BOOBS! A lighthearted discourse on a serious issue in martial arts
If you and I have ever sat down for a chat, you know that the last thing I usually care to do is bring up my ladyparts. Being a professional and a fighter is difficult enough without anyone’s calling attention to the fact that you’re “different”–which even in this age is unfortunately the case. But tonight I’m throwing away my usual caution to discuss a weakness in the martial arts community of which I’ve only recently become fully aware.
I live in Italy now, and I’ll be honest–I don’t actually know if the culture here is to blame for this strange form of discrimination. But I will say that from my experience the gender binary here is massively more concrete than even that of my native (and ultra-conservative) Arkansas. Men do things one way, and women another. In the week we spent at circus school last December, for instance, regardless of strength and flexibility test scores we were separated by sex and those bearing vaginas were given less difficult workout and technique regimens than those with penises. Don’t tell my coach, but I had to secure a spy on the boys’ team so that I could do their workouts in secret after hours. I’ve also got plans to vote and wear pants. But keep it on the D.L.
But when it comes to martial arts, I guess I always saw some things as sacred. I was greatly blessed to have spent my childhood under the discipline of a sensei who saw past my exterior and spent enormous amounts of time and energy cultivating my skills–not as a female martial artist, but as a fighter and showman. And sure, since he and I parted ways I’ve seen my share of discrimination. Women who aren’t given the opportunity to fight men, girls required to wear limiting chest protection, girls not allowed to learn techniques because their instructors refuse to practice full-out with them. And I’d start on “women’s self defense,” but after a few hours you and I would both want to shoot something.
When I first started looking for a school here, I did find the usual annoyances mentioned above. I chuckle to remember my first “outing” myself as a martial artist at a stage combat workshop in Britain, which I admittedly did out of frustration because we were doing takedowns and the muscle-clad bloke with the torn-off sleeves wouldn’t secure a wrist lock on me because, “I just want to be careful with you.” When I casually informed him that after nineteen years in martial arts I’d rather no one be careful with me but just DO THE DAMN TECHNIQUE, his reply made my jaw drop to the floor like a cartoon. ”Well yeah, but…have you ever fought a man?”
Since that interaction I’ve found that a lot of women in the European martial arts world really don’t fight men. Which confounds me on a personal level because many women study martial arts to defend themselves from men. It’s kind of the point. So his question really was innocent enough. But why?
The first martial arts school in my town that I attended was a Shotokan school. One of the styles I have experience in as a teacher is Okinawan Kempo, and having fought several Shotokan guys I have always admired their fire and strength. Wouldn’t mind gettin’ me some of that knowledge. While watching their children’s class I was asked to stand and teach my version of Pinan Sandan (their Heian Sandan) so that they could see how similar the two are. I was ecstatic, and the kids were great. But when it came time for my “free trial” adult class, after being told to just do the forms the way I know them and being refused when I asked to learn their style, it came time for kumite. It wasn’t freestyle sparring, and I was happy for that. Instead the instructor gave us a complicated drill and my male partner and I were told to spend some time figuring out how the drill worked for our bodies. Of course there were takedowns, and of course my companion refused to do anything that might break my porcelain self, but I could deal with that. That’s life in martial arts if you present as feminine. But what made me leave the school forever was what happened next. Two or three tries in, my partner and I were still figuring out how to make the combination work. So instead of helping us along, he separated us, taught the boy alone, and then informed me that “you’re a woman and are more likely to get raped than get in a fight, so you should focus on things that are easy for you to do like groin kicks and strikes to sensitive areas.” And that was the last time I saw them.
Now, I tell you all that to tell you this. I’ve found an amazing Kungfu school with a teacher I would gladly go into battle for. The man is a genius, and his fairness and patience in class are downright mindblowing. But I’m three weeks into classes now, and I’m starting to notice a disturbing trend.
First it was just a minor annoyance, in the beginner class. I was exclusively being paired with women, and the women in that class invariably showed up late, were afraid of their own weapons, got bored of drills easily and stopped working when they’d had enough, and attempted at every turn to pull me into gossip and man-hating even in the middle of class. Let it be recorded that I never said men were entirely responsible for discrimination against women. But it did mean that I had to fight for partners who wanted to work hard and challenge me as much as I challenged them. I want to go into a story from last week when a woman who refused to cut her fingernails put me in a wristlock during drills and sliced my finger open, but it’s not so relevant. Buy me tea and we’ll talk sometime.
But discrimination–with the best intentions–became dangerous when my first male partner in the beginner class punched me in the throat during Wing Chun drills because he was trying to avoid punching me in the chest. I’ve since been promoted to the advanced class and the same thing happens with blue sashes. The only person who will punch my pectoral muscles (where it hurts the least) is our maestro. The one other girl in our class punches me constantly in my shoulder joint in front of my deltoid, and I don’t know what that’s about but it feels better than my clavicle and certainly better than my trachea. But the men in the class, in an effort to avoid punching my sensitive, feminine breasts, have even gone so far as to punch me in the face because of this strange stigma that hitting a female martial artists in the chest is wrong.
Here’s the kicker. And again I’ll say there’s no doubt in my mind that our maestro has the best intentions for all of his students. But when Giulia (a blue sash) and I were running drills today he corrected her, saying, “and then you want to punch her here [point at sternum]. Or a little higher because she’s female.” It was an instruction! These boys have been taught to do this! It’s not only geographical/cultural!
Now that the fire alarms in my brain have quieted I still want to write this article, not because I’m angry with the way things are but because I am genuinely worried about the women in my field. Can they handle themselves? Of course they can. Can they survive an undefended strike to the windpipe during a drill? I don’t really want to find out.
So here are some facts and opinions from my experience in martial arts, for what it’s worth. I have been punched square in the breasts all of my life. It’s part of fighting, and many schools believe that experiencing pain in a controlled environment is a healthy way to train for experiencing the same pain on the street. It’s like police getting pepper-sprayed in training. You just have to deal with it because knowing how to handle the situation might save your life. Also, there’s a level of desensitization. Which is great for those of us who fight on a regular basis. When I step into the ring I don’t really want to be fretting over what might happen if my opponent punches the most obvious and easy target on my body.
Scientifically (someone please tell me if my research has overlooked something) there is no proof whatsoever that impact to the breasts can cause cancer. My mother, bless her heart, told me that when I was twelve to get me to stop fighting. I looked it up then, I’ve looked it up today, and nothing has changed. It might also be worth mentioning that I never wore chest protection. There are some schools that require male and female combatants to wear chest protection, and I won’t disrespect the decision. But it’s my personal preference to fight in situations that are as realistic as safely possible. Plus those chest protectors limit movement so extremely that one has to relearn to fight without them, putting him or her in choppy waters when it comes to tournament or real-life scenarios.
Here’s a breast:
That’s about as sexy as this post gets. Sorry, readers. But look at all of that muscle and fat. Punching us in the sternum or our upper pectorals isn’t going to do anything if we’re trained to fight. And if you manage to punch us square in the nipple, though I’d say you need to spend more time on targeting training the fact is it just doesn’t hurt that much. Especially if the woman you’re fighting is wearing a well-fitting sports bra as any athlete should. But to compare, let’s see what’s going on inside the throat:
Yeesh. Your opponent’s ability to breathe, to swallow food, and to verbally communicate. That sucks. A lot. You’re doing no one a favour by straying up there with a full-contact punch during drills.
Am I saying to punch women in the breasts? Of course not. While not the same as kicking a man in the testicles (I don’t know why people keep saying that but ladies, the lads have it worse and we’ll have to accept that), it’s not pleasant and they’re such easy targets that it’s not worth wasting time targeting them. But when you have a drill that involves strikes to the chest, there are strong muscles and heavily supported bone that feel exactly like that of male fighters to protect us from impact. And if you are still learning specificity and are afraid that you will stray too far south and land on our jiggly bits, remind yourself that every one of us would rather have a bruised breast than a collapsed windpipe. Don’t let your fear force you to overcompensate and make a severely damaging mistake. And if it’s just too much despite all this information, then please inform your instructor that you are uncomfortable and sit this one out until you do feel prepared. Because we are fighters. Not female fighters. Not dangerous vajay-jays or battling bazongas. We fight because we love the art. We fight because we want to survive. Some of us are spiritual, others practical, others artistic. Most are a mix of all of these. But when I fight, I can tell you in all earnestness that the last thing on my mind is my sex. I’d appreciate the same on the other side.