This piece could have also been called: “Punching women respectfully; a guide” or, “How to be a douchebag by not hitting girls.”
I’ll frame this a little first.
I am writing this as a man, drawing on two perspectives that are largely and unfairly male-dominated. The first is martial arts. The second is security work. Both of these experiences have led me to believe that not only is the behavior described below dangerous, but it is also bad for women. This piece is largely addressed to men from a male perspective. As with any subject, I cannot speak for the female experience beyond what has been related to me by women and what I have observed in over ten years in the fighting arts. I am also not going to attempt to speak on behalf of the female experience, because that in itself is often part of the problem.
The Myth that “REAL MEN”™ should “Never Hit A Girl”
Men are trained to never hit a woman. Anyone who has had a violent encounter with a woman either gets over this quickly, or learns in a rather painful way that this belief will offer you no protection against the women who have no particular qualms about hitting you. If a person is unlucky, the freeze caused by this moral quandary could potentially lead to serious injury, or death. Deciding now that you actually would hit a woman in self defence (i.e. the exact circumstance in which you would hit a man, I hope) could potentially save your life. The most serious violent encounters I had as a bouncer were with women, although luckily none ended too badly. I don’t say this to argue that women are somehow more violent — just that an encounter with a woman can be as dangerous as one with a man because frankly, what tends to make people good fighters (or even good murderers) aren’t things that are affected by gender.
The ever-present “never hit a girl” belief creates a dangerous environment for women as well. The kind of people who are most dangerous to women (statistically speaking, those people are generally also men, let’s not pretend otherwise) don’t follow society’s rules at all. When other men propagate this belief, it goes hand in hand with some selfish, egocentric and dangerous presumption that women shouldn’t defend themselves because REAL MEN™ don’t hit women and REAL MEN™ will protect them — therefore, a man will never hit a woman. Which holds true, right up until the point that it doesn’t and many people believe in this principle, right up to the point that they are shown how wrong it is. This is, of course, an issue that influences society on a much broader scope beyond the manner in which women are treated in martial arts, but it is certainly a problem that I have seen manifest itself in many different fighting schools.
I should note that the aim of this piece is not to shift the focus toward the other extreme and move into the realm of victim-blaming by stating that a victim is ultimately responsible to defend themselves against an assailant. That, in my mind, is every bit as destructive as telling women that they should not have to learn to defend themselves at all. However, if a woman wishes to learn to defend herself, or wants to practice a martial art for any reason (because the benefits extend far beyond simply fighting, and I personally believe self-defence is not the primary benefit), then perhaps as men we can do something to make that easier for them by changing how we think about martial arts. In any assault, the assailant holds all blame based simply on being the assailant. That’s not up for debate.
A Contract Between Training Partners: Respect, and Mutual Growth
In nearly all fighting disciplines we shake hands, touch gloves, or simply salute each other before we fight. This is not simply a mark of respect, it’s a pledge. You are agreeing as pair of people usually bound by social conventions to put these hard-wired social norms aside and for the duration of your training or practice agree to follow a different set of rules. In boxing, you do things that would be unacceptable in day-to-day life that will be applauded by the onlookers. In Academie Duello we follow a set of sparring conventions that are geared around two things: the first is creating an accurate historical context, and the second is having a set of rules that allow both people to determine a safe and effective way of practicing. At the end of sparring you salute this way again and shake hands — this signals that the conventions have been switched back on, and perhaps you should stop trying to stab/punch/throw each other when around people who are either not prepared or do not understand the context.
So what does this mean? First off, if you respect your opponent, you will put aside all social conventions that will inhibit your actions, and therefore their training. This means that you explicitly promise to do things that are unacceptable outside of the training floor. Furthermore, thanks to the fact no one can read minds, this is your own responsibility. You need to seek out the mental blocks that may be affecting what you do and put them aside so that you can both get better. Secondly, you need to include the other party in your decision-making process. When you decide to go easy on someone when they didn’t indicate that this was what they wanted to do, you are betraying that agreement that I talked about earlier. Equally, when you let ego, stress or simply a lack of mindfulness cause you to go too hard, you are also breaking that agreement. When you neglect to communicate about desired drilling speed and power, you are not just being a bad training partner, you are being a bad person by not being earnest with your actions. This includes conventions regarding gender. You are responsible for getting over your own inhibitions. I have seen men in martial arts fall into both categories — either going to hard or too soft on female partners — and I’ve seen a lot of women quit for both reasons. (On a side note, I’ve also seen a lot of men quit for the same reason, when the women that they treated differently ended up being better than them and they could not reconcile this with their world view. Their world view being garbage.)
So what can we (as men) do to be better training partners for our female counterparts in HEMA?
The point I’m trying to get at here is that if you want to be a good partner, examine the baggage you are bringing with you and how that informs how you act. It’s okay to discover you are a little (or a lot) prejudiced, and work to change that over time. It’s also okay to acknowledge that right now, you are not able to fully engage within the context of your art. The takeaway here should be that you are responsible for yourself, for fully committing where appropriate, and for accepting that you are a part of someone else’s training — not just your own.
This means that at some point, someone is going to want to spar with you at full commitment, full speed, and with the only rules being about not permanently breaking the person across from you. At that point you may have to punch a woman in the face to stop her from doing the same to you. You owe it to her to do so, so that she can become better, and that you can become better as well through the process. If that makes you uncomfortable at this point then that’s great — maybe you should be uncomfortable with the thought of punching another human being in the face — but that doesn’t mean it has to make you a bad training partner. However, if you are being a poor training partner for these reasons, then you have a responsibility as a martial artist to work on that.
On a personal note, I don’t like violence. I don’t think anyone should hit anyone outside of training, regardless of gender. However, this piece was inspired by two things. The first was a sister piece published last week by Sylvie La Riviere which addressed a similar issue in fight choreography that I think influences our view of violence towards women today. The second was a conversation with an instructor from another school in which she related how respected she felt as a fighter when a male instructor of considerably more experience did not stop hitting her when she was on the ground as she had not yet submitted at that stage of their sparring session. These interactions, among others, have been the impetus behind the point that I set out to make today. It is not the job of a female training partner to earn your respect; it is your job to ensure that your idea of respect is actually respectful.
When I first wrote this piece, I sent it to Sylvie to read to see if what I was saying was in some way reflected in her experiences or if I was just grasping at straws. She pointed out that the one thing I had missed was the tendency of certain men to take it onto themselves to “teach” women. Which is great, except for the fact that often the woman does not need to be taught, nor does she want to be. This is not related to the issue of hitting women, but is worth addressing all the same as it contributes to an environment that is related and came up in the conversation around this subject. I have a rule with regards to helping people in the gym that applies here. If I see a continuous mistake being made and it is something I can easily correct, I will approach the person (not necessarily female) and ask if they want help. If they say no, I leave it. If they say yes, I will offer the correction, with an idea of where they can get further information from a qualified source in future that is not me so that the person can develop on their own. The only time I will intervene without asking permission is if I genuinely think the person may injure themselves, and even then, it’s only ever a suggestion.