If You've Taught, You've Touched

He held her in a bear hug from behind, her arms tucked snugly under his. He shouldn't squeeze too tightly, he thought. She was, after all, only thirteen and a relatively new student, learning this escape for the very first time.

“There are a number of things you could do at this point,” he began, “but my first choice would be to throw my hips quickly to one side, and deliver a fast, hard strike to the groin.”

Sound familiar? Of course it does. I would venture to bet every person to ever don a gi has shown this technique at one time or another. It's just that basic. But this was a private lesson. One on one. And that was his story. Her's was quite different. As a matter of fact, she told the court he'd “…held her breasts from behind…” and instructed her to “…hold his penis…”

Unbelievable? To most of us, absolutely. However, for one very fine instructor I know, a devout Catholic, dedicated husband and father of three, the unbelievable had, in one horrific instant, become his worst nightmare. After repeated days in court and the obligatory stories in the press that crucify, drawing heated public opinion, more often than not siding with the victim prior to any verdict, just try and guess which of the two the judge believed.

Found guilty, this twenty-year veteran of the martial arts now awaits sentencing. He will appeal of course. And this time he's hoping the new judge will allow the voluntary testimony from the girl's school regarding her habitual lying and constant trouble making. The first judge wouldn't allow it, opting rather to base his judgment on the girl's word alone, sending an innocent man to jail. Could this happen to you?

A few months ago, The Mental Edge focused briefly on sexual assault in the dojo. How it was conceivable that a martial arts instructor might take advantage of young students to satisfy their own heinous sexual gratification. It has happened in the past, and it will happen again, and we know it. These are criminal acts and must be stopped. But what happens when something as innocent as teaching a self-defense technique is misconstrued by a student? What then? What if they lie about it? What defense does the instructor have?

If you've taught martial arts, you've touched a student. If you've touched a student, you've opened yourself up to a world where misunderstanding and outright lies could very possibly result in your downfall. So then, how can we, as honest, law-abiding martial arts and fitness instructors protect ourselves against this from ever happening to us? According to two police officers I interviewed, one of which is a criminal investigation detective, not very much.

To illustrate what might be lingering in the minds of those out on the floor, here is a lesson I learned a long time ago.

When I teach, I like to use the person asking the question to demonstrate the answer on, and quite often my answer requires that I touch this person in some fashion. Once while teaching a grade 12 self-defense class at a local high school, a young woman asked if I would demonstrate how she might escape from one of the many head-locks her boyfriend affects on her daily. It was a cute request, and I was pleased to offer some assistance.

As she crossed the gym to join me at the front of the class, I overheard another young lady quip to all within earshot, that the only reason I wanted to use this young woman to demonstrate on was because I wanted to have “…her boobs sticking in…” my face. What had never even entered my mind was obviously very much on the minds of some. Having learned this lesson, I promptly thanked the first young woman for asking the question, apologized to her for not being able to answer it at that time, and left.

Have you ever had a student who couldn't quite catch onto the concept of twisting their hips into a punch? Of course you have. Have you ever found yourself standing behind this student, your hands on their hips, twisting them as they punch, illustrating physically with their body what you've attempted to explain verbally? Absolutely.

Have you ever slipped a sidekick up under a female student's elbow to brush her breast accidentally with your foot while sparring? I know I have. Once is a mistake and you offer a courteous apology. But have you ever don't it twice? To the same person? During the same sparring session? At what point will she begin to think it's no longer a mistake?

Have you ever, during the execution of a self-defense maneuver, taken hold of, or simply brushed a student's groin? Think about it. Could this act, although completely innocent in your mind, have the men in blue knocking on your door with an arrest warrant?

No, my friend didn't think so either.

When someone files a complaint of sexual assault with the police, it is most definitely always take seriously. Any medical attention required by the victim aside, the officer assigned to the case, will interview the complaint regarding the facts. Following this interview, based on several factors that include, but are not limited to, corroborating evidence such as physical wounds, sperm, etc., congruent statements, the officer's own experience having interviewed many sexual assault victims in the past, and his own instinct, the officer will determine, perhaps with the council of his superiors, whether or not a legitimate assault has take place, and move to lay charges in the event the situation warrants it. That is to say, if the investigating officer determines that the complaint is real, a charge must be laid. You will be served a warrant for arrest, and taken to jail, innocent or guilty. And the overwhelming suggestion by those I spoke with is to get a good lawyer.

If on the other hand, the investigating officer determines that the complainant's story doesn't add up, or catches them in a downright lie, the investigation will very likely end at this point.

One of the officers I spoke to told me of a case he'd worked where a young woman had contrived enough evidence to put away several assailants, only to discover her story changed four times during the initial interview. Yielding to the police officer's pressure that her story might be a complete and total fabrication, the young woman, a disgruntled girlfriend, finally admitted to want to “…get back at…” her boyfriend. No charges were laid.

It's highly unlikely that any sexual assault charge will come as a result of the everyday martial practice we've traditionally come to recognize as proper training. The complainant must convince the investigating officer that there was indeed ‘sexual intent' on the part of the alleged assaulter. But it really boils down to how strongly the ‘victim' truly believes they've been assaulted, and whether or not their story was convincing to the officer. No one knows what motivates people to lie and file false reports of sexual assault, but they do. It happens. And you should take whatever steps possible to minimize the risk of you ever finding yourself in the witness box facing a judge who sees “…scum like you everyday.”

So what can you do? Here are a few suggestions.

Never teach a one on one private lesson again. Drastic? Perhaps. But if you have to, it might be safer to suggest your student bring a friend or family member just to hang out and watch.

Never allow yourself, for any reason, to be alone with a student in the dojo, your office, or your home.

Never drive a student home alone. If you have to, call them a cab. The cost far outweighs the cost – if you know what I mean.

Think through the lessons you teach, and the words you use. Can anything be taken the wrong way? If so, change it.

Hand every student, new and old alike, a letter they must sign and return for your files, that states they understand that touching and making physical contact while studying the martial arts is a common and accepted practice, and that in the event they feel uncomfortable with anything regarding their training, they should feel free to come forward and state their concerns. And having said that, I want to remind you that I am not a lawyer, and will not presume to know what should be stated in such a letter, so please refer to your own legal council.

As well, please understand that there will be those instructors out there who might use this type of letter to their advantage. It is not a permission slip allowing you to grope, but rather a statement of understanding. If you end up going to court over a complaint, don't expect it to hold much water.

Anytime a student enters your office, always leave the door open regardless of the nature of your discussion. If you must close your door, note the time and duration of the discussion, and take copious notes of all that is said. Bet yet, simply purchase a tape recorder and tape your conversations, openly or otherwise. It is not illegal to secretly tape a conversation so long as you are a participant in that conversation. Secretly taping someone else's conversation, where you are not a participant – now that's a crime.

We all have to realize that more care must be taken to avoid the situation my friend has found himself in. What's more difficult is know when, where and who. I will go further to suggest you only teach in the dojo. If you must teach in the park, a private office or in someone's home, make sure there is someone else there to witness the lesson. We're self-defense ‘experts', and this is just one more thing we've got to learn to defend ourselves against.

It will, of course, continue to happen that some students will misunderstand your intentions, and others, for reasons that are beyond most people, will lie. But being aware that the possibility of your being charged with a sexual assault exists is half the battle.

Till next time, stay sharp.

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