Monday, 18 February 2013

I'm a woman, not a small man!

Do you think that martial arts are institutionally sexist? I'm not saying that they are or that they’re not, I'm just asking the question.

I sometimes feel like a square peg in a round hole when it comes to my training and the harder I think about this the squarer becomes the peg and the rounder becomes the hole! If I don’t think about it then I fit in perfectly well in my club and don’t perceive there to be any problem at all.

Have I confused you yet? The problem is when I just concentrate on learning the art of karate (or jujitsu or kobudo as I have in the past) then it all seems very relevant to me and I enjoy learning it all. BUT when I think about my own personal self-defence needs I realise that a lot of what I learn is not terribly relevant to women, or is, at least, not presented in a way that is relevant to women.

The self-defence aspect of martial arts is not sexist but it is male-centric, i.e. it generally revolves around the needs of men and the self-defence scenarios that they may encounter. Women are being trained to fight like men. This is not surprising since martial arts were developed by men to teach men to fight other men. Yes, I know Wing Chun was allegedly developed by a woman but it still mainly teaches its practitioners to fight like men.

I suspect most instructors don’t think about it like this – they treat all their student’s the same (so in that sense it is not sexist) but they just treat everyone like a man – women are trained as if they are just small men.

Lots of people tell me that strength is not important to make a technique work and that most techniques can be adjusted slightly to help small people make them work on big people. I don’t doubt this (well sometimes I do) – I have witnessed small (but stocky) women throwing much bigger partners - in the artificial environment of the dojo. However would you ever advise a woman to move in for a hip throw in a real situation in the street? Isn't it expecting a lot for a woman to execute this successfully? Doesn't she put herself at greater risk moving into position for such a throw?

Perhaps we shouldn't ask can this technique be altered so that a woman can do it but rather should she be taught this technique at all? Is there something more appropriate to teach her?

Is there any danger in teaching women to defend themselves like men, particularly if they don’t even realise that is what they are doing? After all, women will not be attacked like men. Men attack women differently to the way they attack other men.  

Men will often find themselves attacked in a ‘monkey brain’ scenario – they get into an argument, tempers rise, they square up to each other, a cascade of hormones is released and a fight kicks off – others may join in and the ‘multiple attacker’ scenario ensues, often in public (a bar, football ground or just in the street). The attacker(s) reigns lots of punches and possibly kicks at the defender who defends his head until he can get some sort of counter-attack in. The defender may have been verbally ‘provoked’ into the altercation but he will not have been ‘groomed’. Women don’t generally face this type of scenario.

Women face a more ‘predator-prey’ situation. There may or may not be a period of ‘grooming’ before hand, e.g. ‘chatting up’ in the pub to gain trust, followed by being separated from friends to isolate them. The attack will then happen privately away from public view, usually by being grabbed first and verbally threatened with violence if they scream. A woman may be taken to another place to be raped/murdered. Or the isolation and violence may occur in her own home by her own partner. These are worse case scenarios for most women but the ones they fear most.

Of course men and women can face similar attacks too – road rage/trolley rage attackers, car park assaults/car thefts, random street attacks by unsupervised psychotic patients etc so I’m not saying there’s no overlap at all, there clearly is but there are also many differences.

Adding to all this, women are also psychologically different to men. They differ in their experiences of violence growing up (girls tend to avoid playground fights and are more cooperative and less competitive with each other) which affects their perception of an attack and their initial response to it (women can be over-trusting of strangers but experience greater levels of paralysing fear).

The physical (generally smaller, weaker stature) and mental (more trusting but more easily frightened by real violence) differences of women compared to men make some self-defence techniques less suitable for women. For example:

·         Punching. Most women have small fists compared to most men. However hard they can hit for their size they are unlikely to inflict any damage on an adrenaline fuelled attacker, they are more likely to hurt themselves. Women are better to train with open hand techniques striking soft (vital point) targets of the body and head.

·         Throwing. Like I said before – just because they can doesn't mean they should. Moving towards an attacker to position for a throw makes a woman very vulnerable to being grabbed and controlled.

·         Locks. These can be notoriously difficult to apply in a ‘fight’ situation anyway and doubly so for small female hands against the adrenaline fuelled large, strong limbs of an attacker.

·         Multiple attacker training. Apart from the very rare situation of ‘gang’ rape (more common in war zones where it is used as a weapon, but I’m not talking about war) women don’t face multiple attack scenarios so it is better to focus more on predator-prey situations.

There is a mismatch when women, training in male-centric environments, are trained to defend themselves like men when they will be attacked like women. There is a risk that they will be trained in in-effective strategies for the situations they face.

Do you agree?

Remember - I'm a woman, not a small man! (I might have this put on a t-shirt!)

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Rick Matz said...

When I used to train in aikido, there were two women black belts who stand out in my memory.
The first was a little taller than 5' and worked in a mental hospital. When sometimes violent patients were transferred in, she would be among the team that would welcome them. She handled the situation and herself on an almost daily basis.

Another was a little shorter than 5'. While she was training, she was a full time student and a waitress in a bar that wasn't in the best of neighborhoods. Once day getting off shift, a couple of drunken customers tried to assault her in the parking lot.

She busted them both up.

Noah said...

I agree with the fact that women face different self defense situations than men, and I believe that their training should reflect that. That said, the techniques don't care what gender you are--a good technique done properly is a good technique, regardless of your gender. Size, strength and speed can certainly play a role, of course, but I think the element of surprise when a woman fights back effectively can help to offset that. In other words, I think that many of the techniques that male karateka learn and practice can be used just as well by their female counterparts, so long as the context in which they are learned and practiced is appropriate.

R. William Ayres said...

You make a very good point, especially that women are likely to face different kinds of threats than men. Adam over at Low Tech Combat has a nice handbook on "alpha male" vs. "predator" violence - well worth checking out. When I teach self-defense, I ALWAYS start with awareness and understanding about the kinds of attacks and attackers.

The advantage that women have in predator-type attacks is that the attacker usually doesn't expect resistance, much less effective resistance. A couple of strikes to vulnerable points (throat, groin, nose, etc.) will often make him think twice and/or buy you enough time to get away.

You're absolutely right that the "toe to toe" skills we practice in sparring aren't much help - you're not going to be trading closed-fist punches with an attacker. But the tools are there in your tool belt, along with throws, locks, and everything else. A lot of schools (mine included) take time to teach the application of those tools separate from "traditional" training. Yes, there's some overlap, but it's important to take time to talk about "real world applications" separate from the art/discipline/Do. I hope your school will give you that opportunity.

Anonymous said...

Excellent points.

I think many times martial arts are restricted by an over-adherence to the syllabus with no real idea of the needs of the individuals or group. There is a place for that of course, but there is also an ethical imperative for instructors to provide useful self defence if that is what they are promoting.

There is also the issue that we often get stuck in "technique mode" whereby we are looking for the magical (mythical?) martial arts technique where a smaller person can overcome a larger person. We also need to be looking wider at tactics and strategies that will assist.

Sadly many women (and men) know exactly how attacks occur from their own past experience. Simply taking the time to ask what an individual needs in term of self defence is the first step in treating people like individuals and finding a tailored self defence "solution".

The fact that many times an attacker is known to a victim is an uncomfortable fact that also needs to be considered.

My many cents worth. Thanks Sue :-)

The Monkey Dance Blog

John Coles said...

Nature agrees with you SueC.

Fight-or-flight is the evolved male response to a threat to their wellbeing. It involves a feeling response (anger or fear) which motivates a behaviour (fight or flight) which is supported by a physiological response that prepares the body for that behaviour.

In 2000, Taylor et al suggested that different evolutionary forces shaped the female responses to threats. They proposed tend-and-befriend as the evolved female response because fight-or-flight would not be as effective for females. The same physiological response occurs but when the released hormones interact with the sex hormones it produces different feelings and behaviour.

Maybe the martial arts have ignored nature's evolved defence mechanisms.

John Coles said...

This article extends your argument.

Felicia said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Perpetual Beginner said...

Don't forget the biggest difference between women and men's defense scenarios - women are by far more likely to be attacked by someone they know, sometimes someone they know well. This can seriously inhibit the will to do real injury. Someone teaching women for self-defense is going to have to address this, or they're ignoring the bulk of what actually happens to women.

On throwing, I disagree to some extent. I think throwing is valuable, precisely because a woman, especially a small woman, may be grabbed at the outset of the attack. Good throwing skills may enable her to get the advantage of that position in a hurry, where striking skills will be more inhibited.

Felicia said...

Amen! Totally agree with you on this one. Defense of self is about more than just body size. Statistics show that women are often attacked by people they know/are familiar with - not the toe to toe pissing contest that we are often trained to react to. I'm sure I'm not the only person who has done techniques and thought "I would never in a million years do this in a 'situation'" - even when my instructor insists that it will/can work for even small folks. I'm tall, but light, and trust and believe, the scenarios and techniques that might work for a heavier male my height (6'2") ain't gonna happen for me, no matter how often I've practiced it. The "one-size fits all" mode of training isn't good exactly because it won't work for everyone - nor should we expect it to. Male-centric, for certain. Thanks for discussing it, Sue.

Sue C said...

Hi Rick, You know it's always aikido where these miniature superwomen train!lol I've heard many stories of these women and its always aikido. I'm more impressed by the second woman you mentioned as she was not a 'professional', unlike the first one.

I'm not doubting that women can learn to defend themselves or that smaller stature is the problem. My point really is that martial arts (not male instructors!) are, by their nature (and for historic and cultural reasons) male-centric and we need to recognise and acknowledge this when teaching the self-defence aspects to women so that women are taught appropriate strategies and techniques for their needs.

Noah, I basically think we are on the same page with this subject and I appreciate you recognising some male/female differences in training needs. I agree that the element of surprise thing may be very useful.

You say that "techniques don't care what gender you are" but perhaps which gender you are determines which techniques may work best or are most appropriate. The other factor to take into account is that men will generally be in a man vs man encounter whereas women will be in a man vs woman encounter - this may lead to a more complex physical and psychological interaction between attacker and defender which could lead to unintended consequences - for example it could turn a simple robbery into a rape.

William, It sounds like you have a good balance in your art:self-defence training. The art itself does not deal with some of these 'female' issues since it is intrinsically male-centric. I think it is necessary to separate and teach some of these self-defence principles so they can be tailored to individual need. Like you say all the tools are in the martial art tool bag, it's a case of picking out the right tools and packaging them appropriately to meet women's self-defence needs.

Spirit Defence, your cents worth is worth its weight in gold! We are often told that a martial arts system is a complete fighting system teaching you everything you need to know. In terms of principles and techniques that is probably true but in terms of helping people to understand how to apply it to their own circumstances it is far from complete. Looking at strategies and techniques is a step in this direction.

John, I agree that martial arts have probably ignored the female's evolved defence mechanisms, but what's the answer - modify martial arts to take account of natural female responses or train women to respond to threats more like men? Interesting question!

Perpetual Beginner, Yes, domestic violence is by far the biggest threat faced by women. You make a good point about the inhibitory effect that knowing your attacker has on your ability to defend yourself. Like I said to Noah, male on female attacks create a complex cocktail of physical and psychological effects in both the man and the woman that can lead to unexpected behaviour.

Felicia, I'm glad that even as a tall woman you still identify with the male-centric problems of martial arts. Thanks for your support.

Noah said...


I completely agree with you. Without going into great detail, what you describe regarding man-vs-woman encounters is what I was referring to when I talked about "context" in my post :)

Kamil said...

This is a heavy discussion, one that has a lot of different aspects to it mixing together at once. How much of our training is self-defense based, considering scenarios of attack versus social, fitness and sporting-based? And when it is self-defense based, how much of our it is personally tailored to our vulnerabilities as men, women, children, young or old versus general considerations? And how many of those consider assault situations versus ambush? I imagine in every dojo and school in the world the focus of training is different. This is why we must each of us build our own budo.

We can't possibly expect our class to center around our own personal needs. Only our individual training has that luxury. When united in class we have to work on things that will benefit the most people in general terms. Each of us must use those general solutions to fashion methods and techniques that work for us.

This is part of the meaning behind Shu Ha Ri. Much of group training creates a conformity of execution, where everything looks the same. But that is supposed to be the first step (Shu) where, as beginners, we are united by training and our common goals. We should then explore variations and break (Ha) out of the common methods to create a personalized budo (Ri) that works for us but not necessarily for someone else. If your karate looks exactly like someone else's you are definitely doing something wrong.

It's like Bruce Lee always said. They asked him what style he fought in and he replied "I fight like me." We all have to explore and discover what works for us.

Chris said...

Sue there are some ideas here that seem similar to what you are saying

Charles James said...

Sue, as to your entire post ..... yes, I agree with you. One of my pet peeves and one that I was guilty of for many years is the majority of martial systems do not differentiate what is being taught and trained to the individual be they male or female.

Before someone takes up the sword of teaching martial systems with emphasis on its practicality as a defensive/protective system they should learn what it takes to teach humans, i.e. males vs. females vs. children vs. teens vs. young adults vs. middle aged adults to finally seniors. It does not end here either.

One needs to learn about perceptions, cultures and most of all personal belief systems. Then one must achieve a modicum of knowledge, expertise and experience with a wide variety of things such as the types of violence and how that violence is used against all the above, i.e. males vs. females, etc. that you so eloquently express in this post.

This is a most difficult subject and topic simply because many will pigeon hole this into some specific area, model or scenario, i.e. well if a person is attacked thusly then this will work. This is false and what will work in one situation may not in the next even if it is totally and completely identical.

When someone goes off to open a dojo there is much left outside the door that are critical to make it work for everyone regardless of gender or rather in regard to gender, culture and other such things. Our individuality and individual perceptions matter and cookie cutter lesson plans are ok for the basics but the meat of the thing goes way beyond that.

This is why true budo dojo, if you will allow me, consists of such a person who truly earns the title sensei, in a martial sense, and tends to have one, two or maybe three practitioners under their tutelage. All things being equal then and only then can one achieve the type of training and practice that will be reliable and actually work, for that person.

Awesome post, thanks Sue

The Strongest Karate said...

Excellent points all around, Sue. Let me play devil's advocate for a moment though:

In my mind, one of kata's primary values is being a technique repository - a place to store all your stuff, even if you dont plan to use it. It is part of the art, and thus, is passed down as faithfully as possible. I might never use a seiken mawashi uchi but it is still in Yan Tsu.

Fortunately, my instructor doesn't expect me to fit in weird techniques like that. He only expects me to be able to perform them in kihon and kata.

So, why should women learn the same things as men? Because it is part of the art!

Should women fight the same way? Of course not - unless she is large, like a man (and the opposite applies to small men, too).

Women will learn the same techniques men do because our arts focus on retaining as much of the original material as possible. However, when it comes to kumite or self defense, it is here that each student has always been free to do what comes natural, improvise, and above all leave out the things that just dont work for them.

(sorry for the book!)

Sue C said...

Noah, :)

Kamil, you make some excellent points here. "building our own budo" is an interesting way of putting it, it reminds me that even in a class we are still alone with our own personal agendas doing our best to find what we are looking for.

Chris, thanks for the link, I'll check it out...

Charles, awesome reply! You're right, the stuff outside the dojo is as important as the stuff inside it - but is it students' or sensei's responsibility to learn/teach that stuff?

Brett, you little devil! I agree with your first point about everyone learning the 'art' and I strive to do that. Your second point rankles a little though since the title of my post is "I'm a woman not a small man" meaning you can't just treat women as though they are small men!!!! Let's face it, it would be very odd to tell a man you were going to train him to fight like a big woman...

The Strongest Karate said...

Ha ha, good point, Sue. I should clarify that I was typing that comment while I was on hold - so it wasn't exactly worded the right way.

What I meant when I made mention of a "large woman" was limited to the use of techniques (such as over the shoulder throw), rather than environments and situations where an encounter takes place.

And thanks - your last sentence has given me an idea for a post....^_^

Charles James said...

Sue said, "but is it students' or sensei's responsibility to learn/teach that stuff?"

Both are responsible. We as consumers should always be informed when making decisions. In the budo world it is critical to achieve a dualistic relationship, i.e. the sensei-deshi and senpai-kohai thing.

No one party has exclusive responsibility in budo but rather both parties must fully and completely assume responsibility for budo training, practice, and applications.

In my view you walk into a dojo or training facility without doing the initial research necessary to know how you should choose said training and practice you leave yourself open to being fooled and taken to advantage.

Yes, both have a responsibility and should make good use of it to the maximum!

Sue C said...

Brett, looking forward to that post you old devil...

Charles, yes I think you are right - there is a partnership between student and teacher, both have responsibilities. Thanks for clarifying.

Unknown said...

Well this is a great post with some good and well thought out replies, I can't really add much, only echo Bruce Lee again ‘Quote “Adapt what is useful, reject what is useless, and add what is specifically your own.”

also I have just a couple of other thoughts

‘Quote’ The self-defence aspect of martial arts is not sexist but it is male-centric, i.e. it generally revolves around the needs of men and the self-defence scenarios that they may encounter.

Very true, I would go further and say many aspects are also ageist, In your 50s then all the throwing, going to the ground and grappling of the ground arts gets very impractical, the cold hard concrete is the last place any one should want to end up, it’s more important to focus on the anti grappling skills of which there are many. One of my friends is a police officer, she tells me that her police defence training is very focused on redirection and locks with aikido and trapping techniques, she tells me they have had to adapt to the amount of incidence’s were offenders tried to take them to the ground, I wonder were the yobs get that idea? She tells me that now they employ anti grappling in the defence training, very few fights now go to the ground, and the fools who try end up worse off, I stress she is a police officer and has far more experience than I ever will! I will also add that both she and her partner who is a sergeant in the police are training in Wing Chun with me.

‘Quote’ Wing Chun was allegedly developed by a woman but it still mainly teaches its practitioners to fight like men.

As you know by now this is my main art. Whether or not it was developed by a woman is lost in tales myth and here say as it’s all so ancient and mostly handed down by word… it is more likely to have come from the shoalin. Traditional wing chun is all about physics, angles, redirection and leverage, the principles are simplicity balance and power from relaxation and gender is not important. I have accepted that in my 50s I don't have the strength or speed (or cartilidge) to be as effective at Karate as I was in my youth I realised that I can't reverse time, I still practice Karate at a low level with my Little boy and I believe it is a very good defensive art and good physical discipline, but I personally have clearly seen that the 'hard external styles' can wear one as time passes and have a tendency to fall into a macho 'KIA' martial mould so to speak and also that many self defence approaches that are taught can be and often are tipped towards men. Every art has much to offer and I respect that, training in any should give you a good mental and physical grounding but to me it seems that with self defence a simple approach is often most effective and we all need to find our own best approach.

Quote: Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”
― Bruce Lee

Kind regards and repect


Anonymous said...


Im not in to throwing and locks. Due to my back injury I try to stay away from those.

But kicking and punching is the right thing for women too. But use it wisely, indeed. As a young girl I once was in the situation that I needed to use karate. I was riding my bike home after a night shift when someone jump next to me with extended arms to pull me from the bike. Me reflex was, still on the bike, hitting him with tsuki flat on the nose. Blood EVERYWHERE. I couldn't believe it. I raced home as fast as I could, hoping I didnt kill my assailant with a single punch.

So for me a punch with the fist was the perfect solution for this particular situation. And that is that, it just depends. Know all techniques for knowledge, but always choose the easier and safer option in their application.

Sue C said...

Hi James, great quote from Bruce Lee, he was wise beyond his years! Like you say, age brings its own problems - it becomes a case of being smart in your approach rather than strong or quick - re-direction, unbalancing, 'yielding and neutralising'and more focused striking become tactics of choice rather than flexing muscles and throwing. Wing Chun sounds like a very appropriate martial art for all that.

dojodeflt, great story - just shows how a targeted strike can wreak havoc on your attacker and give you a chance to get away. The nose was a great target, well done to you for having the presence of mind to defend yourself so effectively.

Kamil said...

Yes, definitely Sue. We must all have a sense of our own priorities in class and try to examine them and test our solutions with our class mates. A classmate of mine, Nicole, is a tournament buff. Everything we do, from wrist locks to foot sweeps, she'll try and practice while bouncing around like she was in kumite. And she's damn good in tournament because that's where her mind is all the time in the dojo. My karate is more concerned with the guy who tries to jump me for my phone at a bus stop. I don't need to bounce, I just need to shift my body properly and control his hands or the center of his body right away. You have to know what you want and make it clear to your classmates so you can help each other find it.

Sue C said...

Kamil, I think it is one of the strengths of clubs that people can meet and train together even though they have differing agendas - we can all learn and be motivated by each other.

Journeyman said...

Great post Sue. And a very important topic. Just as great are all the comments.

You raise a good point and I would have to agree that the majority of training delivered out there is based on Man vs. Man violence. Traditionally, men tend to outnumber women in the dojo significantly. That's another topic on it' own, more men are drawn to fighting arts than women, in general. I suspect this has to do with women having more sense...

You probably remember that I often say it's important to train for the most likely type of attack from the most likely type of attacker. I think this hits on your point. And yes, women are more likely to attacked differently from men.

A good teacher should (must?) take these differences into account. There is a certain 'shared curriculum' that is useful, especially in learning the basics of the techniques.

I think one of the biggest problems is in the application of those base techniques. I'm a believer that most techniques can work for man or woman, but that doesn't mean the entry or application of it will be the same.

You mentioned entering into a hip throw with a larger and stronger attacker. I agree it might be silly to attempt that 'cold' or in isolation, but it might be very effective if you were being rushed by the assailant. In that scenario, you'd likely take them by surprise and sent them flying. To stand toe to toe and try to enter to do it, however, would be a disaster.

As for locks, we've had a lengthy discussion in one of your older posts so I won't rehash that. From my perspective, locks negate the strength/size issue, but only if understood and apply them in a realistic manner. And that means understanding the reacting to realistic attacks.

I find it interesting in the comments how much of a separation there is in some schools between curriculum and self defense. I have an issue with this as I feel most of the content should have direct self defense applications. That's my view of how a martial art should be taught ( last post...)

I personally know a few fearsome females in the martial arts, who train realistically and work to apply their knowledge from a variety of attacks/attacker. When I've trained with them, we've taken into account the dynamics of the most likely scenarios. We discuss footwear issues, close quarter work (backed into a dark corner or bathroom stall etc.) It's a great way for everyone to benefit.

I'll leave it at that for now, but again, great post. Near the end, you mentioned how would a man like to be trained like a woman. Sometimes I think that would be better. Women, in general, lean towards survival training and getting to safety, whereas men (in general) feel a need to 'win' and finish the fight, often with terrible results.


Sue C said...

Journeyman, you raise some great points and no expansion my me is necessary. I suspect the separation of art from self-defence exists in most clubs that don't specifically have a reality based focus as their primary motivation for training. However, for the art to make any sense in the real world it does need to be applied in the ways you are clearly familiar with. However, as, I've mentioned before, martial arts isn't just about the 'fighting' for many people, its about much more than that so the application of the art remains slightly separate to the art itself. Each to their own!

Journeyman said...

Excellent point.

Me said...

Martial arts are usually developed by men for men to face the sort if violence faced by men, yes. However, if you are talking self defence you need to learn Threat and Awareness Evaluation, Target Hardening, Verbal and physical de-escalation. Have you read Dead or Alive by Geoff Thompson? A large portion if it is aimed at women and addresses the sorts of predatory attacks you are more likely to face.

The problem with punching isn't just a problem faced by ladies either. I would never punch in a street fight as I would no doubt damage my hand and then be in more trouble. Open hand strikes are defiantly the way to go as you say, and I don't see a problem with your Sensei letting you practice them if you speak to him. Aldo, your body gives you enough weapons that hardening the knuckles with maki wars etc is unnecessary. You just need to know whereabouts on your body to look.

You could always print off the most common sorts of attacks, (aka habitual acts of violence) faced by women and ask your Sensei to do a class addressing then. Or better still ask if you can teach a class addressing them.

I am sure it would be just as interesting to the men to look at things from a ladies perspective.


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