Five awesome insights on women in boxing – From Leah Hager Cohen’s Without Apology – Girls, Woman and the Desire to Fight
Leah Hager Cohen is a quiet, middle-class journalist who warily visits a run-down gym with her photographer friend, to look into a potential story about a group of underprivileged adolescent girls learning to box from a female coach (Raphi). Much to her own surprise, she finds the gym and the sport immediately and urgently meaningful; and she starts to train obsessively alongside the girls.
The whole book is a thrilling, luminous read, with the young girls, their families and trainers painted in vivid, lifelike detail. At the same time, Cohen plunges deeply into the philosophical, sociological and raw emotional side of what she’s experiencing. Here are the five themes that really stood out for me in the book . . .
- Women who box are transgressing society’s norms
Cohen comes to believe that, “Any girl who boxes challenges, wittingly or not, the idea of what it means to be a girl in our culture”. Even within her own gym, the “macho” culture of the sport is always dominant; and the men, although supportive are open about their fundamental dislike of women boxing.
And there are serious risks in committing this transgression. Cohen quotes the psychologist Sharon Lamb as arguing that when a woman openly displays either sexuality or aggression, this is a very dangerous behaviour. It can lead to the woman being “cast out” from society, and losing her right to the “chivalric protection” which men give to more gentle and compliant women.
But this casting out is actually a two-edged sword. As Cohen says, the woman may then find herself at once both deprived of and liberated from a certain social compact. Which leads to the next insight . . .
- Boxing can be a way for women to achieve freedom and self-actualisation
Cohen describes her book as the story of how, through boxing, I became more whole. Although she first visits the gym with apprehension and some reluctance, she is shocked to find herself overcome with immediate jealousy watching the girls train,
The young women I saw sparring that night were so plainly, dizzyingly free. Free in their choice to be there in the first place […] But above all free to want, in public and without apology […] to want to have and use power, to want to test their bodies and their mettle and take pleasure in the experience.
Before long, Cohen starts to experience the same liberation herself, I didn’t feel like I was a woman at all; it was only my form, only my goddam elbows that mattered, and it was lovely […] I felt admitted and I felt free.
And the men seem to benefit from the training too. Cohen is struck by the “surprising gentleness” and “quiet nobility” of all the young men in the gym, many of whom lead appalling home lives. Their coaches attribute this to boxing; the outward measure of the confidence and self-control they earned from the sport.
- Boxing offers a complex and troubling mix of healing and harm
Cohen ponders that the idea that something as brutal as boxing could contain the possibility of healing presents a puzzle. She notices that everyone in the gym (including herself) is troubled and emotionally scarred in some way – and wonders whether it’s right to expose such vulnerable people to the physical and emotional dangers of boxing. Her conclusion is startling – There was a counterweight here, something of such great value that it justified the risk. But only, perhaps […] for those who come from a certain type of damage to begin with.
This theme recurs throughout the book, [The gym] was a place around which milled some danger, some ugliness. But why then, did it also feel like a hearth, a place to come and be fed. What was this mixture of safety and freedom – and danger – that seemed possible here as nowhere else”.
Later on, Cohen compares boxing to a kind of homeopathic remedy, to save people leading troubled lives from criminal temptation. She notes that almost everyone in the gym, of whatever age, believes that boxing has “saved” them in some way from a life of crime.
But the sport has its very dark side also. Cohen describes being hit on the side of the head, and having a bad headache for two days. And she comes to a sour realisation: that this pleasure was […] not safe.
Towards the end of the book, Cohen reaches a momentous insight. She’s previously felt disappointed that none of Raphi’s students ever seem to last for more than a year or two. Now she comes to understand Raphi’s true goals: to enable the girls to taste this, to be changed by it, and depart, intact, with the taste still in their mouths. To get in and out without serious injury. Maybe all the riches the sport had to offer came up front, in the first year or two; maybe if you kept drinking from the fountain too long, it became toxic.
- Aggression is not necessarily the bad thing people often assume
Cohen cites various psychologists and sociologists arguing that aggression is not necessarily the same thing as violence. Indeed it is a basic life force, which we need to survive and thrive. According to Anthony Storr, aggression has two distinct forms; constructive and destructive. Yet women are systematically denied the right to express any form of aggression.
Cohen makes links throughout the book between aggression and desire, both of which are said to be forbidden to girls in equal measure” but “requisite for life.
Towards the end, she expresses the tentative hypothesis that boxing is somehow linked to or analogous with sex. This is not to say that she finds boxing “sexy”; but she sees something in it about two people expressing and receiving with their bodies […] a kind of wordless dialogue.
- The structure of boxing can give women a profound experience of emotional safety and being contained
Cohen notes that the young girls are not at all afraid to enter the gym, or to box. Indeed, It was a safer version of what they’d already witnessed, and what they themselves had engaged in all their lives.
The theme of women needing to spar with a bigger, stronger partner without hurting them recurs throughout the book. Cohen notes that, We needed to smash and we needed the world to survive our smashing.
One of the young girls says at one point, In the ring […] I feel safe, very safe – I feel as if I won’t hurt people that much because of all the rules and boundaries of boxing. Cohen reflects that, What is so extraordinary to me about this statement is the fact that she chooses to define safety as feeling safe from hurting others. This is a girl who lives in a neighbourhood where rape, assault and gun violence are reported in the news more or less routinely. But she is clear. The safety she craves most is the safety to let go, to unleash all her body’s power without fear of it being too much.