. Having options restricted because you feel you can only train without men, because you were told you could only train with other women, or even because there are not many women to train with, limits enjoyment and opportunity. It is the opposite of privilege.
Actually, though, there might be some common ground here with the critics of women’s classes and that is that continued enforced separation might not be positive; it could reinforce gendered hierarchies and assumptions that men and women are just wired differently. (There’s plenty of research which shows just how persuasive but dangerous these pseudo-neuroscientific assumptions are)(4).When it comes to physical activity, this manifests as the idea that women and girls just can’t do some sports; (5) in education, separation can reinforce erroneous ideas than men are just ‘naturally’ better at maths and science. (6) There has been much debate about whether male and female students learn better in single-sex schools. However, research suggests that if performance is better in such schools, this is not really because they separate by gender but because they have more resources, create strong peer networks, and have good mentoring structures (7)
So, you agree separation is bad, so there’s not much point in women’s only BJJ classes and they are sexist.
Saying that we don’t need women’s classes at all misses the point of these classes, which isn’t to pit one gender against another. Historic patterns of sexism and gendered hierarchies persist in many areas of life and bigger cultural shifts need to take place through positive strategies to break these down. So, there’s confusion here about what role women’s only BJJ classes play. They don’t perpetuate separation. Rather, women’s classes, which run alongside mixed ones, create equality of opportunity by recognizing that it may be much more challenging for women to find their place in a predominantly male training environment. Men don’t walk into the gym as a minority, women do. Many women will want to start with other women in this male-dominated space, many women benefit from continued engagement in women’s only sessions with allies, peers and role models, and some may wish to have a female space because of their religion. By finding a way for women to enter the sport and feel comfortable in it in the first place, you help to effect cultural shifts more broadly. In other situations, there could easily be an argument for men’s spaces because the separation isn’t about gender division per se but the situation. Male only ballet classes might allow men and boys to feel comfortable in an activity more commonly practiced by women.
Our responses and strategies to combat gender inequality also need to be nuanced and contextual. BJJ is a physically demanding combat sport with incredibly close contact and the strategies to make women feel welcome and safe will be adapted accordingly. Combatting gender inequality in the performing arts might be very different. And there is also not one quick fix for gender equality in a gym. Some women and men argue that women’s only classes are really just for beginners. That might be the case for many and as they become more integrated in the gym, they will feel happier in mixed environments. Some women prefer training in a mixed environment. But there might be a variety of careful and complex methods here which work. Women’s only beginner classes and women’s competition sessions might be paired with the encouragement of strong peer networks in mixed classes. You might promote gender equality by educating coaches on gender issues – so knowing that a woman isn’t always a good training partner for another woman just because they are both female and being sensitive to the different physical rhythms of female athletes. You might have more female instructors of mixed classes. As a black belt at my former gym, I taught women’s classes, but I wasn’t one of the regular main instructors there for mixed sessions. Other gyms, however, have normalized the place of women in gyms through female instructors for men and women.
Ok, but it’s unfair to say that there is loads of sexism and misogyny in BJJ because of the debates about women’s classes or sexual assault.
Let’s be clear, no one is saying that all men in BJJ are sexist or misogynist at all, but the debates surrounding these issues have revealed problematic attitudes. Some of the more worrying comments from members of the UK BJJ community have decried what they see as a feminist attack. It’s worth pointing out here that it’s not helpful when anyone raises the stakes immediately from 0 to 100 or when people put words in one another’s mouths. Saying men hate women because some individuals have views that you might not agree with is just as unhelpful as throwing out the term feminism as if it were derogatory and decrying a forum for becoming a ‘feminist pit’. This came after three or four posts by women. On both sides, this language immediately takes us into the realm of divisive ventriloquizing.
That said, there have been clear examples of sexist and misogynistic language. It is also worth thinking about what sexism and misogyny really are. Sexism is the set of ideas that reinforce gendered hierarchy by naturalising ideas about what men and women can or can’t do, so statements like ‘BJJ is a sport only for strong male bullies’ or that ‘women just get more emotional when they lose’. We actually see less of the former I would argue in BJJ – I know few who would say women can’t do BJJ – although I have heard many sexist comments of the latter nature. Misogyny, on the other hand, is the policing of women’s behaviour to maintain gendered hierarchies of status quo and may often be born out fear and anxiety. As thinkers like Kate Manne and Martha Nussbaum highlight, misogyny is not really ‘all men hate all women’, but rather defined as behaviors which try to keep women in their place as defined by gendered hierarchies. Both argue that Trump is not really sexist in his language, but he is a misogynist. (8)
To repeat, I am not suggesting that this is how all men view women in BJJ or anywhere else in the world, but these attitudes certainly exist. Sexist and misogynistic remarks are made in BJJ. To refer to some comments made in the last week, the idea that one accusation of sexual assault makes women ‘difficult customers’ is very problematic as it suggests women’s acceptance is based on not transgressing certain behaviors and that women as a group are responsible if one individual ‘acts out’.
I also found deeply troubling the statement: ‘if women want to continue training with men’, they need to act in a certain way. Underlying it is the assumption that men hold a privileged position to dictate who trains and that all women can be held accountable in cases of perceived aggrievances by one ‘bad apple’, (another very problematic term). What if we were to reverse that statement? If men want to continue training with women, they need to call out abuse and inequality? It would actually be really helpful if more people did speak up against injustices, but few, if any women in this discussion have suggested that off the back of sexual allegations and or indeed instances of very real abuse that a proportionate response would be to remove all mixed training and male training partners from gyms, or that we would wish to lump all men together in a category of liars and abusers. That would be reductive, unfair and completely unhelpful.
Some people also say if someone wants no women in the club, that’s their choice, though it is sexist, and just leave them be. Whilst there are legal points here too against this, this is also a deeply unsatisfactory moral response. If you think the behavior is sexist or misogynist, then call it out.
But if a woman is telling the truth about a sexual assault allegation, surely all the others would follow, and they should speak up for her. If they don’t, the allegation must be unfounded.
This doesn’t follow at all. There may be many reasons why women don’t speak in support. It could be that people do leave and we never hear about it; it could be that they don’t support or believe the woman who has made an allegation; it could be that they have experienced similar experiences and are afraid to speak up themselves; it could be that they have not yet made up their mind; it could be that there are endemic practices of silence on such issues. All or none of these may be true. But in either case, assuming that it’s the responsibility of women to speak up or not in this situation, not men, reinforces the gendered hierarchies of silence which make it very difficult for women to speak up in cases of assault or abuse in the first place. Silence does not allow us to conclude support either way.
But this is the exception. BJJ is for everyone and it’s already inclusive.
We say this a lot but that’s not always the case. If you feel it is inclusive for you, that’s great. But not everyone feels the same, although we train with people of all colour, religions, and background, mixed genders, ages and classes. But at the same time, just assuming that everyone feels accepted is erroneous. There is sexist, homophobic, and racist language in gyms, and not everyone feels included or able to speak up. In the recent Roll the Same survey around 20% rated their gym 6 or lower on being set up for people like them and 30% said they would not feel they could raise something which made them uncomfortable. So, clearly there is space for thinking about how to be more inclusive and challenging discrimination in a variety of forms.
But these debates about feminism, gender, LGBTQ+ rights don’t have a place in gyms. Splitting people according to their gender, sexuality is ‘identity politics’ which just creates more division.
This is an argument which is often levelled at moves for rights or equality of marginal groups, and increasingly so since the rise in popularity of thinkers like Jordan Peterson. The idea that raising these issues just creates an identity politics which divides is misguided. Some people in the BJJ community asked why LGBTQI+ groups need flags, banners and marches, for example, and a need to express solidarity, and none of this should matter on the mats. It’s easier to dismiss this when you come from the group which is not marginal and where you don’t need to assert your rights and campaign for equitable treatment. Furthermore, equality in law to certain rights (and there is still progress here to be made for many groups), does not amount to equity in practice and it often takes much longer for general attitudes to shift. Being inclusive to women, low-income communities, people of all ages, trans athletes or people with disability, and recognizing their distinct needs, isn’t about creating cliques, but rather giving the same treatment to those who are not marginal. Change is difficult and people may feel angry and resentful when it feels like they are getting a worse deal, based on the position they enjoyed before, when actually it’s probably just that others are just getting a fairer deal.
An often-quoted phrase here is what matters is equality of opportunity not equality of outcome. Fair enough, I am never going to deadlift more than someone twice my weight, I am never going to run a marathon faster than my skinny little sister. However, this easy distinction between opportunity and outcome is misleading. First, it’s not what most people are arguing for when they ask for rights for marginal groups. Second, it’s not actually as easy as you think to distinguish between the two. Is giving more low-income BAME children the chance to study at an expensive primary school with scholarships the opportunity to gain an education otherwise denied to them? Or is about equality of outcome as it will raise the number of BAME boys and girls in that school? And third, equality of opportunity is actually impossible to entirely disentangle from outcome in societies which still have deep and profound legacies of past inequalities and hierarchical structures. It’s very hard to confront these legacies without active consideration of and attention to how you actually create equality of opportunity.
We don’t have affirmative action in the UK as is the case in the States (and affirmative action is much debated and often misunderstood) (9), but we do have various ways of creating equality when it comes to applying for jobs. If you have ever been through recruitment training than you will know that you have to think about unconscious bias in both the advertising and interviewing process. One other example is the Disability Confident Scheme (which my institution is part of) and which asks employers to think about individuals who may have been excluded in the past, to remove barriers and to challenge attitudes.(10) It is designed precisely to create equality of opportunity because historically discriminatory structures and perceptions excluded people with disability. They may have been unable to work in a particular environment or have been overlooked for a role even though they might do it very well.
So, this means you are just creating more discrimination?
This counterargument often proposed here is that more qualified white, heterosexual, men without a disability are not considered for a job when these schemes exist for marginal groups, but this logic is flawed: first, what structures favour non-marginal groups in the first place? What existing inequalities may help a particular privileged group to get the qualifications and skills to ‘rise to the top’ for a role and what opportunities have they already had denied to others? And second, how many people do you overlook when you don’t ever get them to apply in the first place? Positive discrimination is illegal anyway under UK employment law but even in the US where there is affirmative action, expert opinion suggest that the number of white men disadvantaged by minority hires is ‘miniscule’. (11)
Let’s move this into the gym sphere. You have your own specific gym culture, but presumably your goal as a business is to attract students and also the best athletes. The way you phrase your marketing and advertising, or how you set up the space, might be putting off people who could be the students you actually want to recruit. There is plenty of homophobic language in some gyms which might put people off, you may not have disability access or working showers for the women’s changing room. People who could be really valuable members of your team might not even get their foot through the door. You could say well everyone has the chance to walk in, not everyone will make it. But this is the point – if you aren’t creating ways in which to be inclusive in what has been a traditionally male, hetero environment because you think that talent just rises to the top, you aren’t creating equality of opportunity, you are just reinforcing traditional privileges. You may not attract a black or female or homosexual athlete who could be a world champion or the most hardworking team member because they won’t join in the first place. By being more open, you aren’t creating a segregated gym based on divisive identity politics but an inclusive welcoming space.
Women complain about sexism and harassment but what about (for example), cases where men have been discriminated against, or the lack of advantages for low-income white men?
Rights, equality of opportunity and inclusion are not a zero-sum game. It’s not as if recognizing someone’s right to feel included and valued takes away rights from others. For example, the problems faced by low-income white males are valid, important and need addressing but admitting those cases of discrimination or inequality doesn’t invalidate others. Indeed, marginal categories often overlap, and the very point of intersectionality is to address questions of coinciding spheres of inequality or marginalisation. Roxane Gay warns about the danger of playing privilege or oppression Olympics, but rather says we need effective ways of talking through difference and recognizing multiple truths and voices.(12)
But the ‘what bout’ argument is often used to close down discussion and say we should do nothing. Some of the what about arguments proposed by critics run like this. “Doesn’t this work the other way around? Shouldn’t men have their own spaces? What about sexism against men?” Historically patriarchal structures embedded over many years have meant that we have had to think much more about gender equality for women, but yes, of course, sexism does work the other way around. There are strategies in place to encourage men into spheres seen as female such as nursing, for example, with the Men In Nursing Together network. (13) Some of the most effective single-sex education strategies have been US public school experiments designed to target low-income and ethnic minority boys.(14) But again evidence suggests that this is not due to gender segregation per se but a series of environmental factors such as resources, positive student-teacher relationships and inclusive organization designed to target specific problems of social inequality.(15) The key point here is that these projects have been designed to address questions of marginalization and discrimination, unlike the defense of entrenched privilege at Muirfield golf club.
“What about people of colour, are we going to create separate classes here, where does it end?” This again seems a simplistic straw man response to these issues. BJJ hasn’t engaged systematically with issues of ethnicity and equality but developing strategies here will have to think carefully about inclusivity, although I doubt the answer is going to be separation.
The ‘what about’ arguments fall down because they are generally a way of saying: well, all these issues exist, so let’s not do anything. But this isn’t a good response. There are all sorts of ways we can be more inclusive – to people of lower income backgrounds, to different ages and ethnicities, to athletes with disability, to all sexual orientations, to women. ‘Diversity…doesn’t just happen. It’s a choice we make as a society.’ (16) Questions of balancing rights, fairness and responsibilities are also not easy ones: how do religious beliefs which require some separation of men and women intersect with the question of gender equality? Not everyone will have the same opinion on this, but open and reasoned discussion is the key. Not everyone is going to be the same, not everyone is going to agree. But it’s also the role of coaches to be responsible in creating inclusive and equitable spaces. We need careful, considered, contextual responses to inequality and we make adjustments all the time in constant dialogue with the communities we live in the, the activities we undertake and as we learn – hopefully we are all striving to be better and do better.
1. ‘The Everyday Sexism Project’, https://everydaysexism.com/; ‘Mens only gym?’, Discussion thread in ‘Mayberry Lounge’ started by Ogata, 26th October 2017, Sherdog. https://forums.sherdog.com/threads/mens-only-gym.3644241/
2. Stop Street Harrassment Project, http://www.stopstreetharassment.org/about/what-is-street-harassment/why-stopping-street-harassment-matters/.
3. ‘Muirfield members vote against admitting women into club’, Glasgow Times, 19th May 2016. https://www.glasgowtimes.co.uk/news/14503918.muirfield-members-vote-against-admitting-women-into-club/
4. Gina Rippon, The Gendered Brain: The New Neuroscience That Shatters the Myth of the Female Brain (London: Random House, 2019); Nicholas Scurich and Adam Shniderman, ‘The Selective Allure of Neuroscientific Explanations’, PLoS One. 2014; 9, https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0107529
5. Hannah L. Spacey, ‘Girls are being denied access to certain sports in PE simply because of their gender’, The Conversation, 9th November 2018.
6. David M. Greenberg, Varun Warrier, Carrie Allison, and Simon Baron-Cohen, ‘Testing the Empathizing–Systemizing theory of sex differences and the Extreme Male Brain theory of autism in half a million people’,PNAS November 27, 2018 115 (48) 12152-12157. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1811032115. ‘A careful reading of the E-S theory therefore leads to the conclusion, for example, that it would be wrong to prejudge an applicant for a job in STEM based on their sex, both morally and scientifically’.
7. See a major review of single-sex education in 2014, Erin Pahlke, PhD, Whitman College; Janet Shibley Hyde, PhD, and Carlie M. Allison, MS, University of Wisconsin-Madison, ‘The Effects of Single-Sex Compared With Coeducational Schooling on Students’ Performance and Attitudes: A Meta-Analysis’, Psychological Bulletin 140 (2014), 1042-72, see https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2014/02/single-sex-education; Rosalind Barnett and Caryl Rivers, Same Difference: How Gender Myths Are Hurting Our Relationships, Our Children, and Our Jobs (New York: Basics Books, 2005); Melinda D. Anderson, ‘The Resurgence of Single-Sex Education”
The Benefits and Limitations of Schools that Segregate Based on Gender’, The Atlantic, 22nd December 2015. https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2015/12/the-resurgence-of-single-sex-education/421560/.
8. Kate Mann, Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny (London: Penguin, 2019); Clio Chang, ‘A Man’s World” Reckoning with Misogyny in the age of Me Too’, The Nation, 23rd September 2019; Martha Nussbaum, The Monarchy of Fear: A Philosopher Looks at Our Political Crisis (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018), pp. 165 –96.
9. Louis Menand, ‘The Changing Meaning of Affirmative Action: The Past and the Future of a Long-embattled Policy’, The New Yorker, 13 January 2020, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2020/01/20/have-we-outgrown-the-need-for-affirmative-action.
11. Melvin I. Urofsky, The Affirmative Action Puzzle: A Living History from Reconstruction to Today, p. 466.
12. Roxane Gay, Bad Feminist: Essays (New York: Harper Collins, 2014), p. 16.
13. ‘Project attracts more men into nursing’, 10th April 2019, https://www4.shu.ac.uk/mediacentre/project-attracts-more-men-nursing.
14. Anderson, ‘The Resurgence of Single-Sex Education’; Freeden Oeur, Black Boys Apart: Racial Uplift and Respectability in All-Male Public Schools (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018).
15. Lea Hubbard and Amanda Datnow, ‘Do Single-Sex Schools Improve the Education of Low-Income and Minority Students? An Investigation of California’s Public Single-Gender Academies’, Anthropology & Education Quarterly, 36.2 (2005), pp. 115-131
16. Menand, ‘The Changing Meaning of Affirmative Action’.