Womens Muay Thai Kickboxing match.  Source: Wikimedia.
Muay Thai Kickboxing match. Source: Wikimedia.


Conference Report:  Martial Arts Studies – Gender Issues in Theory and Practice
Brighton University (UK), 5th February 2016



On February 5th Brighton University sponsored the first in a series of specialized conferences and meetings funded by the Martial Arts Studies Research Network (MASRN). The title of the event was “Martial Arts Studies – Gender Issues in Theory and Practice.”  It was hosted by Alex Channon and Christopher Matthews, two recognized scholars in the area, and was attended by about 30 participants and observers.  By all accounts the event was lively with multiple papers sparking substantive discussions.   In short, I wish I could have been there.

Luckily for us, a number of individuals who attended the event have written conference reports, sharing some of the insights and conversations that these papers sparked.  Below I have reblogged Paul Bowman’s account which does a great job of introducing each of the presenters, reviewing the substance of their work, and telling us something of how the audience reacted to their presentation.

If, as you read through his report, you encounter a paper you might want to know more about, be sure to also check out this blog post on the event written by Kai Morgan.  She brings her own perspective and some additional details to the discussion.  Lastly, readers will also want to be aware of Luke White’s discussion of the event at his own blog “Kung Fu with Braudel.” His concluding thoughts on how these same questions may relate to martial arts studies are particularly important, and we will briefly return to them below.

A number of themes ran throughout this conference.  Obviously gender was the central organizing concern, but multiple papers looked more specifically at the possibility that the martial arts might be used as agents of positive social transformation.  From my perspective perhaps the most interesting finding to emerge from the conference was that researchers remain split on whether this actually happens in practice.  Dr. Jump’s ethnographic study of boxing and its impact on violent behavior and attitudes raised important (and troubling) questions about the social impact of youth involvement in combat sports in certain settings.

I look forward to reading her finished paper when its available.  Her findings are reminiscent of some of the connections between youth delinquency and the traditional martial arts which emerged in Hong Kong in the 1950s and 1960s that I noted in my own study of the period.  It seems that this is an area that might benefit from some additional comparative case studies.

By all accounts this first event in the MASRN series was a success.  It engaged a dedicated group of scholars and facilitated conversations that will continue for some time.  It has also generated deeper questions about the nature of violence, identity, consent and social transformation that may contribute to a wide range of research projects within martial arts studies.


Female martial artists (including Chen Laoshi) from the later Jingwu Association, another liberal group seeking to use the martial arts to reform and "save" Chinese society.
Female martial artists (including Chen Laoshi) from the Jingwu Association.  In the 1920s this group sought to use the martial arts to reform traditional Chinese views on gender and pursue “national salvation.”




Martial Arts Studies – Gender Issues in Theory and Practice
by Paul Bowman


Friday February 5th 2016 saw the first of our AHRC funded Martial Arts Studies Research Network events, at the Eastbourne campus of the University of Brighton. The organisers from the hosting university were Drs Alex Channon and Christopher Matthews. Professor John Sugden opened the event, entertaining the 30 or so people present with tales of his early research into boxing communities in the US, back when there was virtually nothing academic written about combat sports of any kind. I then gave a brief introduction to the research network and the emerging field of martial arts studies, before the conference proper began.


Chris Matthews gave the first paper, beginning from and overview of the history of various forms of exclusion in sports (the most glaring example being of course the fact that for a very long time sports have overwhelmingly been made for and played by men). However, there have recently been some significant social shifts, exemplified by the huge numbers of women in sports. Focusing next on his ethnographic research into boxing, Matthews introduced the idea of undoing the presumed essential link between boxing and men, arguing that a more nuanced understanding of exclusion is needed in order to have a clearer picture of the forces and relations of exclusion that currently operate in such environments. His own fieldwork in boxing gyms revealed a range of attitudes towards openness and closedness to non-hegemonic masculinities in these gyms, around different attitudes to women and gay men, as well as different attitudes to the question of trying to attract more women or more types of men into the gyms. The talk was too wide ranging to permit easy summary – however, the accompanying Prezi presentation is available here. And rather than reaching a firm conclusion, Matthews handed over to a local Eastbourne boxing coach who actively seeks to ‘practice inclusivity’.


The coach was Paul Senior, from Eastbourne Boxing Club, who gave a very interesting presentation on his outreach work, and the unique position that boxing seems to have as an activity that can appeal to and engage socially excluded children and teenagers. Unlike other forms of teacher or indeed adult generally, the boxing coach is often highly respected by the children and teenagers, and accordingly such figures can become the first real site of intervention into precarious and marginalised lives and social situations. To conclude the talk overall, Chris Matthews came back in with questions about how those who seek to ‘practice inclusivity’ might still inadvertently contribute to new forms of exclusion; after which a very lively discussion followed.


Professor Kath Woodward presented next, with a talk on gender and what’s changed in the discourses around women’s boxing since its first inclusion in the 2012 Olympics. Her animating question was that of how social change takes place, and her contention was that what happened around women’s boxing in 2012 illustrates the ways that boxing and martial arts can actually generate discursive change. Social and cultural change happens marginally and incrementally, she argued. But, at the same time, there can be events that essentially change the landscape in an instant. Referring to Foucauldian theory, Woodward suggested that the commentary around women’s boxing at that time demonstrated a dramatic transformation: beforehand, a lot of discourse had been sexist, focusing on the question of the risks to women’s bodies vis-à-vis child-bearing, their looks and their supposed fragility. But during the contests, this all evaporated and was replaced by commentary that demonstrated how seriously it was being taken. This, she suggested, evinced a cultural change in the way people think – a minor revolution that could contribute to the chipping away at patriarchal ideas about gender.


Anna Kavoura and Catherine Phipps presented their research into creating supporting environments for LGBT people in martial arts clubs. Phipps presented introductory and context-setting data on LGBT inclusion in and exclusion from sport generally. She defined key terms and discussed a range of different studies and surveys before proposing that, in her opinion, of all of the groups included in the term ‘LGBT+’, those who suffer the most exclusion are ‘trans’ people.


Anna Kavoura posed the question of why anyone would want to create supportive and inclusive environments in martial arts anyway. Legality was her first answer; followed by a discussion of the extent to which discriminative attitudes have negative effects and the extent to which prejudice can actually endanger is its victims’ health. Kavoura too proposed that the most excluded and overlooked group are the many kinds trans people – people who, as she reported one trans discussant said to her, are often terrified of leaving the house to go to the supermarket, never mind even thinking about participating in sports.


An interesting discussion about our encounters and relationships with various forms of prejudice as they occur in martial arts classes followed, which continued on in various ways throughout the day. But the next session was made up of group discussions of questions around engaging girls and women in martial arts clubs of all kinds. People suggested that role modelling seemed vital; Kavoura recounted a tale of how she had actively sought out new female training partners in order to broaden the pool of people she could spar with in class; others discussed the importance of having women in leadership positions; creating trusting environments; listening; questioning tradition; and trying to educate prejudiced people rather than simply confronting them directly or antagonistically; challenging preconceptions about motivations; and even renaming and de-gendering some of the different terms that are routinely used (‘women’s pressups’, for instance, was given as an example several times).


The criminologist Deborah Jump from Manchester Metropolitan University presented next, discussing her research into the narrative accounts of young men’s experience of violence, desistance from criminality and the place of boxing in these realms. Her research question was one of what impact boxing has on young men’s understanding of violence; and she had undertaken ethnographic studies using psychotherapeutic techniques rather than direct questioning. That is to say, her primary style of data gathering took the form of asking the question ‘tell me the story of how you got into boxing’. In interpreting the narratives, Jump found some regularly recurring themes: the denial of vulnerability, the attempt to compensate for a lack of social capital; the effort to try to embody masculinity, and specifically as a way to overcome vulnerability or lack of social capital. Jump discussed Wacquant’s notion of body capital and the received folk wisdom that the bigger you are, the more masculine you are.


Because in her findings the reasons given for taking up boxing always involved the effort to prevent repeat victimisation, Jump proposed that boxing is widely seen by its working class youth practitioners as a resource to command fear. Violence, in this regard, is seen as a resource. She then turned to the high incidence of the word ‘respect’ in so many young boxers’ narratives. Turning to Kant for a definition of ‘respect’, Jump observed that for Kant ‘respect’ refers to ‘being worthy of consideration’, and she tied this back to her findings and arguments about young men turning to boxing in order to gain some cultural prestige. Along with other terms that frequently recur (references to ‘respect’ and ‘disrespect’ as reasons for violence, and injunctions like ‘don’t be a pussy’, and so on), Jump proposed that the recurrence of these ‘street’ terms in the boxing gym demonstrated a problematic continuity of violent narratives. Specifically, given that there so often seemed to be a strong relationship between taking up boxing and the experience of prior domestic abuse, Jump proposed that it is problematic that the terms of street habitus are in effect reinforced in the boxing gym. Maintaining respect and avoiding shame is, she reiterated, a primary motivation for violence on the street – and this entire system of values and its logic is replicated in the gym. So, she concluded, boxing is perhaps good for primary desistance from crime (time spent training is time off the streets), but it doesn’t actually cause its young male practitioners to change their self-concept or their personal narrative.


Jump’s paper provoked lively debate, and set the scene nicely for the final paper: Alex Channon and Chris Matthews’ ongoing work into how to combat domestic abuse. Their project is called ‘love fighting, hate violence’ and their key question is that of how to decouple fighting and violence. Following on from Deborah Jump’s challenge to the idea that boxing can work against violence, Channon and Matthews proposed that fighting does not equal violence and that the mutual consent of sparring partners shows that there is no necessary violation and no necessary violence in martial arts training. From this position, they are currently seeking to explore how to leverage this moral distinction to good effect, and more generally how to do something as academics and researchers that will have an impact outside of academia. On this note, they turned the question over to the audience, and asked us all to assess their ideas and offer suggestions.


Several concerns were raised, such as the risk that this project either implicitly or explicitly risks falling into the trap of following normal gender assumptions, and also the idea that martial arts training does not involve violence was challenged. But in the end a series of suggestions was forthcoming too: educational workshops were proposed, film making, offering different narratives, etc. As Channon put it towards the end of this final session, their overarching aim is to try to initiate cultural shifts, or at least to generate discourse around these issues. This was an appropriate point to conclude, not least because it seems clear that this first martial arts studies research network event has already stimulated the thinking of those present, and undoubtedly begun to generate discourse. Indeed, this first martial arts research network event seem likely to be remembered as the start of numerous new endeavours, relationships and projects.


In conclusion, I would like to thank Alex Channon and Chris Matthews for their hard work in organising this event, and to all of the speakers and other participants, many of whom travelled significant distances to attend. I am now looking forward to the second network event, on contemporary debates in martial arts cinema, at Birmingham City University on 1st April 2016.

Triva Pino (Left).  The 2006 US Armed Forced Female Boxing Champion.  Source: Wikimedia.
Triva Pino (Left). The 2006 US Armed Forced Female Boxing Champion. Source: Wikimedia.

Conclusion: Gender in Martial Arts Studies

Finally, I would like to bring up one additional point.  In his own assessment of the meeting Luke White offered some additional thoughts on how these same concerns about gender, identity and inclusion might be playing themselves out in the conference halls and classrooms of martial arts studies as an academic discipline.  I encourage everyone read his report (which can be found here) but his concluding remarks are indispensable:


I also then found myself wondering about Martial Arts Studies itself as a gendered space. As part of our explorations in the day, we thought in some detail about the ways that women, or those from the LGBT+ community, are often excluded by aspects of the environment and ritualised behaviour of gyms and dojos. But what about our academic Martial Arts Studies events? How welcome do they feel there, and how deeply has that been considered by us? Though the event at Eastbourne – with a fantastic mix of people attending – felt very inclusive, my feelings about the conference in Cardiff last Summer were rather different. I spoke to a number of women attendees afterwards who pretty much all told me that they had found it a rather uncomfortably “male” space. And indeed, it struck me strongly that there was a certain machismo that surrounded a lot of the socialisation that took place around the conference. Often the first question asked was not (unlike most academic conferences!) what your paper is about or some such thing, but about whether you practiced a martial art, and if so what style. The effect of such a question can, perhaps, be a little like the aggressive questioning that Bruce Lee is subjected to by a white martial artist on the boat on the way to a martial arts contest: “What’s your style?” In the film, it wasn’t just a polite inquiry, it was also a challenge. In the conference, the question was clearly less intrusive, but I wondered how non-practitioners may have experienced this kind of question. Did it imply less of a right to be there? Some of the papers, too, seemed to include hints about “martial credentials” that came close at points to masculine “posturing”. One speaker (I shan’t name him), after an explicit denial of homophobia, followed this up, as evidence, with what was meant to be a joke but ultimately amounted to a homophobic comment. Were some of the gendered cultures of the training hall entering into the spaces of academic debate, too? It’s often small, banal, everyday, overlooked performances that inscribe gender on a space – often much more subtle than directly homophobic or sexist comments, often far more everyday than the spectacular examples of subproletarian boxing gyms discussed at Friday’s event, and often far more inscribed into the “normal” behaviour of “upright” citizens – and it seems to me that in order to safeguard not only the spaces in which we do martial arts, but also the academic spaces where we discuss them in this fledgeling discipline, we need a vigilance not so much on the “other” but on ourselves.

Obviously these are important concerns, and they deserve careful consideration.  The meaning of the question “What is your style?” at a martial arts studies conference seems particularly interesting, as does the place of personal experience in academic research.  Certainly much more can be said on these questions than can be inserted at the end of a conference report.  However, readers may wish to follow this discussion as it has unfolds at the Martial Arts Studies blog.


If you liked this conference report you might also want to read: “The Gender of Martial Arts Studies