Every few weeks, another thread on one of my favorite BJJ forums gets started that's some variation on "how do I train with the new woman" or "is it okay to ask women to roll" or "why don't the men ask me to train" and so on. This is my take on handling all of those issues, and a few more. Training is tricky enough without adding inadvertently getting to second base to the mix. I'm curious about the tips other people have for women that train or want to train, and for men that are unsure about training with women.
If you are a woman that wants to train
1) BJJ / grappling is a contact sport. I know this seems obvious, but you need to really think about this before you start. You will likely have to overcome some issues with this. It might be that you feel a little funny wrapping your legs around a strange man's waist. It might be that having someone sit on your chest is more than you can handle. Maybe you'll be totally fine until someone accidentally pulls your hair. At some point, there will be some contact that surprises you (read: someone whose name you may not know yet is going to touch a lady-part). Odds are really good that it wasn't intentional and if you don't make it weird, it won't get weird. Just keep rolling.
2) In BJJ, some days are going to suck. You are going to lose. A lot. This happens to EVERYONE. This has nothing to do with your gender. Everyone gets the crap kicked out of them in the beginning. And, here's a little secret: it's going to happen the whole time you do BJJ, unless you magically morph into Roger Gracie sometime soon.
3) If you don't take training seriously, the other women in your gym will not treat you kindly. This means dress appropriately, remove your makeup, and don't giggle and flirt with the guys in the gym. There are still men out there that think we don't belong on "their" mats, and we don't need any women coming in that are going to make it harder for us to be taken seriously there.
4) Some guys will roll with you like it's the Mundial finals. If this is happening to you, protect yourself first. Don't get caught up in that game. "Winning" a round isn't worth getting hurt and being out for 6 weeks. Be aware of your partner's breathing, muscles tensing, etc. If he's having trouble passing your guard and you feel his frustration meter creeping into the red, give him the pass. Big deal. You're not hurt and now you get to recompose guard. Everyone needs to work on escapes. You don't need to tell him later that you gave him the pass, either. It's the gym. You're supposed to give up position sometimes. Just make a note about him, and ask him if he'll drill something next time, instead of rolling. Eventually, you'll have your own group of preferred sparring partners, but you will want a way to cope with people who you are less comfortable training with until you can trust your BJJ. And, if you're ever in doubt, tap. I can't stress this enough. I don't care if you're in a gym where you aren't allowed to tap to a position. I say that's bunk, and if you aren't comfortable (whether it's physical pain or you have a creepy feeling in your gut), you tap. Reset, or take a break if you want.
5) Some guys will never train with you. This is on them, not on you. It could be a religious thing. It could be a jealous wife/girlfriend. It could be because they're a little awkward and don't know how to ask you to train, or don't know what's "allowed" when rolling with a woman. You can ask them to train (BJJ is not the school dance, as much as it may feel that way in the beginning), or you can stick with the more friendly guys. Again, if guys don't ask you to train, you can ask them. Don't become a BJJ wallflower and wait for someone to ask you to drill or roll every night.
6) BJJ will change your life, if you give it a chance. You will make new friends (male and female). You will get into shape. You will learn a physical skill, which keeps your brain young. You will laugh and cry (please make it to the bathroom/changing room/car before the waterworks start if it's not injury-related). You will come back for more if you are stubborn and like puzzles and have never stuck with anything before because you bore easily. You were probably looking for BJJ.
If you are a man who doesn't know what to do with women at the gym
1) We won't break. You don't need to train with us like we're made of porcelain.
2) We aren't as strong as you. You don't need to Hulk Smash us every round. There is no shame in "losing" in the gym, to anyone. I'm not saying to roll over and play dead, but you aren't going to make any friends in the gym (male or female) if you're trying to steamroll people all the time.
3) If you are brand new and you are paired up with a woman wearing a blue, purple, brown, or black belt, expect that she knows a little something about BJJ. Expect that she can use what she knows to obtain a better position, and it's quite likely that she can even submit you. There is absolutely no shame in this. If, for example, she catches you in a triangle, you should not pick her up and slam her onto the mat to avoid tapping to a woman. The whole point of BJJ is for a smaller person to be able to use it against a larger one that doesn't know anything (this is you, right now). You'd be okay tapping to a dude wearing a colored belt if he were smaller than you, right? This is jiu jitsu winning, not the person wearing the belt. Jiu jitsu works.
4) We're part of your team. We're there to learn BJJ, just like you are. We aren't there to bring the bandages, ice packs, carry the Gatorade to tournaments (except for our own), and so on. We aren't the mascots or the den mothers. We are grapplers, just like you.
5) Sometimes, your hands are going to end up in places that they probably shouldn't touch. If we've been training a while, we know that. It's cool. A quick "sorry" and move on is sufficient. Oh, and we know the difference between someone posting and someone, well, groping. So, no cheap thrills. We know.
If you are a man or a woman that isn't sure how to train with another man or woman
1) Get off of the internets and talk to them. Ask them if they'd be more comfortable just drilling or flow rolling or if there's too much pressure or if you're being too much of a limp dishtowel. We give our partners constant feedback in the form of pressure and resistance with our bodies. Sometimes, we can use our words, too. Just ask the question, and then listen. The answer could change from day to day.
At the end of the day, we all tend to over-think all of this too much. Grapple one another with a little common sense and all will go fine. Don't go after someone the size of a 14 year old like they stole your lunch money. Don't wonder if you're rolling the "right" way. Roll with some decorum (as much as possible while laughing at fart jokes, anyway).