This paper has been published in the book, ‘Fighting Scholars: Habitus and Ethnographies
of Martial Arts and Combat Sports’, edited by Raúl Sánchez García and Dale C. Spencer.
London: Anthem Press, 2013. ISBN: 9780857283320
‘Do You Hit Girls?’ Some Striking Moments in the Career of a Male
Department of Secondary Education, University of Greenwich, London, UK
Dr. Alex Channon, School of Education, University of Greenwich, Mansion Site, Bexley Road,
London SE9 2PQ
Tel: +44 (0)20 8331 8255
‘DO YOU HIT GIRLS?’ SOME STRIKING MOMENTS IN THE CAREER OF A
MALE MARTIAL ARTIST
Introduction: ‘So… Do You Hit Girls?’
I am asked this question more times than any other when discussing the problems addressed
by my research into mixed-sex martial arts
. Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the
experience of mixed-sex training in combat sports, the ethical considerations and
deliberations which surround the matter of men hitting women often present a personal
conundrum for men involved in martial arts. For instance, is it wrong for a man to hit a
woman while training? Or is it wrong for a man to think that hitting a woman while training
is wrong? These questions are part of a broader study of the phenomenon of mixed-sex
martial arts which I have been conducting over the past five years, and in this chapter I
address these issues using a mix of auto-ethnographic storytelling, interview data and field
notes, discussing how it is that training can affect the ‘habitus’ (that is, the ‘embodied history,
internalized as second nature’ (Bourdieu 1990, 56)) of participants in mixed-sex martial arts.
The rationale for asking such questions extends from an understanding of the ‘subversive’
significance of women’s participation in martial arts and related combat sports, which has
been well documented by feminist scholars researching this phenomenon over the past two
decades (e.g. De Welde 2003; Guthrie 1995; Hollander 2004; McCaughey 1997; 1998).
Consistently positioned as a ‘masculine domain par excellence’ (Mennesson 2000, 28),
martial arts and related combat sports are widely considered in the research literature to have
historically leant ideological support to patriarchal notions of essential male physical power
(e.g. Messner 1988; 1990). Ironically though, because of their important symbolic link with
dominant codes of masculinity, they can also be a powerful site through which to challenge
binary, hierarchal conceptions of gender; an argument also made with regard to so-called
‘masculine’ sports more generally (e.g. Heywood and Dworkin 2003; Roth and Basow 2004).
The subversive value of women’s engagement in these activities is principally due to the fact
that developing the ability to physically dominate an opponent is a key outcome of most (if
not all) martial arts training cultures. And given that ideologically, the physical domination of
women by men is an essential element of hierarchal gender discourse, and more specifically
of what feminists have termed ‘rape culture’ (McCaughey 1997, 28), then women’s
development of this supposedly ‘masculine’ ability to physically dominate others poses a
direct challenge to a key ideological site of male power. In learning the techniques of
physical domination, and developing a body suited to physical combat, women can come to
embody the feminist denial of the passivity, fragility and violability of the female body
(Dowling 2000; Lenskyj 1986; McCaughey 1997), whilst concurrently appropriating one of
Not to be confused with ‘mixed martial arts’ (MMA), I use this term to denote any and all practices of martial
arts which are undertaken in sex-integrated, or ‘co-ed’ training environments.
the most potent signifiers of male ‘superiority’. By becoming accomplished fighters, it is
suggested that female martial artists can be the living expression of feminist resistance
(Guthrie 1995; McCaughey 1998).
Such an argument has long concerned social historians of women’s sport. With particular
reference to the UK, the site of my present research, scholars such as Hargreaves (1994;
1997) have pointed out that British women have been actively engaging with ostensibly
‘masculine’ combat sports, such as boxing and wrestling, throughout the past century. It is
also known that women have practiced Eastern martial arts since their introduction to Britain
in the early 1900s (Looser, 2011; Wolf, 2005). However, to date there has been no explicit
attempt among sports historians to chart the specific emergence and development of mixed-
sex training in such activities in Britain. It is possible that integrated training, along with
competition, has taken place for as long as women have been participating in modern combat
sports and martial arts; for instance, Wolf (2005) describes early female jujutsu practitioner,
Edith Garrud, as having choreographed and performed public demonstrations of the art’s
effectiveness against male opponents during the early twentieth century. However, it is only
relatively recently that scholars have begun investigating formal mixed-sex sports training
environments, leaving the socio-historical context of sex-integrated martial arts in the UK,
along with other Western contexts, somewhat unknown at this point.
This is surprising, as theoretically speaking, within mixed-sex training the subversive value
of women’s involvement in martial arts is amplified, given that they are learning to fight
with, against and alongside men. This rests upon the fact that segregated training settings all
too easily give rise to dismissive and trivialising responses among men towards female
success; being ‘good’ among other women invites the argument that a woman is only good
‘for a girl’, rather than just plain good (McDonagh and Pappano 2008). Such segregations
provide support for typical conceptions of female physical inferiority, which have long kept
women separate from men in sports, or out of sports altogether (Dowling 2000; Hargreaves
1994; Lenskyj 1986). Conversely, mixed and undifferentiated training can give rise to mutual
understandings of the shared physical possibilities of the sexed body in ways which
segregated training cannot (Anderson 2008). It also broadens women’s training opportunities
in what female martial artists often describe as ‘male dominated’ gyms, wherein few other
sufficiently talented women train (e.g. Lafferty and McKay 2004). Other ethnographers have
previously argued that the intensely physical (and often painful) exchanges of sparring form
the principle way in which martial abilities are developed, as well as one way in which
belonging within martial subcultures is established (Abramson and Modzelewski 2010; Green
2011; McCaughey 1997; Wacquant 2004). It therefore stands to reason that women’s
attainment of physical equality with men, as well as their enfranchisement among the groups
which help them develop such physicality, rests upon their opportunity to engage in similarly
intense bouts of sparring as do their male counterparts. And, given the typical over-
representation of men in (most) mixed-sex martial arts clubs, this means that women’s
development of martial abilities is often dependent upon hitting, and being hit by, men. Yet
as suggested at the outset, hitting women is rarely a straightforward, unproblematic
proposition for men within martial arts, particularly as one’s habituated sense of gender
propriety, or ‘honour’, can come to conflict strongly with the practical demands of mixed-sex
training (Guérandel and Mennesson 2007).
When discussing the ways in which martial artists work around typically gendered
expectations about rough physical contact between the sexes, my own narrative thus leads to
an explication of integrated, mixed-sex martial arts as the antithesis of physical segregation
and the hierarchal sex difference this both implies and helps to produce (Channon 2012; see
also McDonagh and Pappano 2008). As such, I claim that hitting one another, regardless of
sex, is a normal and necessary aspect of a successful training career for both male and female
fighters and is, from a pro-feminist point of view, good. This is because hitting is
fundamental in the training regimes of virtually all striking-based combat disciplines, making
it essential for the realization of combative ability as martial artists learn how to cope with
physical attacks and as their bodies become tougher and more inured to pain (Spencer 2009).
Therefore, men hitting women can be, contextually speaking, a good thing for sex equality
and a potentially important moment in the ‘subversion’ of gender (Channon 2010).
So, the question is often posed to me that, discussing such matters whilst in fact being a
martial artist myself, do I also ‘hit girls’? For it is one thing to take a philosophical position in
advocating something which appears quite extraordinary, lying beyond the remit of everyday
sexual propriety, but quite another to actually do it. In keeping with this volume’s principle
concern with addressing how social research can be done from the body, this contribution
outlines how the embodied experiences of men within martial arts training (including myself)
can lead them to be able to answer ‘yes’ to this question. In so doing I draw attention to the
transformative potential that mixed-sex training holds for men’s attitudes towards women’s
bodies, based on data drawn from field notes, personal reflections and interviews with
numerous martial artists with whom I have trained and/or met during my time ‘on the mat’.
In connecting the embodied realities of training with the broader social theme of gender
relations, this work is intended to answer Crossley’s (1995) call for a ‘carnal sociology’,
positing that bodily practices are constitutive of social formations and play a key part in their
on-going reproduction and contestation.
As for the personal experiences which helped shaped my interest in (and form data for) this
study, I originally began training in freestyle kickboxing in 2004, switching in 2006 to
practicing Shaolin kung fu, a discipline in which I have continued to train until the time of
writing. I began researching the gendered phenomena involved with mixed-sex martial arts in
2007 as a postgraduate MSc student, continuing over the following years as I further
developed both a scholarly interest and personal enthusiasm for martial arts. My work has
been ethnographic in nature, involving a mixture of participant observation with formal,
semi-structured interviewing of martial artists within and outside my own training
. These two approaches effectively facilitated each other as I became
progressively more immersed in and familiar with the subculture of the club with which I
trained, along with my growing appreciation of the wider identities, interests and experiences
of martial artists in the UK today. In the course of my five years in kung fu, I have typically
trained between eight and eleven hours per week, whilst being involved at various different
levels within the club and the wider institutional structure of the discipline. For instance, in
addition to regular training, I attended several national-level competitions as competitor,
coach and corner judge, and worked as assistant instructor at my gym until, upon earning my
black belt, I began to work as a junior instructor, teaching full lessons in the absence of the
club’s sifu (head teacher). I also helped to organize and run free trial sessions and ‘self-
defence’ courses for prospective members; I served for two years on the club’s voluntary
administrative committee; and during times of inactivity through injury I remained present as
a passive observer in lessons. As mentioned by other martial arts ethnographers, this diverse
engagement in the field enabled me to be both ‘participant observer’ and ‘observing
participant’ (Abramson and Modzelewski 2010; Woodward 2008), which facilitated access to
rich, ‘insider’ data through, on the one hand, buying credibility among my peers (who would
later become my interviewees), but also through developing a deep, detailed insight through a
wide and varied base of often personally-felt experiences.
Throughout this process, and thanks to my on-going education in sociology, I maintained a
sociological consciousness as a lens through which to view these experiences. As Mills
(1959) would suggest, I was using my ‘sociological imagination’ to make sense of what I
saw, did and felt; not only was I an immersed and engaged participant, but also a scholar with
an interest in ‘(grasping) what is going on in the world, and (understanding) what is
happening (within myself) as minute points of the intersections of biography and history
within society’ (1959, 7). My degree of personal ‘involvement’ and scholarly ‘detachment’,
to borrow Elias’ (1987) terms, shifted at various stages of the research, as my immersion
within the cultural milieu of mixed-sex martial arts fed this ‘sociological imagination’, while
the rigorous demands of my academic engagements simultaneously drove me back to theory.
This process enabled me to develop an ethnographic study rooted in the ‘close-up’, embodied
experiences of the martial artist, yet firmly attached to the abstract narratives of social theory
(‘going native armed’, as Wacquant (2011) suggests). I thus locate my work within the
context of the simultaneously theoretical yet ‘hands-on’ tradition of recent combat sports
ethnographers (e.g. Abramson and Modzelewski 2010; Butryn and deGaris 2008; Green
2011; Spencer 2009; Wacquant 2004), being justified by the oft-cited assertion among
ethnographers more generally that ‘distance does not guarantee objectivity, it merely
guarantees distance’ (Scriven 1967, in Silk 2005, 73).
In this presentation of my research then, the ‘close-up’ nature of participant observation
becomes the focal point for understanding the experiences of men and women involved in
I conducted formal semi-structured interviews with martial artists (n=34) drawn from several different
disciplines (including kung fu, karate, kickboxing, MMA, taekwondo, and others) from around the English East
Midlands, where my own training also took place. These interviews were in addition to the many informal
conservations held with martial artists during training, at competitions, conventions, social events, etc.
mixed-sex training. While discussing the narratives and actions of others, I also foreground
my own thoughts, feelings and ultimately, transformations as a method for discussing the
embodied phenomenon of mixed-sex martial arts. This ‘auto-ethnography’ allows me to
highlight what is in essence a personal journey of change, taking as evidence many of my
own memories, formally recorded or not, of participating in this activity. As Butryn and
deGaris (2008, 339-40) point out, ‘this raises the question of when research begins and ends
in any type of qualitative research’, as scholars open up a space for informal, even
‘accidental’ discoveries in the social world to coexist alongside deliberately gathered,
‘scientific’ data. Therefore, combined with excerpts from field notes and interview
transcripts, aspects of my personal history (both in and out of martial arts) are offered in
order to give a fairly typical, although in this case highly personalized, version of a specific
transformative process which men may face when engaging in mixed-sex combat sports.
Transformation through training is often a significant aspect of martial arts narratives, in both
popular literature (e.g. Twigger 1997) and academic studies (e.g. Jennings 2010), and I
propose that such transformations can be fruitfully examined through the deeply personal
representational method of auto-ethnography.
Principle to the value of this method is its explicit emphasis on the location of the researcher
within the research. Indeed, by its very nature such work cannot be divorced from the
personality of its author, whose habitus neatly contextualizes interpretive data as specifically
situated knowledge. For instance, in this case it is the very fact of my maleness that actually
gives my account its relevance for debates over the transformative potential of martial arts
training regarding the ‘subversion’ of gender. As Woodward (2008, 557) argues,
‘Reflection upon the gender identity and positioning of the researcher helps to cast light
on the representation of masculinities that emerge from the research process. This is not
to devalue the research, but to situate the knowledge so produced and acknowledge its
The work I present in this chapter is centred on producing such a partial view of martial arts
training, which is principally concerned with the subjective transformations experienced by
male martial artists as they train with and alongside women. In the following sections, I
outline the specifics of the transformation which I personally experienced, alongside the
accounts of others
, to give a sense of how mixed-sex training can effect changes of this kind.
This account begins with a brief personal history in order to better contextualize my story.
Refusing to Hit: Masculine Habitus, ‘Holding Back’, and Women’s Frustration
Before I took up martial arts, my thoughts and expectations about fighting had been heavily
structured by prevailing patriarchal discourses of gender, physicality and power. As a
Note that whenever names are used in conjunction with interview quotations or field notes, they are
pseudonyms, self-selected by my research participants in order to protect their anonymity. Participants’ ages are
also provided to partly contextualise data.
schoolboy attending a boys-only school, I had frequently enjoyed bouts of play-fighting on
the playing field, engaging my male friends in what were often chaotic and sometimes
injurious wrestling free-for-alls. Having played rough contact sports throughout my life, I
was enthused by the physical thrill of mock combat, and while I rarely fought ‘for real’ in
aggressive confrontations, I nevertheless took great pleasure in these activities. In terms of
the experiences of young boys in Western culture more generally, it is clear that I am not
alone in having grown up with a taste for combative physicality (Connell 1995), and it is fair
to say that my single-sex education had resulted in a more or less exclusive association in my
mind between fighting, men and ideals of masculinity (see, for instance, Messner 1990).
In addition, and as was the case for several of my research participants, my only point of
contact with female martial artists from the time before I began training revolved around the
mass media; principally this involved television shows, movies, videogames and professional
wrestling. The surreal action sequences of Chinese cinema, along with the buxom, stilettoed
heroines of Hollywood blockbusters and martial arts videogames, failed to provided me with
what I could consider a ‘realistic’ sense of women’s physicality, as did the female
personalities in pro-wrestling while they pouted, screeched and stripped one another in
sexualized spectacles, performing, as Scambler and Jennings (1998) put it, ‘on the periphery
of the sex industry’ (see also Hargreaves 1997). While there has nevertheless been a
proliferation of images of physically ‘empowered’ women in the media since the 1990s,
which has seen its share of celebration among feminist scholars over the past decade (e.g.
Inness 2004; McCaughey & King 2001), such imagery had little impact on my own
habituated association between ‘real’ combat, men and masculinity. My ideas about sex
difference and fighting thus remained tied to prevailing, dominant representations of male
action heroes, wrestlers and prize-fighters – all far more visible and far more ‘real’, to my
young male mind, than their (misrepresented) female equivalents.
My early engagement with mixed training was thus structured by the learned dispositions of a
lifetime saturated with experiences and images of male physical prowess, with a concurrent,
default belief in relative female ‘frailty’ (Dowling 2000). Further to this, a crucial aspect of
my masculine habitus – that is, my socially conditioned, ‘second nature’ – was a strong sense
of honour regarding the necessity of treating ‘weak’, feminine women ‘correctly’. My earliest
recollection of the importance of ‘honourable’ masculine conduct was from fighting with my
younger sister as children, and the unforgettable reprimand my father once gave me after I
had punched her during an argument. Never, ever hit girls, I was told, and this lesson had
stayed with me from that point on. The underlying message of the code of honour implied in
my father’s lesson was simple: men’s bodies are strong, women’s are not, and so men hitting
women is fundamentally unfair. This sentiment is echoed in the reasoning behind what
McDonagh and Pappano (2008) call the ‘coercive sex segregation’ of mainstream, single-sex
sports: boys and girls should not play together because boys are strong and girls are weak. In
the course of my research, many male martial artists similarly recalled the moral importance
of not hitting girls as having been taught from their early years onwards, whilst highlighting
how this could make their martial arts training problematic:
‘I know that I shouldn’t (avoid hitting women during martial arts practice) but as we
grow up that’s how we’re designed to act… It’s part of the programming from when
you’re a kid. Being gentlemanly, that kind of thing.’
(Interview with Ed, 29)
The importance of treating women in such a ‘gentlemanly’ fashion, employing paternalistic
conceptions of correct conduct as a standard against which to judge their gendered training
behaviours, was a common theme amongst the men with whom I trained, and would
frequently emerge as a problem in the context of mixed training. Such a standard was
certainly something which I had held myself to when I first started martial arts, and when I
was eventually confronted with the unnerving prospect of physically hitting a woman, I had
little idea about what exactly I ought to do. I recall the very first time I engaged with mixed-
sex sparring, as a junior member of my kickboxing gym, completely bewildered and hesitant
to the point of inaction. In this first exchange, I did as many inexperienced, supposedly
‘chivalrous’ young men do, keeping my fists to myself while my female opponent knocked
me around the ring.
What was particularly pertinent about my own and other men’s reluctance to hit, however, is
that it was felt as a visceral aversion – a deep-seated discomfort which can be felt at the level
of one’s body. As I became increasingly sensitized to the embodied anxiety that hitting
women posed for such men as myself, I began to see this kind of hesitation surface time and
again amongst others as well. I recorded the following account of a sparring bout at a kung fu
training session, between Nico, a relatively inexperienced newcomer, and Beth, a more
seasoned martial artist:
Nico spars Beth. He can’t get it. She says hit me, he says ok, does nothing. Been like
this for the full two mins. I call time, they stop, he’s not hit her once but she hits him
good maybe five/six times. He bows and won’t make eye contact. Body language said
it all, doesn’t wanna fight, doesn’t wanna be there. Everyone switches partners; he
fights Steve, goes in hard and heavy like always. Must’ve seen this a hundred times
now with these types of lads.
(Field notes, kung fu training, 2009)
Talking with Nico after the session, I questioned him on why he approached sparring Beth
and Steve so differently, and as he explained his actions he described being physically
unable, let alone unwilling, to hit his female partner:
Nico: It’s just not in me, man, to hit a woman, it’s like I know I won’t be able to do it
even if I wanted to, like my hands just won’t do it.
Alex: But your hands hit Steve fine.
Nico: I can do that ‘cause he’s a man. I can’t hit Beth ‘cause she’s a woman, I can’t do
(Field notes, post-training, 2009)
Drawing on this recognition of the deep-seated nature of men’s hesitations, I later asked my
male interviewees to discuss their feelings and experiences of fighting women:
‘I feel really uncomfortable that I could hurt a woman in that way, even if she’s asking
me to do it I feel really uncomfortable, you know, physically uncomfortable with doing
(Interview with Steve, 30)
‘When I was in the young categories… I had to fight a girl (at a tournament) and I just
couldn’t hit her, I just stood there and let her beat me. I was in tears afterwards.’
(Interview with Andy, 30)
That these men should describe feeling physical discomfort, or go so far as to experience an
inability to hit women, is telling. For both Andy and Steve, as with Nico and indeed, myself,
the habituated lessons of gender propriety affected them physically, evoking a sense of
unease at the level of the body which prevented them from engaging in effective training or
competitive sparring with women.
The idea that men should approach sparring differently based on the sex of their partners has
previously been reported by Guérandel and Mennesson (2007), who similarly discussed
men’s gendered sense of honour as structuring their approach to judo practice with female
. While Guérandel and Mennesson’s (2007) research was among relatively
experienced practitioners, finding that men in fact employed a mix of deliberate gendered
strategies as they negotiated their interactions with women, my findings suggest that men
were adhering to an almost involuntary, habituated ideology of masculine honour. However,
concurrent with my own experience, my findings also suggest that this tends to be principally
a concern among younger, less experienced martial artists. As one of my female interviewees
‘It’s always the new guys, the ones who never saw a woman fighting before, they’re the
ones with the problem really... you sort of have to prove yourself to them before they’ll
spar you with any kind of commitment.’
(Interview with Marie, 30)
Locating this problem principally among inexperienced, younger male martial artists can be
explained with recourse to men’s gendered life histories, and the generation of habitus
through the specific social formations of those histories (Bourdieu, 1990), as with my own
example above. For men such as myself, and particularly prior to engaging in mixed-sex
training, understandings of fighting, physicality and embodied sex differences are often
firmly rooted in traditional, patriarchal notions of gender which celebrate male physical
prowess and overlook or trivialize women’s abilities. As a multitude of sports scholars have
attested, women’s physical potential is too often lost among men (as well as many women
Discourses based around male strength and female weakness have also been reported to structure players’
conduct in other mixed-sex sports, such as softball (Wachs 2002) and soccer (Henry & Comeaux 1999).
themselves), owing to the prevalence of essentialist beliefs about the sexual division of
physical power, the trivialising of female athletes in the mass media and the tendency for
women to be prevented from training to develop their strength to begin with (Hargreaves
1994; Heywood and Dworkin 2003; Lenskyj 1986; Theberge 2000). Combining this lack of
appreciation of women’s abilities with the moral imperative of gentlemanly honour, which is
described as being habituated throughout one’s lifetime and can affect men most profoundly,
generates a masculine habitus which emphasizes the necessity of the special treatment of
‘weak’ women. This habitus then surfaces in mixed-sex training through men’s refusal to hit
their female sparring partners.
Whenever I broached the topic with my female interviewees, it quickly became clear that
men’s habitual unwillingness (or indeed, inability) to hit them was a source of significant
frustration for women involved in martial arts, especially, although not exclusively, among
those who had trained for long periods of time or were engaged in competitive participation.
Indeed, many women interpreted men’s excessive ‘holding back’ as unhelpful, patronising
and frustrating. In their own words:
‘I get so annoyed when it gets to the point where they just won’t spar with me properly,
it’s really annoying because they don’t think I’m strong enough just because I’m a girl.’
(Interview with Keeley, 26)
‘It gets so frustrating… Sometimes I just feel like saying, “will you fucking hit me, for
once?” Because otherwise it’s pointless me being here.’
(Interview with Beth, 24)
Women typically described men’s ‘holding back’ as being harmful to their development as
competitive fighters, since for the majority of the women I spoke to, their gyms (including
my own) had so few high-level female members that training with men was a practical
necessity most of the time. According to competitive kickboxer Helen, being hit was central
to her development as a fighter, which was stunted whenever a male partner refused to strike
‘That’s one thing that does annoy me when I spar with guys, that sometimes they’ll
hold back too much, because I need to get used to being hit, and especially when I’m
preparing to fight (competitively)... I just need someone to be able to hit me, that’s the
only way you learn how to keep your defence tight, if you get hit in the face.’
(Interview with Helen, 29)
Kickboxing coach Sara asked how women could even be considered to be martial artists if
they were never physically tested, suggesting that the legitimacy of one’s identity as a fighter
hinges on the ‘authenticity’ of one’s training experiences:
‘Sometimes (holding back) is good if you’re just beginning, but for me, well I’m like,
“come on, hit me”, you know? I can take it, it’ll push me harder, and I’ll learn more
from it. There’s no point in me calling myself a kickboxer if I’ve never been kicked!’
(Interview with Sara, 23)
For Sara and Helen, as with many other women like them, men’s refusal to hit in training
presents a roadblock for the development of their fighting abilities, whilst also threatening to
cheapen and degrade their status as martial artists. And as Beth and Keeley both describe,
men’s hesitation is often experienced as a patronising annoyance, reflecting what McCaughey
(1997, 79) describes as the ‘condescending or embarrassing atmosphere’ of male-centred
mixed training environments. As such, men’s excessive ‘holding back’ could become a
significant problem for women in mixed-sex martial arts.
Kick or be Kicked: How Women Force Men to Reckon with Them on the Mat
In order to address the problems posed by men’s reluctance to hit, the women in my research
invariably employed the most simple of strategies: when men continually held back, the
women pushed forward. The following field journal excerpt describes a sparring bout
between Jenny, a senior gym member, and Gavin, an intermediate member. Evelyn, one of
the junior instructors, is trying to encourage them:
Jenny’s got the upper hand and with everyone watching, Gavin’s stepping it up a bit,
but not enough. Evelyn shouts to Jenny to ‘make him work, kick him in the chops’, and
she catches him neatly with a roundhouse. You can hear the slapping sound of her
instep on his cheek as it echoes around the hall. Classic, everyone gasps, then laughs.
He’s alright but red faced in more ways than one. He steps up the level, can see he
wants revenge. Evelyn applauds the change in pace.
(Field notes, kung fu training, 2010)
In order for Gavin to engage in the sparring session at a satisfactory level for the instructor
Evelyn, it was first necessary for Jenny to shock him into action by showing him her strength
– and his own vulnerability. In a later interview, Evelyn described her own approach to
sparring reluctant men:
‘If (men have) seriously got a problem that they don’t wanna hurt me then well that’s
their problem and not mine, I’m still gonna go at them... I’ve been kicked in the head
and punched and stuff, like anyone. And I think they see that they can do it to me after I
do it to them a few times.’
(Interview with Evelyn, 24)
Recognising that the strategy of physically pushing men into action was the most successful,
Evelyn neatly summarizes the feelings of the majority of experienced female martial artists
with whom I have trained and spoken throughout the course of my research. Their example
highlights the necessity of confronting men’s embodied aversions to hitting at the level of the
body. In this regard, my own experience is also telling, and reflecting upon it highlights how
women’s potential for violent physicality can de-stabilize the habituated ‘chivalry’ of
inexperienced male martial artists. Expanding upon the earlier mention of my first experience
of sparring against a woman, the following passage, written in 2010 for the opening section
of my PhD thesis, demonstrates how I began to change my approach towards mixed-sex
training, and is indicative of the centrality of hitting or, more accurately, being hit, which is
shared in the narratives of other men in similar situations. This account is of a time from
before I formally began researching martial arts, and so is presented as a vignette based on
my best ability to recollect
It was 2005, and I had been training for little under a year. Despite being relatively
inexperienced, I was more or less obliged to accept when, during free practice, one of
the senior girls asked me to demonstrate semi-contact sparring to some of the newer
members. The outcome was to thrust my previous disquiet regarding the presence of
girls in the gym into the forefront of my reckoning of women’s participation in martial
arts. While I had sparred seriously with other senior members before, I hadn’t fought
against any of the women, and had more or less successfully avoided practicing with
girls at my own level by sticking to a small number of male sparring partners. But now
I had no option, and the prospect of fighting her immediately foregrounded the
contradictions inherent in my understanding of gender and martial arts. I remember the
trepidation well: I was stepping into the unknown as I squared up to what suddenly felt
like my first ‘real’ fight with a girl. Typically, I found myself hesitating to attack,
withholding all power and retreating rather than blocking and countering. Our sparring
session eventually ended following a hit to my head which sent me to the floor. She had
caught me on the ear with a roundhouse kick, and while not entirely powerful, it was at
a sufficient angle and pace to snap my head to the side, dazing me and causing me to
fall. I remember feeling stunned as she checked me, knowing that I would be unable to
continue. I had just been ‘knocked out’ by a girl.
While it would be some time before I understood enough about social theory to
adequately analyse the significance of the situation, this forceful, direct and undeniable
demonstration of female power had rocked my assumptions about the sexes and would
remain with me for the rest of my training career. Indeed, it eventually became apparent
that I had experienced first-hand the kind of ‘consciousness-raising’ moment which,
five years later, I would be discussing at length in my PhD thesis. And there was no
better way for me to initially begin this intellectual journey than through a direct,
physical exchange, forcing this transformative knowledge (quite literally) right into my
According to Roth and Basow (2004, 245), it is commonly thought that ‘women are not just
weaker (than men) but are just plain weak’. Yet female martial artists openly defy this
patriarchal ideology with their fists and their feet, and by physically demonstrating their own
As others with similar experiences will no doubt be able to attest, events such as this are not quickly forgotten!
strength they destabilize the grounds upon which men’s paternalism is based, providing new
embodied realities with which men must then contend. When Messner described the
significance of male combat sports in supporting ideologies of masculine superiority, he
commented on the ‘dramatic symbolic proof’ (1988, 200) which male athletes provided of
men’s inherent fighting advantages over women. I would suggest that in similar ways, men
being punched, kicked, thrown and choked by female martial artists goes some way in
providing the kind of ‘dramatic symbolic proof’ needed to challenge this idea and the sexual
hierarchy it supports. A later example from my field notes indicates how my default approach
to physically engaging with women had changed in the years since the above incident:
Freestyle sparring, showing off our other styles. Evelyn’s trying out jujutsu moves.
We’re on the ground and she got me in a triangle hold, squeezed my neck so hard I
thought my eyes would pop out. We reset and she tried it again but I countered, lifted
and slammed her on the mat. Wouldn’t have ever done that a few years ago, but I’m in
a different place now, I do this stuff without even thinking about it. I know she’ll try to
get me back next week and I’m already looking forward to the challenge.
(Field notes, kung fu training, 2010)
Similar transformations take place among other men, as illustrated through the concluding
part of Andy’s tale about his competitive engagements with female opponents. Recalling a
more recent championship fight, this time in a mixed-sex grappling tournament, Andy
described his behaviour as radically different from before:
‘She was so good, if I’d taken the pressure off her for a second she would’ve submitted
me, she was world class… I knew she’s probably one of the best grapplers in the UK, if
not Europe. And she submitted every guy in my category, so I had to go in and batter
her, and I did!’
(Interview with Andy, 30)
Describing his opponent not as a ‘girl’ or a ‘woman’, but rather as a ‘great athlete’, Andy
revealed that his experience had taught him to see his opponent as fellow competitor first and
female second. In doing so, he could take pride in his victory, boasting about ‘battering’ one
of the best grapplers in the UK. This changing definition of the female sparring partner is
echoed by Jack, a senior instructor in kung fu, as he recalled the events of his earlier training
‘Because of the context that we were in, doing martial arts, I just didn’t see it as hitting
a girl, you see it as hitting another martial artist... Once I’d learned about (women’s)
abilities it was different. I fought against a girl I knew and it didn’t make any difference
to me personally that she was female because I knew what she was capable of. If I
didn’t take her seriously, treat her the same, she’d kick me in the head, she’d hurt me…
(This experience) forces you to look at women differently.’
(Interview with Jack, 34)
Ultimately then, treating women as ‘the same’ as male opponents would result from men’s
exposure to the abilities of female training partners and competitors, and through a concurrent
realization that ‘even if women are not as strong as men in absolute terms, they can still be
formidable opponents’ (Roth and Basow 2004, 254). A signal moment in the ‘subversive’
value of mixed-sex sport, this replacement of the primary indentifying label of ‘female’ with
that of ‘martial artist’ signifies the disassociation of the exclusive links between masculinity,
men and fighting prowess, showing that men are beginning to see women as potential
physical equals in the context of physical combat (McDonagh and Pappano 2008). Hitting
women follows from this, and in light of these changing subjectivities and re-workings of
gender propriety, it takes on a completely different set of meanings to those implied by male
chivalry and paternalism. Hitting women, then, becomes the physical expression of men’s re-
worked gender habitus, forged through the shared histories of men and women learning how
to fight together, and therein learning to engage with one another outside of the bounds of
typical, patriarchal gender norms.
Concluding Thoughts: Theorising Habitus, Subversion and Reflexivity in Martial Arts
Given these examples, I would suggest that it is principally through the process of ‘up-close’
exposure to the abilities of female fighters that I, along with many of the men I have trained
among and spoken to, have come to ‘un-learn’ the deeply ingrained lessons of masculine
chivalry and come to practice gender differently in this respect. As female martial artists
present their strength, toughness and fighting skills to men in direct and undeniable fashion,
the essentialist, patriarchal logic at the root of this particular problem is challenged as men
are simultaneously pressed to take action outside of the discursive bounds it once set them in.
This ultimately improves women’s chances to become ever tougher and more skilful martial
artists through expanding their training opportunities among more willing male partners,
whilst simultaneously opening up spaces within which men and women can better learn about
the many shared potentials of one another’s bodies, rather than remaining fixated on typical,
socially-constructed, binary and hierarchal differences (Halberstam 1998).
In theorising such a change, the fact that this lesson must be learned physically, and not just
visually or discursively, highlights the usefulness of the concept of habitus for making sense
of the depth at which inequitable gender ideology is often held. As Wacquant deftly puts it,
the habitus is ‘a social competency that is an embodied competency, transmitted through a
silent pedagogy of organisms in action’ (2011, 5). This ‘silent pedagogy’ may at once also be
a vocal one, yet the deep mechanisms through which it does its most effective work lie in the
unwritten, unspoken logics taught to acting subjects as they move through their socially
structured lives (Bourdieu 1990), ultimately becoming written into their very bodies.
Particularly, as they rehearse dominant codes of prevailing gender logic, the patriarchal
discourses of masculine ‘superiority’ and feminine ‘weakness’ become embodied, being
normalized and ‘naturalized’ through the disciplined, repeated bodily performances of their
everyday lives, as suggested by Butler (1990). Bourdieu, writing of the paradoxical character
of such ‘naturalized’ gender, suggested that to challenge this sexual inequity in its
normalized, naturalized state, it would be necessary to ‘(dismantle) the processes responsible
for this transformation of history into nature, of cultural arbitrariness into the natural’ (2001,
2, original emphasis). That is to say that the subversion of gender and of patriarchy in
particular requires finding ways for individuals to reflexively recognize the socially
constructed nature of their ‘sexually characterized habitus’ (2001, 3), revealing the cultural –
and not ‘natural’ – roots of sex difference more broadly.
To express these ideas in more explicitly feminist terms, Bourdieu’s position here is
remarkably similar to Butler’s (1990) post-structural feminist analysis, wherein the
subversion of the patriarchal system of gender is a key concern. For Butler, this subversion is
said to occur when individuals bend existing codes of propriety within the discursive spaces
available to them, exposing the faulty logic of essentialism supporting the ideologies which
otherwise structure ‘normal’ gendered categories. This principally occurs when radical, new
performances de-stabilize existing gender codes through their inherent shock value, whilst
simultaneously revealing the constructed character of the default categories which are
otherwise assumed to occur naturally. Central to this strategy for subversion is the
‘The strange, the incoherent, that which falls ‘outside’, gives us a way of understanding
the taken-for-granted world of sexual categorization as a constructed one, indeed, as
one that might well be constructed differently.’ (Butler 1990, 149)
I would certainly argue that the normalization of a practice which values men hitting women
as a way to substantiate greater sexual equity ‘falls outside’ of this taken-for-granted world,
making mixed-sex training a powerful arena for contesting the naturalization of hierarchal
sex difference and concurrently producing different sexually characterized habitus (Bourdieu
2001). The pedagogical outcomes of such ‘strange’ and ‘incoherent’ gendered encounters,
drawn from perhaps the ‘dramatic symbolic proof’ (Messner 1988, 200) of women’s
otherwise hidden combative abilities, are what drive (specifically male) martial artists to a
point where they must reconsider and challenge their own previous patterns of behaviour.
That is to say, it requires them to develop a certain degree of reflexivity about their
ideological understanding of the world and of their gendered selves (Bourdieu 2001). The
Bourdieusian reading of habitus offered by Wacquant above similarly leaves open the door
for flexibility and change in our gendered selves, being a set of ‘acquired dispositions’ (2011,
5, original emphasis) which a person picks up as they move through their life, and is thus
inherently open to alteration as their life course changes direction. More specifically, ‘the
socially constituted conative and cognitive structures that make up habitus are malleable and
transmissible because they result from pedagogical work’ (2011, 6, original emphasis), the
likes of which clearly takes place in mixed-sex sparring.
Commenting on such pedagogical work, male and female martial artists alike stressed the
transformative nature of the lessons of sparring and hinted at the wider significance which
they held for challenging conceptions of gender difference and encouraging reflexive
examination of their own attitudes, past and present. When linking men’s discovery of
women’s physical potential with wider social patterns of gender relations, one of my female
interviewees stated that:
‘I think it’s quite important to do this as a mixed group, because one of the things it
does do is it helps develop a certain amount of respect between men and women, and
what men’s and women’s bodies can do... And so (the men) hopefully will start to
realize that women aren’t just the weaker sex, we can hold our own, and that’s quite
(Interview with Beth, 24)
Speaking personally, I can only reaffirm this statement, and suggest that my interest in
researching this phenomenon came following such a reflexive turn, brought on via the
embodied pedagogy of mixed-sex hitting. Of course, my own personal journey in this regard
has clearly been aided by the theoretical insights gathered through an education in sociology,
but this should not downplay the importance of the physical in shaping my subjectivity. Even
without the help of such philosophical frameworks, men and women training at martial arts
are becoming physically familiar with the abilities of either sex, coming to understand the
shared potential for developing martial competencies that lie within both male and female
bodies. The discourses which typically circulate within martial arts subcultures explain the
body’s developing aptitude for combat as being principally the product of training, rather
than participants’ (sexed) natures, and by drawing on these explanations, alternative gendered
discourses can arise which in turn help to shape the bodies of those involved. As one
consequence of this, we can see the emergence of a re-worked habitus among men who have
particularly profound experiences of training alongside women in martial arts. Whilst there
are other ways in which the phenomenon of mixed-sex training can instigate ‘subversive’
gender behaviour (including, for instance, the emergence of ‘female masculinities’
(Halberstam 1998) and female martial artists’ negotiation, retention, and reinvention of both
these and traditionally ‘feminine’ styles (e.g. De Welde 2003)), I would suggest that these
changes in men’s habitus provide a compelling point of departure for scholars interested in
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