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Why I stayed: Enduring Sexual Harassment

October 2, 2017

 

In 1995 I was 9. 

 

I was tiny. I was shy. I loved the Ninja Turtles.

 

My first memory of karate was NOT staying for my first class. The instructor Kiai'd, yelled really loudly. And I high tailed it out of there. It scared the heck out of me. I returned, I don't remember why, if my parents talked me through it or what. But I went back. 

 

Ironically, 5 years later or so, that same instructor started sexually harassing me. 

 

But I stayed. 

 

I think the "why I stayed" story may be sadder than the "why I left" but that's up for interpretation. 

 

You see, I loved karate. I was in the dojo 4 sometimes 5 days a week. Multiple Classes an evening. I bowed. I listened. I worked. I competed.  I breathed for it. 

 

 

 

This teacher was my favorite. All the kids loved when he taught. He'd laugh, make jokes, tease us. It was amazing. I loved the attention. Loved the praise. Loved the teasing. Ate up every word. Psychologically this is called grooming. A simple perspective I picked up in adulthood in  my undergrad. He groomed me. But so did the system by which martial arts is founded. The infallible sensei.   You don't question him. He knows. Look how powerful he is. He demonstrates his power with a glean in his eye. IF someone questions his strength he hits again and again. He is teaching you striking, attacking, violent things. He is so much better than you. He is so high in rank. He must be proficient in this. He must be able to fight. He must be able to hit. He is powerful. Karate, as a system, groomed me too. 

 

Because by the time I was a young teenager I was blind to the harassment. Blind to the abuse of power. Blind to the slow turning of the tides. Blind to the weight of the comments on how I looked, or the leering at my clothing or to the snapping of my underwear that dared to ride too high above the waist of my cinched gi pants. 

 

I was groomed, so I didn't notice. Couldn't notice for a long time. 

 

"Uh, Yuck, he always flirted with you when we we're kids. Thank God he didn't pick me." - My friend recounts recently when I caught her up on the last year of dealing with new accusations. 

 

But I am intelligent. 

 

I have a mother with a steel back bone and feminism ferocity. I have my own personal fortitude  to eventually (around 16 or 17) get sick of it. But, I was ill equipped. I had no tools in my red belt to address my anger so I became snarly to him, talking back.

 

"We weren't comfortable leaving him alone with you in the dojo when you were young." --My other instructors wife would later admit to me while I was in my twenties.

 

Reflecting, I realize I never told my parents any of this. I have always been precociously self reliant, but honestly I must have known I would have been taken out of karate. I must have known the vitriol my mother would have spewed at my defense. My parents hated him without this knowledge anyway. Always calling him by his first name, while my other instructors were always called Mr. or Mrs. Losing the dojo was not something I would have risked. What a horrible thing for a kid to navigate.  Leaving karate NEVER crossed my mind. Not until 22 years after I started.

 

Karate, the dojo, was my place of belonging, in the same way Church fulfills this need for other people. The dojo was where I felt almost transcendence at times. My friends were there, young students I taught that looked up to me, my peers, my mentors. This was a placed I was needed, I had purpose. I was good at this. Karate grew into the cracks of my developing personality. It was present in all aspects of who I was. I could not fathom leaving it. Could not imagine the sense of loss I would have felt.

 

It never crossed my mind how inappropriate it all was. It was just gross. It was annoying. It was stupid. It pissed me off. But I couldn't see how wrong it was. That's how these things work though.

 

The next part was worse. It's what happens when a predator is rejected, insulted, embarrassed. It was what happened after the sexual harassment. The emotional abuse. The intimidation. The humiliation.

 

"Why is he talking about your break up in class?" - A student of mine's reflection while teaching at the University.

 

In the class I taught, that he was in charge of, he became vindictive. Making fun of break ups--in class. In front of students who saw me as the teacher, he used his position to humiliate me. He belittled my ability. He demeaned my teaching. At one time, I am a full time student, running his program for free (one he gets university pay for teaching). I have been idiopathically sick for a while. Later they find out its gall bladder disease and  I have urgent surgery. But before knowing this, I show up to teach. I haven't eaten much in days, I am dehydrated, in pain. But I show up. I teach.  He calls me lazy in front of the class. I am a poor teacher. I am a bad example to the students. But I never thought about leaving. He was only in town a few days a month. I could deal. Everything else was so good.  At this time I am running a very successful college program. I love the students. We have a great bond. They are my people. This is my place. I tell the supervising instructor, the regional director, about his behavior. Week after week he is in town I call crying and upset. Nothing happens. I graduate. I leave. I hate the instructor.

 

I rebuild. I open my own school. Away from him. Unwelcome to him. I create my own sanctuary. Damn sure it will be safe from the likes of him and behavior like his. I build a dojo, a family, my education.

 

 

I see him at events for 10 years. I still don't like him. I don't trust him. But he doesn't effect me in the same way. I see him through distance. I am out from under him. I don't report to him. My karate world does not have his thumb print over it. I see he isn't charismatic or powerful. He's nothing but a propped up insecure man who uses power given to him by karate to hide his flaws. I have no problem keeping him at bay now. I have the skills to weather his insufferable storm. I have my own sense of belonging, love, place free of  sexual harassment, trauma, or abuse of power.

 

That would have been the end.

 

Until She told me her story too: 

 

 

 

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