This is the 13th hour of my teacher client consultation, but there is no way of arguing today’s lesson had anything directly to do with my basic self-protection course. Instead, at my client’s request, we diverted into reviewing his excellent “Bully Proof” three hour course and this prompted a discussion on the nature of bullies. However, before we moved onto certain areas our main area of discussion centred on a recent relevant case within our industry: the case of two high profile martial arts teachers recently convicted for sexual assault. My client requested that I voice my thoughts on the matter with regards to what we can learn as an industry/subculture and the reactions we have seen amongst our professional peers.
The below bullet points concern the case of Victor Marke and Zara Phythian, two Nottingham Taekwondo instructors, who were found guilty of historic sexual abuse of a teenage martial arts student in their charge. The charges were brought against them the year after they were married. Both denied all the charges. Phythian had become a celebrity in the martial arts world after landing a supporting role in the Marvel Cinematic Universe movie, “Dr Strange”, the sequel of which was on general release at the time of trial. Prior to landing the role Phythian had worked her way through a series of low budget action movies, was a 13 times world martial arts champion and the holder of two martial arts-related Guinness World Records. She had become a darling of the UK martial arts scene, helping to front a lot of the corporate scene, appearing at exhibitions and in just about any media imaginable. Yet once news of her and her husband’s trial became public social media was awash with people claiming they never liked her and “always thought she was strange”. Makes one think how she could have remained so popular for so long with all these people have such suspicions. I mean it’s not the like the martial arts teachers to be shrinking violets when they have opinions on their peers.
- Disgust and condemnation of these inexcusable crimes is the natural default response of all humane individuals. This is something I imagine most reasonable people in the martial arts community can agree upon.
- We can also agree that the vast majority of martial arts teachers are not inherently abusers. Few would disagree that, on balance, cases of this nature are in the minority. However, the same things might be said about school teachers, sports coaches, youth leaders, children’s television presenters and religious leaders. Anywhere that involves the authority of adults over children will always run the risk of abuse. This doesn’t stop us demanding investigations into practices to prevent this happening again. Historically the corporate martial arts world has not been slow in this respect. Desiring the same sponsorship, business support and partnering benefits offered to other mainstream activities, the corporate martial arts world has worked hard to lead the way with establishing certain standards from insurance to meeting government guidelines during the global Covid-19 pandemic. Child safeguarding has been a mainstay for a long time now with many clubs and associations. However, this doesn’t change the fact that certain unnecessary power structures embedded in many martial arts traditions helps facilitate child abuse. We need to think about hierarchical structures and what positions of authority can mean in an environment that deals with managing violence.
- Scandals of sexual abuse in the martial arts teaching world are sadly nothing new. One of my biggest martial arts influences, Geoff Thompson, suffered sexual assault as a child when he was a student an aikido school. This horrendous episode was recounted in a later edition of his autobiography, “Watch My Back”, and also formed the basis for his short film, “Romans 20:20”, and feature film, “Romans”. Geoff would also refer to anonymous self-defence teacher in his self-protection handbook, “Dead or Alive”, who was a convicted sex abuser. During my time writing for a martial arts magazine I began mixing heavily with a broad variety of martial arts clubs and associations. It wasn’t long before rumours and discussions regarding the historic and recent conduct of different teachers reached my ears. In the traditional karate world I heard of teachers affecting a rock star type image where they took advantage of very young students. Amongst high-kicking and acrobatic musical forms orientated schools, dominated by pre-adolescent and teenage competitors, I began hearing rumours about cult-like control of militant adult teachers. Over the US in the late 2010s and early 2020s Olympic Taekwondo reeled from another scandal (See Alex Gillis’s “A Killing Art” for its historic run-ins with the law) and two US team judges (who were brothers) were slapped with lawsuits that they sexaully abused fighters under their charge. Meanwhile the critical thinking martial arts website Bullshido continued to document a growing list of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu teachers who were convicted for sexually abusing their students. It was far from the first and last time the investigative website would discuss the larger topic of sexual predation in the martial arts community.
- These are crimes that occurred in our community and were facilitated by the service (and arguably the culture) our industry provides. There is also a cruel irony in the fact that the nature of the crimes are exactly what training in martial arts is supposed to oppose. If I may draw a relevant parallel, when police corruption is uncovered those involved with law enforcement should accept a serious problem needs resolving: not only has something wrong happened in their profession but what has gone wrong is exactly what their profession was designed to prevent. Likewise, the martial arts teacher should see this as a two-fold personal issue to their subculture and profession. Not only has a crime happened in their proverbial backyard by one of their community but such an offence is exactly what martial arts in modern society seeks to prevent. Being sexually abused by a modern day martial arts teacher is comparable to being run over on a crossing by a speeding driving instructor.
- Given that martial arts businesses aggressively target parents and their children, promising unique benefits from their classes, it seems a little rich that some martial arts teachers look to even partly blame the parents of the victim in this case.
- When interviewed by the press, Phythian’s father said that his daughter began training under Marke (22 years her senior) when she was a 14 year-old black belt. Their relationship was revealed when Phythian turned 19 and this caused a rift between father and daughter for two years. The sentencing judge stated he believed Marke to have been the driving force behind the assaults but that this did not excuse Phythian’s actions. When the idea that Phythian might have been groomed and abused herself is suggested it is very quickly shot down by martial arts teachers and influencers. Why would so many martial artists deny what seems like a fairly strong hypothesis that this bears all the hallmarks of classic grooming behaviour leading to the abused becoming an abuser? I discussed this another dangerous feature of criminal peer pressure in my podcast “Pinnochio’s Valentine and the Handshake Hit”. Firstly, many of those commenting clearly fear that by casting one of the convicted abusers as a victim believe it somehow mitigates their crime. It doesn’t and none of those proposing this view even remotely suggest this is their belief. Rather they are trying to seek a solution, to learn from something that should not have happened. Secondly, this hypothesis pushes us to consider the relationships that have built up within martial arts traditions. Discussions on these relationships might make for uncomfortable considerations regarding the use and abuse of power. Martial arts teachers are often looked upon as role models by their young students, and it is a view that is strongly encouraged. They are teaching life skills and how to be warriors (whichever interpretation of that word you wish to choose). In turn, the students to stay with the training become responsible for teaching students and the experience is passed on. If this teaching is corrupted then it switches from a lineage of support and empowerment to a cycle of abuse.
- Interestingly more hatred is focused on Phythian than Marke. This is despite Marke receiving an extra four years on his sentence for indescently assaulting a second victim and considered by the judge to be the worse offender of the two. In my podcast, “The Prince Charming Offensive” I touched upon society’s enhanced reactions to discovering an attractive, popular, familiar and charismatic figure has committed an horrendous crime. We find it so much easier to just label those who commit heinous acts as “monsters” and “beasts”, effectively categorising them away from humanity. This is helped enormously when these criminals look like how we wish to imagine evil or, at least, don’t look like how we imagine good. In short, no one likes to be fooled. When we realise we have been deceived, the uncertainty of chaos threatens to upend our views of order. However, if we are to progress and we are to make effective changes we need to accept that abusers often live within our midst. They can get into positions of trust and they are not always easily identifiable.
My client’s “Bullyproof” programme looks excellent. It is a pretty comprehensive plan to be condensed inside of three hours for children entering secondary school. However, whilst going through the various areas and activities he had listed we touched upon the entire concept of the violent bully. The words “bully” and “bullying” rarely need much explanation to English-speaking people. Bullies repetitively exert their power over others. This might be physical bullying, psychological bullying or a mixture of both. However, this often means more than what a self-protection teacher might first assume. The bully can be either an asocial offender and a social offender, and they might straddle both. The act of bullying might also form a regular aspect in competitive fighting.
An asocial bully quite simply persecutes his or her quarry. They regularly intimidate and make the life of their target a misery for a variety of reasons. However, a bully can also be an individual with insecurity issues who targets individuals they view to be a threat. In this second case predatory targeting can result moving over into asocial violence, but the bully might see him or herself as a champion defending their position. Finally, we use the term “bullying” to describe the fight tactics of certain combat athletes. This is used to decribe in-fighting and clinching but more so the attitude taken when executing techniques at close range. As a fighter crowds he will seek to wear down and frustrate his opponent.