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.
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…
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!
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.
Telling friends about that you met someone, or that you have a new girlfriend can be quite exciting. That was no different when I had started dating Leticia (my wife) a couple of years ago. My friends of course asked questions about her, her personality and wanted to see pictures of her. The one thing that made the situation a bit different was that when people asked about Leticia’s work and interests, I of course mentioned that she has a black belt in hapkido and that she works as a martial arts and self defence instructor. My friends all reacted in different ways; some joked a bit about it (like “don’t piss her off” and similar), several of my female friends said they loved it and that Leticia was “badass” and I also remember one friend saying “wow so she can kick your butt – how does that feel?”.
Before Leticia had showed me some of her hapkido skills and techniques I wasn’t at all sure what to expect from it, since I have never been into martial arts myself – and I had no idea how effective it can be. Looking back now, I have to be honest and admit that at that time my ego wasn’t quite ready to admit that a woman like Leticia, way smaller than me and so very feminine, would be able to kick my butt. So the little jokes and comments implying that she could, although they were perfectly innocent, stung my pride a bit and made me a little uncomfortable. I mostly just laughed it off but it also made me even more curious about Leticia’s martial art and it also felt a bit like a sort of “challenge” for me to ask for a “demonstration” or “intro lesson”, which of course I finally did about four months into our relationship.
The first weeks after Leticia’s first hapkido demo with me in her practice studio, although I very much admired her and it made me fall in love with her even more, I also felt quite embarrassed about the apparent ease with which Leticia had wiped the floor with me using her hapkido skills, so I didn’t really talk about it with anyone. When the subject came up I just mentioned that yes Leticia had shown me some of her skills and that it was awesome and impressive and – if people asked – that yes she could kick my butt.
I was worried that I might be ridiculed, teased and that people (including my friends) would laugh at me. As time went by, I found out this was not the case and as I started to think more logically and ignoring old stereotypes, I also felt more and more comfortable talking about it. Sure, people did comment, there were jokes and especially my female friends loved hearing about Leticia’s martial arts skills and some laughed about it – a lot –, but there has been absolutely no mocking, mean spirited comments or any kind of ridicule.
So in conclusion, I totally underestimated my friends when it came to this and there was really no reason at all for me to worry about their reactions.
As I’ve made clear on this blog, I generally have only positive feelings about my wife being a martial arts professional and a self defence instructor and I am very proud over her achievements. However, there are some occasional – rather random – moments when I guess my “inner caveman” emerges and I feel a bit frustrated or even embarrassed. One such moment happened this summer. Not at all as a result of any dramatic or unusual event, but a simple comment “triggered” my ego and “male pride”.
Me and Leticia (my wife) were at the beach together with another couple about our age, who are friends of ours. We were having a nice time in the sun doing some catching up and talking about everything and nothing. At one point the other woman brought up the subject of Leticia’s martial arts training, asking about how her practice was going, if she was having a lot of students etc. After discussing that a bit with Leticia, she looked at us guys and said “wouldn’t it be great to know hapkido too and be able to kick butt like Leticia?”. We both laughed and agreed, but I felt I was blushing a bit and I could tell my fellow male at the table was blushing too. We looked at each other for a second and though neither of us said anything it was obvious we both felt about the same – slightly embarrassed and “uncomfortable”. Just because of that simple statement implying that Leticia is better than us at fighting and self defence.
Her comment was perfectly innocent and well meaning. Leticia is obviously by far the best fighter of us four, as she is the only one of us who has any hand to hand combat training – and she is an expert at that, with a 4th level black belt and having practiced since childhood. Yet there we were, two guys blushing as if some embarrassing secret had just been exposed. I guess that just goes to show how deeply gender roles – in this case the expectations that men should be the “protectors” – and the norms of society are imprinted in (most of ) us humans.
At one point last week my wife Leticia came around to meet me at the gym after my workout there. One of the guys there saw her and he commented on that yesterday, when I met him again at the gym. He said Leticia is very beautiful and that I am a lucky guy to have her. I thanked him for the compliment and we talked a bit more, while working out, about our respective professions and relationships and so on. When he asked what Leticia does I of course truthfully answered that she is a self defence instructor with a 4th dan black belt in hapkido.
“Wow, you’re a very brave man” he then said.
“How so?”, I asked, a bit surprised.
“Well, she could kill you with her bare hands, you know!” he said and looked at me as if he was revealing some new sensational information to me.
I didn’t expect that comment at all, so I didn’t know what to say at first. I guess he interpreted that as a confirmation that he really was revealing some shocking new info to me, and said something like “She could! Hapkido is a really mean martial art! If she is that highly ranked, she is a real badass. She could kill a guy! No problem!”.
Before he could continue further, I said that I knew about that and that Leticia had explained a lot to me about how hapkido works and that I had “practiced” a couple of times with her, so I was very much aware of how effective and powerful those techniques can be. But I also told him I wasn’t at all worried that she would use her skills to “kill” me or beat me up. Among other things, I pointed out that Leticia is a very nice, calm and peaceful person, which are some of the reasons I married her in the first place.
Later yesterday evening, I thought about this conversation again and the more I think about it the less it makes any sense. I mean theoretically, any woman might use a gun, knife or some other improvised weapon to injure or kill a man. Although it is true that Leticia, as a martial arts expert, could also use hapkido to do it, that doesn’t mean that she is anymore likely (or rather less unlikely) to commit such an act of extreme violence than any other woman. Practicing a martial arts doesn’t turn a woman into a murderous psycho – that should be pretty much obvious to everyone. Quite the contrary in fact, as hapkido helps teaches you how to control your emotions, to keep calm and to not use violence except as a last resort in self defence.
Yet, the guy in the gym apparently thinks that I am being brave and facing up to some serious danger, just for being married to a woman who happens to be a martial arts expert. I have noticed this reaction among some other men too, though mostly they are not as blunt when expressing what they think. But I have been asked if I am afraid of Leticia.
So do people think that practicing martial arts and learning self defence turns you (or at least women) into out of control violent persons? Or are there some other psychological mechanisms at work here?
What is masculinity?
And what does it mean to be “a real man”?
These questions might seem easy to answer at first glance. After all, there are some obvious personality traits that are very much linked with being a man:
– Being competitive. – Being in control and in command of any situation. – Not showing emotions such as sadness, fear and pain. – Achieving high status and success. – Being good at sports. – Having high sex drive. – Being tall and physically strong. – Being muscular. – Being good at fighting. – Not showing vulnerability. – Courage. – Willingness to take risks. – Dominating. – Being a provider for the family. – Having great confidence in yourself.
If you happen to not not fit into enough of these descriptions, you are likely to be judged as “not a real man”. Sure, the personality traits above can all be positive, or at least they are not necessarily negative. But what if a man is shy, kind and gentle, interested in fashion and cooking, likes taking care of children but doesn’t have a high sex drive and isn’t particularly interested in or good at sports, doesn’t wish to spend most of his time working to advance his career and making a lot money? These are also positive or at least not necessarily negative personality traits. Yet such a man would probably be judged to be very feminine. And in our society, for a man to be judged as “feminine” is generally considered shameful and emasculating – in other words, not a “real man”.
Boys and men are boxed in to a quite narrow field of definitions on how men “should” look and act to be considered as “masculine” or as “real men”. Success within at least some of these definitions – be it in terms of a high status and/or well payed job, sexual conquests or sports/physical prowess is extremely important to men – because it will to a huge extent determine their status and value as men in the eyes of our society. This leaves very little room, but lots of negative pressure, for men that have different personalities, talents and physical characteristics. I would argue that this negative pressure results in a lot of destructive and often violent behaviour among men, who feel like they don’t live up to these norms and expectations of masculinity.
Like most people I took these facts and values more or less for granted and didn’t really question or think about this issue. I just accepted that this is basically just “how things are”. I really only started reflecting seriously on the subject after I met my wife – a woman who happens to be a professional martial arts instructor. I (predictably) found out that because of her expertise in martial arts techniques, I stand no chance against her in a hand to hand combat situation, despite being significantly bigger and stronger than her. Especially in the beginning, I felt rather confused by finding myself in this situation. After all, according to the general definition of masculinity, being outclassed by a rather small female (like my wife) at fighting and wrestling was rather shameful and should make me less of a man. I remember, for example, one of my classmates (we were both 19 at the time) being teased, mocked and asked to “hand in your man card” after losing to a girl in a track & field competition. But I really don’t feel at all like less of a man just because my wife is better than me at fighting/wrestling. I can see no reason for that and this didn’t pose a big problem for me. But maybe that is in large part because I fulfil enough of the other traditional expectations of male traits…
I don’t have a clear answer to the questions I posed at the top of this blog post. But I’m sure the generally accepted definitions of manhood and what means to be “a real man” need to be much wider and much less constrained by stereotypes. On average, men and women are different – both physically and mentally. It would be ridiculous and counter productive to deny that. But we need to recognise and embrace that, as human beings, we are all unique individuals.
At least where I live, girls and women are constantly encouraged to express their personalities and be who they really are, even if that doesn’t conform to the traditional stereotype of how a woman should be – which is great. But I think much more work is needed to support boys and men in expanding the male gender role.
How do you define masculinity? And what do you think characterises a real man?