“Does anyone hear what I’m saying?”

When I first moved to a new city, I was struggling to make friends. Work was demanding, long hours, and somewhat toxic. It was my first time living near a big city, and I felt uneasy after some of the stories I heard. One lady I met was robbed outside the Barnes and Noble by my house. I didn’t consider the area to be “bad,” so I worried how the more notoriously crime-ridden parts of town would be.

After months of depression and loneliness, something needed to change. I decided to try BJJ. I could build my confidence to defend myself, get a great workout, and meet new people. It seemed like the perfect solution for what I needed.

The gym was super welcoming and after a week of training with the owner’s wife, I felt comfortable branching out to everyone else. I originally thought I would only train a couple of days a week, but I quickly fell in love with BJJ and was training all the time.
My teammates seemed excited for me and were very helpful.

One of the coaches and brown belts were particularly involved in my training. They were both very vocal about their passion for women in jiu jitsu and desire to make sure women felt comfortable training. The brown belt was also a smaller guy and wanted to show me all the “small person” tips for making the techniques successful.

Whenever the brown belt and I were in class together, which was frequently, he would be my partner or coach me while I partnered with the other woman in the school who also trained a lot. When we got to the rolling portion of class, he would roll with me and give feedback. If I were resting, he would sit with me and talk on the wall.

Soon after I started at the school, I moved to a new apartment. The brown belt offered to help, and I was extremely grateful for it. He also invited me to go to the shooting range with a couple of his friends. And later with a group to go to the nightclubs one night. I desperately wanted to hang out with people and make friends, so I welcomed the invitations to be social with my teammates. I’ve always been in male-dominated environments at work and school. Since we were hanging out in groups, I viewed the relationship as platonic, and that’s all I wanted. Call it naive, but until jiu jitsu I’ve never had problems with it.

The more I was around him though, the more uneasy I felt. He was always complimenting me in front of people and telling them how great I was. I appreciated the compliments, but the fact he did it so much made me uncomfortable.

A few months after I started, it was my birthday. My female teammate knew I didn’t have many friends in the area, so she organized a party. A bunch of people showed up from the school. I was touched by the number of people who I had only known a few months coming out to celebrate with me.

We were downtown, so the night involved a lot of drinking. The brown belt was there too and at one point asked if I would be offended if he kissed me. I told him, “yes, I would be.” An hour or so later, he crossed paths with me on the stairwell at the nightclub, and he suddenly started making out with me. I didn’t do much to fight him off, but I avoided him the rest of the night.

Later, when I used the restroom and opened the door to exit, much to my surprise, he was right outside waiting for it to unlock. He slipped in and immediately stuck his fingers inside me. I kept pulling up on his arm, but he was too strong for me to budge. It never occurred to me to hit him. I was in such shock this was happening. He moved his hands to undress me, and it allowed me to stop him, unlock the door, and leave.

He found me later in the night to apologize, stating he misread my signals. I told him I felt like I wasn’t giving any signals that I was interested in him, but he didn’t seem to be hearing that.

For months, he continued to try to ask me out and insist he be my personal coach during the classes. After a couple months I got fed up with it, and told him I was tired of his private lessons and just wanted to be able to do the class with everyone else without all his extra help.

When we went to roll, and he immediately called me out. I didn’t think much of it since that’s what usually happened. As soon as we slapped hands, it felt different. He went as hard and fast as he could to tap me out, using all his strength to force me into whatever position he decided he wanted to submit me from next. He was a brown belt and I was a white belt with 3 months of experience. It took about 10 seconds to submit me. Then again, and again, and again. At one point, he got me in a guillotine from guard and stood up to his feet and pulled me up off the floor to finish it. I wanted to tap on the ground and was beginning to black out as he pulled me to my feet by my neck. When he let go, I collapsed to the floor.

I knew exactly what was happening. This was retaliation for saying no. It was happening right in the middle of class, right next to my coach, but no one noticed because they were also rolling. The logical thing to do would have been to yell at him, hit him, illicit the help of my coach or teammates, or walk away. I don’t know why I didn’t do any of those. I knew was that he was trying to teach me a lesson about saying no. Unlike before when I was too much in shock to do anything, now I was aware and able to continue fighting back. So I felt like I had to continually, unsuccessfully, fight back and not show weakness or give up.

Afterward, I was doubly devastated because, while I could previously try to believe the birthday party was a misunderstanding, it was painfully clear now that it was not. I cried for days.

I messaged my coach and asked to talk with him about what happened in class last night. He asked me if I wanted the brown belt kicked out of the school. I said no because I didn’t want to be “that person,” the new girl that showed up and got the long-time, popular student removed from the school. I said I just never wanted to train with him again, and the coach promised to do what he could to make sure that happened.

I’m not sure what all happened, if anything, but that guy no longer was no longer in the evening classes with me. In hindsight, my coach didn’t do much to help, but I still felt like he was a hero who saved me.

I didn’t see much of the brown belt for a couple of years except for small moments at tournaments. I usually just acted as if he didn’t exist. After a while, I talked myself out of the severity of the situation and started to acknowledge his existence with a hello or small talk. Soon after that, he invited me to attend a baby shower with him for the coach’s cousin (I guess that made it safer for me?). I declined, but after the party, I got a text from him that he was at the restaurant outside my apartment with a “surprise” to give me, and he wanted to come in (he knew where I lived because he helped me move).

I was so I unnerved. I ignored the text and stayed away from my windows for a couple of hours. I text my coach to let him know what was happening, but he found it funny. He just laughed and said that some guys can’t take a hint. The next time the brown belt saw me, he told me the surprise was a shirt from the baby shower, but he didn’t physically have it or give it to me.

In part because no one took me seriously, I continued to tell myself that everything that happened was no big deal. I couldn’t deny the panic attacks, though, when someone rolled aggressively with me. I never had that problem before. I debated with myself – if I’m having such a severe physical reaction, maybe the situation was serious? Whenever I told someone what happened though, except for one friend, no one seemed too concerned about it.

I was training with my same coach at a new school when the memories came back to haunt me on a daily basis. I was in the middle of a career transition, and the uncertainty was causing a lot of stress. Meanwhile, at the school, a new student was always aggressive with me, and also had the same last name, similar looks, and a similar personality to the brown belt who hurt me. The panic attacks came back stronger. I struggled to hide how upset I was. In the most unhelpful of ways, my coach told me I needed to get it under control because people were asking if I was okay and it was causing drama in his eyes. No one should ever know I was upset or traumatized. I was on the verge of a mental breakdown.

I finally admitted I couldn’t handle it anymore and spoke to a sexual assault advocate. I was shocked when, after I recounted what happened, she called it rape. Rape? Really? That seems like such a strong word for something that wasn’t that bad. By the very definition, it was rape, but I had a hard time accepting it.

I got six weeks of counseling, since that’s all I was entitled to, and it helped some. I finally stopped blaming myself for what happened and accepted that maybe the ways I reacted were indeed what kept me most safe. If I did strike him, what would have happened to me? Would I have been beaten? I did tell people what happened, but no one acted concerned. If I told people as it was happening, would it have been any different? I’ll never know, but it helped me get some peace to know my body was reacting based on what it knew best. And maybe those reactions resulted in the best possible outcome.

Things seemed to be better. The brown belt announced he was moving and had a going away. I had to leave my other school and coach and was back at the school where I started. This time though, he was gone. It was great. I didn’t have to worry about him.

Suddenly one day he came back, and he didn’t seem to be leaving any time soon. I thought it was just a short visit, but no. He immediately started pursuing me again. He continually asked me to roll, and I continually told him no. I appreciated that I was empowered by the coaches to say no, but I didn’t want to have to say it repeatedly, every. single. class. My other tactic was to stay on the opposite side of the gym or act as if I didn’t hear him. To counter that, he’d move right next to me and my partner while we were rolling so I wouldn’t have a chance to get away before he asked me. I kept saying no.

He seemed to be getting frustrated I would not train with him, so he upped the pressure. He again, sat near me while I was rolling so I wouldn’t have an option to avoid him. When my round ended he approached me and asked to roll. When I said no, again, he said, “you’re scared of me, huh?” in an attempt to upset me into proving him wrong. I knew it was a trap.

I had enough and was trying to work up the nerve to speak with the owner about it. I had already spoken to multiple people to no avail, but something had to change. I didn’t want to feel uncomfortable training all the time. My coach expressed gratitude that I spoke with him, but reminded me there was nothing he could have done about it when he didn’t know. I felt that was fair, but I had reported it to multiple people who worked for him.

He talked to the brown belt about leaving me alone, and he did for awhile. I no longer had to tell him no every time we were in the same class. Things were still uncomfortable, though, because I could see the owner was torn between the two of us. He would talk with me for awhile and then go talk and laugh with him for awhile, attempting to make us both feel comfortable being there at the same time.

It was all extremely tense. It still made me feel like what happened was not serious. This time, I knew the right word for what happened – rape. Even using the word rape didn’t seem to make it any more important.

I had to move farther away for a new job and had every excuse to leave the school, but I was still afraid. My jiu jitsu career was riddled with bad experiences and I felt that while this situation was not good, at least I knew who to watch out for. If I moved to a new school, I wouldn’t know who’s bad and who’s not, and risk being assaulted again. I was convinced this was all going to happen again at whatever school I went to. I also felt I had close friends who I considered family and didn’t want to leave them either.

I was finally now getting professional, long-term help and around new people in the jiu jitsu community. As I opened up more about what I was dealing with, it became more and more difficult for me to deny how toxic the situation was. After multiple people told me they were concerned for my safety, that it seemed unhealthy, that loyalty was a two way street, I had to face the truth. What I was trying to hold on to was destroying my mental health and sense of self-worth. And I needed to let it go.

I was struggling to let go and looking for any reason why it would the wrong decision, but the final straw came quickly. This guy was promoted to black belt, found me to talk to me again, despite his direction not to. It seems insignificant, but he did it right in front of the owner who told him not to engage with me any more. It seemed his black belt emboldened him and no one was going to do anything about it. I finally left.

I was terrified to go to a new school. Much of my 5 years in jiu jitsu was filled with people grabbing my butt, hitting on me, sending me unwelcome messages, rolling too hard, making sexual innuendos, or having open conversations about their sex lives. I felt like that’s just the way jiu jitsu is and I had to learn how to deal with it. Now I was in a new environment where I didn’t know who was safe and who to avoid. I was a purple belt and felt expected to command the mat with confidence. I didn’t have confidence anymore. I was traumatized and scared of just about everyone. I was waiting for something bad to happen.

But time went by, and nothing bad happened. There were a few minor incidents, but my coaches dealt with it quickly and responsibly, and no one was left feeling uncomfortable. No one tried to grab my butt. No one was making sexual comments to me. All the men weren’t trying to date me and instead treated me with respect. I was still afraid of going to classes without my friend there because I was afraid I would have a panic attack and scare everyone. It took over a year, but I was finally started to get comfortable with training again.

I started to believe that it was possible to train and be treated with respect. I felt comfortable that there was someone I could talk to who would take my feelings seriously. I felt I could be listened to without judgement, and be a part of creating a solution that would make me comfortable. I wouldn’t be expected to “just deal with it.”

As I reflect on all my previous experiences in jiu jitsu, I’m embarrassed I put up with what I did. It was all I knew however, and I had no experiences to show me anything different. I still see my old teammates hang out with that brown belt, now black belt. It makes me feel like I’m a twilight zone. I can now accept that it was rape, and it left me with scars I still deal with. For whatever reasons though, they cannot and instead embrace him with open arms. Abuse was all I knew, but now, I know differently. It didn’t have to be that way. And it never should have. I only wish I would have realized that sooner.