Dealing with Sexual Harassment

training for Life
Column by Grandmaster Doc-Fai Wong
September 2001 Issue

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We think of martial arts as physical defense against an attacker. However, one of of the primary attributes of martial arts is character development, hence the term arts of martial arts. Ancient Asian martial artists were held to a higher moral level than the general public. Character development today is taugh by martial arts instructors who act as role models for students and the public.

Unfortunately, there is a side of modern martial arts that plagues many schools and can even lead to expensive law suits, marring the school's reputation in many different ways. Today we are all extremely, and rightfully so, sensitive to sexual harassment in the workplace. It is no different in the martial arts school.

Sexual harassment is an important issue that should concern all martial arts schools. Since one of the goals of a school is to improve the physical health and well-being of its students through martial arts, steps should be taken to ensure that safety, respect, and fair treatment are foremost in the policies of the school.

Sexual harassment occurs when a student is approached by an instructor using unwanted advancements, inappropriate touching or comments, threats, leering, pinching, patting, repeated comments, subtle suggestions of a sexual nature, and pressure for dates. It can be as simple as asking a student for a date. Sexual harassment can occur in any situation where someone has power over someone else.

One of the statements in the student creed of my studio is, "As a student of the Doc-Fai Wong Martial Arts Center, I intend to develop self- discipline and respect to bring out the best in myself and others." Everybody has heard about studios whose owners or instructors use their position as "wise teacher" to date their students. Some instructors and studio owners do this repeatedly for years. And, it may even become a part of their regular operations. While nobody is perfect, the basic tenets of self-discipline and respect should be followed within any martial arts school.

Self-discipline means more than just training for two hours a day, eating right, and meditating. It also means knowing when something is inappropriate or inadvisable. It means not taking advantage of the pedestal on which students may put you. You must remember to be humble and recognize that your students have lessons to teach you as well. Someone once said that in teaching, a wise teacher allows himself to be taught. It's easy, and sometimes tempting, to let a feeling of power and importance overtake you and let students' compliments feed your ego.

Self-discipline also means keeping relationships between your students and you strictly professional. When instructors date students, or harass them in inappropriate ways, it will ultimately affect the studio, as well as the student's learning. Sexual harassment is illegal and can result in lawsuits, or at the very least, a severe drop in student attendance and/or entollment. Therefore, if you and all your instructors exercise self-discipline, relations between students and instructors will be harmonious and long-standing.

Respect is another way to avoid sexual harassment problems in your studio. In some schools, certain instructors have been known to use their classes as personal dating services. When an instructor does this, it undermines any shred of unity a class may have had. Again, this is where the ego makes an appearance. Sometimes the admiration students may have for you can be a little overwhelming. Just remember to practice humility.

One of the best tools to use is mirroring. If students give you a gushing compliment, reflect it back to them in a way that shows them the progress they are making, or the understanding they have of a certain technique. Remind them that they are their own teachers, too. If you take to heart every compliment a student gives you, you will soon have an ego the size of the ocean. Respect that your students are in your class to learn, study, and train hard - not to be your Saturday night date. Respect your fellow instructors and know that your actions, should you choose to date students, will reflect badly on them, too. Respect the young students in your studio and know that you need to be setting a good example for them.

If you, as an instructor, feel you are attracted to a student and don't trust yourself, make sure you talk to a fellow instructor or your teacher and let them know how you are feeling. It could be that you need a break from teaching to get your priorities straight, and remember why you began studying martial arts. Most importantly, make sure your studio has an extensive policy on sexual harassment, and that all instructors understand it, sign a copy of it, and follow it. Also make sure there is a designated party a student can feel comfortable talking to if they are having difficulties with an instructor. It also helps to have your sexual harassment policy placed prominently in your studio. This will show any prospective student who enters your studio that you value all your students, their rights, and their learning experiences.

Also consider the well-being of your students. When people come to study at a martial arts school, they may have varying reasons for being there improvement of health, self-defense, complementing their spiritual practice, or learning an art. As they come to know you and experience your teaching style, they see you as an expert in your field. They look up to you and believe what you tell them. They take what you say as gospel.

If an instructor asks out a student, it may seem to the student as if he or she is the luckiest person in the world. However, the emotional repercussions of such a liaison can be far reaching. This is where the politics of power and authority come in. Know that, as a person in a position of authority, you are responsible for your actions. You can be held accountable in a court of law for your actions. If something you do results in a student or students being upset, or feeling wronged, they could file a lawsuit or worse, even hurt themselves. Neither is a desired outcome.

As an instructor, you should keep in mind what negatively affects your students and not abuse your authority by doing something inappropriate. It can be devastating for students to learn that a master or instructor is not what they thought they were, and is in fact, not truthful or sincere.

You have a responsibility to keep things professional and healthy. Sexual harassment can hurt your students and ruin your reputation, so make sure everyone in your studio has a very clear understanding of what that means. If you use self-discipline and respect in all dealings at your martial arts school, you can continue to learn and have fun with your training for many years.

Doc-Fai Wong writes a bi-monthly column for Inside Kung-Fu.

Doc-Fai Wong writes a bi-monthly column for Inside Kung-Fu.

September 2001 Inside Kung-Fu