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No Boys Allowed!

I spend a lot of time trying to not get beat up by guys. Sometimes they are throwing shin kicks at my legs. Other times they are aiming punches at my ribs. And at least three times a week I spend my lunch hour rolling on a mat with some sweaty man as I attempt to keep him from choking me with my own arm.  I am not being attacked against my will, I actually pay money for this experience.

There are not too many women in my jiu-jitsu classes. I am not sure if this is the norm with BJJ schools, or if my place, which puts a fair amount of emphasis on competition and feels like a men's locker room, is not so appealing to women. (There are often men in towels walking to and from the shower. If this is your thing please sign up.)  On the contrary, I know a lot of women karatekas. Every few months our dojo teams up with the others in our style to host a women's only sparring class. The newer students love it because it is more comfortable for them. The black belts love it because they can go hard with someone who is often their same size and skill level. Afterwards, often over breakfast, everyone talks about how much fun it was, how nice it is to spar with other ladies, how the guys are fine and all but it is just "different" with women. With all this excitement you would think female attendance at our regular sparring classes would increase over the weeks directly following the event.  It never does. 

I think the main problem with the women's only classes is that they are unrealistic. Unless you join a women's dojo, you are going to often be training with men. The other problem is that having a women's only class implies that we need special treatment. It reinforces the belief that many women already have, that all this hitting (or grappling) is not for us. That it is only safe in a female only environment. That if we fight with men they will kill us. 

Sparring is hard for everyone. That being said,  it is often different for women. Some of us have real issues with the hitting part, particularly when men are doing the hitting. In my 23 years of karate I have seen the makeup of our sparring classes shift all over the place. Some years there were women everywhere, tough, scary ones who gave the smaller guys a run for their money. Some years, very few. There were months at a time when I was the only female fighter on the floor. You get used to it.

Even after all my years of karate, when I started training in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (about a year ago) I did wish for more women in my class. Now the big dudes were not just hitting me, they were sitting on top of me and trying to choke me. They were sweaty. And hairy. I did I mention that they were sitting on top of me?? Ok sometimes they were actually lying on me sideways and occasionally I was lying under them with my legs wrapped around their hips. (Sounds sexy. It really isn't. But you'd be surprised how quickly it is no longer awkward.) I don't think my gender is a problem as much as my size. I am almost always the smallest person in the room. In karate at least I am often faster than my bigger opponents. It's harder in jiu-jitsu. And while I believe that once I am skilled at the techniques size won't matter so much, right now it really really matters.

Even so I would not want to train at a women's only BJJ school. In truth, I do not really like women's only classes. They are great social events and all the women who participate do get to know each other better. This is obviously a good thing. But as far as sparring goes, ours have never served the purpose I had intended when I started them a couple of years ago. The woman who attend do not get more comfortable with sparring and start coming to the co-ed classes more. Instead, they just get more comfortable with sparring other women. This is not very useful considering all of our other classes have plenty of men. And although we have a lot of fun with each other and get to work on our techniques in a more "comfortable environment", I am not sure if this is a good thing. Martial arts, and sparring in particular, is not really supposed to be comfortable. It's supposed to be challenging, a lesson in overcoming difficult situations. As scary as it was, I learned more from attempting to protect myself from men who were twice my size than I did from sparring with women. Which is why I would never attend a women's only dojo. A very important part of karate training is missing.. Not to mention, having guys around is more fun. (And occasionally their gi tops fall open and the view is lovely)

Here is my 2 cents:
For women: When you are new, martial arts is so foreign that it helps to have other females there with you. Especially for the contact stuff. But as soon as you feel comfortable with the basic concepts, train with guys too. Otherwise you are missing the point. A lot of this stuff is supposed to help us in uncomfortable situations. And believe me nothing is scarier than having a 200 pound leg swinging at your ribcage. There is no easy way out. (Cue 80's music) The only thing that will get you better at sparring is more sparring. With everyone.
And for you guys, please start off gently. Don't break our noses. Try not to sit on our bellies too hard. (I know it is called "knee on belly" but look at the size of your knee compared to my belly) But please do not patronize us. We will not break. We chose a fighting art after all. And whatever you do never ever open your arms wide, expose your chest and encourage me to "come on." Not only is this offensive, but I am studying jiu-jitsu now. There may be a triangle choke in your future. If only I could get this damn guy off of me long enough to learn how to do it.


  1. Great post. I agree about how our women's sparring classes don't seem to encourage women to attend the regular fighting classes. The women from our dojo that attend the women's class are the ones that already attend the regular classes so a fighter is a fighter. And I agree that I learn more from fighting in the regular classes than in the women's only classes for the same reasons you mention. Mostly I think it's because the women's classes are supervised by our Shihan's and their primary goal is that no one gets hurt. I understand and I agree, we should all be safe and everyone should walk away safe and unharmed. But, like you said, it's a fighting art we're committed to and we're there to challenge each other. Also our Shihan's are male and this sort of takes the wind out of a women's only class. Here's why I hope we DO continue the women's classes: Not only is it a nice bonding/social experience, I feel like we could in the future address issues in this class that pertain particularly to women. For instance some women get emotional when they fight and we could provide techniques for controlling this or turning it to their advantage, etc. We could field specific questions as well. Focus on specific issues the women are having so that when they get to the regular class they have a better edge.
    Keep up the good work, Sensei! OSU,
    -(backup) Sensei Jennifer

    1. Thanks for reading and for your input. I agree that there are definitely some important "women's issues" that we could address at our sparring events. Since women are all about talking :-) perhaps we could have a Q&A session at the end next time and open it up to discuss any problems or issues people were having. Lets talk before the next one.

  2. Interesting. I can see what you're saying, but I have to disagree with a few points.

    "The other problem is that having a women's only class implies that we need special treatment. It reinforces the belief that many women already have, that all this hitting (or grappling) is not for us."

    I don't see this at all. I see it as providing support for a small group within a group, similar to a men's only group within a knitting community or a roller derby community. They're chances to connect with other minorities within the group. If there are enough of ANY smaller groups, it makes sense to have a class for them. Under 60 kg, over 100 kg, women, children, over 50 years-old, etc. For me, none of that implies that they shouldn't be there - but that the company is supporting them.

    Recently I've been attending a once-per-month women's only seminar hosted by the only female BJJ black belt in Korea. It's amazing. I rarely roll with women, and it's a great opportunity. Women roll differently than men, their aggression is different, they hold their weight differently, etc. I think that rolling with women is especially important for women who compete. Chelsea wrote a great article on my blog about this, called BJJ Women: Rectifying the “Gentle Art” with Competition

    "I do know that even with the fantastic training I get, having more small women around would be better for me. I think that’s something really valuable that people overlook– having another woman on your team who is close to your size gives you a sense of the way women distribute their weight, how their flexibility alters their game, and the speed differential of smaller, lighter limbs. There are physiological differences that lead to a different type of game, like a stronger lower body– as one of my teammates points out, shaking his head, “women can find a knee-cut from anywhere.”

    In any case, good article!


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