Are “flirtatious” women in the dojo a threat to serious female martial artists?

posted in: Emotions, Women | 10

What’s the best response to a female student whose main priority seems to be getting male attention during a martial arts class?

There’s one interesting issue that I keep on hearing about from female readers of this blog. And it’s one that many of them feel embarrassed about.

It’s the feeling of resenting another female student, who seems to be more interested in getting male attention than in actually learning anything.

I’ve wanted to write about this for a while, because it seems to come up surprisingly often for serious female martial artists; and it can cut us so deeply. And of course I’ve definitely suffered from these difficult feelings myself.

But at the same time I’m wary. There’s too much in our culture that demonises women’s sexuality; and I certainly don’t want to add to that.

So this article is not going to dictate anything about how women should or shouldn’t behave; or try to define “flirting” or “behaving provocatively”.

Instead, I’m just going to write about how it feels to be a woman grappling with this issue; and also look at how we might respond in line with the principles of the art we are seeking to learn.


Sometimes women will actively “punish” flirty women

Dr Alex Channon has researched gender policing in dojos and boxing gyms. This is where men or women try to force each other to behave in accepted “masculine” or “feminine” ways.

He found that gender policing was alive and well jn the martial arts, with men “policing” the behaviour of other men; and women “policing” the behaviour of other women.

Mary Pickford in Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

But in very different ways.

The men were hot on preventing excessive displays of masculinity (machismo, over-zealous competitiveness, ‘laddishness’, etc). If new men came in and displayed these behaviours, the men would punish them – often physically.

Meanwhile, the female students he interviewed tended to do the same against “excessive femininity”.

Occasionally, women who overtly sexualised their appearance and behaved in a flirtatious manner in classes were said to attend training, and these behaviours were considered to be unacceptable forms of femininity for a serious martial artist

[…] The women were active in policing their martial arts clubs against the wrong ‘types’ of female members, looking to ‘teach them a lesson’ as either a deterrent or a corrective strategy. [They] would actively “punish those who fail to do their gender right” (Butler, 2008: 190), ensuring that the normalised and accepted, moderate standards of femininity were maintained among female membership

– Way of the Discourse; Mixed-Sex Martial Arts and the Subversion of Gender

This punishment included physical punishment – within the acceptable parameters of martial arts practice, but physical punishment nonetheless.


Isn’t that a bit over the top . . . ?

Alex’s paper is brilliant; but reading about this particular point felt troubling.

The issue of “punishing” over-masculine men is outside the scope of this article, but may be questionable in itself; although any dojo has to weigh up the safety issues at stake, and protect other students.

But under what circumstances could punishment be the most appropriate response to a woman being over-flirty on the mat?

Cute Wink Blonde Makeup Tattoo Retro Punk a Billy Pin Curls IMG_1931 by Steven Depolo. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Flickr

Is a woman behaving in an overtly “feminine” way she’s perhaps been trained into since birth really on the same level of threat as a student who threatens the physical safety of others? Clearly she isn’t; so why might she be treated in this way?

What are the serious female martial artists so scared of, that they have to attack these “unacceptable” women who stray into the dojo?

I do sympathise, having had the experience of feeling sad and invisible beside a loud, exaggeratedly flirtatious woman in class; and know how annoying and demoralising it can be. As Becca Borawski puts it,

Try getting scratched up by a girl more interested in flirting with the instructor than she is in learning jiu jitsu. Or try asking one of your teammates a question when he’s thinking, “Oh my god there’s a real, live girl five feet from me.” Class productivity is severely hampered, and even I started thinking, “When is she going to leave?”


But other people do annoying things too, all the time, and we don’t physically hurt them for it.

It’s easy to come down heavy on a woman who flirts and flaunts her sexuality inappropriately (in our view) in the dojo. But is this any worse than someone who doesn’t wash their training uniform – or who turns up late for class every week and never helps to put the mats out – or who selfishly avoids training with beginners, because they want to further their own progress to the maximum?

There’s a huge range of annoying behaviours that we can all show. But for some reason, we can tend to tolerate a lot of them, but react with venom when another woman is acting “silly” or “overly feminine” on the mat.

It’s also interesting that we’re probably far less likely to feel the same intensity of anger towards a male student or teacher, who may be energetically sharing in and “feeding” the flirtatious behaviour.

We all try to be kind and mature; but I’ve certainly felt flashes of disgust and anger towards female students who behave like this.

Swansea University Karate Club (6) by Craig Hadley. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Flickr

For one thing, women in a male-dominated dojo have often worked extremely hard to be taken seriously.  Many of us are learning martial arts to try to escape society’s exhausting regime of feminine stereotypes, and explore different ways of being.

So the last thing we want is some unfocused, giggling woman with no real interest in the martial arts, to threaten our journey by parading the very stereotypes we’re trying to escape – and apparently being rewarded for it.

And on a baser level, we’re all just human in the end. It’s not a nice feeling when you’re doing your best to train hard and seriously, listen to instructions and become competent – and then you sense that another student may be getting a type of attention you will never get – because she’s using the alternative strategy of appealing to a male student or instructor’s animal sexuality.

For me, these situations can still ignite intensely painful emotions – a piercing, gut-wrenching sense of being inferior to a more appealing woman. Whatever my intellect says about the advantages of transcending gender stereotypes in training, and becoming a stronger person, there’s still some primal side that feels humiliated, inadequate and even jealous in such moments.


So what’s the real answer . . . ?

If we feel jealous and resentful, it’s going to be very difficult to handle the situation gracefully. But in fact, there may not even be anything to feel jealous of. Outspoken femininity expert, Renee Wade writes:

Sure, all of us would like to be considered hot, and all of us should take good care of ourselves and be healthy so that we look as great as we deserve and feel as good as we deserve to feel.

But to have being considered hot as your goal?

What about doing something that matters?

 alive-927077_640[…] What the world is really lacking is not hot, sexy women who are willing to “put themselves out there”. What the world is lacking is truly attractive and radiant women whose genuine happiness and energy is a gift to all.

[…] Strive for radiance; for giving a gift through your beauty, and your femininity in all its forms, not just to be considered the ‘hottest’.

[…] Our culture – the media, the news – tries every possible way to get women to live in fear. Most of us have been influenced, even brainwashed, to harbor the belief that being the hottest will get you happiness.

[…] Is being hot really the goal, or is true radiance the goal? Where your radiance, and your high level of self-value and your beautiful feminine energy, happiness and compassion will touch everyone you come in contact with?

Then, being hot is the icing on the cake. And being called hot will be cheap in comparison to the feeling of touching others, and inspiring others with your genuine radiance.

– Renee Wade: So What If You’re Hot?


I love Renee’s writing, and believe that this article of hers describes a highly desirable state of being.

I don’t generally take her thoughts on femininity to be essentialist or retrograde, although I know some people do. It feels like she is writing about a powerful transcendence of limitations, and something like a healthy flow of ki – even if she doesn’t use such vocabulary herself.

I’m also coming to believe that once you start to realise these things, it’s important to offer (without pushing) strong, positive modelling to others where possible and appropriate, grounded in an alternative model of femininity.

It’s never about judging other women harshly, and it’s certainly not about shaming or punishing anyone. 



O Sensei, the founder of Aikido wrote: Be grateful even for hardship, setbacks, and bad people. Dealing with such obstacles is an essential part of training in Aikido.

Kata por equipo
Kata por equipo by Luis Linero. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

Feeling provoked by and jealous of another female student can actually be a wonderful opportunity to put our money where our mouth is as martial arts practitioners. If we’re confident and disciplined enough, it can be an opportunity to practise controlling our own emotions; and nurture and support other women to explore and play with other ways of being, should they be so inclined.

Returning to the original question of whether very flirty women are a threat to serious female practitioners – if our dojo is basically full of good people, I don’t think we have anything at all to worry about, with regards to our own standing with the guys. They are not stupid; and will not suddenly start to respect or care for us any less, just because another woman may be acting in a highly “flirtatious” way.

This is an incredibly complex and emotive issue, and there are no easy answers. However, by thinking about it in a bit more depth, rather than just disliking and/or “punishing” the women concerned, I believe we can achieve a lot in terms of personal growth and movement – both for ourselves, and potentially also for other women and girls we come into contact with in the dojo.


10 Responses

  1. Joelle White

    Ossu! Thanks for this article – yes, if the dojo is full of good people who are serious about their art, the overly flirty girl will either leave or grow up. But I can’t help thinking that a few little “weed out” tricks would be appropriate. I was kinda “tested” in a few different ways at first, and mentally I chuckled as I “aced” each “test.” The most memorable was I was asked to hold one of those thick foam shields for a gentleman Sensei for a demonstration to the class. He kicked it as hard as he could. I staggered backward but was unharmed. After class, I asked him, “How can I hold the bag better?” I think I passed that test with flying colors plus I learned a skill that time and time again has proven valuable to me and my training partners. But someone who is only interested in flirting would not have been able to roll with this. She’d be out, and the dojo would return to its normal peaceful existence.

    • Kai

      Hi Joelle, I already knew you were having a lot of fun in your dojos, but can now see that this has been the case for you right from Day One 🙂 I’m not certain what to think about this idea of “testing”? A lot of change is about readiness to change – and supporting people to become ready for change. Not everyone has your natural inner fire, strength and resilience, and it’s a shame if the doors remain closed to them as a result. On the other hand however, if we’re very serious about our training (which you and I are), you just don’t want too many disruptions. I guess it’s about getting a balance between being inclusive, but not going too far the other way so that anything goes . . .

      • Joelle White

        Yep, a balance. Our hands are full dealing with the younglings, who, bless them, will be wiggly – there just isn’t any help for that so ya just gotta love ’em. We need our adults to be adults so that we can more effectively shape the children. Don’t get me wrong, our organization’s Senseis do recognize that adults need mentoring too – at least in matters concerning the dojo. But adults should be less in need of guidance than kids. Anyway, the little “weed out” tricks were only tiny tastes of what was in store for me later. Black belts have done far more scary things to me since then, I’ve sustained no harm, and like any serious martial artist, I think, “Oh that was wicked awesome – I can’t wait to try it myself!”

  2. Jackie Bradbury

    I, for one, am *equally* as annoyed by dirty gi/bad hygiene person, overly macho guy, perpetually late student, and the one who won’t work with the newbs as I am with overly flirty women (and overly macho woman, and overly flirty guy, both of which also exist).

    I believe this is more about conformity to a group culture and etiquette. Depending on the school, there may be additional rules – no turning your back on the teacher on the mat, bow before stepping into the room, defer to black belts on the mat, children always address adults as m’am and sir regardless of rank, etc. These exist to create safety, conformity and group identity – “punishment” (from being ostracized in the group all the way to group expulsion) is the method of enforcement of these rules, is all.

    Some schools are more detailed and conservative than others in this regard, but we all do it in one way or another. And martial arts schools are not unique – every group (every TRIBE) that exists has its own rules that it also enforces in a variety of ways.

    • Kai

      Hi Jackie, your analysis is really perceptive and thought-provoking as always 🙂 I think there’s one more factor at stake which makes this a different type of issue though. Things like keeping clean, not being late or selfish etc etc are pretty much shared values in our wider society – even if we don’t always stick to them, most of us understand that. But when it comes to this type of “flirty” behaviour – well I think some girls and women are in a sense heavily trained into it through their life experience / context – and rewarded for it too. So it could be puzzling to say the least, if you enter a dojo and find out that this particular value is turned on its head now and no one appreciates you acting like that now. I also think it’s unfair in a way if women are encouraged to behave in a certain way, and then criticised for behaving in that way. All interesting anyway, and your comment has made me think more widely now – thank you . . . K

  3. H.Wilson

    I thought this was a very honest and interesting article about a tricky topic. Thank you!

    I particularly appreciated your point about feeling jealous of a female student who was getting more attention through their ‘flirty’ behavior. That jealously, and wanting the teacher to give you value and attention, is certainly something I can relate to (and one thing in my exceptionally long list of issues!) Trying to put it into words usually helps to take the power out of these things (for me). So thank you for opening up the topic.

    Personally, I think it comes down to trust. If you can trust your teacher (and majority of fellow students) to treat each other with respectful and safe boundaries then I think anything untoward will disappear. After all, this is a place to learn to be strong (and not to borrow anyone else’s power) and flirting with a powerful authority figure seems pretty much the opposite of that.

    I do find myself wondering what these women have been doing, though…and it makes me a little paranoid. Actually, I was initially very nervous about how I would be seen as a female student entering a dojo, and also worried about accidentally giving off the ‘wrong’ signals (that comes from a history of other people’s inappropriate behavior, but it is still something that causes me anxiety). I was worried that I would either be very unwelcome (invading a traditionally male arena) or unable to be taken seriously, and treated differently because I am female. But the first class I took had only two other students who were both very advanced, confident and kind. One was male and the other was female and I felt very welcome and actually somewhat comfortable with them both, which made a huge difference. The dojo I go to is pretty mixed and I think that helps a lot.

    Also – on a slightly lighter note – who the hell can be ‘flirty’ during practice sessions? I’m usually kind of wrecked after the first ten minutes of warm up and pushing my mind and body as much as I can and can’t imagine having much spare energy to flirt…unless looking like an unfit tomato is considered flirty.

  4. Aiki_grrl

    I do not feel jealous of attractive flirtatious women, and the attention they get from men. However, in our dojo there are very few women and even fewer serious women. The male students tend to paint all women with the same wide brush. The ‘hit n’ giggle’ girls tend to erode the perception of women as serious martial artist generally. This makes it harder for serious women to be taken seriously, for example, persuading male training partners, especially sempai, to train with martial intent with us – or train with us at all. The problem lies with the men, though. They must learn to differentiate female students as individuals. If they can do this, there’s no problem. They can enjoy flirting with the (irritating) ‘hit n’ giggle’ girls, then flip the serious switch when they train with us.

    • Kai Morgan

      Hi Aiki_grrl, what you say is interesting . . . if a “hit ‘n’ giggle” woman (as you put it so well!) is there, then I sometimes notice subtle changes in how I’m treated too – as if the effect somehow rubs off on you by association. Another perennial issue is a kind of unspoken assumption that I should carry more of the burden of partnering with this kind of person, than any of the guys. Ah well, it’s all a journey isn’t it!

      • Aiki_grrl

        Indeed it is. We persist. Generally when I’m
        paired with such people I put my serious face on and refuse to accomodate the attitude.

        • Kai Morgan

          good for you . . . I like to imagine (fantasise!) that in this way, we may model a different type of femininity – not necessarily “better” but just offering a possible alternative – a way of being that is fluid enough to adapt across different scenarios, rather than being more or less the same in all settings . . . X

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