Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Women's Self-Defense: The only prerogative for fighting?

Because fighting sure looks different than this

Last night, one of my fighters asked me if I had ever considered teaching a women's self-defense course. This ignited a discussion about the obvious differences between fighting and self-defense, but also opened a dialogue about how female fighters are delineated by historical and social preoccupations with the female body.
I remembered a paper I wrote several years ago, while a mere undergraduate at F.S.U. about female fighters and and the prerogatives of some media outlets to represent women who train and compete in combat sports as doing so primarily to prevent themselves from being raped.

It should go without saying (but this is the internet and some subjects can be volatile) that I believe self-defense is important for many women.  But training to fight is enormously different than training for self-defense.

Excerpt from a larger paper on the 3rd wave feminism and the subjectivity of the female body

As a practitioner of martial arts, an amateur grappler and MMA fighter, I have felt the repercussions of a gendered discourse of fighting. In an interview with the FSView, Florida State University’s student newspaper, I revealed that I was training submission wrestling and kickboxing for an upcoming competition. However, this was ignored by the paper and I was construed merely as a small girl who trained primarily with her fiancé in order to learn to protect herself. After the paper interviewed several of the men at my gym, I was interviewed solely so I could comment on the importance of women’s self-defense, which I did not and do not practice. For the FSView, a woman training martial arts in order to compete was incongruent with the idea that women should only be aggressive to protect themselves from rape. Thus, I decided to write this paper because I am slightly pissed about the way that I am defined by certain individuals/the FSView as both a woman and a fighter.

The women’s self-defense movement is concerned with protecting women’s bodies from physical harm and has become increasingly popular over the past twenty years or so. The connection between feminism and the self-defense movement stems from feminist goals of freedom for women from oppression and objectification of the body. In “The Fighting Spirit:  Women’s Self-Defense Training and the Discourse of Sexed Embodiment,"  Martha McCaughey states, “In feminist discourse, the body is often construed as the object of patriarchal violence (actual or symbolic), and violence has been construed variously as oppressive, diminishing, inappropriate, and masculinist” (1998, 277). Many feminists find that self-defense is the physical practice of a philosophical and ethical prerogative to protect women from violence and harm. McCaughey states that self-defense is more than “a set of fighting tactics. Self-defense transforms what it means to have a female body” (1998, 279). She defines the female body as one that is considered passive and thus, under attack by men who are gendered aggressive.

McCaughey claims that gendered perceptions of men as aggressive make it seem inevitable for men to be violent and that their sexual assault of women is a biological consequence of aggressiveness. She believes that self-defense is important because it alters the ways that women are seen as victims and makes them active in defending themselves. The language that McCaughey and other self-defense advocates discuss the training of women in self-defense classes is based on the sex/gender system. Women are gendered to be passive; self-defense courses train them to be aggressive. McCaughey claims, “when women train to fight back, they defy gender norms. It’s manly, but not womanly, to protect and fight” (1997, 7). This assertion rests on the belief that women should train to fight back against male aggression, but makes no concessions for the profession fighter. .

While self-defense courses claim to disrupt rape culture; they are still predicated on the idea that women must fight to protect themselves from men. This supposes, however, that a woman who does train to fight must be training to prevent their own rape. By claiming that women should train to protect themselves, it makes it difficult for women (not necessarily professionals) to train martial arts and not be considered a ‘self-defenser’. When people discover that you train a martial art and/or fight competitively, many women, myself included, have been asked if we can beat up any guy who messes with us. This, however, has nothing to do with competing or even training for a fighter. What this question does is set up a situation where a woman should be able to fight any man with her knowledge…otherwise what is the point? Butler would claim that these questions are an attempt of an oppressive patriachical discourse to not allow for women to resignify what it means to have a woman’s body. By not allowing women to train a martial art without it being for self-defense purposes, there can be no changes in language, no resignification can occur.

While I certainly believe that self-defense is a great tool for everyday women and can thus, be a part of a resignify practice of culture meaning, any type of movement from women can also be used by patriarchy to control them. Fighters have been able to redefine the meaning of their feminine body’s through everyday negotiations. However, hegemony will not allow for all women in involve themselves in these resignifications. Judith Butler would also not allow for a large culture movement, but she does give women the ability to remain fluid within discourse through repetitions and reiterations. In her book, What is a Woman, Toril Moi argues that it is their body’s situation that allows for women to create new meanings and relationships with their material body. Moi claims, “Just as the world constantly makes me, I constantly make myself the woman I am” (74). Her view of change allows for a more transcendental subject who can achieve freedom from the idealized feminine body.

Works Cited:

McCaughey, Martha. Real Knockouts: The Physical Feminism of Women’s Self-
Defense. New York: New York University Press, 1997.

McCaughey, Martha. “The Fighting Spirit: Women’s Self-Defense Training and the
Discourse of Sexed Embodiment”. Gender and Society 12.3 (1998): 277-300.
JSTOR. 14 April 2007. <http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0891-2432%28

Moi, Toril. What is a Woman? Oxford University Press: Oxford and New York, 1999.

Thanks to Slidey for reposting this article at Reddit, where an interesting dialogue has begun regarding the difference between training and self-defense. 


I just want to reiterate that I am by no means opposed to anyone, male or female, learning and training techniques for self-protection.  I've trained Kali for many years and think that is one of the best methodologies for learning both defensive and offensive strategies for self-preservation.  My issue, as Slidey and several others pointed out, is the insistence on gendering fighting as male.  A client at the gym told me last night (he's a police officer), that most reports on people who encountered and escaped an attack are described as men "fighting off" attackers while women "survive an attack."  An interesting lexical distinction.



slideyfoot said...

Cool! I'd love to see the whole thing. :)

Also, did you really get away with writing "pissed" in an academic paper? ;)

L.A. said...

Thanks Slidey...I am going to do some heavy revising and try to present it at a conference next year.

That first paragraph, which included in the word 'pissed,' was actually part of a separate note that I sent to my professor, because I thought she would be interested. So no, although I was just a kid, I did not used that word in the actual paper ;)

AardvarkArmorer said...

Your post has started a nice discussion over on reddit http://www.reddit.com/r/bjj/comments/lphwx/self_defence_the_only_reason_women_train_hmm/

Bianca Gordon said...

Hey L.A.! It's Bianca... :D

I thought your paper was really interesting and informative. This is kind of a side note, but I think it kinda fits on the topic of female representation in boxing and the gendering of the sport..

I went into the Tattered Cover the other day and I wanted to find a magazine that was informative and motivational about boxing.. MMA... anything around that. The ONE magazine I found had interviews and pictures of guys who are training and doing MMA...
and then the representation of women were pictures of them in lingerie as objects for the training males to... stare at?

Far from giving a female boxer (interested in training and not just self-defense) anything to read, feel motivated, or intrigued by. And it made me feel like I should be doing some self-defense with all the objectification going on! I hope that in the future MMA media as well can be more inclusive of women who want to train, as opposed to the women in MMA media right now who are fragile, naked, sex objects.

slideyfoot said...

"I hope that in the future MMA media as well can be more inclusive of women who want to train, as opposed to the women in MMA media right now who are fragile, naked, sex objects."

Absolutely. I think this is a huge problem in combat sports at the moment, reflecting a wider problem in the media as a whole. Woman are still being pigeon holed into a very limited selection of gender stereotypes: in the still largely sexist world of MMA advertising, woman = meat to be drooled over.

Great post on the topic (from a BJJ perspective) by Meg, here. The issue has popped up again recently, due to Manto's ill-advised approach to advertising, discussed here and here.

slideyfoot said...

Oops, broken link: should be this:


L.A. Jennings said...

Thanks Bianca! I agree with you completely on the problematic nature of sexist advertising in this industry. When I interviewed MMA fighter Courtney last week, she made the very intelligent comment that the sport of WMMA has a long way to go, but that it will get there eventually. We have to change the conversation that places value on women based on their adherence to constructed feminine social practices. Notice that the female fighters who get the most attention are more often lauded for their beauty than their performance in the ring. Gina Carano made a huge impact on the world outside of WMMA because she is beautiful and happens to be a good fighter. Women are still judged on their appearance more so than their skill in any medium. It can also go the other way, where women are intelligent/successful/talented despite their beauty, as though a woman can either be smart or athletic or beautiful, but rarely in combination. I think it is impossible for us to not judge women based on their appearance, at some level, because it has been part of social convention for thousands of years. But perhaps we can begin to find ways to break the stereotypes and open new ways to talk about women and fighting.

Jiu Jiu said...

It's funny - I always had this extremely negative reaction to "self-defense". What I mean is - there was one day that my first coach started talking about how to defend yourself on the street and he started talking about bar fights. Honestly I wanted to walk out. My reasoning - wtf - I'm not going to be getting in a bar fight!

Then some friends brought up this idea of self defense, and interestingly enough - I got very self-defensive about that. I absolutely do not want to learn BJJ for self defense. I want to learn it to be better at BJJ.

I think that perhaps that emotional trigger stemmed from what you were talking about - I am doing BJJ because I LOVE BJJ, not because I'm concerned about being a victim. I never want it to ever be thought that I step in that gym day to day because of any other reason than I want to get better at BJJ and learn this skill better (okay, and to keep fit).

Do I think that BJJ can give a woman an edge over a non-trained woman if she's attacked? Sure. But don't brand me as a self-defense gal - brand me as a BJJ gal.

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