Disposable Women and Martial Arts: An Essay in Two Parts

I originally wrote this piece as two separate Facebook posts, published a few days apart. The first was a very personal vent about some of what I’ve been dealing with over the past few months, and the second a concrete call to action for folks in my martial arts community. I’m sharing both here in sequence, because I think both perspectives are valuable in their own right.

I could rewrite the first part into a more measured introduction for the second, but the anger in it matters. A core element of the issue of women’s disposability is the degree to which it’s normalized. And part of that normalization is that we’re expected to deal with it calmly, patiently, and deferentially (if we acknowledge it at all). My anger is raw and messy and less palatable than my logic, but giving it space is an integral part of pushing back against this narrative that robs me and others of our humanity. So it stays.

Part 1: Rage

I was watching a TV show the other day (it doesn’t really matter which one), and it opened with a woman getting fridged.

“Fridging”, for folks who aren’t aware, is a term coined by comic book fans based on a particularly terrible example of the practice involving a woman’s corpse being found in a refrigerator in an issue of “Green Lantern”. It’s the practice of doing severe harm to a female character in a story — having her killed, raped, or otherwise brutalized — in order to move a male character’s story along: to traumatize him, motivate him to act, etc. The woman doesn’t get to be a character in her own right; her suffering isn’t about her, not really. She’s just collateral damage in the “real” story of the man she’s linked to.

This isn’t the first time I saw a fridging in a piece of media I’d otherwise enjoyed. It won’t be the last, either, I guarantee it. But this time hit me differently and it took a couple of days to work out why.

And it’s the same reason that I burned with helpless anger when I wrote my recent open letter about my experiences at Academie Duello and VISS, even though a lot of the things that happened to me were “minor” (in the sense that getting groped over clothing, having my space invaded, or being treated like a toy instead of a colleague, are all pretty low down the scale of sexual harassment/assault, and are far from the most severe things of that nature that I’ve experienced in my life). What fridging and those incidents have in common is one of the hardest things about sexism to explain to men, and maybe the worst thing about it to endure: they all reveal the simple truth that a woman’s life is not worth as much as a man’s.

We are acceptable collateral damage. When we are harmed; when we are marginalized; when we are excluded from power and denied autonomy; that is considered an acceptable cost for the comfort of men. Or a reasonable fee to pay for their contributions to society.

Fridging works as a storytelling technique because it’s understood that the real story belongs to the man, and not the dead or raped or broken woman. Her role is to be hurt so that he can grow, or so that his story can be made more compelling. My colleagues looked (and continue to look) the other way when I and other women were sexually harassed in a professional environment because they viewed the harm to us as an acceptable cost to trade for the presence of men like Tom Leoni and Mark Mikita and Devon Boorman. We were collateral damage. Our safety literally didn’t matter as much as my colleagues’ comfort, or their ability to learn from “great” men.

I still hear handwringing about how we can “safely” keep men who do this kind of harm in the community, lest we lose their knowledge, or teaching skill, or camaraderie. Lest they be harmed by being excluded.

How many women harmed does it take to add up to a single Tom or Mark or Devon? Do there need to be a dozen of us who say “this hurt me” before anyone acts in a way that might make one of them sad? Two dozen before they decided it’s maybe not worth continuing to invite them to events where they get access to new targets? Fifty or a hundred before they stop promoting their work, singing their praises, and sending new students their way? How many women make up the worth of a single man? It’s sure as hell not 1-to-1, even if we do have the vote now.

And this is the thing that I cannot stand, and that I cannot fucking get across to the men in my life. This bone-deep knowledge that I am disposable. That I am acceptable collateral damage in a way that they will never be. That my suffering is unfortunate, but expected, because that’s the cost we pay for having “great men” in our communities.

People have been asking how I’m doing these days, and this is part of my answer. I’m exhausted. I am angry. I am unwilling to continue being disposable. I am fucking done.

Note for Dudes: I am profoundly uninterested in hearing how sorry you are about this state of affairs, how sad it makes you, or how you “apologize on behalf of your gender”. That doesn’t change shit. If what I’ve written here actually affects you in some way — if it makes you feel bad and like you wish things were different — then let it drive you to action. Use it to make the world a better place for the women in your immediate sphere of influence. Do better. Show us we matter. Don’t just tell us. Words are cheap.

Part 2: Action

A follow-up to my preceding rant about women being disposable, with a real-world example that’s far less dramatic than murder or sexual assault:

There’s a conversation happening in a lot of HEMA right now about who should be included in the community. Do we keep the creeps and the bigots in the hopes that the character growth afforded by martial arts will reform them? In its most reasonable form, the argument posits that martial arts has historically provided a means for “dysfunctional” men to find structure and growth, and that this should be preserved.

And this is true. Martial arts has pretty much always had a place for the angry young man who needs to work through his relationship to violence in a healthy way. It has absolutely been a path to enormous character growth for such people. It helps them.

But their growth period, in which they’re actively working through their issues, is very likely to endanger others. And not just any others, but women specifically.

Why?

Because women are generally physically smaller and are less able to absorb the force that an uncontrolled, angry man is able to dish out. A wild swing with a sword is so much more dangerous when it comes from someone who weighs 1.5x to 2x what you do, than from a relative equal in size.

Because in a beginner training environment (which is how these men generally enter the school) socialization means women usually have less familiarity with roughhousing and play violence, and have fewer pre-existing physical skills for protecting themselves when someone lashes out unexpectedly or suddenly escalates force.

Because the life experience that women are most likely to have with an angry, physically violent man are not schoolyard fights or sparring matches, but incidents of abuse or assault. Which means that they’re at far greater risk of psychological trauma and triggering (in the clinical sense) when it suddenly happens in the classroom.

And finally, because “angry young men” almost universally have big issues with women. Maybe they see them as potential sexual conquests, to be impressed with physical prowess. Or maybe they see them as interlopers and unworthy rivals in men’s spaces who need to be shown their place. Maybe their anger comes from a place of sexual rejection by women, and they literally view them as the enemy. There’s almost always something there that means women are going to get a disproportionately large serving of their anger and dysfunctional behavior.

Having these men in class is very, very likely to harm women. Or to drive us out, because many will see the writing on the wall the second one of these guys walks into the room and just won’t come back. We are collateral damage to their learning.

When we are harmed, or when we leave (and the overwhelming majority of us will leave), we lose out on the same opportunity for character growth that is so important to these men. We never get to build a healthier relationship to violence — and if there’s one thing that the majority of women in the modern world would benefit enormously from, it’s a healthier relationship to violence.

When you make the choice to include these men, you are also making the choice to exclude the women they harm.

And that’s a choice you are allowed to make. It’s impossible for a training space to include everyone. We are always making choices about whose needs we’re going to prioritize, and those choices always leave someone out. But you cannot make that choice while claiming that it doesn’t exclude anyone, or framing it as a neutral choice in contrast with the choice to exclude these men.

Prioritizing the growth of dysfunctional, angry men while inviting women into your space and claiming it’s egalitarian actively contributes to the narrative that women are disposable. It allows us entry into “male” spaces, but not on equal terms. We can be there as facilitators of these men’s growth. We can be collateral damage. If we’re lucky, we can sneak in our own growth around the edges, but it’s never going to be about us the same way it is about them. It cannot be.

I choose to exclude men like that from the spaces I teach in because I never, ever want my students to feel disposable. And because I know that there are 30 other martial arts schools within a 5km radius that’ll happily take those dudes, but the inverse isn’t necessarily true for my female, trans, and non-binary students.

If you’re a martial arts instructor and you read part 1 of this essay, and you want to help, here’s a concrete action item: think about your space, and your community, and the narratives it creates.

Does it not just include women (in the sense that they’re welcome to walk in the door), but centre their growth and experience to the same degree that it does men’s?

If it doesn’t, are you comfortable with that? You’re allowed to be, but you have to be honest with yourself and others about who your space is for.

If it doesn’t and you’re not comfortable with it, then do the work of centring our safety and our learning. Make sure that we have the same opportunities for growth as men. Make sure that we’re not being forced into the dangerous position of being some angry dude’s punching bag or emotional support when we should just be training.

Stop telling us we belong and showing us that we don’t. Words are cheap.

Note 1: I’m using “women” here (which includes both trans and cis women) because I want to maintain consistency with the first half of my essay, and that was speaking directly from my personal experience as a woman. But this stuff applies just as well to many non-binary people and AFAB trans people.

Note 2: If you want to argue that it’s possible to prioritize the growth of angry, dysfunctional men in an environment that genuinely serves women, you’ll need to show me proof. Do you think you’re pulling it off? Show me your retention rates, and the gender split on senior students. Raw attendance numbers mean very little if your “50% female” school has the majority of those women rolling through 6-week beginner/taster courses and never coming back. How many last 6 months? A year? Five years? How do their retention rates stack up against those for men? Are the percentages that stick around pretty close to equal? Then we can talk.