What’s the best response to a female student whose main priority seems to be getting male attention during a martial arts class?
There’s one interesting issue that I keep on hearing about from female readers of this blog. And it’s one that many of them feel embarrassed about.
I’ve wanted to write about this for a while, because it seems to come up surprisingly often for serious female martial artists; and it can cut us so deeply. And of course I’ve definitely suffered from these difficult feelings myself.
But at the same time I’m wary. There’s too much in our culture that demonises women’s sexuality; and I certainly don’t want to add to that.
So this article is not going to dictate anything about how women should or shouldn’t behave; or try to define “flirting” or “behaving provocatively”.
Instead, I’m just going to write about how it feels to be a woman grappling with this issue; and also look at how we might respond in line with the principles of the art we are seeking to learn.
Sometimes women will actively “punish” flirty women
Dr Alex Channon has researched gender policing in dojos and boxing gyms. This is where men or women try to force each other to behave in accepted “masculine” or “feminine” ways.
He found that gender policing was alive and well jn the martial arts, with men “policing” the behaviour of other men; and women “policing” the behaviour of other women.
But in very different ways.
The men were hot on preventing excessive displays of masculinity (machismo, over-zealous competitiveness, ‘laddishness’, etc). If new men came in and displayed these behaviours, the men would punish them – often physically.
Meanwhile, the female students he interviewed tended to do the same against “excessive femininity”.
Occasionally, women who overtly sexualised their appearance and behaved in a flirtatious manner in classes were said to attend training, and these behaviours were considered to be unacceptable forms of femininity for a serious martial artist
[…] The women were active in policing their martial arts clubs against the wrong ‘types’ of female members, looking to ‘teach them a lesson’ as either a deterrent or a corrective strategy. [They] would actively “punish those who fail to do their gender right” (Butler, 2008: 190), ensuring that the normalised and accepted, moderate standards of femininity were maintained among female membership
This punishment included physical punishment – within the acceptable parameters of martial arts practice, but physical punishment nonetheless.
Isn’t that a bit over the top . . . ?
Alex’s paper is brilliant; but reading about this particular point felt troubling.
The issue of “punishing” over-masculine men is outside the scope of this article, but may be questionable in itself; although any dojo has to weigh up the safety issues at stake, and protect other students.
But under what circumstances could punishment be the most appropriate response to a woman being over-flirty on the mat?
Is a woman behaving in an overtly “feminine” way she’s perhaps been trained into since birth really on the same level of threat as a student who threatens the physical safety of others? Clearly she isn’t; so why might she be treated in this way?
What are the serious female martial artists so scared of, that they have to attack these “unacceptable” women who stray into the dojo?
I do sympathise, having had the experience of feeling sad and invisible beside a loud, exaggeratedly flirtatious woman in class; and know how annoying and demoralising it can be. As Becca Borawski puts it,
Try getting scratched up by a girl more interested in flirting with the instructor than she is in learning jiu jitsu. Or try asking one of your teammates a question when he’s thinking, “Oh my god there’s a real, live girl five feet from me.” Class productivity is severely hampered, and even I started thinking, “When is she going to leave?”
But other people do annoying things too, all the time, and we don’t physically hurt them for it.
It’s easy to come down heavy on a woman who flirts and flaunts her sexuality inappropriately (in our view) in the dojo. But is this any worse than someone who doesn’t wash their training uniform – or who turns up late for class every week and never helps to put the mats out – or who selfishly avoids training with beginners, because they want to further their own progress to the maximum?
There’s a huge range of annoying behaviours that we can all show. But for some reason, we can tend to tolerate a lot of them, but react with venom when another woman is acting “silly” or “overly feminine” on the mat.
It’s also interesting that we’re probably far less likely to feel the same intensity of anger towards a male student or teacher, who may be energetically sharing in and “feeding” the flirtatious behaviour.
We all try to be kind and mature; but I’ve certainly felt flashes of disgust and anger towards female students who behave like this.
For one thing, women in a male-dominated dojo have often worked extremely hard to be taken seriously. Many of us are learning martial arts to try to escape society’s exhausting regime of feminine stereotypes, and explore different ways of being.
So the last thing we want is some unfocused, giggling woman with no real interest in the martial arts, to threaten our journey by parading the very stereotypes we’re trying to escape – and apparently being rewarded for it.
And on a baser level, we’re all just human in the end. It’s not a nice feeling when you’re doing your best to train hard and seriously, listen to instructions and become competent – and then you sense that another student may be getting a type of attention you will never get – because she’s using the alternative strategy of appealing to a male student or instructor’s animal sexuality.
For me, these situations can still ignite intensely painful emotions – a piercing, gut-wrenching sense of being inferior to a more appealing woman. Whatever my intellect says about the advantages of transcending gender stereotypes in training, and becoming a stronger person, there’s still some primal side that feels humiliated, inadequate and even jealous in such moments.
So what’s the real answer . . . ?
If we feel jealous and resentful, it’s going to be very difficult to handle the situation gracefully. But in fact, there may not even be anything to feel jealous of. Outspoken femininity expert, Renee Wade writes:
Sure, all of us would like to be considered hot, and all of us should take good care of ourselves and be healthy so that we look as great as we deserve and feel as good as we deserve to feel.
But to have being considered hot as your goal?
What about doing something that matters?
[…] What the world is really lacking is not hot, sexy women who are willing to “put themselves out there”. What the world is lacking is truly attractive and radiant women whose genuine happiness and energy is a gift to all.
[…] Strive for radiance; for giving a gift through your beauty, and your femininity in all its forms, not just to be considered the ‘hottest’.
[…] Our culture – the media, the news – tries every possible way to get women to live in fear. Most of us have been influenced, even brainwashed, to harbor the belief that being the hottest will get you happiness.
[…] Is being hot really the goal, or is true radiance the goal? Where your radiance, and your high level of self-value and your beautiful feminine energy, happiness and compassion will touch everyone you come in contact with?
Then, being hot is the icing on the cake. And being called hot will be cheap in comparison to the feeling of touching others, and inspiring others with your genuine radiance.
– Renee Wade: So What If You’re Hot?
I love Renee’s writing, and believe that this article of hers describes a highly desirable state of being.
I don’t generally take her thoughts on femininity to be essentialist or retrograde, although I know some people do. It feels like she is writing about a powerful transcendence of limitations, and something like a healthy flow of ki – even if she doesn’t use such vocabulary herself.
I’m also coming to believe that once you start to realise these things, it’s important to offer (without pushing) strong, positive modelling to others where possible and appropriate, grounded in an alternative model of femininity.
It’s never about judging other women harshly, and it’s certainly not about shaming or punishing anyone.
O Sensei, the founder of Aikido wrote: Be grateful even for hardship, setbacks, and bad people. Dealing with such obstacles is an essential part of training in Aikido.
Feeling provoked by and jealous of another female student can actually be a wonderful opportunity to put our money where our mouth is as martial arts practitioners. If we’re confident and disciplined enough, it can be an opportunity to practise controlling our own emotions; and nurture and support other women to explore and play with other ways of being, should they be so inclined.
Returning to the original question of whether very flirty women are a threat to serious female practitioners – if our dojo is basically full of good people, I don’t think we have anything at all to worry about, with regards to our own standing with the guys. They are not stupid; and will not suddenly start to respect or care for us any less, just because another woman may be acting in a highly “flirtatious” way.
This is an incredibly complex and emotive issue, and there are no easy answers. However, by thinking about it in a bit more depth, rather than just disliking and/or “punishing” the women concerned, I believe we can achieve a lot in terms of personal growth and movement – both for ourselves, and potentially also for other women and girls we come into contact with in the dojo.