Violence, Vulnerability and Visions of Change – Can Martial Arts Drive Social Transformation?

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Conference notes: Martial Arts Studies: Gender Issues in Theory and Practice

(Hosted by the University of Brighton; Friday 5 February 2016)

Disclaimer: I have no financial or other interest in the work of the MASR Network, or the universities involved, other than obviously benefitting from the knowledge they are making freely available. This page contains no affiliate links.


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Most of us are very clear on the ways that martial arts have changed us, and made us better people. But how can we also use martial arts to help others grow? And can the martial arts even be used to transform wider society . . . ?

The Martial Arts Studies Research Network set out to explore these questions at a free conference last Friday 5 February 2016 at the University of Brighton (UK), with a special focus on “gender issues” as they affect men, women, girls and boys. Here’s a summary of the key points covered.

The Network welcomes anyone at all who is passionate about martial arts; from published researchers, to martial arts practitioners with little or no formal academic experience – the common thread is being keen to delve into the big issues, and wanting make a difference.

Future events are listed at:


Welcome address from the Martial Arts Studies Research Network and the University of Brighton


Dr Paul Bowman from Cardiff University opened the conference, as the director of the Martial Arts Studies Research Network. He expressed his appreciation to the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) for recognising Martial Arts Studies as an emerging academic subject, and for funding the network and this event.

Paul explained that the vision for Martial Arts Studies is to create a rich, exciting academic sJ Sugdenubject, which examines the place of martial arts in the modern world. It connects real life training experiences to academic theory, cutting across subjects as diverse as history, philosophy, sociology, art, medicine, anthropology, psychology, sports studies, dance and so on.

Professor John Sugden from the University of Brighton then welcomed attendees to the University and the event. He shared some lively tales from his early research into boxing communities in the US, including the privileged opportunity to spend time with a young (and at that time unknown) Marlon Starling – who later went on to become twice world champion.


Engaging marginalised young men in a local boxing club


C MatthewsFirst of all, Dr Christopher R. Matthews from the University of Brighton talked about exclusion in boxing, based on his own training experience and academic research within some very macho “spit and sawdust” gyms.

He quoted various male boxers he had interviewed, who openly enjoyed the fact that their gym scared many people. They liked the way this kept most people out, and gave the gym an exclusive mystique, as a place for very tough men only.

Indeed, boxing became a place for these men to openly display and celebrate their superiority to women and “weaker” men.

In many cases, Christopher found that the boxers were not consciously excluding groups such boxing glovesas women and gay men out of any malice. They just genuinely believed that these people were biologically inferior and would not be able to fit in to the gym. And this became self-fulfilling as these groups did indeed tend to stay away.

Christopher explained that this was a typical example of myths becoming real – because they are acted out in reality, until they come to seem like truths.

However, Christopher then explained that this myth has been destabilised in recent years, due to social developments such as women’s liberation and the gay rights movement. As people from these groups start to enter boxing, the gym starts to lose its meaning as a private place for “macho” men.

This in turn starts to challenge the links between boxing, violence and men, which again have often been seen as real, unquestionable “facts”.
P Senior

Paul Senior from Eastbourne Boxing Club then presented a contrasting, much more inclusive approach to boxing, which his own club seeks to model. He explained that his club has no interest in keeping anyone out; indeed it actively works to draw diverse young people and adults in.

Paul outlined some of the work EBC is engaged in, including outreach work with local schools.

He also explained the ways in which EBC creates an inclusive environment. These include:

  • Keeping the gym clean, tidy and attractively decorated

    EBC group
    Students at Eastbourne Boxing Club
  • Training new coaches to understand, model and implement the inclusive ethos of EBC in all their teaching.
  • Being very careful to avoid language that might belittle or marginalise any group or individual.
  • Running a diverse range of programmes, including a non-contact fitness course.
  • Proactively reaching out to socially excluded groups in the local community.
  • Making adjustments for individuals’ special or additional needs within the teaching.
  • Involving students from the University of Brighton in the gym, to broaden their development as future sports coaches.
  • Training all students alongside each other, from beginners to elite competitors, and differentiating by outcomes and tasks to ensure that all students are supported and challenged at their own level.

The gym is also applying for funding to extend its facilities, and investigate accessibility for students with physical impairments and/or additional needs.

Paul gave some very moving case studies of marginalised and deeply unhappy young people, who had experienced personal transformation through being part of EBC. These changes included gaining self-esteem, and engaging with their school work for the first time.

EBC pic
Student at Eastbourne Boxing Club

Christopher and Paul concluded that sporting spaces presented a huge opportunity for implementing inclusive practices. Indeed, clubs should not limit themselves to the modest goal of simply “breaking down” inequalities – they should aspire to recreate themselves as flagships for equality.

Finally, both men urged the audience to get personally involved in the hard work of promoting equality within their martial art or other sport, reminding us that social change takes focused effort, and does not happen by itself.



Access the slides for this presentation on Twitter: @drcrmatthews

Read more of Christopher’s work: The thrill of the fight – sensuous experiences of boxing – towards a sociology of violence 

Scroll down for details of Christopher’s new book (with Dr Alex Channon): Global Perspectives on Women in Combat Sports; Women Warriors around the World


Sex, gender and boxing: What’s changed since 2012?


K WoodwardProfessor Kath Woodward from The Open University explored the extent to which Women’s Boxing finally being accepted as an official sport for the 2012 Olympics, has disrupted the belief that boxing is only for men.

Like Christopher, Kath explained that boxing has great capacity to drive social change. This can happen at two levels. Boxing can change individuals, through their personal, private day-to-day training journey. But it can also challenge and change society as a whole, through its visible, spectacular displays in public.

Kath explained that major sporting events have the power to create social change, through capturing the public’s imagination. Spectators feel absolutely lost in the moment, which can be a heavily emotional experience.

And unlike some other catalysts for change, we don’t have to wait years for the legacy of these events to start to emerge – the transformation can strike us collectively; right in the moment. However, this is still only a starting point – social change remains slow and incremental, however dramatic the event or other trigger might be.

Joshua Anthony and Nicola Adams
By Richard Gillin from St Albans, UK [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
For Kath, the greatest change of all is that we can now talk about women in boxing, in a way we weren’t able to before – as a serious, real sport. Because we now have media images and reports; living memories; and actual names and faces (Nicola Adams being the obvious example) of real, highly skilled, strong women, boxing really well in the Olympics.

So the idea of women’s boxing is now more “real” – and no longer as unthinkable or inappropriate as it used to seem.

Kath also explained that the events of 2012 have given us a new perspective, and type of role model. Suddenly the well-known tale of a poor man rising up from the ghetto through boxing has widened – and become a possibility for women too.

Kath stated that 2012 hasn’t necessarily resulted in loads of women now training to become world-class boxing champions, although there do seem to be more women doing combat sports in general, which might well be linked.

However, she concluded that even though social change is always slow and incremental, the events of 2012 have definitely played an important part in breaking down former views of women being too fragile, sexually distracting or emotionally unstable to box well and be taken seriously.


Read more by Kath:



Creating supportive environments for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT+) people in martial arts clubs

C PhippsCatherine Phipps from the University of Greenwich summarised some key research in this area, noting that there was not much research available. She cited the following reports:

All three pieces of research found evidence of homophobia and transphobia. Examples included:

  • Disrespectful behaviour, language and jokes
  • Assumptions that LGBT+ people preferred a particular sport because of their sexuality and/or gender
  • Other participants avoiding training with LGBT+ people
  • A lack of inclusion policies for transgender people – and those that did exist tending to be poorly constructed.

However, the research suggested that mixed-gender environments tended to be more inclusive; which would obviously include many martial arts clubs.

A Kavoura croppedAnna Kavoura, University of Jyväskylä then outlined the harmful effects of homophobia and transphobia, including the risk of litigation; reputational risks for clubs; damage to the club’s atmosphere, group dynamics and effectiveness. Above all, she highlighted the deep physical and mental harm it could cause for victims, including alienating them from sport altogether.

Anna also shared her personal experience of speaking with a group of transgender people, who told her that even something as everyday as going to the supermarket was terrifying for them, let alone participating in sports.

She urged the audience to act as exemplary role models in their own clubs, and to challenge homophobia and transphobia wherever possible.

This statement sparked some debate from the audience over how realistic it was to expect all practitioners to challenge all instances of discrimination in a real-life training environment. Some (although not all) participants felt that their own club culture would make this difficult. For example, some attendees felt vulnerable themselves, due to having one or more protected characteristic. Others trained in clubs where members had little tolerance for supposed “political correctness”. It was recognised that homophobia is sometimes used as a bonding mechanism within some clubs.

Anna acknowledged this. She explained that Catherine and herself were contributing to the development of educational materials as part of an Erasmus+ anti-discrimination project called IRIS – these materials would be available on the IRIS website once published. And the materials would tend to be aimed at coaches and PE teachers, as the individuals with generally the most power to effect change, and lead by example.


Read more by Catherine: 


Engaging girls and women in martial arts and combat sports

girls jujutsu
By Peter Huys – [CC BY-SA 2.0] via Flickr
This session took the form of a group discussion and debate about preferred strategies for engaging female students in the martial arts.

People agreed that role modelling was important, including having women in leadership positions. It was also important to ensure that the training environment felt safe, and to listen to (all) students’ views and concerns about inclusion. Martial arts were agreed to be an ideal place to question tradition, and challenge prejudice in a positive way.

The group also agreed that gendered language within the dojo could create barriers, with phrases such as “women’s press-ups” being seen as very unhelpful and undesirable.


Download your free guide to attracting and retaining more female martial arts students here


Tales from the ring: Young boxers’ narratives of desistance from violence

D JumpDr Deborah Jump from Manchester Metropolitan University told the story of how she had come to realise the power of sport to create social change, through her previous career working with young offenders. She had therefore decided to carry out six months of academic research within a boxing gym.

Deborah’s key research questions were:

  • What impact does boxing have on young men’s understanding of violence?
  • Does the masculine culture of the gym condone violence or reduce it?
  • Can boxing help men to desist from crime?

She explained her research approach, which had started by simply spending time and helping out at the gym, to gain the boxers’ acceptance, and become ‘part of the furniture’. Deborah had then used a very open ended interviewing method – Tell me the story of how you became a boxer – to encourage her interviewees to speak as freely as possible.

Deborah’s research showed that the culture of the boxing gym enabled most of the men to view violence as an acceptable solution to problems, which reinforced their experiences of the street and home. Deborah also noted that the men seemed trapped in a culture of having to achieve the respect of others, and avoid shame – sometimes at any cost.

As her research progressed however, Deborah became aware that underneath their aggressive personas, many of her subjects were hiding a lot of vulnerability, relating to class, race, childhood experiences of violence and so on. She realised that the men were therefore driven to embody masculinity, and maximise their physical capital, to protect themselves. Boxing was seen as a major part of their identity – and they actively used it to command fear

Deborah was very interested to find out whether boxing could encourage men to desist from violence. However, the only positive finding she made was that boxing sometimes kept the men occupied, when they might otherwise have been engaged in violence or other criminal activity. There was no evidence at all that boxing inspired or enabled the men to change their views on violence.

Finally, Deborah shared some of her ideas for putting her findings into practice. One such idea would be to provide better training for coaches, to help them challenge and unpick men’s views of violence, using insights from sociology and criminology. Another could be to find ways to make Nonviolent Communication techniques attractive and relevant to the men.


‘Love Fighting, Hate Violence’: Building an anti-domestic violence campaign within martial arts and combat sports

A ChannonDr Alex Channon, and Dr Christopher R. Matthews from the University of Brighton shared their emerging vision for an awareness-raising campaign, which would separate out the concepts of “fighting” (within a structured, consensual martial arts context) and violence. They asked participants for ideas and suggestions on how the campaign might work in practical terms; and captured a number of potential ideas for review and consideration.

The debate on this was lively. It became clear that the word “violence” is incredibly hard to define precisely. Some martial arts do contain more troubling elements of violence, and it will be a complex challenge to LoveFightingHateViolenceclearly understand and articulate the issues at stake.

Alex and Christopher explained that this is precisely the kind of debate they want to bring out into the open. Their ultimate ambition is to use martial arts to raise awareness and challenge people’s thinking – and ultimately contribute to creating social change.

Several people also urged caution, as it will be important that the project doesn’t assume that all domestic violence is perpetrated by men and aimed at women.


Book launch – ‘Global Perspectives on Women in Combat Sports’

book coverThe day ended with a book launch for the new book by Alex and Christopher: Global Perspectives on Women in Combat Sports. The book contains seventeen fascinating and lively essays, exploring diverse aspects of women warriors around the world.

The book investigates a range of compelling questions such as:

  • Who are the Cholitas Luchadoras of Bolivia – and is their lifestyle an empowering way out of poverty; or a perpetuation of harmful race, class and gender stereotypes?
  • Does Ronda Rousey undo stereotypes of femininity – or exploit them for her own advantage – or is the answer complex, and somewhere in between . . . ?
  • What is life like for Muslim women who want to practise boxing in Afghanistan?
  • What can research tell us about the personal characteristics, social background and participation motivation of young Western girls who practise martial arts?

                – and plenty more . . .

Note: The book is still costly, as it’s a newly published academic text. Once the hardback copies sell out, it’s hoped that the publisher (Palgrave) will run it in paperback.




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