Gender Roles in Jiu-Jitsu Valerie Worthington Talks Gender and Respect in Jiu-Jitsu

Did that situation go over the line?

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For your own role in the jiu-jitsu community, Worthington recommends that you ask yourself the following questions:
Does it feel right?
Are you having fun?
Are you feeling safe?
If you had been treated that way anywhere else, how would you feel about it?

If you answer ‘no’ to any of these questions, remind yourself that jiu-jitsu can be a high-stakes environment, but the rules of mutual respect still do not go away. From there, Worthington suggests taking the following steps:
Go to an out-of-town camp or seminar to try and separate your interpersonal experiences from your jiu-jitsu experiences for additional clarity.
Bring your concerns to the attention of your instructor.
If you are not comfortable going to your instructor (perhaps a sign in itself), reach out to a jiu-jitsu community or forum outside of your gym, or even perhaps outside of jiu-jitsu.


In an environment steeped in machismo and feudal martial arts tradition, trying to marry femininity with the inherent violence of the sport is difficult for some men. As strange as it may sound, the hierarchy of belts and instructors may actually complicate the respect owed to all students, regardless of their rank.

“In jiu-jitsu, there is a hierarchy. White belts at the bottom. Black belts at the top,” Worthington said. “One of the challenging things is understanding where that hierarchy begins and ends. As a white belt, I cannot tell the black belt they are teaching incorrectly, but I still reserve the right to be treated with respect as a person. Understanding where you have the right to push-back becomes a challenge.”
Worthington argues that this is an important conversation. Our love for the sport can sometimes blind us to the seriousness of a situation. We fall into the trap of believing that a black belt in jiu-jitsu equates to a black in all aspects of life. With those blinders on, boundaries are not as easy to see, and that lack of clarity can be difficult to navigate for both sides.

“Historically, the people who are going to use anything in a negative way are not going to want people to think about other options,” Worthington said. “It’s important for people to be supported in making their own decisions about how they are going to use jiu-jitsu. I would hope it would be for the positive and for the greater good, but we have to be asking ourselves those questions.”

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When I pressed Worthington about how jiu-jitsu could still be a force for good in light of the challenges we were discussing, she responded, “Someone once said to me, ‘Jiu-jitsu made me a better person and it changed my life.’ I said, ‘No, jiu-jitsu is a mechanism that you used to change your own life. You embraced it in a positive way, in a way that you believe is consistent with your values and who you want to be.’ Jiu-jitsu in and of itself is not good or bad inherently. It’s as good or as bad as the people wielding it.”

In the case of the female grappler I mentioned earlier, Worthington talked her through determining whether or not she was being a “wuss” or had a legitimate reason for questioning her training environment. When they had ruled out the possibility that she might need to toughen up (she certainly didn’t), she tried training somewhere else. She found a training experience where she felt validated and respected as a person and removing herself from the negative environment helped her see the reality for what it was. From the outside, the answers seemed obvious, but from the inside, the distinction was not as easy to make.

For my part, Worthington helped me to reframe the way I think about jiu-jitsu. Jiu-jitsu as a tool can be a force for good, in the right hands and supported by the right people. Jiu-jitsu was a tool that I used to change my life, but ultimately I was the one wielding it. The jiu-jitsu community can be an open and welcoming place if we work to keep it that way, which means holding ourselves and our peers accountable for how we treat others. You are a part of that ‘we,’ which means that jiu-jitsu’s future is in your hands as well.

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Marshal D. Carper is a purple belt under Sonny Achille. In addition to owning Artechoke Media, Marshal is the author of books like The Cauliflower Chronicles and Marcelo Garcia’s Advanced Jiu-Jitsu Techniques. His latest project, WhiteBeltProblems.com, a free open-source resource devoted to making BJJ more accessible for beginners.
3 Comments on this post.
  • Respect in BJJ | BJJ Minion
    8 October 2016 at 7:09 am
    Leave a Reply

    […] behaviour and views. I’ll probably do another blog on another day on some of this but for now Valerie Worthington has done an interesting article on the topic focusing more on participants […]

  • Edgar
    19 April 2017 at 7:15 am
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    It’s an unfortunate that this is the experience some women are having. There will always be that one or two jerks no one likes. I’ve been lucky enough to be associated with a group that won’t put up with that kind of nonsense. My instructor has not only warned people but has asked people to leave for inappropriate behavior. Usually, the natural pecking order will humble a douchebag. Let’s be honest here, that’s what we’re talking about here – douchebags. This is easy for me to say since I’m a man. Although, the threat of physical maliciousness maybe there, it will never be the same threat that it is for a woman.
    I like how you addressed the fact that men and women behave different in their social settings but even for us men there is a limit to how much of that machismo is acceptable.

    One of my favorite things as of late is Marcelo Garcia’s YouTube post explaining how he asked a couple of his black belts to “take a break”.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wk8Z4ZQW3mc

  • J Heines
    19 April 2017 at 7:17 am
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    It takes courage to write an article like this and for that reason alone the ladies have my respect. I teach Japanese Ju Jitsu where the focus is on self-defense. The “Do” arts like Ju-Do are focused on perfecting one’s character thru martial training. The code of bushido is strongly tied to Ju Jitsu as it was originally developed to give the samurai a code of ethics to live bye and they accepted that lifestyle. In Ju Jitsu we practice to improve our self-defense technique, reaction to various attacks, etc. In so doing we recognize the importance of our Uke (training partner). Our bow before exercise has many meanings but one is that we know our safety (due to the self-defense nature of training) is in the hands or our Uke as is their safety in our hands. It is in this simple example one can see that Ju Jitsu training also focuses on character development. Without each other one can not train. When I have a student paired with another and there is definitely a great mismatch, I tell the advanced student not to use their favorite technique but to work timing and use a technique that is not their favorite. This way they both exercise and improve. To really improve, one can not stay in this mismatch condition but it is a time-honored means for the senior/advanced student to give back and is important since it develops respect, modesty and patience. Each week I spend time explaining how our training integrates into this code of ethics so one can understand these finer aspects of Ju Jitsu. These elegant aspects of Bushido can easily be lost in the excitement of physical training and is part of the Sensei’s responsibilities to help others understand. Great article ladies!

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