Enough With Sensei Scumbag's Shenanigans!
Updated: Mar 30
This is a long one, but there's a lot to say on this topic.
"Sensei Scumbag" is what I call people who use martial arts instruction as an access point to find victims to abuse sexually, physically, and emotionally.
Sensei Scumbag is up to his shenanigans again.
Oh, not just one particular Sensei Scumbag. We have lots and lots of Sensei Scumbags in the martial arts. I would argue not a huge percentage, but it's a large enough problem that we need to do something about this.
Here's a Martial Arts instructor in Maryland. Here's a "karate" instructor sentenced to prison for the same thing that month. Here's another winner, convicted of all sorts of disgusting things in Maine. And this winner from Las Vegas. And one in 2019 in Pennsylvania. And this one, an MMA instructor in Massachusetts. And these were found with a cursory Google News search and I cherry-picked the first ones that came up.
It happens in every martial arts style, it happens to every gender, it happens in every location.
Before we get too far into this, I want to say that I know that women can be just as scumbaggy as men and I also know that there are young men getting harassed (or worse) as well as young women. Most examples happen to be men, which is probably to be expected as something like 80% of martial arts instructors are men, too
What I can find on Google has to be a fraction of cases that happen all the time. Which is really scary, when you think about it.
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.
Most of us are, in fact, good guys (and gals). The vast majority of us are!
However, we need to face the fact that martial arts culture has some inherent 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. 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.
But the flip side of this, is that it's hard to prove it IS sexual when it absolutely is intended as such. Sensei Scumbag can hide behind "Oh, you're misinterpreting what I'm doing." and make it YOUR fault, or gaslight you into thinking his boundary-crossing is in your imagination.
I mean, how many times will a 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 told me about how they manage this where she trains:
"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 people in our martial arts community when they say, "This feels sexual and inappropriate to me." and not ignore it or blow it off or make a joke of it.
AUTHORITARIANISM AND SENSEI-WORSHIP
I think most of of us have a somewhat authoritarian and hierarchical 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 for most of us. You find it to be pretty strong in martial 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 egregious 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, because the student thinks they won't be believed.
And the truth is... I think the student is unfortunately correct in thinking they won't be believed. 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 for whatever reason 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 Scumbag 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 and I don't think that'll change any time soon. 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 (versus strict martial arts training on a mat) isn't taken as being rude or dishonorable.
We can't allow our students to believe that they can't speak up - so we have to take these accusations a lot more seriously.
We have to accept that Sensei is just a guy like any other, and nothing magical about his title makes him somehow better as 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.
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. Some of us find their first family and belonging in the dojo.
Group identity is one of the ways we human beings survive - it is one of the most powerful emotions we feel, and it's so fundamental to what we are as a species.
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)...
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.
OUR VALUES MAKE US "IMMUNE"
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 sub-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 who've been arrested, charged and convicted of abuse 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 to having bad people in our midst. 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 community or will fix them. Laws and threats of jail time don't change scumbags either - your discussion about honor and humility and respect 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!
We have to do what we can to make it harder for Sensei Scumbag and his ilk to use our beloved martial arts for his disgusting purposes. We aren't perfect, and Scumbags will still get through (they are very good liars, as I've noted). But we can and should do more.
FURTHER READING AND BLOGGING ON THIS TOPIC:
There's been some really nice blogging over at Bullshido on this topic - all of these are good reads and worth your time:
By friend of this blog, Cathy Chapaty:
Got any ideas for how we can do a better job protecting our community from Sensei Scumbag? I'd love to know your thoughts!