BJJ: Self Defense without the Nut Shots

The first time I mentioned Brazilian Jiu Jitsu on this blog in 2015, I said that I was looking to acquire some skills as a newly single woman and “learning to grapple and defend myself in awkward situations seemed like an excellent choice.” What I didn’t mention was what prompted me to finally act on my thought.

That summer, I had started the Couch to 5K program with Delta. One of the locations we’d run was Back Cove in Portland. It was a popular spot, mostly level, and the perfect length for my training. On August 12, 2015, Delta and I hit up the trail for an evening run. I noticed several police cars parked near the path and a K9 team in the long grass by the water. I gave a couple of curious glances as we went by, assuming it was a training exercise.  There was a hot breeze coming off the Cove that was just too much for us, so I turned around and headed back to the parking lot less than a mile in. When I got home, I heard that a rape had been reported on the trail earlier that day. The K9 team I saw had been searching for evidence, not training. While the story was discovered to be false two days later, it stuck in my mind. It didn’t happen, but it could have. It wasn’t me, but it could have been.

In the inevitable FB discussion of the incident in the following weeks, Mandy Buckner (one owner of the Academy) posted something along the lines of how frequently women come to the gym too late – after something like that had happened to them – and she wished more women would come in sooner. A few weeks later I saw them advertise their first On Ramp class. I messaged Mandy to ask if it might be a good program for someone looking to get some self-defense skills. She described the On Ramp as a four week program that introduces people to the basics of self-defense/ Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. It was meant as first step for people that want to get into regular classes, not a stand alone self-defense program. She encouraged me to come try it out. If I decided it was totally wrong for me, they would give me a refund. Obviously I never asked for my money back.

Now, nearly 24 months (~13 training months) later, I’m still training because I’m hooked on BJJ – not because I think of it as an ongoing self-defense class. Because it isn’t … and it is.

It Isn’t Self-Defense Classes

BJJ is not self-defense in the stand-alone format that you typically see it – there is no guy with a Mardi Gras head taking hits to the nuts and you don’t practice saying “No” like you mean it. You don’t expect to take 1-3 classes and walk out feeling like you know how to thwart an attacker. You won’t receive a rape whistle and they don’t offer cans of pepper spray for purchase.

At the Academy, commentary about situational awareness is based on street fight scenarios not sexual predation. Victim selection is touched on occasionally, in the form of Jay making an analogy such as lions picking out which gazelle they’ll take down. When someone mentions women’s self-defense specifically, it’s usually pointed out that women are often “already grappling” when things take a bad turn.  What you learn about these things are useful and applicable, but they aren’t emphasized as the major teaching point of the class.

I read an article which warned against the “self-defense myth” in martial arts. They cited how most classes are not set up to address women’s needs and dealing with aspects like emotional manipulation aren’t covered. In my experience, that’s true. If other gyms are telling you that BJJ is straight up equivalent of women’s self-defense then I agree that is a crock of shit. I doubt any gym has “not being manipulated and controlled by your partner” on their curriculum. But is promoting BJJ as applicable to women’s self-defense wrong?

It Is Self-Defense… in a sense

So how is BJJ applicable to self-defense? It teaches you about strength, pressure, and struggle.

When I say Strength, I’m not necessarily talking about being stronger. You will get stronger but you’ll also learn how strong you already are. You’ll learn that there is some badass stuff you can do when you’re a moderately active desk jockey entering the sport.  There is also the mental strength you develop by becoming acclimated to awkward or frustrating situations.

Pressure is a major keyword in BJJ. You learn how to apply it. You have it applied to you. Roll with skilled upper belts and they’ll hand out measured doses of pressure, increasing it as you become more experienced and accustomed to it. Rather than only wanting to “make it stop” you learn to endure the pressure and work to relieve it in smarter ways.

You learn how to deal with the pressure because you Struggle – both mentally and physically. You’ll be rolling and know you’re strong enough to do *something* but you can’t think of what the fuck that would be. Other times, you may know the move but have a hard time finding the strength to pull it off properly. In the safety of your gym, you get to struggle, fuck up, and survive. Then do it again. And again.

Grappling with a brown belt
On bottom and getting squished… again

A side note: Parents, family, well meaning friends and acquaintances – Please knock it off with the foolish notion that our choice in clothing changes our need for self-defense.

A little while ago, I posted a joking comment that Facebook marketing had missed the mark when they suggested metallic hot pants after I’d been searching the web for BJJ rashguards and spats. There was a well-intentioned response that if I wore the hot pants, I’d be more likely to need my BJJ skills.


The presence of assholes and predators in the world doesn’t change based on what I wear.  And, as Jay’s gazelle analogy reminds us, a real predator doesn’t go after the first shiny object it sees. BJJ is valuable regardless of my wardrobe. Maybe the shorts would attract more garden variety douche bags, but they aren’t the real threat. Just tell them to fuck off like you mean it.

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