Martial Arts and broadening understandings of masculinity.

One of the few ‘traditionally’ masculine and predominantly homosocial activities I engage in, and have (on and off) for many years, is martial arts/self-defence – and I’ve found it  really interesting and surprising in terms of engagement with masculinity.

A little bit of context about my involvement – the martial arts I have done broadly speaking, are hard martial arts – which (among other things) means there is partnered contact training – think Kung Fu instead of Tai Chi. Furthermore what I’ve done – while being ‘traditional’ (ie with a claim to history/heritage) – has also had a strong practical self-defence aspect, against empty-handed attacks and attacks with weapons. So this broadly speaking, places my personal experience in the broad spectrum of martial arts kind of in the middle, between Sunday morning Tai Chi in the park and Dave’s Ultimate Commando Defence. Oh, it is also relevant to note that what I’ve done hasn’t really had a competitive, sports element, like judo (for example).

My experience of martial arts has been that it has not been full of macho, blokey guys trying to hit each other hard in the head (Though these type of men are very well represented).  Now, when I started thinking reflectively about this kind of thing, I was a little surprised by this. Moreover  – over time I’ve practiced with a few men who exhibit forms of, what I would call, a radical masculinity – varying  forms of queer or genderfuck, in terms of presentation at least. These chaps have not been marginalised within the martial arts class context, nor in my experience, have any other people; be they younger people, women, people of varying fitness, etc. (Here I should point out that all my classes have been taught by professional and generous people, had this not been the case my experiences may have been radically different)

I think I have a theory (surprise!) about this.

The classes I have done have a strong emphasis on supportive training and safety. Obviously, if you’re practicing how to hurt other people you want to avoid injury. In this way, a class is a very (self) regulated place – it’s inappropriate to train with someone who has been there for 2 weeks in the same way as someone who has been there 2 years. And aggression is regulated in the same way, most people (and I can think of a few notable exceptions over the years) recognise that training is a learning environment and curb any aggression – or when training with aggression, are well aware of the need to stop when their partner lets them know.  This all makes a lot of sense in an occupational health and safety sense, but I think this awareness and attitude has a broader impact.

What the above really is, is getting along with other people who you don’t know that well, in a potentially dangerous environment – and this, I’ve found, breeds a more general tolerance.

Many of the people I’ve done martial arts with I would not choose to socialise with, outside that little realm, but within that context – we get along great, punching and kicking and whatnot.  And, as a result of this I’ve gained a little more respect or understanding for their various opinions, ideologies etc.  

So, in my experience, martial arts classes provide a neutral and regulated space, where diverse people can (to a degree)  interact sans usual sociocultural baggage, and because of the largely male component of classes it allows men to interact on an equal footing with other men they may normally have little to do with. In  martial arts class men with (at times) greatly different conceptions of masculinity can interact in a neutral place. Thus allowing them to broaden their understandings of the diversity of what constitutes masculine identity, and form meaningful personal relationships with someone they might usually make a whole host of assumptions about. I think this is  really positive, and my experiences have been overwhelmingly positive.

I’m sure this kind of interaction takes place in other contexts, but I think martial arts attracts quite a broad range of people for diverse reasons (plus it’s the only context I have any real experience with). I’d love to hear other peoples experiences in relation to broadening understandings of masculine identity, in a martial arts, or any other context.

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2 Comments on “Martial Arts and broadening understandings of masculinity.”

  1. Wes Says:

    Hmmm.

    Interesting ideas – I’m not sure to what extent I agree.

    You’re definitely right that most martial art clubs are sausage fests, which makes perfect sense of course. Martial arts is more popular among men, and when you’re a woman visiting a club by yourself and you’re the only female, you’re probably less likely to come back next week.

    Your point about interacting “sans social baggage” is quite good too. In most cases you could spend an entire lesson training with someone and get almost no insight into their personality or background. In that sense training in martial arts is almost entirely removed from an economic hierarchy – especially as everyone will tend to be dressed similarly.

    What I’m not too sure about is the way masculinity ties into martial arts. It’s true that most of the people I’ve trained with have been the kind NOT to get into fights or try and big-note themselves. But who knows – maybe this is just as much the property of any given random sample, regardless of their shared interests. The instructors I’ve known could be said to have broadcast quite a benevolent view of masculinity – as men they have been responsive rather than aggressive. But I’ve also trained with my fair share of ultra-male bogan wankers as well, and I’d be confident in saying an equivalent percentage of those guys probably go on to be instructors themselves. I certainly remember thinking that about some of the other instructors we met affiliated with a certain other school.

    So yeah. I love martial arts, but I couldn’t really commit to saying it’s inherently benevolent.


    • You’re right Wes,

      I’m not trying to say martial arts in an amazing forum for social change, but using the very big caveat of my personal experience I’ve found it pretty good. And the role of the instructor in terms of determining the ‘culture’ of a class is huge too. I’ve been quite lucky in my experiences and I recognise that.


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