Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Can Keith Owens really handle women in jiu jitsu?

Fortunately, my computer had some issues the past few days, and I was in Houston all weekend at the IBJJF Houston Open.  Otherwise I might have completely lost my shit in public about this incredibly stupid post by Keith Owen, in which he muses that women might not really be able to handle BJJ (though at the end he fatuously proclaims that Gracie Jiu Jitsu is made for us! hooray!)

Now, having had a few days to calm down... I can say this:

WHAT CRACK ARE YOU ON, KEITH OWEN?  All the women quit, so it must be all of them, not you or your school????  And how do you explain the growing popularity of womens jiu jitsu around the world?  the growing numbers of women competing?  the growing numbers of female black belts?  Are they not really women?

1.  How is it that you find women "demanding" to take your class?  I've never once felt the need to "demand" anything from a regular business.  Usually, they WANT me to purchase their product or service.  All I have to do is hint that I might be interested and some salesperson follows me around the store, chirping happily in my ear about their sale, etc.  This right away tells me you might have a problem when women come in the door.  Are you pushing them away?  what kind of conversation happens first before they demand... are you encouraging them to try out something like your cardio kickboxing class at noon?  (That's about the only thing that would make me feel like I had to demand a trial class in BJJ.  If you said something even more insulting, like "Oh, are you looking for the scrapbooking store? it moved..." then I would just turn and walk out.)  And just why do you think they don't already know they'll be grappling men?  why the need to make such a case out of it? surely they have eyes and watch a class or part of one when they come in to check it out?

2.  How do you know your guys are nice, respectable gentlemen?  Is it because they're not hitting on you?  I can tell you, I have trained in many academies across the country-- from east to west coast, north to south, from big name schools like Marcelo's, Drac's, the Gracie Academy etc to small places in garages and strip mall storefronts with classes taught by no-name blackbelts, brownbelts, purple belts.  I have honestly never come across men who were NOT nice respectable gentlemen while training or rolling.  Maybe I'm lucky!  Sadly, though, I have heard from enough women who have had to train with guys with poor judgment, lack of brains, and even guys who are sexual predators.  Oddly enough, the assholes don't wear rashies that say "asshole" across the front.  In fact, the assholes are often well-liked by the other men in the team.  So I'm not impressed that you think your guys are nice.  They wouldn't be pinching your you-know-what or making you feel uncomfortable.

3.  You say you treat the women the same as the men-- and then you say they don't have to roll until they're comfortable.  Is this the rule for men?  Somehow I doubt it.  Somehow, I think you're probably making different rules for the ladies, which sets them apart and creates a pink ghetto-- "the ladies" who are too delicate to roll.  This not only makes the women feel different, it makes the men see them differently.  Treat women the same as men, and tell your students to roll with control against anyone significantly smaller or less-experienced than they are, regardless of gender.  Common sense.

4.  You've never had a complaint?  ANYONE who has run any kind of business or school for any length of time knows that complaints are common.  If you're not getting complaints, you're either missing them (they're not always heralded with a "hey, I need to complain about something privately") or you're deterring them.  You have to pay attention to body language, nonverbal communication, and your students' behavior both on and off the mats. You have to make yourself available for communication-- not just on the side of the mat during class, but before, after, by email, by phone, etc.

5.  How many men have started to train at your academy?  how many have stayed?  How many women have started? how many have stayed?  Let's put some hard numbers in here.  Both men and women move... Those women who "quit" by moving to another location might have continued training and don't belong in your blanket statement about "all" ultimately quitting.

6.  Damn those stupid bitches for getting pregnant (from their husbands or boyfriends... which I assume you need to point out, lest we gasp in horror at the thought of them getting pregnant some other way--) and not training until birth.  I guess you've been reading those grocery store tabloids with photos of women stick-skinny 2 weeks after delivery?  In the real world, women need a year to recover physically from birth.  Also, they work full time, have children, no nanny or housekeeper, and are expected to survive with maybe 15 minutes a day to themselves, if that.  Where will she fit BJJ?  Oh, well, maybe she'll come back when the munchkin is in elementary school.  Maybe she hasn't actually quit.  Maybe she actually switched schools!

7.  How accessible is your academy?  I looked at your schedule, Keith.  Not impressive.  9:30am on weekdays, many women are at work.  7:30pm weekdays, many women are getting dinner on the table and/or putting babies to bed.  So that leaves one 11am class on Saturday.  Nothing on Friday or Sunday either.  So how realistic is it?  How about having a 6am adult class so women can stop on the way to work? or how about two, three classes on weekends?  or even a noon class?

8.  "It then makes me want to do a male only class because we don't want to waste time on someone who is just going to quit."  You sexist bastard.  You have already judged "all" women as being "quitters" who aren't worth your time.  And you think this attitude doesn't come across loud and clear to the women at your academy?  How about doing a "no quitters" class instead?  only how would you know who to let in?  You can never know who will quit ahead of time.  You can't teach anyone at all with this perspective because EVERYONE might quit-- move-- get injured badly-- get pregnant-- lose a job-- develop new interests.

9.  Why do you think teaching jiu jitsu is a waste of time if someone doesn't continue taking classes, from you, for the rest of their life?  don't you see that it produces many wonderful benefits even if you only take it for a year? six months?

10.  "My male students are usually married and take a bit of a risk with their spouses by wrestling around with the opposite sex."  What poppycock!  What information do the spouses have access to-- aside from their husbands and possibly you?  You're either part of the problem or you're part of the solution, Keith.  If the spouses of your students are apprehensive or threatened, you are obliged to correct their perception of jiu jitsu.  Ultimately you are the blackbelt and you are the captain of the ship!  You need to sit your students down and tell them how to address this issue with their wives/girlfriends.  You need to bring some women in from other academies, if need be, and have a "demo night" with rolling and drilling, that the students' wimminfolk can attend and observe, so they can see that really, there's no funny business going on no matter whose legs are where with who.  After all if your female students' significant others need to be comfortable with them in a class full of men, then your male students' significant others need to be comfortable with a class containing women, too.

11.  Both men and women get grabbed in places that, in a different context, are usually sexual in nature.  We get over it.  I was never given any kind of "speech" or "talk" when I started jiu jitsu-- I just did it.  I think I might have been more nervous hearing about it before I felt it.  When I felt my first "hand touches boob" moment, it was immediately and obviously not sexual so it didn't bug me at all.  After all, my bra and my shirt both touch my boobs all day long.  When I hug a friend, my boobs touch their chest.  BIG DEAL.  Sounds like you have more of an issue with it than we do.

12.  Have you asked women who left your academy why they're not training with you any more in an open, accepting, non-confrontational manner???

13.  I totally disagree with all-women's classes.  My personal experience with them has been negative.  I only speak from my own experience, of course, which was that the higher belt women at the school (a brown, a purple, and myself and another blue) either had to give up our productive time training with other (male) students or we had to give up more of our own spare time.  That would have been fine if I had gotten anything at all out of training with the newbie women.  Clearly I didn't expect to get great rolls out of it-- but I didn't even feel like I learned as a teacher or that it was useful for the women, because they were either sporadic in attendance (thus they got nothing out of it, stayed fat and noodle-like and completely lacking in any resistance) or they were regulars, who quickly graduated to the co-ed classes and stopped attending the waste-of-time womens' class.  Just sayin'.

*** edited to add: I realized, thanks to a comment from a reader, that I failed to be precise and complete with my language in this paragraph.  I was rushing, angry, and time-pressured when I wrote this post, but that's no excuse!  So let me clarify:  I do not have a bias against whitebelts in general, of either gender.  I  am often still just as "new" and clueless as any whitebelt, and regardless of belt color, we're all still learning (especially me.)  When I was taking the womens class, I was not a teacher per se.  I did not expect to be teaching, and I did not expect to roll beyond positional sparring in the class, much less go hard.  It is true that every extra rep I did was good for me-- except that drilling a technique on a completely limp partner is often not super useful.  Except for two women, the class (in total, 4 to 7 ladies including me) was roughly approximate to the "regular" classes in terms of the students' interest level, aggression, and willingness to work hard.   (So I did get just as much out of working with those ladies as I did from working with guys.)

However, two whitebelt women in particular were frustrating because they did not work hard, did not seem motivated, and only attended sporadically.  They wore baggy t-shirts that snagged fingers and toes, and loose sweatpants that were always coming down, necessitating adjustments, and were overly warm in our non-air conditioned academy.  As a result, they were uncomfortable and unhappy.  They did not make progress, and they described themselves as "fat" and "noodle" like.  These descriptions were fair.  The other ladies, who put up with wearing loaner gis until buying their own, would have done just as well in bjj if there hadn't been a women's class, if not better, because the regular class was longer-- 3 hours compared with 1 hour.    So in the end, based just on my own experiences with the women's class I attended and helped out at, I concluded that women who are going to like jiu jitsu will like it in a co-ed environment (as I did) and women who need a little gentler introduction can get it in the co-ed class.  The women who don't need a women's class aren't terribly helped by it while the women you'd think would have quit but for a women's class quit anyway because even an all-women environment wasn't enough to save it for them.  And creating a "women's class" seemed to set up an environment where women had permission to be sloppy (if they wanted to be) and if they relied on that class alone, they wouldn't make progress at the same rate as people in the other classes because there were some 20+ hours of regular classes a week available, and just 1 hour a week of women's class.  So why bother, in other words.

To me the alternative my academy implements is superior.  Any new student (male or female) takes their first class strictly with one upper belt who goes through a set introductory lesson on position and a basic technique or two.  Female new students are introduced to any women present at that time as well.  The next time they come, they are integrated into the "on ramp" classes, which all of our beginners go through for about 4-6 months before being permitted to take our other fundamentals classes.  The "on ramp" is just what it sounds like, technique-wise, and often we have a few browns, a purple or three or five, and lots of blues as well as whitebelts.  So it's a great training environment, 45 min to 1 hr long 3 times a week, with positional sparring but no "rolling," and women are usually paired up with upper belts.  No one is overwhelmed or overfaced, but no one is specifically set aside because of their gender.  It, like Julia's post pointed out, acknowledges that being a beginner is what is usually the toughest part, not being female.

Again, I don't have a problem with whitebelts of any gender.  I love whitebelts, I'm no longer afraid of them unless they're Hulk-smash roid-heads, and I don't dismiss them because they're not precocious berimbolo-ers or whatever.  They're great partners for when I need to practice new stuff, even old stuff, and they keep me humble because they're definitely not pushovers.  They're often the only people I can get sweeps on and even then I have to really work for it.  They let me take time to think through stuff and they're wonderfully sweet about whatever few words of advice I can share.  I think I get more out of showing someone how I did something (and the resulting analysis as I struggle to put something into coherent sentences) than I do out of getting smashed by a fellow blue belt (purple belt, brown belt) etc.

14.  Why aren't blue belt women just as special and awesome?  why do you assume that blue belt ladies haven't legitimately tapped men?  God the stupidity.

15.  After writing such a provocative post, Keith then (again fatuously) responds to every comment on his page with "Thanks!"  By failing to engage with your critics, you display a notable condescension that I feel is likely to be in your other interactions.  So I'll again make the offer-  bring me to Boise, and I'll train at your academy a few days with an open mind.  I'll let you know if I see any reasons a reasonable woman wouldn't stick with it or you.

Edited to add:  Keith has two women instructors at his academy.  Kristin is a black belt in "Adult Sport Jiu Jitsu" and is "considering" getting a blue belt in Brazilian jiu jitsu.  QUALITY.  Alanna is also a black belt, presumably in "Adult Sport Jiu Jitsu" since her name was on the sport jiu jitsu page as well.  There are no female instructors in the Brazilian jiu jitsu program-- two have Owen as surnames so I imagine they're Keith's sons?


Manuforti said...

I treat everyone I roll with differently. Smaller guys (or girls) I use less strength, ballistic guys I play more defensive, smashers I avoid altogether or plead with them to take it easy, etc. Women are no different. Treat them the same as any rolling partner, that is to say, do what it takes for you both to learn.

As for the pregnant jibe, the last time I looked it takes two to make a baby. Just because Dad isn't at your club doesn't mean he isn't curtailing his activity somewhere else to help out. And if he is at your club and he hasn't eased up on his rolling...well, you be the judge.

We have long term women at our club. Fewer women than men but they are as tough as the men. Or as "not tough" because I can tell you I am one guy who is injury adverse. Takes to long to heal after 50. So if one woman quit, maybe she didn't like it, if all of them are quitting, the common denominator is elsewhere.

What the F is with men that they still have their heads so messed up about the opposite sex? Treat everyone like individuals and it's a lot easier to see we ALL have special needs and it has nothing do do with what we do or don't have between our legs.

Manuforti said...

I treat everyone I roll with differently. Smaller guys (or girls) I use less strength, ballistic guys I play more defensive, smashers I avoid altogether or plead with them to take it easy, etc. Women are no different. Treat them the same as any rolling partner, that is to say, do what it takes for you both to learn.

As for the pregnant jibe, the last time I looked it takes two to make a baby. Just because Dad isn't at your club doesn't mean he isn't curtailing his activity somewhere else to help out. And if he is at your club and he hasn't eased up on his rolling...well, you be the judge.

We have long term women at our club. Fewer women than men but they are as tough as the men. Or as "not tough" because I can tell you I am one guy who is injury adverse. Takes to long to heal after 50. So if one woman quit, maybe she didn't like it, if all of them are quitting, the common denominator is elsewhere.

What the F is with men that they still have their heads so messed up about the opposite sex? Treat everyone like individuals and it's a lot easier to see we ALL have special needs and it has nothing do do with what we do or don't have between our legs.

Lori (Richmond/Vancouver BC Jiu-jitsu/martial arts instructor) said...

Yep. Sexism in the BJJ world. No shocker there. It is, however, surprising that someone would post it in a blog so openly like that. Guess he didn't realize how it would come across or that he has some sexist attitudes. Ah well. The first step is awareness, so thank you for helping him and other BJJ peeps to become more aware with your bold response. :)

Lori (Richmond/Vancouver BC Jiu-jitsu/martial arts instructor) said...

Forgot to mention. Yours is not even the first article of objection I've seen about that blog post.

Georgette said...

Thank you Lori and John!!

Also, Julia wrote a nice one

as did Reese

and SheBeast

Anonymous said...


The two other Owen's are not Keith's son's. They are no relation to him.

The other Owen's are Matt and Dylan Owen (father and son).

Just to clarify

Unknown said...

I will simply say this.
I recently went to a NAGA tournament where there was no more than 10 females competing, my wife being the highest rank there to compete (blue belt).

There were hundreds of men there competing. Fact of the matter is there are far more men that train BJJ than there are women.

And let me say this... There are competitive schools out there that I have trained at and they train HARD - they had no women in their classes. They allow women to train, but they treat them equal to the men. The women that have walked in the door simply could not hack it, or didn't like taking the punishment.

It's nothing against women, it just is what it is. There are females out there that certainly can hack it, my wife being one of them. No matter how bad she got crushed she still went back (and continues to today).

But the fact still remains that I have seen far too many women coming in expecting it to be like their kids Taekwondo class... it's just not the same.

Georgette said...

A great article by Val Worthington here:

Reese said...

Georgette, thanks so much for writing another great reaction article. You've made so many wonderful points but unfortunately, I feel it will go to waste on Keith himself. Based on his extremely underwhelming and condescending responses to people's comments, I've drawn the conclusion that he's a real smug, arrogant piece of work. His response to Lauren's request for him to address my article was "ya..I read that. I don't agree. =)...Thank you Lauren." And then he replied to the one woman who didn't attack him with "She Beast...Now that's a name that can probably be tough enough to get a BJJ BlackBelt. =)"

Basically, he's dismissing everyone who disagrees with him or writing very condescending one-liner that indicate none of the points being made have actually hit home. I was genuinely interested to see how he would address my article, or Julia's, or now yours, but it doesn't look like he's capable of pulling his head out of his ass long enough to do that.

The most infuriating part is how he makes these fact that he makes these broad, rude generalizations, not accounting for 1) the possibility that some of the women who start out at his school simply move to another gym instead of quitting altogether or 2) the fact that women all over the world are getting increasingly involved at OTHER gyms. Even if the lack of female student retention truly isn't his fault, what gives him the right to apply his experiences to women everywhere? Hell, at my own gym, for a long time there were only 3 girls (including myself) moved but is still training hard elsewhere. And now in addition to me and the purple belt, there are 5-6 girls regularly showing up for the fundamentals class. Doesn't sound like women are quitters to me...they've certainly stuck around longer than a number of men I've seen who come in for a while and then lose interest or can't hack it.

I wrote one last pissed off comment on Keith's blog and have resolved to no longer look at that page because arguing with stupid people only raises my blood pressure. But as I said to him (and his wife, supposedly), I don't live anywhere near Idaho, so I couldn't care less how they run their boys club. However, for him to use his own gym's failings to go online and make highly insulting generalizations about all women in the sport, who are working their asses off as much as or more than any of his male students, is just unacceptable.

SavageKitsune said...

It would sure make life easier if those "asshole" rashies did exist.

Anonymous said...

Keith Owen: below average student of Pedro's in Utah who benefited from the "Open up an academy under Pedro Sauer Black Belt Plan."

This article and his cynical propping up of the fraud Ari Bolden should be enough to make this guy irrelevant in BJJ circles forever.

Anonymous said...

@Brandon Zeciri, I've seen countless men come through the doors of the gym thinking they would make everybody "bear witness to the fitness of the modern warrior" only to have them get humbled, discover its not as easy as it looks on t and never show up again. I've also seen A LOT of women stick around and become champions in bjj and mma.

I'm not surprised Keith Owen can't retain female students. There's clearly some issues going on between him and the other gender. The problem is further underscored by his complete inability to handle criticism on his blogpost. Instead casting the blame out maybe he should examine the way he runs his shop.

Triin said...

What a condescending attitude towards white belt women you have! Fat, noodle-like, wow!!!!

Georgette said...

No, I didn't say "all" white belt women. I was speaking of the two ladies who attended this particular women-only class maybe once a month, visibly did not care for it, and did not continue with it. It was hard to work with them because no matter the enthusiasm level of the instructor and the other ladies, and myself, they were just not 'into' it.

There have been many whitebelt women before and after who have been a delight.

Anonymous said...

Of course I roll with women differently than men, just like I roll differently with some men than I do with others and they with me. A 230lb black belt wont fight me like Im Roger Gracie.

I hate to see this stuff, this back and forth, I really do.

I want where I train to be accessible to everyone, that means your greatest opponent is yourself along with fear and doubt and overcoming obstacles in our journey.

Cant stand UFC uber He men and everyday is friggin Mundials types. I also cant stand a woman who tisks and storms off the mat in a huff because I accidentally hit her in the face while rolling.

Sarah S said...

In my head, those attitudes have no place in martial arts, and I can't comprehend that folks like that exist.
I train karate, judo & jujitsu - and they are all awesome, welcoming to women, encouraging, and I seldom experience problems. When I do, it is mostly from new men - never from the instructors. And, mostly, they come around.
Unfortunately, I've been to schools that felt like a Male Only zone. I trained with a school in the UK for a few weeks on vacation - I was absolutely AMAZED that their black belt class had NO women (given that they were a prominent London school). I felt pressured from all sides by an excess of testosterone.
I'm used to being the only woman. Have been the only woman very often - it isn't a big deal. But at this school, the attitude was that I couldn't keep up... because I'm a woman. The level they pushed me at - harder than necessary, a pushing-to-break pushing - made me feel like this was a BoyzClub, and I wasn't wanted. Fortunately, it pissed me off and made me rise above - but what if I couldn't? It wasn't until I proved that I COULD keep up, and that there were things that I could bring to the table that they backed off and said "you know, I wish you would join our team, we really need a woman!" And I thought - dear lord, men! You wonder why you don't have women!? You're treating them as inferior, expressing distaste at training with one, and make it clear that if she gets in the way of your training (say, can't keep up the speed/strength, is intimidated by your glares, asks questions, or is uncomfortable) - she isn't welcome.
It was BIZARRE. I'd heard about schools like that. And I know that working with men's preconceptions is always just Part Of The Game - some will treat you like a flower, some are gonna try and crush you, some are going to scowl when they are partnered with you because they think you won't work as hard. But when it fills the whole school, top down? Its sad. Pathetic. Depressing.
It is particularly difficult for women to start a grappling art - it is scary. I remember how scary it was. And the only reason I kept coming back was because my instructor treated me like I was as capable as the men. He expected the same of me as anyone else. And made sure, every step of the way, that we all knew I had my strengths (and weaknesses...). Like that I might be shorter than EVERYONE else I train with, but that means I have a lower center of gravity, and so I'm more able to counter, avoid, and complete certain throws. Or that I'm flexible and small, so I can wiggle and slide out of things - regardless of the strength of the hulks I roll with - because of it. He made sure that we all knew that being a woman in martial arts was a good thing, and that we have special strengths. And so I stayed. Our club has slowly grown - and is now only slightly male-heavy. I like to THINK I bring something to the club that my male partners can learn from. At the very least it becomes a "Sarah is only XX pounds, but look what she can do with someone twice her size!" kind of welcoming to show new, shy women that judo/jujitsu can be fun for women too.
Without that supportive atmosphere, I could see women being scared away. For a hundred different reasons, lots of which you touched on. A club that makes all feel welcome and supported is a good club. That's all I'm saying.
If we're not sticking around you're probably too damn intense, not very friendly, and you need to pick up a sense of humor. Sorry for the rant - I visited that school in December, and its been burning a hole in my chest ever since.

Lori (Richmond/Vancouver BC Jiu-jitsu/martial arts instructor) said...

I ended up writing a blog post to help martial arts instructors to run a more female friendly school in response to Keith's blog post. I hope this helps improve things for women martial artists everywhere. :)

Anonymous said...

Wow, that was pure awesome.

Unknown said...

On the ADCV Facebook today there is a debate going on about Keith Ownens' public statement today that he is "disavowing" one of his blue belts (not taking the belt away) . No one commenting nows who the blue belt is or what the offense was. I was only moderately interested until someone posted a link to a Facebook post that purports to cite the other side of the story. Interestingly, it's a female student (most of the comments assumed male). I just thought it was a strange coincidence. I would post the link here but I'm on a phone. You can go to ADCC Facebook and read comments as well as see the other persons side on IslandTopTeam Facebook.