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Guelph School of Japanese Sword Arts, July, 2002

The Double-Edged Sword; Lessons from the Travis Maxson Case

Dakin Burdick, 1996, revised 2002.

On April 28, 1995, as punishment for touching his black sash, Renzoku Kei jujutsu instructor Travis Alan Maxson forced one of his students at Indiana University to perform oral sex. A jury of nine women and three men found him guilty of Criminal Deviate Conduct on Wednesday, November 22, 1995, and he was sentenced on December 20 to ten years in prison, with four of those years suspended. In Indiana, this meant he was eligible for parole in three years (1998), after which he would have to remain on probation for another seven years (until 2005). Of course, there were other repercussions of his act. Maxson's local students burned their black belts in a show of sympathy for the victim and the I.U. Jujitsu Club disassociated itself from its former teacher. Soon after, the club was supplanted by another style of jujutsu on campus. Maxson lost his job, his house, and eventually his wife during his time in jail. His victim had many of the expected reactions to sexual assaults. She suffered flashbacks for years, was afraid to go out at night and put on a lot of weight. She was able to return to martial arts training only in 2002. What can be learned from this tragedy?

The key to this case is to be found within the make-up of Maxson's club. Discipline and obedience were demanded of all students. Students were expected to bow to the instructor when he entered the room, and those who did not were punished with laps or push-ups. If students had not yet been instructed in the rules of the dojo, their first introduction to those rules would be a punishment for their infraction. Students were taught to use their ki (internal energy) to take full power blows to the neck, large muscles, and groin, and this hard contact was practiced regularly. Most of the members were in excellent physical condition, and all but one were men. Most of the women who had joined the club left after a few practices, driven away because of the discipline and intensity of the club, as indeed were several men. Only one woman stuck it out, but she had done well, managing to earn her third-degree brown belt. That woman, a promising and dedicated student, was the to become the victim of assault by her instructor.

Maxson presented himself as a master of his own system, Renzoku Kei jujutsu (formerly known as Yoshi-ryu), which he founded several years before. He began his training at the age of thirteen in judo at the Y.M.C.A. in Marion, Indiana. At the time of the assault, the I.U. Jujitsu Club had been taught for several years by one of his students at the university. Maxson himself was thirty-one years old, married, and a resident of Knoxville, Tennessee. He visited the club one weekend out of each semester to oversee rank promotion and to conduct instruction. During his visit to Bloomington in April of 1995, Maxson tested several people for their next rank, including the one female student. She failed her promotion test, and was given an extensive regimen of training (push-ups, sit-ups, mile runs, etc.) because she was considered "too weak." She believed she had done poorly, and began to follow the regimen faithfully.

At the same time, Maxson began to take a personal interest in her. After returning home to Tennessee, he wrote her by email that he believed she had a "particular gift." She was understandably surprised, given her recent failure during testing, but was of course flattered that Master Maxson had taken a personal interest in her. Maxson told her that he was the only one who "could bring out this gift" and added that she couldn't tell anyone, including any of the other black belts in the club, because they might be upset by the individual attention she would receive. When she corresponded with him, it was to be only late at night when his wife did not read his email. His young student thought this was "weird," but did not protest. At this point, the student did not believe anything sexual was involved. She looked at Maxson as her instructor, her protector. Perhaps a better descriptor for her attitude at the time would be "innocent."

On April 27, Maxson visited Bloomington to train his special student. During their training together, two more incidents took place that she felt were odd. The first of these was when he grabbed her crotch to illustrate the muscles she needed to tighten as part of a kata (prearranged form) with a jo (a five-foot-long staff). The second was a post-workout massage where he demanded she remove all of her clothes, including bra, leaving only her underwear. She remembers that he "spent what I thought was an inordinate amount of time on my inner thighs" and also "around my breasts." She was "very nervous" and "asked him about his wife frequently," but in the end she dismissed her suspicions, believing the two incidents to be merely aspects of advanced training that were previously unknown to her. Maxson then spent the night at her apartment, sleeping on her bed while she slept on the floor.

The next day, Maxson decided to call a special training session for all the members of the club. Just before they left for the session, the student inquisitively touched his black sash, which she had not seen before. Maxson explained that he had received it while testing in a style of gong-fu. No more was mentioned of this until that night, when they returned to her apartment and Maxson suddenly announced that she had to be punished for touching his sash.

The victim was confused, but believed that she must be guilty, because her instructor would not say such a thing unless it was true. She suggested that he make her do push-ups, or laps, or take her rank away; punishments that she had seen in the past. He refused.

Maxson tied her own brown belt around her neck and pulled her down into the kneeling posture called seiza. He paced back and forth, shouting and berating her for two hours. According to the victim, "He took his time with it, he was very methodical." Even during his shouting, she remained the dutiful student, believing that she must be responsible for this ordeal and that she had to be punished. Crying, she suggested that he just beat her up. He refused.

Finally Maxson reached a decision. "You will remember this every time you practice, every time you test," he told her, "until you are a black belt. When you are a black belt you can forget." He then sat on the bed and pulled her head down over his erect penis, telling her to "Take it!" He forced her head down and moved his hips, finally ejaculating into her mouth.

When it was over, he seemed to realize for the first time that she was angry. He began to apologize, explaining that he was sorry and even hugging her. After ten minutes, he left. At first she simply sat on her bed and screamed. She then called one of the other black belts and cried to him for several hours, after which they told another of the black belts in club about the incident. "Telling them was the hardest thing," she remembers. By the next day, she became convinced that she should call the police. She did so, and undertook the long, arduous process of bringing Maxson to justice. The rest of the story you already know.

Excessive discipline or excessive power over one's students can lead to victimization, and the level of discipline at the club makes it clear why the incident went as far as it did. The student was used to being punished for infractions of the rules, even unwitting ones. Throughout the assault, the student did not protest Maxson's actions until the final act. She was terrified of Maxson, since in her mind he was a skilled martial artist against whom she believed she would have no chance of defeating in a physical confrontation. At the same time, she was still the dutiful student, willing to be beaten up for her infraction, rationalizing to herself that she could heal in a couple of months. Looking back on the incident now, the student explained to the court, "I was exceedingly stupid in not protesting [against his actions]... I gave him the benefit of the doubt then. That's the last time I'll do that."

Maxson himself saw little wrong with his actions. He mistakenly believed that beating a student was a legitimate punishment. When the police informed him that the victim had burned the brown belt she had received from him, he told them he assumed that she had done so because she still felt shame for touching his sash. In the courtroom, his lack of understanding became even more clear. Maxson told the jury that "I had been taught, normally, that when you touched higher ranks' belt, sash, that you would just get hit." Had she been a man, he told police, "I would probably just beat the crap out of him." She was a woman, however, and he still had "flashbacks" of being attacked by a girlfriend five years before. He did not want that kind of incident again, so he chose sexual assault instead. Such was his reasoning.

Although the survivors of sexual assaults tend to stress these attacks as motivated by a desire for power, the attackers may see them in quite a different light. If we are to believe his words, Maxson's actions were based upon his physical attraction to his student. He acknowledged in court that he had been sexually attracted to the victim, and that what he had done was wrong because, "I cheated on my wife."

In any teaching situation, instructors have a very real power over their students.  They have the power to control the flow of information to those students, and possibly to deny them the training they desire.  The instructors are also assumed to be protectors and mentors and are therefore often allowed more control over a student, since they purportedly know what is best for that person.

Martial arts instructors must also have a higher standard of behavior than other teachers, because of the nature of their training.  Martial arts is largely a physical endeavor, and the level of contact between teacher and student is therefore increased.  The victim in this case allowed Maxson unusual access to her body during her training, and although she felt nervous at Maxson's advances, she assumed that it was all part of the instruction.  At the same time, she feared the potential danger of his attack.  Had she not feared his skill in the martial arts, she might have protested or even fought against him.  Instead, she believed he could take her life at any time, and so was unable to act.  This then is the double-edged sword that all martial arts instructors face.  They have more physical contact with their students than do most teachers, while at the same time their students have a greater potential fear of that contact.  Maxson's victim did not resist him, and in his own perception, an assault had not taken place. Even after the trial and conviction, Maxson did not believe that he forced his student to do anything and he claims that "I wasn't aware at the time that it was going to have the impact that it did."

There are several important lessons to be learned from the Maxson case. Instructors should realize that physical punishment of students should be avoided, if only because it can build a victim mentality in those students. Instructors should be extremely to accommodate as many sizes and types of participants in their practices as possible. Tests or exercises that place an undue stress on size or build should be de-emphasized, or replaced with exercises that challenge all participants. Sexual innuendos must be extinguished immediately. Martial artists find many relationships strained by the demands of training, and dojo divorces are common. Despite this, one should not use one's students as a source of dates. To be blunt, don't take a leak in your own backyard. Assume also that about a third of your female students have been victimized in the past and that they will have no tolerance for any suggestion of misconduct. Any instructor who lets his or her school turn into a singles club will find either the training of their students becoming second-class or lose half of their students, or both.

For the student, there is the unfortunate but necessary burden of staying alert for signs of potential sexual harassment or assault. Students need to remember that their instructors are human, not icons from the movies. They must be cognizant of the possible implications of sexual innuendo. They must be mindful of the demands of training but vigilant against the encroachment of excessive control of their lives by their instructors. If they feel uncertain as to the intentions of the head instructor or his/her assistants, they must discuss their worries with their head instructor immediately.

The bottom line is that communication between teacher and student is vital to the maintenance of a healthy learning environment and both sides must work to make this communication as clear as possible. Such communication will eliminate misunderstandings between well-meaning instructors and students, and make it abundantly clear that instructors who cross the line are intentionally abusing their power and not merely ignorant.