Please Hit Girls (When They Ask You To)
by Rey Katz
The instructor asked what kind of attacks worried people in the introductory Krav Maga self-defense session. Two students both mentioned their hair. “I’m worried someone will grab my hair when I go jogging at night.”
Back at our aikido dojo, I led a class focusing on grabbing and pulling hair, not our usual wrist grabs or face punches. I asked another black belt to help me demonstrate a self-defense technique to our class. “Grab my hair,” I prompted, twining my fingers into my own hair as an example. He complied. I switched to speaking to the class. “When he grabs my hair, the first thing I need to do is pin his wrist to my head with my hands so I have trapped his hands.”
My partner rolled his eyes and made an uncharacteristic comment, “It’s always ‘he,’ isn’t it? Why is the attacker always a man?” I blinked. In my mind, I had been referring to the specific person currently “attacking” me as “he.” I wasn’t trying to generalize.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about gendered words. I prefer “they” and “them” pronouns for myself, one way of expressing that I am nonbinary; not a woman or man. When people called me “she” and “her” this felt increasingly uncomfortable. I didn’t think my partner minded being called “he” or “him,” but I took the feedback. I didn’t want my spiel to indicate attackers were always male.
I said, “Oh, well, when they grab my hair,” gesturing toward my attacker, “I put my hands firmly on top of their wrist.” I curled my head and body on top of my attacker’s trapped wrist and used the force of my weight to propel him down to the mat, hearing him smack a forearm down to block the fall.
Even though some women are represented in the media as fighters, I so frequently see the assumption that an attacker should be male. Amanda Nunes, a Brazilian mixed martial artist who is a UFC champion in their bantamweight and featherweight divisions, is married to a fellow female UFC fighter, and is an out and outspoken advocate for gay relationships and families. Her coach, Conan Silveira, has said in MMA Fighting, “Amanda doesn’t have any girl training partners, she only has male training partners…she hits like a man.” Not only does he contrast “girls” with “males,” he is heavily implying men are the only partners worth training with.
By this year, sports media has mellowed slightly on the “only trains with men” bragging. But UFC president Dana White has said that Nunes was “dropping guys” in her pre-fight training. “Dropping a guy” should not be the gold standard for fighting prowess. I feel icky so much of her press is about her ability to fight men. Is this the only way we can measure her mastery? By using men as a benchmark?
I’m proud Nunes is a big-name, famous, rich, UFC champion. She’s awesome. She has been an inspiration to many women, men, and people of all gendersover the years.
When I started my martial arts training in karate as a young teen, I saw women and girls fight in our class, but not often in movies, TV shows, or books. In karate, sometimes we practiced sparring drills with partners. One Saturday afternoon, I paired up with a classmate to do a simple drill: one person punches, the other person blocks the punch. Then we would switch. But that day, there was a problem: my partner would not punch me.
“I can’t hit you because you’re a girl.” he stated.
We had known each other for two years. I was fourteen, and he was twelve. He had punched me before. There was no problem then.
“I can’t do the drill if you don’t hit me.” I replied, annoyed and confused. We stared at each other for an awkward length of time until I broke the silence by punching him in the arm, the classic masculine alternative to discussing my feelings. “Will you hit me now?”
“No, I can’t.” he replied. He did not punch me for the whole time we were supposed to be practicing the drill. I felt like there was something wrong with me that I couldn’t get rid of.
As a nonbinary person, I can’t put myself on one side or the other of the constructed gender divide. I need people to treat me as a person.
Thomas Page McBee, the first trans man to fight a boxing match in Madison Square Garden, is an inspiration to me as a trans person and martial artist who shared his story publicly. But even McBee, a man who has clearly thought a lot about gender, falls into the mental trap of thinking it’s not appropriate to attack a woman during martial arts practice. In his book, Amateur: A True Story About What Makes a Man, McBee wrote that he did not feel able to hit one of his training partners. He hung back reluctantly in the sparring match as the increasingly annoyed woman egged him on to attack her. I’ve experienced similar reluctance many times from my practice partners. Some men subtly back off or try to catch me as I fall after they throw me—so patronizing! Some even choose not to pair up with me to train.
Not being willing to hit a woman in a martial arts context shows a lack of understanding of how enthusiastic consent works. If a woman is asking you to hit her, and you hang back because you feel it would be inappropriate behavior to attack, even though you would be comfortable hitting a man in the same situation, you are not listening. You are projecting your own insecurities onto the situation. You are not willing to believe a woman could have the desire to react to your attack and prove herself in the arena, just like you want to.
If a man cannot follow, “yes, please do that to me,” it is hard to trust he can follow, “no, please do not do that to me.” The feeling of not being able to hit a woman is ingrained in our culture, unfortunately with no distinction between hitting someone who wants to be hit, and hitting someone in a violent sense.
Alex Channon reports in a paper, Towards the “Undoing” of Gender in Mixed-Sex Martial Arts and Combat Sports, that when he interviewed male martial arts practitioners, “the reluctance or refusal to train ‘properly’ with female partners for fear of hurting them was, for many, a deeply ingrained, sometimes viscerally-felt problem.”
These tendencies do not bode well for men in being able to distinguish between positive-minded, consensual, enthusiastic physical activity, and abuse. Due to this deeply ingrained conflict, it becomes more comfortable for men to train with each other instead of with women. This artificial division between genders can prevent introspection, understanding, learning, and supporting each other.
McBee addresses many aspects of toxic masculinity and his relationships with women throughout his book, but his character in the book never returns to face a woman in the ring. He changes boxing gyms and (happens to) fight only with men. His show match is against a man. The martial arts world publishes plenty of stories of men training with other men. There’s nothing wrong with any individual story. The problem is the gaping void of stories of women and gender minorities succeeding in martial arts. These also need to be shared.
Self-defense classes for women are one venue where women can learn how to fight without having to struggle to break into a community not accustomed to them. I took a self-defense class for women, when I was fifteen years old. There were no men in the room.
The instructor of the self-defense class introduced herself by recounting a traumatizing and difficult situation from her past. She told us she had been attacked in a park and raped when she was a young woman. The desire to never be powerless in such a situation again was one of the foundations of her lifelong martial arts practice.
She talked to us about our chances. “One in five women reports being raped during her lifetime, in the United States.” She repeated the word “reports…” dragging out the emphasis that there are likely many more women who have not reported. The five students glanced at each other around the circle.
In the self-defense class, we practiced how to defend ourselves if a sexual encounter went badly. After watching the demonstration, I paired up with a teenage classmate who sat on my hips as I was lying on my back on the floor. We realized our legs weren’t in the right position for me to lock my calves around hers and flip her off me, as prescribed in the exercise.
She laughed and said, “Oh, right. I’m the guy, so I need to put my legs inside yours.” She did this, kneeling without touching me, and I was able to grab her with my legs and turn her over. If I stopped to think about it, I thought I might die of embarrassment and discomfort.
Melissa Febos, author of four books including the bestselling essay collection Girlhood, broaches this awkward dynamic. In Girlhood, Febos writes, “when the dynamics of abuse underlie all of the heterosexuality conventions, even consensual interactions share trauma-related effects.” Queer sex is about so much more than the gender of the participants. It’s about the gendered assumptions which are no longer considered valid. It’s about finding ways to rewrite the script, for pleasure, acting because we want to, instead of mirroring what we’ve seen in the media.
It’s not uncommon for self-defense classes to be geared toward women students and provide men to simulate attacks. Meg Stone, the executive director of IMPACT Boston, wrote in the Boston Globe that she teaches self-defense classes “with a co-instructor who wears 50 pounds of protective padding and plays the role of a realistic assailant.” It’s arguably more efficient to learn how your self-defense techniques would work against a larger, stronger person, by training with a larger, stronger person. However, training with assailants of different sizes also has benefits.
In aikido, we have students of all shapes and sizes. We don’t have weight classes or gender divisions. Everyone pairs up with each other to train, and students switch back and forth between being the attacker and defender usually every two throws. This practice allows us to understand what the technique feels like from both sides. By seeing and feeling all angles, we can improve our own technique.
What if a smaller person does attack you with a weapon? Someone you care about, even? Aikido gives students the skills to understand how to deal with the body of someone twice your size or half your size, and with as much or little force as may be warranted for this particular attack.
Gender-inclusive practice isn’t exclusive to aikido. People of various genders train together in many martial arts, both on screen and off. Amanda Nunes and Nina Ansaroff, her fellow UFC fighter and wife, met as training partners in 2012, and have been training together since then, according to Bleacher Report. They have each said to the press they would fight each other in the ring. “Why not? Bring the money home in the same household,” said Ansaroff.
Here is proof then that Nunes does not only train with men. This is reality, but why doesn’t it sell in the media in the same way? Why is it glamorous to claim to “only train with men?” I know women and nonbinary people are training with each other, with or without men, and I want to hear more about them.
Rey Katz is queer and nonbinary and writes about LGBTQ+ rights, respectful conversations, and martial arts as a second degree black belt in Kokikai Aikido. Their work is published in POPSUGAR, Catapult, BREVITY’s Nonfiction Blog, Massive Science, and other publications. Check out Rey’s weekly essays at reykatz.substack.com and videos on TikTok, YouTube, and Instagram.