Sensei Scumbag is up to his shenanigans again. Oh, not just one particular Sensei Scumbag - a host of them, it seems.
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The latest case - and it's just the latest case we know of - of a martial arts instructor abusing his position and sexually harassing his female students has come to light in Texas. This time, it was a well-regarded teacher of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.
Read about it here: Prominent Houston BJJ Black Belt Instructor Steps Down
But this isn't new in the martial arts. Here's a few examples from just this year that went into criminal charges:
Here's a TKD instructor in Maryland. Here's a "karate" instructor sentenced to prison for the same thing just this month. Here's another winner, already charged with sexual abuse of minor and is now charged with witness tampering. And one more, another from Texas. And this was just the past few months with a cursory Google News search!
UPDATE: And ANOTHER, the day after this post originally published: Norman OK Jiu Jitsu Coach Charged with Attempted Rape, lewd acts
UPDATE: One more, this time in Austin (Jan 2016): Lakeway martial arts teacher accused of sexually assaulting female student. Article has some great tips on spotting what predators do to isolate their victims, so it's worth your time to read.
UPDATE: Another one, in Miami (Feb 2016): Miami Taekwondo Instructor Accused of Molesting Young Sisters
UPDATE: Another one (convicted), in Roakoke, VA area (April 2016): Vinton karate instructor guilty of indecent liberties with student
UPDATE: Another one accused in Orlando, FL (June 2016). Karate instructor accused of sending nude photos to boy
UPDATE: Another one arrested in Renton, WA (Seattle) (Aug 2016): Martial Arts Teacher Raped Student, Sent Others Videos
UPDATE: Another one in Rockford, IL (April 2017): Rockford man accused of molesting underage girls operates martial arts school
UPDATE: Another one, in my neck of the woods even (April 2017): Affidavit details McKinney martial arts teacher's repeated sexual assaults of student
Before we get too far into this, I want to say that I believe that women can be just as scumbaggy as men and I also believe that there are young men getting harassed (or worse) as well as young women. The recent examples just happened to be all men preying on young women in their care, with the notable exception of the update I added above in June 2016.
This is not a post to indict our industry, and I'm not claiming that it's more a problem in the martial arts than it is in any other endeavor. Bad guys take advantage of vulnerable people in all walks of life, all hobbies, all situations, and all sports. Most of you reading this condemn this sort of thing, would never engage in this behavior, and wish you got to these guys first before the law did.
Because most of us are, in fact, good guys (and gals). The VAST majority of us are!
However, we need to face the facts that martial arts culture has some serious tendencies that make it easier for scumbags to operate than in other walks of life. Indeed, it may make it harder for us to spot and eliminate scumbags from our community.
Here's some aspects of our culture that I think makes this so:
INTIMACY AND TRUST
The nature of martial arts training requires allowing training partners into spaces you would never allow anyone other than a medical professional or a romantic partner to go in normal circumstances (see my post about trust here). It is easy for some folks to interpret it incorrectly as something sexual when it isn't intended that way at all. Heck, jokes abound on the internet on just that very thing.
|This is the cleanest example I can find.|
But the flip side of this, is that it's hard to prove it IS sexual when it is absolutely is intended as such. Sensei Scumbag can hide behind "Oh, you're misinterpreting what I'm doing." and make it YOUR fault. Or Blue Belt Scumbag cops an extra feel while rolling with you where he shouldn't, and you can't prove that's what it is (a deliberate gesture vs. a mistake).
Scumbags can very, very easily abuse the trust that's been built up in order to train properly, and it's hard for the rest of us to believe it to be what it is. We don't want to believe we have allowed a Scumbag in our midst and want to give the benefit of the doubt - that our trust, in this case, has been misplaced.
What can we do about it?
I want to quote what my friend +Sarah Carney said on my "Question of Trust" post, as it really rings true for me:
"We trained our volunteers to always ask their partners before they touched them, and to be encouraging without pressuring. Like, it was 100% okay if someone just wanted to watch. That's just where some people are at. We also trained the volunteers how to touch - not too hard, no surprises, keep it light-hearted.
We also slowly escalated the amount of trust we asked for. First it's just grabbing wrists. It's not until the end that we offered them the opportunity to have someone sit on top of them when they're lying on the ground.
We also let them choose their own groups, so they could be with their friends."
Cultivating a culture that has this level of respect in terms of intimacy is something we should strive for. I also think that we should also encourage students to speak up - privately if necessary, and have several avenues for him or her to do so - if there is something that is making them uncomfortable.
We have to believe students and other martial artists when they say, "This feels sexual to me." and not ignore it or blow it off.
AUTHORITARIANISM AND SENSEI-WORSHIP
I think most of of us have a somewhat authoritarian culture due to necessity - the teacher has to have authority over the students in order for the students to learn. This authoritarianism is more rigid for some, and less for others, but it is still usually there in some way. You find it to be pretty strong in arts stemming from Asia, especially Japan (Budo culture) and Korea.
This leads to a huge problem of when it comes to Sensei Scumbag.
The word of Sensei Scumbag is given the benefit of the doubt when it conflicts with a student's - much like a police officer's word has more weight versus those he's arrested or other witnesses. Students know this, so they think they have to have some serious examples of eggregious behavior before they'll be believed over Sensei Scumbag (and Scumbag knows this too - and counts on it). So the student says nothing, or quietly drops out, leaving Sensei Scumbag free to keep on with his behavior.
And the truth is - I think the student is usually correct in this belief. It is true that we will give much more credence to the word of person who's given years of his life to a martial art over some newbie who hasn't been on a mat more than a year or two. Sensei Scumbag couldn't have done that - the student must have misinterpreted it, or maybe the student is angry at Sensei Scumbag and is making it up.
Heck, there are cases where Sensei Scumbag was caught, it became a criminal matter and was proven guilty in a court of law, and DID TIME, and people will still defend him and believe it couldn't be true because he was Sensei!
What can we do about it?
Authoritarianism is something we have to cope with - it's the nature of our culture. But I think we need to do a better job of making sure that Sensei's word isn't law, and that contradicting him in other parts of life isn't taken as being rude or dishonorable. We can't allow our students to believe that they can't speak up.
We have to accept that Sensei is just a guy like any other, and nothing magical about his title makes him some how better a person than anybody else and above reproach.
Like many other organisations - sports and sororities/fraternities in particular come to mind - we tend to cultivate a group identity in how we train. We use logos, emblems, colors, etiquette rules, and rituals, all intended to create a sense of belonging for each person involved in our martial arts training and to forge us into a group.
|Group Identity when it's good.|
Image found here.
This is a good thing and one of the more powerful things about our culture that attracts folks who may have a hard time "belonging" in other ways. For some of us, the martial arts group we train with becomes our social circle, and heck, in many ways, a family. Group identity is one of the ways we human beings survive - it is one of the most powerful emotions we feel.
The dark side of this dynamic is that it allows Sensei Scumbag to abuse students and the student will have a powerful incentive to keep his or her mouth shut - they do not want to lose their friends, family, and identity within the group. Heck, they even don't want to lose the leadership and relationship with Sensei Scumbag (the version that doesn't abuse their trust, in any case)...
Group Identity when it's not so good.
We've seen this taken to extremes in famous cases of religious cults, haven't we? We've seen it in several martial arts groups as well (here and here are some great examples).
This sense of group identity is incredibly powerful, so we don't want to believe that "one of us" is a Scumbag. Something is either wrong with us, or with the student making the accusation, because our group leader can't be a scumbag, because by association - would that make US a scumbag too?
What can we do about it?
When a group's dynamic goes toxic, it can be incredibly destructive, as we've seen all throughout history. But when it is positive, it is so incredibly powerful and emotionally uplifting and supportive, I don't think we can (or want) to eliminate that.
I think we just have to make sure our groups aren't insulated from those who will question what we do (that's another benefit of cross training and intra-school training groups) and we keep the idea that not being in the group doesn't make anybody lesser or unworthy at the forefront.
Most of us teach some sort of "values" in our training. Usually it's founded upon respect, honor, self-confidence, humility, persistence, and the like.
I think many of us think that this somehow immunizes us, as a culture, against scumbags. If we just teach those values hard enough, often enough, or well enough, then scumbags can't get ever into position of leadership in the martial arts.
Well, the thing about scumbags is that they are very good liars. They can preach the values and pretend they follow them as long as it serves their purposes. They also know that good people DO internalize and live those values, so it means that they can do what they want to us and we can't honorably retaliate if we follow those rules.
How many of those teachers above do you think talked about respect and honor in their classes? I bet 100%.
What can we do about it?
We need to get rid of the notion that teaching moral and ethical values makes us immune. I'm not saying don't teach values and ethics, I'm saying let's not kid ourselves that it will remove scumbags from our midst or will fix them. Laws and threats of jail time don't change scumbags either - your discussion about honor and humility on the mat isn't going to change them, either.
Here's two more suggestions I'd like to make in general.
1) Trust your instincts
This is no different than what we advise people to do in self-defense scenarios. If it feels wrong or off - it is. Don't doubt it.
This is especially true for women, as we tend to think we need to be 100% certain and be able to prove it beyond a shadow of a doubt in a court of law for us to do anything about this sort of thing (in order to avoid embarrassing the other person in case we are wrong). You do not need certainty on the street. You do not need it in the dojo either.
2) Don't Be Afraid To Speak Up For Others
If you spot behavior you think is questionable, say so! Don't keep silent! Yes, there may be a protocol to it, but for Pete's sake, SPEAK UP!
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FURTHER READING AND BLOGGING ON THIS TOPIC:
Martial Arts Instructors and the Reality of Sex Offense
There's No Reason to Spend the Night at My House
Got any ideas for how we can do a better job? I'd love to know your thoughts!