Hitting Girls

Kaja Sadowski and Randy Packer sparring in class.

Over on Box.Wrestle.Fence, Courtney’s put up a post about the most common fear that women bring with them into the martial arts classroom: the fear not of being hurt, but of hurting someone else. It’s a great piece from an awesome coach who knows what she’s talking about, and lays out an instructor’s perspective on how to get students comfortable with the idea of hitting each other.

That fear of hurting one’s training partner isn’t gender-specific, but the way it manifests in the classroom often breaks down along gendered lines. Where young women are simply taught not to hit (or kick, or bite, or express any kind of violence, no matter what the context), young men are given more leeway to express themselves through playful violence — unless the target is female. Girls shouldn’t hit anyone; boys shouldn’t hit girls.

That same conditioning makes its way into the martial arts training space. I very rarely have to convince our male students to hit each other. Usually, it’s teaching them how to properly control their blows and enthusiasm to fit the needs of a drill. Hitting me, though? Or throwing a female drilling partner in wrestling? Aiming a punch at her face? That takes work. Sometimes, a whole lot of work. Here’s a quote from a male acquaintance of mine that sums up the problem very well:

“Another guy’s perspective on choosing a female partner. I grew up with the idea of DO NOT HURT WOMEN drilled into my head. So when it does come to sparring and I am a 6’7″ 235lb guy with a lot of strength, I tend to pick a partner that is closer to my size and when a woman is only, say, 170lbs and smaller this is a double whammy. So I not only drop the power I use cause they are smaller but that societal fear of hurting a woman and the stigma attached means I drop it even more so suddenly I no longer feel as if I can properly go through the motion.”

These aren’t the ramblings of a sexist jerk who thinks women aren’t worthy of respect, or the kind of asshole you see in online forums sounding off on how female fighters just aren’t tough enough for the “real world”. This is someone who’s genuinely concerned about injuring a smaller partner, and dealing with some deep-seated cultural programming around gender and violence. He’s a nice guy.

Unfortunately, training partners like this can do just as much damage to the women they work with as the mustache-twirling sexist villains.

Here’s the thing, guys: partnered training requires not only a commitment to keeping your partner safe, but also a commitment to fully executing the technique they’re training against. This second part is absolutely vital and is a matter of both training quality and safety (or even life or death, if you’re training for self-defense).

Let’s take a simple boxing drill: Partner A throws a jab-cross combination aimed at Partner B’s chin, and B parries both strikes with their hands. If the parry fails, A’s fist should just make contact with B’s chin. Now say we’ve got two students, Tim and Amy, doing the drill. When Amy takes on A’s role, she aims right for the chin, and taps Tim a few times when he misses his parry. She even messes up her distance a bit once, and hits him harder than the drill intends. Amy apologizes, Tim has a bit of a sore chin for a few minutes, and the lesson goes on. When they switch roles, Tim is really worried about hitting Amy (especially since she just whacked him in the chin, and he knows it’s not much fun), so he fudges his distance and throws his punches to the space a couple of inches in front of her chin. He’s still aiming carefully, so it looks like the same attack, but he knows she won’t get hit if she misses a parry.

Amy’s training is now compromised no matter what happens. If she screws up a parry, there’s no touch on her chin to let her know that she’s gotten it wrong. Her hand will make contact with Tim’s fist (since a bad parry that touches but doesn’t stop the fist is a lot more likely at this range than a complete whiff), and she won’t get hit in the face. From her perspective, the parry worked. Even if she really does make good parries every single time, she’s still in trouble. Timing a defense correctly requires a good understanding of distance, and Tim is ruining her ability to perceive it correctly. His striking distance isn’t what he’s actually showing her, but Amy doesn’t know that. She’s training to defeat a strike that isn’t intended to land, and her sense of distance and timing are going to be subtly off as a result.

The same things happen in all boxing or kicking drills where the attacker subtly changes their target to avoid causing injury, in swordplay drills where they change the angle of their cut or the line of attack (most commonly from targeting the body to targeting the sword), and in slow work or sparring where they stop their hits an inch or two from the target. If enough of Amy’s drilling partners behave like this, she’ll never learn how to defend against a genuine attack. This could be very bad news for her once it comes time to test for a higher rank, or compete, or work with a new training partner who doesn’t behave this way. At worst, she’ll get hurt because she hasn’t developed the skills to prevent someone from striking her in earnest; at best, she’ll fail to defend against a bunch of attacks that she thinks she knows how to stop, and her self-esteem and sense of her own abilities will be badly shaken.

And that’s purely in a martial arts context. If Amy’s in a self-defense class and her partners won’t really hit her (or try to), she could be in mortal danger. She doesn’t know whether her techniques work against a non-compliant opponent, but she’s likely to believe that they do. The first time she tests them in earnest should be in a training space where failure is a learning tool, and not in a genuinely threatening situation where failure will get here seriously injured or killed.
I’m not trying to argue here that a 230lb + tower of muscle should be hauling off at full force on a partner half his size and weight. Control is a vital element of all martial training — whether it’s unarmed or weapon-based. But control doesn’t mean not hitting, and it certainly doesn’t mean cheating your techniques in drills to avoid risk to your partner. Drilling with control means throwing an attack with intention to hit, with clear aim for the correct target, with enough power to provide resistance and challenge, and with enough restraint that it makes contact without causing injury. It’s a skill that we practice like any other, and every fighter should start working on it as early as possible.

If you’re a guy practicing a martial art and you’re worried about harming the women you train with, remember this: every woman who steps into a martial arts environment has made her peace with the fact that she might be hit. Maybe even hurt. If we’re on the floor, we’ve consented to that kind of contact. We may not be happy if someone misjudges their measure and hits harder than they should, but we’ll be okay. If you really want to keep us from coming to harm — from getting mauled in a competition we think we’re prepared for, from the long-term physical and psychological effects of bad training, or from being terribly injured at the hands of someone with genuine bad intent — you’re going to have to start hitting us.