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The impact of BJJ on sexual trauma recovery

Updated: Feb 2, 2023

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu doesn't seem like a pathway to sexual assault recovery. Often characterized by male dominated gym settings, sustained physical contact, and core goals of positional control and bodily submission, BJJ factors indeed seem more like potential triggers than opportunities for healing-- but for women who identify both as jiujiteiras and survivors of sexual violence, BJJ appears to represent a powerful support following sexual trauma.

The global prevalence of sexual violence, including completed and attempted rape, is staggering. In the US, it is estimated that around 44% of American women will experience some form of lifetime contact sexual violence, including 19% of women who experience completed or attempted rape-- of these women, over 80% of them will experience their first assault (notable, because many are survivors multiple times over) before they turn twenty-five. In addition to drastically altering women's perceptions of trust, intimacy, and self-worth, sexual assault survivors (compared to non-victims) report 4x more lifetime PTSD diagnoses, 3x more bipolar disorder or OCD diagnoses, and 2x more depressive disorders, anxiety disorders, and/or substance use disorders diagnoses. To put it plainly, the distress associated with sexual assault is substantial and can take many forms-- and despite this, many do not seek mental health treatment related to their assault. Now, this doesn't mean that survivors are distressed forever: the largest proportion of survivors experience moderate or marked recovery from PTSD symptoms, indicating that most find effective ways to get better on their own.

To understand what these effective ways may be, my Ph.D. research looks at how physical activity-- specifically BJJ-- influences post-assault outcomes. My thesis project surveyed 55 martial artists, the majority of whom named BJJ as their primary activity. These women were compared to groups of runners and yoga practitioners across multiple measures, and all participants were asked to describe how their activity did/did not influence their global and trauma-related mental health.

All groups shared that their activity supported mental and physical health in general, and martial artists reported unique benefits often explicitly relating to BJJ. These activity-specific benefits included: corrective experiences with men, decreased vulnerability to future assaults, and increased ability to better manage PTSD symptoms and triggers. Across multiple responses, participants described how working in vulnerable situations (such as bottom of mount or side control) with trusted male partners helped them to re-establish a sense of safety around men, which had often been severely damaged by their assault. Participants also explained how decreased vulnerability to future assault came not only from knowing defensive/offensive tactics, but also feeling more confident in setting verbal boundaries and identifying a risky versus safe situation. Finally, participants detailed how working through triggering scenarios (such as being held down and controlled or submitted) with trusted partners helped de-sensitize them to physical contact and better manage their emotions in stressful situations. Learning to counter those positions, even through tapping, also provided participants with a way to increase feelings of agency and self-efficacy; in short, BJJ provided a way to re-engage with assault reminders in a safe environment, with survivors experiencing social connection and personal triumph in place of isolation and further traumatization.

These are just some of the ways that BJJ benefits assault recovery; and importantly, there are some caveats. One huge consideration is this: not all BJJ gyms are going to be helpful or healing. There are numerous gyms out there where the culture is toxic, where practitioners and coaches hold outdated ideas about sexual assault/assault recovery (we call these rape myths), and where safety is not a number one priority. My personal advice: look for the women. In gyms with a substantial amount of women (as practitioners, coaches, and/or owners) it's likely that conversations surrounding trauma, trust, and triggers are already happening. It's also likely that some other practitioners are survivors themselves, and they may be willing to connect as a solid social and emotional resource. If you are worried about your performance or partner choices, it could also be helpful to talk to a trusted coach. Deciding whether or not to disclose to a coach is a personal choice, and it's not mandatory or scripted-- you can give as much or as little detail as you want. If you feel pressured to disclose your trauma history or to continue staying in situations that make you feel upset and unsafe, that specific gym isn't the one for you. Luckily, the BJJ women's community is full of resilient women, and online networks like Facebook's Women's Grappling Network may help you sift through the cultures of local gyms and workshop responses to stressful situations. A therapist or counselor can also help you narrow down what you're looking for, and plan how to best incorporate BJJ with other strategies for healing.

See you on the mats ❤️

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