"Recently, I was having a conversation with someone whose stepchild had been a victim of abuse. I was going to suggest martial arts as a means of building self-esteem and learning self-defense ... and then I stopped myself and did not.
Here is why -- because in my 43 years of experience in judo, I have seen a higher proportion of sexual abusers than I have in the general population. I suspect this is also true of other martial arts. Now, it's true that this is only limited to my experience, but in 43 years, traveling around the world, as well as monitoring the news on judo fairly closely, that experience includes a lot of people.
There are a few reasons I think this is true:
- In general, people who are seeking to abuse children have to get access to them in some way. Thus, you find more child abuse among people who come into contact with children regularly in settings unsupervised by other adults. To become a teacher at the K-12 level you need to get at least five years of education plus pass a background check, including getting finger printed. To teach martial arts you need to be in a club for a year or two and convince someone to give you a rank. Yes, in some clubs it can take five years or more to get a black belt, but that's not true everywhere. Often, if you show up to class and pay your dues on time you will get promoted. The background check is pretty minimal. The same is also true of many other extracurricular activities like youth sports or dance.
- In AYSO soccer, my daughter has competed for five years in two different cities and nowhere could you have practice unless there is a female chaperon there. In contrast, supervision in martial arts programs by other adults tends to be pretty minimal. At our judo program at Gompers Middle School, we cannot have practice without a certified staff member from LAUSD on the mat, but that is an anomaly. I know of dozens of judo programs that have practice with just one adult instructor. Growing up, that was the norm for me.
- Situations where a person is in authority - coach, teacher, priest/ minister or parent - not only do they provide an opportunity for abuse but children are often trying to please those people and are often afraid of their authority. Besides, these are the people who children are supposed to be listening to their directions.
To sum it up, you have a setting where physical contact between an adult and a child is allowed, where people with minimal to moderate screening are in positions where they have unsupervised access to children and are put in a position of authority over them.
On top of all of that, there are certain characteristics that make abuse more likely to occur. The vast majority of judo instructors are male and over 90% of sexual abuse of females and depending on the study you read, 63-86% of sexual abuse of males occurs with a male perpetrator.
While being a victim once is awful enough, repeat victims of abuse suffer even greater trauma, and people who have been a victim once are at greater risk of subsequent abuse.
That is not to say that victims of abuse should not do martial arts, ever. There are people I would trust completely. Jim Pedro, Sr. , Tony Mojica, Steve & Becky Scott, Karen Mackey - I could give you a list. The point is, all of these are people I have known for years. I would feel comfortable recommending any one of them INDIVIDUALLY.
However, I would not feel comfortable recommending judo, or martial arts in general, and since I did not know anyone who lived near this particular family, I caught myself and just expressed sympathy and recommended family therapy.
The reason I wrote this post is that I think people who love martial arts often DO recommend judo, jiujitsu or whatever it is they do as sort of a knee-jerk response, because, after all, it may be great for them. For some children, though, it may be the worst possible thing to do."
Some serious food for thought in this post. All too often I see parents treating a martial arts class like a baby sitter, barely involved in what is going on both on the mat and off. All of her points are valid especially the background checking, but in all reality predators still exist and place themselves in areas of accessibility coupled with limited supervision and an ingrained desire to appease the authority figure. We must once again remind ourselves these instances have very little to do with sex and everything with control and manipulation.
It is often a knee jerk reaction by those of us whom have not suffered an assault to suggest martial arts as a passageway to self perseverance and preservation, but the counter points Dr. De Mars raises has caused some seriously deep thinking on my part and I hope it causes you to re-evaluate (or perhaps investigate for the first time) your thoughts and feelings on self defense for victims of sexual, emotional, mental, and/or physical abuse.
As martial artists we all must work our situational awareness and quickly weed out inappropriate relationships and predatory individuals.