I have taught boxing and several other Martial Arts for many years now and it is very much a part of my identity. I am a good instructor and greatly enjoy sharing my knowledge with others, particularly those who aren’t particularly self-confident or athletically talented. Martial Arts can be a great confidence booster and it can give those who are afraid of physical confrontation a newfound understanding of their own physical abilities.
Women, I have found over the years, tend to benefit the most from Martial Arts training for a number of reasons. Firstly, they work harder than men in class and listen more (any fitness instructor will secretly verify this!). While men almost always try to make up for technical deficiencies by using muscle and aggression, women tend to work extremely hard on getting the technical aspects of a move down too, making their workouts much more productive. Some of the best people I have trained have been women, many of whom I would classify as being legitimately dangerous.
In my class, I make sure that everyone understands there are no superstars. Everyone does the same drills (unless injured) and everyone does their best to help others get a good session in. I’ve seen too many bad instructors over the years create hostile environments by choosing favorites, shouting at people, and picking on individuals for unnecessary criticism. Running a positive, friendly, but challenging class is a skill, and it has taken me a long time to perfect it. While I’m still improving, I have never had anyone feel unwelcome in my class or leave feeling I wasn’t doing my best to help them learn. I am especially sensitive to creating a welcoming environment for women given I’ve met survivors of sexual assault and understand the trauma some women carry with them when coming to take self defense classes. It is a big deal, and I won’t ever allow them to feel intimidated or unwelcome.
That was until a couple of months ago, when a woman in her late 20’s came to my boxing class and refused to take part some of the drills I have my students do. I noticed Christine’s hostile attitude before class began, but hoped she’d warm to the class after she realized it was a nice group of people working towards the same goals.
“I’m not doing that, dude,” she told me when I asked her to participate in a group footwork drill.
“Is there a reason why you can’t? Are you injured?” I asked.
“You need to stop asking me. I’m not doing your drill, dude.” she said curtly, and quite loudly so that everyone else in class could hear.
I was stunned at her rudeness, and took exception to being called “dude”, but didn’t push the issue further as I did not want to disrupt everyone else’s workout. I hoped she wouldn’t come back to class again and put it down to her having a bad day.
Next week, in came Christine again, this time with a completely different attitude. She was smiling and seemed in a very positive mood. Great, I thought. Perhaps she was just having a bad day and wasn’t the disrespectful person I took her to be. We exchanged pleasantries and I asked her whether she had any injuries. “My shoulder is a little painful,” she told me. I told her to take it easy on push ups and let me know if anything bothered her. Everything seemed to be OK and I was hopeful I could run class without issue.
I told everyone to gather to the front of the class to start warming up, and lo and behold, Christine completely ignored me and started doing her own warm up. I ignored it and allowed her to do her own thing, despite the irritation. As I took the class through a series of exercises, Christine continued disregarding everything I was saying and engaged in a completely different workout.
As the class progressed, I kept asking Christine whether there was something wrong and if there was a reason she couldn’t do some of the drills I was asking her to do that didn’t involve her shoulder.
“You need to stop hassling me, dude,” she told me in front of everyone again. “I’m not doing the drills you want me to do, so stop asking.”
Quietly seething, I waited until the end of class to speak to her.
“Look, Christine,” I said, “I can’t have students not doing drills and refusing to participate in class. It’s disruptive and it effects everyone else.”
“Dude, you need to calm down,” she told me. “I’ll do whatever exercises I want, especially if I have an injury.”
“That’s fine,” I told her, “but a lot of the exercises I asked you to do did not involve your shoulder. If you don’t want to do the exercises I teach, then perhaps you shouldn’t come to my class.”
“I’ll come to whatever class I want to,” she told me.
After getting over the initial shock of her rudeness, I told her flatly that she was no longer welcome to come to my class. “I’m sorry Christine, but I can’t have students telling me how to run my class and disrespecting me in front of other students. You can’t come to my class. I’m sorry.”
“Dude, why don’t I have a little chat with your boss and tell them how rude you have been to me?” she shot back. “I’ll take your class if I want to.”
“Well, the owner of the gym is a friend of mine, so feel free to speak to her,” I said, then gave her the info she needed to contact her. “Please don’t threaten me either, I don’t take kindly to it. You can’t come to my class, so please don’t try to come otherwise I’ll have you barred from the gym.”
Christine continued issuing threats, but I started to ignore her and began packing the class up and talking to other student (who were equally appalled).
After class, I emailed both the gym owners (two women) to let them know what happened. They were extremely sympathetic and told me they’d back me over her completely. I had several witnesses who also informed them of the incident who supported my side of events.
One of the owners met with Christine and tried to resolve it amicably, offering to set her up with a new trainer to take privates. But Christine would not have any of it and insisted on being able to take my class despite me having “bullied” her on several occasions. This was the email Christine (again, not her real name) sent to the owner of the gym:
I enjoyed our conversation as well, and I appreciate your taking the time to speak with me. I must say, however, that I’m very disheartened by your decision to accommodate Ben’s behavior. I urge you to reconsider.
I used to own my own business, and my mom has been a small business owner for 15 years, so it’s important to me to support small businesses, not only by purchasing their goods and services but also by encouraging people to attend. It’s also important to me, however, to stand up for myself and to ensure that the right values are being perpetuated within my community, including by the small businesses that support—and are supported by—the community.
Given my background, I understand your loyalty to your gym family. But sometimes members of our family make mistakes, and it’s important that we hold them accountable. As a gym owner, you have an obligation not just to your instructors, but also to your clients and to your community. Personal trainers who fail to prioritize client safety and welfare violate professional ethics rules, and it’s surprising that any gym owner would condone such behavior by one of their instructors.
Moreover, I’m hesitant to reference the law in situations like these. (I prefer to resolve such situations amicably, with communication and shared understanding.) But, as a gym owner, you have an obligation to adhere to the DC Human Rights Act, which requires that every person have “full and equal enjoyment” of the services offered in your gym.
Ben has bullied me on several occasions. I have done nothing wrong. I’m not disrupting class, I’m not yelling at him or otherwise being rude or disrespectful, I’m not asking for disproportionate amounts of his attention (in fact, I’m asking, overall, for less attention from him). Given that there is no good reason for his treatment of me, and given my observation of the way he has interacted with me and with other people in class, I strongly believe that his attitude toward me—and your decision to allow him to ban me from class—violate the Act.
I don’t think that Ben is conscious of the reason(s) for his differential treatment of me. The fact that he asserted multiple rationales for his behavior when he spoke with me after class suggests that his stated reasons are pretextual. When people have implicit biases that affect their perceptions and treatment of others, it can be difficult to figure out how to shine a light on them. But allowing people to act out of these biases covers them in darkness and encourages them to fester.
As I mentioned in our conversation, I joined ClassPass in order to have access to the boxing classes at your gym. Private instruction is not an option for me, nor is commuting to your Capitol Hill location. Moreover, I enjoy the skills and techniques I’m learning from Ben. I simply want to continue learning these skills without being bullied or discriminated against.
Thus, I kindly ask that you readdress this issue with Ben and require that he both respects the best interests of your gym’s clients and refrains from acting out when clients assert those interests. How you and Ben get there is obviously up to you, but in my view, Ben needs to do some serious self-reflection about why he’s being triggered by me and my decision to respect my body by modifying or sitting out an occasional exercise.
Finally, I sign up for classes a week in advance in order to get access to my preferred classes, so I had been scheduled for Ben’s Wednesday class this week. I switched my reservation to Friday so that you two have more time to address this issue. Hopefully this will allow cooler heads to prevail. If you could get back to me by Thursday evening, I’d appreciate it. In the meantime, I’ll contact ClassPass about their policies regarding the issues raised in this email.
Her insinuation was that I was judging her because she was gay and a woman and singled her out for abusive treatment — an allegation so extraordinary that I’m almost positive she didn’t believe what she was saying. To threaten a small business like this and accuse an employee of discrimination is extremely serious, and my boss thankfully told her where to get off. She forwarded me the email with the following words “She’s officially a terrible person.” Christine was banned from the gym forever and Class Pass was informed of her abusive behavior.
The unfortunate episode was a lesson in the excesses of identity politics and the entitlement many on the left feel because of their perceived minority status. Christine believed she could behave as she liked without recourse because she was a part of a persecuted minority and I was a man. Her self identification as an LGBTQ woman transcended her obligations to behave like a decent human being and gave her the right to accuse someone not part of that community of being homophobic and/or sexist on no grounds whatsoever.
I don’t see this type of behavior on the far left as the greatest threat Western civilization has ever seen (as many on the right do), but it is a problem and it does have real world consequences. I could have been fired from my job had I not had witnesses and two great bosses, and Christine would have been free to continue taking classes, disrespecting instructors and getting people fired for no reason whatsoever. I don’t see myself as a victim in any of this, but the episode certainly helped me understand that while both sides are not “just as bad”, there are big problems on the left that need to be addressed it if is to be taken seriously in the long term.
I actually felt quite sorry for Christine as she was clearly suffering from some personal issues she obviously did not want to confront. No one behaves like that without having experienced trauma, and I hope she finds some peace in her life. However, that doesn’t prevent her from being responsible for her actions, and at least in my case, she got what she deserved.
Ben Cohen is the editor and founder of The Daily Banter. He lives in Washington DC where he does podcasts, teaches Martial Arts, and tries to be a good father. He would be extremely disturbed if you took him too seriously.