Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Mansplaining: what it is, what it isn't, and how to not be THAT guy

Lately I have been thinking about the issue of mansplaining. What is that, you ask? Basically, it's an assumption of the incompetence of women, often in careers and subjects traditionally dominated by men, and the subsequent effort of men to "help" women by explaining to them what's going on.

Think about a woman who is well versed in car maintenance, has read her Consumer Reports, and knows exactly what she wants in her new car. But the salesman, instead of discussing performance specs like he does with his male customers, explains to her what horsepower means and then shows her where each of the nine cup holders are in the car. Without gauging her actual automotive knowledge, he gives her a sales pitch that is technically watered down from what he gives male customers. 

I was discussing mansplaining with some of the guys who I train with and they had never heard of the term. So I asked some other jiu jitsu women to help me explain it. Nikki-Lea Miller has a great, succinct answer:  "If he wouldn't explain it to a guy but feels the need to explain it to a woman, it's probably mansplaining."

Rachael Ayanami furthers the definition. "Mansplaining is NOT thoughtful, constructive criticism from a man who knows about whatever subject he is trying to educate a woman about. Mansplaining is men who are dismissive of women's thoughts and opinions simply because they're women. Mansplainers often think women don't know as much about a subject because they're women, even if the mansplainer knows nothing about the subject."

In my 5+ years of training, I've witnessed mansplaining now and again and have been on the receiving end of it once or twice. But it's not a pervasive problem at my school or the schools that I regularly visit. But it got me wondering - how big of a problem is it for jiu jitsu women as a whole? I polled some women who train to find out.

Fortunately (or unfortunately depending on how you look at it), the women polled reported more mansplaining in their professional lives than on the jiu jitsu mats. In fact, "bluebeltsplaining" may be a more pervasive problem in jiu jitsu than mansplaining. However, a few women shared some pretty annoying tales of the latter. I'll share a few here:   

"I have had white belts, NEW white belts to be precise, immediately jumping to coach me or remind me what's next, without me asking them first because for whatever reason I paused during a drill and they think I'm hesitating. Then we roll and I can see they're surprised and even getting frustrated by getting controlled or not being able to get a submission. They just assumed oh, she is woman, she doesn't know, she didn't get it, she needs 'help'." - Anonymous

"On a no gi night, a male white belt who had been doing BJJ for a few months talked me through each move we were drilling, never considering that I might know these things too, let alone that I might be more familiar. Then it was time to roll, before failing to arm bar me he said, 'Sorry I'm about to do this to you.' I escaped that stupid arm bar very easily. I've been doing jiu jitsu for three years and am a blue belt." -Amy Rose

"Another situation I have encountered is when guys (same rank) keep telling me how I should be doing a technique during open choice drilling, without even asking if I would care to learn another way to do it. So it is just them assuming I'm doing it wrong and never stopping to consider that I'm doing a variation more suitable to my game, strength, height/weight...or that they just haven't learned that technique or variation to begin with!" - Anonymous

Brown belt Liz Sussan sees mansplaining from an instructor's point of view. "It's the over-helpful guy, with the help directed toward women in class. As if women are in need of help in ways that men are not. In these cases, you don't see the 'helpful' man looking over and offering advice, tips, and teaching other men. You see them giving all of this 'help' to women. As if the women won't get it without the extra help or can't figure it out on their own. The women aren't seeking extra help, the 'helpful' guy assumes that his assistance is better than her mind. In the broader sense, men are left to struggle in BJJ while often women are given constant 'helpful' tips from the men around them, as if they don't get to experience the struggle too, or like it's not okay for them to struggle. As an instructor, I see huge value in the student having to expend mental energy to remember the steps while drilling or needing a few reps to get the movement correct...Women shouldn't be seen as people always in need of assistance or help. That extends outside of BJJ."

Liz's comments made me examine my own behavior. If I am honest with myself, I'll admit I'm much nicer to new women then I am to new guys at my gym. Often with brand new women, I try to flow with them and offer encouragement; with new men, I'm more likely to try to submit them right off the bat. What accounts for my own double standard? It may be that I remember how hard it is to be a new woman in jiu jitsu so I want to be as helpful and welcoming as possible. But by denying women their just due white belt struggle, I may be doing them a disservice.

Stephanie Fitz does not excuse mansplaining, but gives a possible explanation for its prevalence among new white belts - "I also think there is an odd mixture in BJJ of some white belt guy's assumption that women might know less about BJJ and also their fear - fear of physically hurting her, touching her in an inappropriate manner, loosing to her and being shamed. I think this type of fear makes lots of white belt guys' first few rolling sessions with women a bit awkward and also that the fear brings out the mansplaining as way of them trying to control that fear."

So how do you know if you fall within the category of the dreaded mansplainer? You might be a mansplainer if...

- you are male and duck partners of your own size, strength, and skill in order to "help" the new women
- you are male but have either attended, been denied entry to, or been kicked out of a women's open mat or a women's self defense class
- you are male and frequently ask women to roll and they say no. Women whom you have never rolled with also refuse to roll with you. (This doesn't necessarily mean you are a mansplainer. It might mean you are spazzy, creepy, or stinky. But mansplaining is one possibility).
- when a woman teaches class, you fill in extra details for her or demonstrate your own approach to the technique while she is teaching 
- you are male and you feel like there are women at your school who write blogs about you. (Haha! Kidding).

You probably are not mansplainer if...*
- you give equal value to your male and female training partners
- while drilling, you help your (male and female) training partners fill in details they may have missed from instruction. They do the same for you and there is mutual appreciation
- female training partners frequently want to roll with you. They tell visiting women that you are someone who is good to roll with
- after rolling, when your partner asks for feedback or asks how you got a certain move, you gladly provide insight. When the situation is reversed, they reciprocate. With your best partners, you might give feedback without being explicitly asked, but it is still well appreciated

*I am not trying to instill the fear of mansplaining into my awesome male training partners. You know you are awesome. I'm not talking about you.

Food for thought: Is there a female equivalent to mansplaining behavior? Is there an underlying assumption of the incompetence of men when it comes to child rearing and domestic duties?  To all the competent, thoroughly involved dads out there, have you ever felt "momsplained"  by moms (or others) who assume that you are clueless about how to run a house or raise a kid?

Watch this video and tell me what you think.


  1. Awesome post!

    And no, there's not a female equivalent, from my point of view.

  2. Great post! I have to remind certain guys not to speak each step aloud during practice - unless I ask - because it's counterproductive. As a white belt I need the time to understand the whys of each technique (and the many parts that encompass it), and coordinate mind with body. When suggestions are thrown out it only confuses me and keeps me from thinking the steps through for myself.

    Also, it's been pointed out to me a few times that I apologize after accidentally hurting someone during a roll (and that I shouldn't, especially come competition time), but when men say sorry it goes unnoticed.

    I've practiced new techniques with men who hesitate and I will admit I find myself explaining the next step if I remember. If I don't I offer to call the Coach over for assistance. Thankfully many men in BJJ are not afraid to ask for directions ;)

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  4. Hey, what happened to those other comments?
    That Tim Runniger guy was completely right.

    You can't complain about mansplaining and then delete comments that disagree with you.... because clearly it shows that you like mansplaining. because you like when things are presented to you in a very delicate, agreeable, simple manner.

  5. This blog is a site for thoughtful, reason based discussion. Reason based comments and counter arguments are welcome. Any posts containing personal attacks, name calling, or sexist, racist or homophobic language will be deleted. Obvious attempts at trolling will also be ignored.

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  7. Keyboard warrior weenies in this thread using fake names. Note to boring trolls: take a class in formal logic and use your real name on the Internet or I'm going to roll my eyes at you.

    It's way easier to just say "yeah, some guys mansplain, and it's obnoxious" than it is to say NUH UH. It also makes you look like less of a doofus. Why do some people want to remain being That Guy so much that they'll hide behind alias in order to do it?

  8. Thanks for sharing such an amazing article, really informative