I found two quite interesting and funny old recordings of women demonstrating self defence using martial arts: one from 1933 and one from 1947. According to the martial arts expert closest to me – my wife – these are real skills and well executed techniques. The names of the women in these videos are May Whitley and Mary Parker. I love the style and way of talking!
Given the gender roles and stereotypes at the time when these recordings were made, I also wonder what the reactions were to female martial artists.
Do women in martial arts only date men who also do martial arts? That seems to be a common perception, at least among men. In fact several men who have contacted me through this blog have expressed the opinion that women who are skilled martial artists would not be interested in a man if he is not also an experienced martial artist. The reason, according to these thoughts, would be that the woman may not “respect” or feel physically attracted to a man if the traditional (or stereotypical) gender roles of the man as the “protector” are reversed in the sense that a woman with advanced martial arts skills will be the superior fighter in a relationship with a man without this kind of training.
But is there really any merit to this perception? Or is it just another myth involving women in martial arts? I discussed topic with three women who practice martial arts: my wife (Leticia), one of her friends (Katia) and one of her students (Linda).
Leticia, was the fact that I am not into martial arts ever a factor for you when you decided to get into a relationship with me?
Leticia (hapkido instructor – and my wife) (Laughter) no it was never a factor.
Frida and Katia, do your boyfriends practice any martial art? And if so, was that a factor in any way when you started dating them?
Katia (hapkido practitioner) No he doesn’t and no that doesn’t bother me at all.
Linda (learning hapkido based self defence) No and no. I mean when I met him, none of us were into martial arts at all. Or actually, he did do karate for a year or so when he was a kid, but I don’t know if that counts here haha.
No I’d say it doesn’t really count in this context.
So for you, it doesn’t feel awkward or anything to be the ones in the relationship with the martial arts skills?
Katia (hapkido practitioner) No not at all! I don’t see why it would.
Leticia (hapkido instructor – and my wife) No. As you know, I have been practicing all my life basically so I am used to be “the one with the martial arts skills”.
Linda (learning hapkido based self defence) No. But to be honest, my boyfriend is still… I mean I am not at a level where I am better than him at fighting. He is quite athletic so he is definitely the “protector” in our relationship hahaha.
I understand. And if you would reach a skill level that made you better than him at that?
Linda (learning hapkido based self defence) I don’t think so. I mean it would be so cool to have their skills (referring to Leticia and Katia)!
And you don’t think women in martial arts feel less respect for men who are not trained fighters?
Katia (hapkido practitioner) Again, my answer is not at all! If a person is nice and respects me, I too respect that person, regardless of gender.
Leticia (hapkido instructor – and my wife) No. My respect for a man has absolutely nothing to do if he is into martial arts or not. And I am absolutely sure almost all women in martial arts feel that way. In fact, something that does make me respect a man more in this context is if he is able to admit it and be ok with it if I am better than him at fighting. I know that is not necessarily easy for a man for a number of reasons, so I think that it shows strength and maturity if a man is able to do that.
Linda (learning hapkido based self defence) I agree with Katia and Leticia.
Ok! But still, isn’t it rather common for female martial artists to have relationships with men who practice martial arts too?
Katia (hapkido practitioner) I think it might be, but that is probably just because they have a shared interest and maybe even met while practicing. I mean it happens all the time in other places that couples meet through shared interests and at work. So why not in martial arts?
Leticia (hapkido instructor – and my wife) I think that is basically it.
Yes, that sounds pretty logical to me. So would you say that the woman being the better fighter in a relationship with a man is much more of a factor and a potential problem for men dating (or thinking about dating) women who do martial arts, than for the women doing martial arts?
Leticia (hapkido instructor – and my wife) Yes, I know some men have all sorts of problems with that. But I don’t think women in general care about that at all. Or if we care, to be honest, in most cases I’m sure it’s just a positive thing to know that you are better at fighting than your man or boyfriend. I mean, to me it is. I feel it’s very empowering for me as a woman!
Katia (hapkido practitioner) Haha yes, if I would get there, that would be very empowering!
This conversation also touched on other topics and I’ll probably come back to some of those in another post.
It may sound surprising to some, but this is actually a thing. From time to time over the years, my wife has been asked questions about whether having breasts, particularly larger ones, is a problem in martial arts. It’s mostly men asking and commenting about this, but also some women.
I did a short “interview” with my wife on the subject the other day.
Me: So, once and for all, does having breasts pose a problem in martial arts, especially if they are a bit larger?
My wife: Well, the short answer is no. You have done some “sparring” with me. Did you get the impression that my boobs posed a problem and made it difficult for me to fight?
Me: (Laughing) I would have to say no. A summary of how things went when I challenged my wife to see how a clearly bigger and stronger man with no fight training would fare against a smaller woman with advanced martial arts expertise can be found here and here.
My wife: (Laughing) There you go then!
Me: But seriously though, you don’t see any potential problems here?
My wife: Well, I have heard people invoke back pain and balance problems as thing that could arise from having a bigger chest and practicing martial arts.
First of all, having a bigger chest can cause problems such as back pain. As a woman with a rather big chest myself, I am well aware of that. That kind of back pain can develop over time because of the extra weight placed on your chest as well as a bad posture. But you know, the best way to counter and prevent any potential back pain problems of that sort is strengthening your muscles and also getting a better posture. And practicing martial arts will help you with both!
When it comes to balance, I really have to say that I don’t feel that a woman’s chest poses any problems at all there. In fact, I would say women often have better balance than men because of our lower point of gravity. And in any case, balance is one of the points of focus that you practice heavily in most, if not all, martial arts.
For a professional fighter that competes, a large chest may also be a factor when it comes to weight divisions. As you know, in combat sports, contestants are sorted in divisions by weight and a large chest could potentially put you in a higher weight division and thus facing bigger, stronger and tougher opponents than you otherwise would.
But when it comes to guys/men asking if my chest somehow “gets in the way” or stops me as a woman from performing the techniques correctly, then the answer is definitely that no, it doesn’t.
Me: I guess we, as men, have a hard time imagining what having boobs is like. But you say you have had women worrying that larger breasts would be an obstacle for them while practicing martial arts, right?
My wife: Yes that’s true. I can only recommend women who feel this way to try on a good sports bra and then just focus on the exercises. You will soon forget any discomfort that you might initially experience from your breasts. And, as I said, practicing something like martial arts will actually strengthen your body and make it much less likely – not more – that you will suffer from any back pain problems because of your chest.
The general advantages of men when it comes to hand to hand combat are of course widely known, for obvious reasons. Strength and size, largely due to testosterone, gives men a very big advantage from the outset in this domain. When it comes to martial arts this is also true, even within martial arts styles where qualities such as skills, speed and flexibility are much more important than sheer muscle strength and physical size. All else being equal though, in terms of skills, being strong and more “robust” is always a good thing.
However, women actually also have several advantages over men when it comes to learning these kinds of martial arts. This is much less known and it may even sound a bit strange at first, but it actually makes sense.
Here are three of the main advantages that women have over men, when it comes to learning martial arts:
Women are naturally more flexible than men. Testosterone makes men stronger than women, but it also makes men less flexible.
Women have a lower point of gravity. In other words, women are shorter than men and have broader hips, so women have naturally better balance than men. Basically, while women’s bodies are shaped more or less like an “A”, men’s bodies are shaped more like a “V” – hence women’s better balance.
Women are better at learning martial arts techniques. Many of the techniques in for example hapkido are quite counter intuitive – for example instead of resisting and trying to overpower the opponent, you should follow and redirect his momentum, in order to get him off balance or “trick” him into an unfavourable position or a lock. As men we are usually very accustomed to relying on and using our strength while wrestling or fighting someone. It’s like a reflex for us, so it is often quite difficult for us to “unlearn” this. Women, in general, have less of a problem with this.
I read that in ancient China, the men actually understood the female body was better suited for mastering kung fu techniques than the male body. That is why girls there were only allowed to learn martial arts from women – who were in turn not allowed to learn the entire martial art system. This was to make sure men would always be the best fighters…
A while back I heard about a woman called Avital Zeisler. She is now a quite famous martial arts expert and instructor for women’s self defence. Avital decided to learn as much as she could about self-defense in order to overcome the trauma she experienced after being the victim of sexual assault as a teenager. After years of training not only did she became an expert at self defence – even developing her own system/practice for self defence for women – but also an inspirational writer and speaker, sharing her knowledge on this subject.
As she writes herself in one article:
Each and every self defense technique I learned brought me closer to my goal of reclaiming my being and having the practical knowledge of self protection. It was this part of the journey that led me to the realization that my healing process was intimately entwined with the depth of my self- defense training. I was eventually invited to train at the source of the self-defense system I was studying, known as Krav Maga.
As I have gained much practical experience and knowledge of self defense techniques, my definition of self defense has evolved to include aspects of physical, emotional and spiritual factors. True self defense is the ability to defend your right to create and live the best life possible, with the ability to protect your body and mind against a threat or act of violence — at all costs.
According to Avital the three tenets of her philosophy as a former sexual assault victim turned martial arts expert are:
I am no longer a victim of the threat of violence or actual violence – I know how to defend myself.
Emotionally, I am prepared to face life’s difficulties and know that solutions are possible – I am worthy of self confidence.
Spiritually, I believe that I can move forward in a positive and meaningful way and this is my right.
Here is a short TV interview with Avital and some self defence demonstrations from her.
Here is a one minute video of self defence demonstrations from Avita’s own Youtube channel.
And here is a longer 14 minutes video with her from TEDx Talks.
The other week, a blogger named Joanne Reed wrote a very good text recommending girls to learn martial arts to empower themselves. Joanne was also nice enough to ask my wife to give her point of view on the article – so she did. One thing that both me and my wife liked about the article was it’s emphasis on the fact that practicing martial arts does not make a woman less feminine. As Joanne says in her article:
“To all the girls and women out there, feel empowered, learn the art of self-defense, learn martial arts. You can be feminine and strong at the same time. Don’t be a victim, be a warrior! “
This is very true – and yet there is a stubborn stereotype that persists, that women who practice martial arts become masculine, “butch” and aggressive! In reality though, several very effective martial arts (including hapkido, which is the martial art that my wife teaches) are very suitable for women because they do not emphasise typically male features as muscle strength and size, but rather other factors, namely:
Reading/anticipation Through practicing martial arts, you can learn how to read and anticipate the attacker’s moves and thus always be one step ahead. Thus you are able to take the right action in order to counter and even using his attacking moves to your advantage.
Reactions Martial arts practice can radically sharpen your reaction speed, allowing you to move much more quickly in response to an attack and then taking the right actions without really having to think, but rather almost as a reflex.
Technique Within a martial art like hapkido, there is an immense array of different techniques that allow a small woman to effectively throw, kick, strike, control and immobilise a much bigger and physically stronger attacker – sometimes by using his own size, strength and momentum against him.
Attitude/emotions Martial arts practice can give you the confidence and calm that you need a potentially dangerous and violent situation, in order to not run the risk of panicking, freezing or acting irrationally and inefficiently. The mental strength, calmness, focus and discipline that you gain by practicing a martial art can serve you in basically any situation in your life – like work, studies or relationships.
Balance Perfecting your balance is key concept in several martial arts is. This allows you to learn how to keep your own balance in order to fall or lose control – and how also to use gravity, leverage and physics to unbalance the attacker.
Speed As mentioned above, martial arts training can give you the capability of instinctively anticipating and knowing how to respond to an attacker’s moves. And not only will an accomplished martial artist know what to do, the training will also develop her capacity to do it very quickly. For example, when showing me some of her hapkido skills, my wife has executed kicks and strikes placing her foot or hand inches from my face literally in the blink of an eye, before I even knew what “hit me”.
None of these six factors to become an expert martial artist causes a woman to lose her femininity in any way. Nor are they inherently masculine or more difficult for a woman to master than for a man.
And lastly, to really dispel the myth that martial arts training makes women masculine – here below is a little picture collage of women who have all practiced for years to become extremely good at different martial arts – yet obviously do not look masculine in any way.
A while back, I received a message from a guy who had read sa couple of posts on this blog. He asked me if my wife’s martial arts expertise and the fact that she can easily “kick my butt” in any way made me feel like less of a man in my relationship with her.
I can see where he is coming from and why he would pose this question. I know that for many men, getting your butt kicked “by a girl” is a huge embarrassment and basically means that you should “turn in your man card”. On the other hand, for many others, the whole thing is a total non-issue because martial arts is a skill like any other and relationships aren’t about two people beating each other up anyway, so obviously it doesn’t make a guy any less of a man.
So does my wife’s martial arts expertise and training make me feel like less of a man? No, it doesn’t. But it has challenged how I think of manliness and what it means to be a man (hence, one of the reasons I started this blog two years ago).
Even though I have been in a relationship with my wife for quite a long time now and years have passed since she first gave me a first hand demonstration of her martial arts skills and the effectiveness of hapkido techniques, I can still feel a certain level of embarrassment thinking and talking about it. It still “hurts my pride” to some extent and there is a sense of frustration that I, as a man with a significant size, weight and strength “advantage” over her, am not able to simply overpower her in a physical contest. But none of these feelings really affect me in my day to day life. To sum it up, I would say that it’s basically just a fact of life that I accept. Besides, the positive sides of my wife’s martial arts training (mostly for her of course, but also for me) are so much bigger and more important than any annoying feelings or stereotypes that I may sometimes experience.
However, I do think that to some extent I really would have felt less of a man if I hadn’t be able to admit that – because of her years of martial arts practice and natural talent for that – my wife is way better than me at fighting and self defence. I mean if I had tried to make up excuses or if I had been lying to others and maybe to myself about it. So I would say my advice to other men in a similar situation is to simply be honest, accept it and give the woman credit for the talent and hard work she has put down to achieve these skills. Be proud of her!
The other day I received a message from a Nigerian reader, telling me about two articles in which the former Nigerian taekwondo champion Anita Aluya is interviewed. I thought it could be interesting to publish a couple of excerpts from those two articles here on this blog.
The first article says there has been a rise in rape cases in Nigeria in recent times. Aluya, who now runs a taekwondo academy in Nigeria’s capital Lagos, believes that having a knowledge of martial arts will give girls a better chance of fighting off an attacker. She says martial arts training will make you more aware of the surroundings, so you will be able to detect and avoid dangerous situations much more effectively.
“I will advise every girl to take up martial arts. It will definitely build their mental alertness and reflex. For example, if someone sneaks up on you, you can easily take the person down. It gives you self confidence and keeps you sharp.”
“My advice is don’t fight a guy. What you must do is, go for the vital spots where you can hit the predator and he will quickly lose strength and composure. What you should do after hitting the vital spot is to run away from that vicinity.
In the second article, Aluya answers some rather prejudicious questions about why she is into martial arts. For example the journalist asks “why would a beautiful woman like you get so attracted to taekwondo, a sport perceived by many as unfriendly”? Here is what she answered to that question.
“(Laughs) In the first place Taekwondo is not a sport that is unfriendly. It is also not a masculine sports per say and it does not in anyway patronize beautiful or ugly people. It is a sport for everyone both men and women. The definition of Tae-kwon-do has to with the art of the foot, hand and aspect of life.”
The male journalist also insisted on asking her about scenarios in which she might use her martial arts knowledge on a hypothetical future husband. Aluya tries to explain to him that beating people up is not something she enjoys or is looking out for – and that violence isn’t supposed to be a part of a relationship.
“We are trained fighters and in learning, one of the five tenets of Taekwondo which you must also learn is self-control. Before you react, you think. Sometimes you are told that Taekwondo or martial art is the act of fighting without fighting and how do you do that? It is by weighing the situation first. You don’t react because you can fight immediately. So if it is a situation that calls for mere argument, then why should I fight.”
The journalist however insisted, with follow up questions, about scenarios in which she would be violently attacked…
“If he is bringing an object to hit me, then I can see he is no longer my husband but an enemy. Then, I can break my husband’s ribs and carry him to hospital later for treatment. But what is important in this case is that I have already defended myself and that is what I learnt, which is self-defense.”
I would say this second article is a quite telling example of the attitudes that female martial artists still may face.
For quite a while I have somewhat hesitated to write about this, because sex is such a private thing to talk about. And well, I definitely won’t go into any details. So no need to worry – or hope – about that. In any case, since I started this blog, several people have mentioned the subject both in comments and in private messages. Does the fact that my wife is a martial arts expert influence our love life?
Well, neither of us are into BDSM and I don’t have any particular “fetish”, so in that way it does not affect us. And as I mentioned in the previous post, I do not feel emasculated at all because she is a black belt. But as I have discussed in several other blog posts (like for example here), my wife’s martial arts expertise in certain ways does “reverse” the gender roles in the relationship, due to the fact that she is far better than me at self defence and physical fighting. And even though I can’t quite put my finger on why, this is actually kind of sexy. I guess it’s both because it challenges me as a man in an unusual way (perhaps in part because of the sense of not being in control) and it is also very impressive and cool, so it’s something I really admire about her. The martial arts training obviously also makes her very healthy and fit, which of course is also positive. So, to sum it up, I definitely find my wife’s black belt martial arts skills is a positive thing, also when it comes to love and sex.
Martial art style: BJJ – Brazilian Jiu Jitsu
Years practicing martial arts: 8 years – brown belt
How come you started learning martial arts? Well, I was going to the gym for workouts, but then I decided I wanted to do something different – a different activity to stay in shape and also something that would really challenge me. I also though it would be a good idea to learn some self defence.
Why did you choose BJJ? They were offering BJJ classes in the same building where I used to go to the gym to work out. And I heard people saying that BJJ would be a good martial art for women to learn, for self defence. I thought BJJ seemed like a cool thing to do. My body type suits BJJ quite well too.
What do you like the most about BJJ?
It’s fun and it’s the best workout for the whole body. When you start practicing BJJ it’s like you discover and use muscles that you didn’t even know you had! You get in shape and you get stronger. And it also really boosts your confidence. I feel better about myself in general. Practicing BJJ has helped me grow as a person. And I also feel confident I could defend myself in most situations. I like it that it’s much more about skills than just strength. Like, I am the shortest person in my BJJ class but I can actually beat everyone except maybe one or two guys.
They say most fights end up on the ground and BJJ focuses a lot on techniques that are effective on the ground, for example to neutralise an opponent or attacker that is trying to get on top of you.
Are there many women doing BJJ? I have heard that it’s getting quite popular among women – which is great. Where I practice now, we are only three women in total. But it’s ok. I mean I don’t mind that at all. To be honest I generally actually prefer facing the guys because it’s more of a challenge. If I win against them it also really proves how much I’ve learned in BJJ.
Why, in your opinion, should women get into BJJ? I guess for the same reasons I said I like BJJ – it’s a great work out, you get stronger both physically and mentally and it’s a lot of fun!
Do you feel you are ever treated differently as a woman doing BJJ? You mean while training or in life generally?
Well, I guess both… Not really, the guys where I practice know me by now (laughter). I might be rather small, but I’m much stronger than I look and I’m pretty good at BJJ! Underestimate me at your own peril (laughter)! My boyfriend doesn’t mind it now, but he felt really embarrassed by it at first, when we started dating. He is quite a big guy (193 cm – 6’4”) and he was pretty sure he would be able to take me based on size and strength alone. But I still kicked his butt (laughter)!
And for the record how tall are you? I am 165 cm – 5’5”.
I can identify with your boyfriend there – I felt really embarrassed the first time my wife showed off her hapkido skills on me. It’s a male ego thing (laughter). (Laughter) Yes, eventually he just embraced my skills and strength though and he says he admires it a lot! I go easy on him, but there’s times he does actually get me too!