George sent a series of letters to me from the cyberdojo on the subject of a woman who came from an abusive relationship who cried during sparring whenever certain types of (nonsexual) contact occured. The individual in the first letter wanted to know if there was a way that a person might “train through” this response. There was a reply from Nancy Agnew – a person I have grown to respect from previous letters sent to the cyberdojo – talking about the possible permanence of this condition, and there were references made to the literature about the syndrome.
I have wanted to write about this subject for some time, and in fact I was toying with an idea for an article just last night. That article will be forthcoming. In the mean time, I would like to create a prologue by commenting on these e-mail. First, this is NOT my area of expertise. However I am reasonably educated, and I have taught well over 1000 people while a sensei at University of Virginia. Without even trying, I was exposed to this type of thing all the time. A typical scenario would be as follows. I would be teaching a beginners class and in the class I would be trying to show the application of a particular technique. I would come up with some off-hand scenario of an attack and a need for a response. I would then demonstrate how the technique worked in that situation. After class, one of my normal rituals was to sit on the steps of Memorial Gym, put my socks and shoes on, and gaze at the Star Magnolia tree in front of the gym. Suddenly a woman would sit down by me, tell me their name, talk about the class for a few seconds, and then go into “mind download” about a flashback I had triggered of a significant traumatic event in their life. This was never a “come on” – this was always very serious stuff.
My (amateur) approach would be as follows. First, I would engage in active listening. This means eye contact, occasional nods or uh-huhs, occasionally summarizing parts of what the person said and asking them if that was what they meant, and NEVER acting surprised or shocked at what I heard. I would NEVER say something like “oh yea, something like that happened to me when I…”. I would NEVER say something like “well don’t worry, these things happen” or “you’ll grow out of this”, or “I think this will make you better…”. Almost anybody can do this with a little practice, and this process has tremendous value. I will even venture to say that I have averted at least one suicide in my lifetime doing nothing more than this.
Finally, I would almost always recommend that the person seek professional help. When someone dislocates a finger in class, I tell them to get a physician to reset it. When someone shows signs of psychological injury, I also tell them to seek help.
I think its fair to say that many people who have these types of problems are suffering from something called “Post Traumatic Stress Syndome”. Many severe events in life (combat, rape, witnessing a traumatic event) can cause a range of symptoms that fall into this category. I think it is also fair to say that some people are more prone to this than others.
My (amateur) advice about the student who cried while sparring would be to see that this student sought help. A sensei could suggest that they become semi-actively involved in the therapy to the extent that the syndrome manifested itself in class. In other words, I would tell the individual to tell their counselor that I was willing to work with them in whatever way they thought appropriate. Now and then I am the one talking to a good psychologist or psychiatrist about a particular student who is having a problem and I will ask them what I can do (in addition to telling the student to get help).
I am convinced that karate sensei get a non-random population in the front door of the dojo. In some cases women and men have different motives for coming in to study karate. However I think that both women and men share the motive of overcoming some significant traumatic event in their life. Karate sensei will need to be aware of this. Good sensei learn to be sensitive, flexible, and accomodating when appropriate. Good sensei do not take a “one size fits all” approach to instruction. Good sensei also know when they are getting into an area beyond their pervue, and recognize the need to refer a person when necessary. And finally, good sensei truly like people, and care about the “whole person”.
George has filled me in on some dialogue about the subject of “touching women” in the dojo. While reading the various letters, it occured to me that there were many interwoven issues being discussed and entertained. These issues included (but were not limited to) the following: contact between men and women during grappling, appropriate ways to touch women while performing routine correction of technique, explicit or implicit differences between the sexes in expectations or treatment, romance in the dojo, male-male vs male-female touching, intentional sexual tension for training purposes, politically correct thinking and all its social and legal consequences, context of touching, homophobia, and public perception.
I am not afraid to say that this subject scares the hell out of a lot of people. But to keep it in context, I always go back to a research study done on the characteristics of physicians who got sued. We live in a litigeous society driven by sources of capital, and this makes physicians run scared. It also keeps their malpractice premiums high – which contributes to the total cost of health care. So studies were done to try to find out if there was anything unique about those physicians who were sued. Other than the practice specialty and general incompetence, there was one other characteristic that identified the high-risk malpractice candidate – poor bedside manner (OK folks, keep the minds out of the gutter). To put it in plain terms, jerks are more likely to get sued.
So back in the dojo, there is no reason for a well-intentioned, kind person to run scared. In fact I personally believe it is unhealthy to shun the subject of sexuality altogether. Face the facts: some people intentionally enter activities like karate because they are looking for another social outlet. I am the proud papa of more than a few dojo marriages. It may not seem to be the most noble motive, but who are we to judge an individual’s motives if they harm nobody and contribute to the group? What is neded is an etiquette – explicit or implicit – by which the gentlemen and gentlewomen abide. This etiquette however must have context. A university dojo, a main street dojo, and a dojo in the church social hall will have unique populations and unique concerns.
As a sensei, a professional, and a person, I have my own rules that I live by, and I will share them here – for what they are worth. First of all, at the age of 41 I am happy to realize that I still have all the urges and interests that I had at age 17 (though not to the same degree) and I recognize the need to keep them in check. I also grew up with six sisters and so developed a perception that many never develop. Finally I was hit on enough as a teenager by members of the same sex (not my cup of tea) and so personally know what unwanted advances and unwelcome touching is all about. These and other vicissitudes of life helped me develop my personal approach.
Whenever I touch someone (and I do touch people often inside and outside the dojo) I try to put myself as a fly on the wall and question my motives. Would I be as likely to touch a male or female in the same way? What is the message and/or motive of my touch? How is it being received? Am I more likely to touch this person because of their appearance? Am I making my message or intentions clear?
My own humble opinion is that business-as-usual touching can and even must exist in the dojo. I have found that most reasonable people who are involved in sports eventually lose the phobia about their bodies, their appearance, and being touched in a way that doesn’t humiliate or demean. In fact to be a complete contrary on the subject, a very good self defense lesson was made to me one day by a former special forces sensei when he grabbed me in the crotch as a response to my attempt to throw him. I let him go, and he immediately dumped me. Ippon!
Occasionally rules must be made. I had one in my U.Va. dojo: teachers could not date or otherwise do one-on-one socializing of new students for one full semester. This allowed students of both sexes a chance to establish their worth and capabilities with their karate before they became an interest with another intent. The result – we actually kept more of the “attractive” members in the class. No surprise if you think about it.
Finally, I think the stereotype of women being harassed by oversexed indecent men may overshadow other consequences of sexuality in the dojo. I once observed what I would call a “queen bee” syndrome: a highly ranked woman popular with other highly ranked men in the dojo who drove other women out with her behavior. I’m certain that both sexes could have a free-for-all with finger wagging in that situation, but the bottom line is that this is an issue for both sexes to consider. When men and women treat each other with respect and care, there is usually little to fear.