Towards the “Undoing” of Gender in Mixed-Sex Martial Arts and Combat Sports

This work explores the role of sex-integrated martial arts and combat sports in challenging sexist understandings of gender.

Research Findings
This work demonstrates that sex-integrated physical activity can promote progressive and inclusive shifts in the ways in which people conceptualise gender and perform gender relations.  Specifically, it discusses how martial artists confront and overcome difficulties relating to gender within mixed-sex training and competitive encounters.  The paper highlights three particular moments that are crucial in building towards the ‘un-doing’ of sexist renditions of gender.

Firstly, the work explores the possibility of promoting a sense of female ownership of martial arts, through holding or sharing roles as instructors, coaches or demonstrators.  I argue that this encourages women to develop a sense of belonging within spaces traditionally associated with men and masculinity, while helping men to accept the possibility of female authority and respect for women’s expertise.

Secondly, it discusses how a shift towards a shared identity as martial artists can replace the predominance of gender in shaping interactions ‘on the mat’ or ‘in the ring’.  This is argued to represent a major obstacle to effective training in integrated environments, but can be challenged through repeated exposure and coaches’ efforts in normalising mixed practices. In addition, this helps both men and women to change their ideas about women’s physical abilities, principally by providing opportunities for these to be showcased in the novel, sometimes quite dramatic ways that martial arts practice affords.

Thirdly, the paper expressly cautions against uniform, ‘one-size-fits-all’ approaches to challenging gender within martial arts and combat sports, advocating a sensitive approach that acknowledges individual and cultural preferences and dispositions. That is to say that certain types of sex integration may be inappropriate in some scenarios and result in more harm than good, meaning the recommendations otherwise made need implementing carefully and selectively.
Key Recommendations

Consider that sports and physical activities – including martial arts – can be excellent vehicles for challenging gender ideology, particularly when they provide women and girls opportunities to embody strength, power and toughness.

Sex integration in sport adds an important layer of additional significance to women and girls’ demonstration of physical competence. This is particularly the case when men and boys are also able to experience these things first-hand, and/or when women/girls are able to train, perform, or even in some cases compete with men/boys on a relatively even footing.

Cautious implementation of these recommendations is always advised; for instance, sex integration is not culturally appropriate in all environments, while the presence of men/boys may be intimidating for some women/girls, or indeed, non-binary or transgender people (and vice-versa, depending on the nature of the activity).

Implementation Examples

Mixed training is largely the norm in many martial arts and combat sports disciplines in the UK and other Western countries. My research emphasises the broadly positive outcomes that can be observed already in these contexts.

I have published numerous articles on this research, including two further papers that specifically elaborate on the pedagogical implications of this work by giving practical advice for coaches and instructors. These are available via email request.

Currently (early 2021) I am consulting with the British Kickboxing Council on implementing mixed competition formats as part of their revised equality, diversity and inclusion policy for sex and gender.

I have published advice and guidance for coaches interested in this phenomenon in the ‘ICM Insight’ magazine, published by the International Centre of Martial Arts for Youth Development and Engagement operating under the auspices of UNESCO. A copy of this short article is available via email request.

Methodology

The methodology for this study involved a qualitative design, principally using semi-structured interviews with 37 experienced martial artists and combat athletes from various different disciplines. This was complemented by field observations of several of the interviewees’ training sessions and contextualised by several years’ worth of my own participant observation in multiple different martial arts schools.

Core Concepts

Undoing Gender – A social constructionist perspective reflecting the possibility of challenging and changing the way gender is performed and accomplished through and within social interaction.

Limitations

The small sample size of the project and its interpretive epistemological framework place limits on how confidently we can generalise the conclusions. However, numerous subsequent studies in a variety of (similar) contexts lend support to the conclusions reached.