Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Freedom, feminism, and racy photos – the controversy surrounding sexy grapplers

I feel fortunate to live in a culture that values freedom of expression as a basic human right. Individuals can express themselves openly and freely through speech, writing, art, movement...you name it.

The personal freedom that enables me to write this blog also empowers me and other women to dress the way we please, whether we choose to wear a burka or a thong. Some people choose to dress conservatively in public and some people choose to dress provocatively. Some people choose to express their sexuality through their outward appearance. Those who do so are not asking to be harassed, groped, raped, or otherwise creeped on. Harassment, of course, is the fault of the harasser alone and not the victim.

Provocative photos are abundant on the internet. Among them are the widely circulated photos of jiu jitsu and MMA women posing in sexualized ways, including this recent photo of Kyra Gracie:

This is just the latest example of sexualized photos of grappling women on the mats or in gis. Here are a few others: 

While the first photo has been getting a lot of recent attention, images like that one are nothing new. These photos are all over the internet and social media, and unless you're living with the Amish, you really can't escape them.
Certainly, it is a woman's right to pose however she wants for photos. That means she can pose provocatively if she so chooses. Some jiu jitsu women may even benefit professionally and financially from the media exposure that comes from these sexy photos. No laws are being broken by these images and no one is being directly hurt by them. So what's the big deal?

While these photos may seem harmless to outsiders, jiu jitsu women have another opinion. While I cannot speak for everyone, the general reaction to these images from women in my training circle has been negative. I share that sentiment. We are not denying the rights of women to dress and pose as they please. Nor are we blaming the women for the creepy and obnoxious posts that some men are making in response to these images. But the general consensus from the women I have spoken to is that female martial artists do not like being represented this way. We understand that sex sells and that having a sexy image can increase one's marketability. We understand that posing provocatively can gain exposure for an athlete beyond what one might earn through athletic accomplishments alone. Yet, images like these undermine the culture that many jiu jitsu women are trying to foster.

Women work hard to earn respect on the mats and to be taken seriously as training partners. Jiu jitsu may be an intimate sport, but the mats are the last place that we should worry about being sexualized, especially since many women come to jiu jitsu in the first place to learn self-defense. We deserve the same security while rolling that men take for granted - knowing that if we throw up a triangle, that our partner's mind is 100% "I better defend this or I'll get choked unconscious" and 0% "This is hot."

Julie Johansen wrote a blog BJJ and Gender: Group Responsibility vs Individual Freedom, which examines our right to act as individuals vs. our responsibility to positively represent the groups that we belong to. We all have the right to make our own choices and to express ourselves the way we please. But whether we like it or not, our actions can affect not only our own images, but the images of the groups that we belong to, especially when we belong to a minority group. This got me thinking about social psychology.
Humans naturally sort items into groups, in order to find patterns and better make sense of our environment. The way we sort people is called social categorization. We  naturally classify each other on the basis of sex, race, age, occupation, and various other attributes. This process is adaptive because by discovering patterns, we are able to think and act more efficiently, freeing our cognitive resources for other tasks. On the downside, it can lead to harmful stereotyping,
Groups that we belong to - our own gender, nationality, religion, etc - are known as our ingroups. Groups that we do not belong to are outgroups. The process of outgroup homogeneity is the process by which we naturally assume that members of outgroups are more similar to each other than members of our ingroups are. The racist cliché "people of X ethnicity all look the same" is an example of this. Members of the majority class are easily able to find differences among members of their own group, while they automatically lump members of other groups together.
This process extends to attributes beyond race. A while back, a student from another martial arts school tried a class at my school and behaved like a jackass. When that school was later brought up in conversation, I said "Those guys are assholes." I immediately caught myself. I had met one guy from that school and he behaved like an asshole. It was unfair to extend this trait to other members of that group. Yet, that was what I had naturally done. The error in thinking was mine, but this individual's bad behavior  had reflected negatively on the image of his entire school. 
As a minority group in jiu jitsu, women are the outgroup to most jiu jitu practitioners. Consequently, as diverse as we may be, we get lumped together at least subconsciously. 
When people look at the sexy poses pictured above, it is fair to assume "these women want to be noticed sexually." Not raped, molested, or harassed...but it is fair to say that they want to be noticed in a sexual way. However, it is wrong and harmful to assume that "jiu jitsu women" want to be noticed in this same way. Most, in my experience, do not want that on the mats. We want to be noticed instead for our hard work, toughness, cooperation, and general ability to kick ass. Which is why we grumble about these photos.


  1. Awesome article!! Good analysis!!

  2. I am a man, and I believe you are 100% correct with your viewpoint. I am not a sexist male who suffers from what I call, "MANtality". It's a shame how most men see women today, but then again lots of women ask for it by the way they dress and carry themselves, and also the way the male is being raised these days. I blame advertising and other men! Women think advertising and society tells them what a woman is supposed to look like! I say balderdash! Ladies, you are beautiful just the way you are...ALL NATURAL!

  3. So beautiful and so insightful, especially from a woman. Bravo. Thank you for sharing this perspective. Martial arts are not just some mechanical technics or physical strength, it is also about love, virtue, respect, courage, peace, harmony, simplicity, authenticity, human, excellence, etc. When people look at your ''ART'', what do they see ? Like other martial arts, jiu-jitsu is an awesome art, it is up to the masters and practitioners to live up to the high standard of the ''ART'' and its legacy...as true martial artists, so the society might be a better place.

    1. "...especially from a woman."? Congratulations, Grappling Girl, your feeble female mind managed to express a few thoughts coherently enough to impress Ngoc-Tri-Joseph Huynh. You can die a happy girl now!

  4. Great article, Grappling Girl! I wish more women remembered that if they dress provocatively men will think of them in a provocative way. It's hardwired into us!

  5. The problem I have is with men who interpret these kinds of things to mean that all of us want to be noticed in a sexual way. Not with Kyra Gracie or any other women who poses for a provocative photo. I think we have to place the blame on the right people.

  6. I disagree. As a female in BJJ for the past 4 years, I consider the sport as only ONE dimension of me. I am strong, but also feminine. As for Kyra, she is a career athlete, and photos like this do not only show the public the feminine side of her personality, but yes... also are important for publicity. Point in case: Lolo Jones, Danica Patrick, Maria Sharapova, Anna Kournikova, and others. In Brazil (& most other countries), this type of photo is not considered the least bit controversial... only in the USA, where our culture is more sexually uptight. Most men can look at a woman in a potato sack, and still find something sexual in the image. For heaven's sake... it's how they are wired! I do not think that these photos do anything to harm the credibility of females in the sport any more than provacative photos I've seen of Anderson Silva, Rafael Nadal, and other male athletes, albeit nice to look at, change my perception of them as athletes. My 2 cents. :)

  7. I like this article. I agree with you.

    However in the comment made by Holli, it seems to suggest that publicity for Kyra as she is an athlete and compared to with Lolo, Danica and Maria. Which I find, completely disregarded your analysis on the responsibility to the "outgroup" - the rest of the girls in jiujitsu.

    The examples given are from a completely different sport which bears no close contact to the opposite sex while training. Maybe Gina Carano / Ronda Rousey could be better examples. But even then, the same responsibility applies to them.

    No one is questioning the credibility of female athletes when it comes to posing provocatively, but whether or not it impacts how one perceives another female training on the mats, especially with so much of close contact.

    Again, the debate is whether it's a group responsibility or personal freedom. Either way, women in jiujitsu just want to respected as a training partner to men (&other women) on the mats without any sexual intentions and to be recognised for the skills that we have acquired, not for how we look.

  8. I read this article recently, which said "each time a female athlete is pictured in a sexualized way, it diminishes the perception of her athletic ability"
    Sex Sells? Female Athlete's Trend Changing. I wrote about it here: Talent Sells, Not Sex.

    This topic is a complex one for sure.

    I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ukraine, and several sites had never had a PCV before. What that first volunteer did MATTERED. For example, a friend was the second volunteer the site had ever had. The first guy was totally incompetent - he couldn't feed himself, couldn't speak the language, couldn't do his laundry, etc. When my friend got there, they expected the same thing - and were absolutely shocked that she could cook, speak Ukrainian, do laundry, etc. She was self sufficient.

    I would often advise PCVs to choose their battles carefully because what they do now would affect future volunteers' experiences.

    I think the same for women in grappling.

    I also wonder about setting precedence - at what point do our actions set precedence. How many times does it take a woman to not spar for no women to be expected to spar, or conversely, be expected NOT to spar?

    Black belt women are, by default, role models within our community and need to understand that their actions ABSOLUTELY have ramifications/influence/affects on the BJJ community and women in our community. It may suck, but that's the reality. There is a dearth of women black belts in our sport, and they are, willingly or not, people that women and girls are going to be looking to and looking up to. They are automatically more in the spotlight than other women in our sport.

  9. Hi Grappling Girl, I really liked this piece of yours and referenced it in a post I published yesterday. Just wanted to let you know! It's here: http://syd1138mma.wordpress.com/2013/09/18/hey-guys-no-one-blames-you-for-liking-those-kyra-gracie-pics/