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Fighting to Heal: How Survivors are Finding Strength in Martial Arts

Fighting to Heal: How Survivors are Finding Strength in Martial Arts

After 6 months of collecting stories about why women participate in combat sports, such as Muay Thai, kickboxing, judo, jiu-jitsu, MMA, and more, I started to review my findings and realized, without anticipating it, that many women were sharing stories of overcoming violence and trauma and using martial arts as an outlet and a means of healing. Given my research, it makes sense that I would work with a group like Love Fighting, Hate Violence (LFHV). LFHV "is a campaign aiming to raise awareness of the important moral difference between sport-based combat, and violence. It seeks to encourage practitioners and fans of martial arts and combat sports to reflect on this distinction, and to encourage various forms of anti-violence action within and through their different disciplines" (LFHV Home Page, lfhv.org). While I still have a lot of research and writing to do on this topic, the following is a piece of the research that I published with LFHV and recently presented at the Feminisms and Rhetorics conference (2017) in Dayton, OH.: 

I started training Muay Thai in 2015 as a way to combat stress that accompanied my first year of a PhD program. My free trial at a local gym turned into an obsession that I worked at five days a week for hours at a time. I have been an athlete my entire life, but I felt different after training Muay Thai. As much as I love competition, Muay Thai is more than a sport to me and learning to fight has taught me to respect and love myself in a way I never have before. Yes, there have been some pretty drastic physical changes that I love, but I have also changed mentally; knowing that I am able to defend myself changes my perspective on the world.

Recently, I started a women’s program at my gym to encourage more female participants. At the end of a recent class, a member approached me and said she was amazed that throwing punches and kicks was working muscles in places she didn’t know existed. While the comment was meant to say that she felt like she was getting a great workout, it also indicates that Muay Thai and other martial arts are about feeling connected to our bodies. When you throw a punch properly, for example, you have to be completely conscious of your feet, hips, elbows, head, etc. Your entire body is connected, mentally and physically, and the movements demand complete focus.

Given the intense physicality of martial arts, and my own interest in developing women’s engagement in these sports, I have become increasingly interested in considering the ways in which women’s bodies can resist traditional ideas about femininity through martial arts. In December 2016, as part of my dissertation research, I created an online survey to learn about women’s participation in martial arts. With over 300 responses to my online survey, many women explicitly cited domestic abuse and sexual assault as a catalyst for training martial arts. What I found through this survey is a serious discussion about how learning to fight can promote healing. Despite the supposed violence inherent in martial arts, fighting as sport has provided a means of reclaiming one’s body after trauma.

This is particularly important to consider when we recognize that women’s bodies are often the subject of deep social and political dispute; legally and politically, women’s individual rights regarding their own bodies have been limited while society has promoted women’s bodies as objects for men’s pleasure and ultimately, childbirth. The perceived differences between women’s and men’s bodies, between feminine caring and masculine strength, has created an imbalance between men and women that contributes towards what scholars refer to as rape culture (rape culture, broadly defined, is the normalizing and acceptance of rape and other forms of sexual assault). According to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN), 1 out of every 6 American women have been the victim of attempted or completed rape. RAINN reports that these victims are 3 times more likely to suffer from depression, 6 times more likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), 13 times more likely to abuse alcohol, 26 times more likely to abuse drugs, and 4 times more likely to contemplate suicide.

With this in mind, identifying ways to help women recover from such traumatic and widespread abuse becomes an important task. However, it is an interesting concept to seek recovery from the effects of violence in sports that are often deemed too violent. It wasn’t until 2016, for example, that New York State abolished a 20-year ban on Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) that cited unregulated violence and safety concerns for athletes. As a growing, public face for martial arts, the UFC’s popularity largely rests on the public’s interest in watching violence, and promotes advertisements that laud bloody-faced fighters yelling into the camera. While the UFC is obviously not representative of all martial arts, its increased popularity and public knowledge make the violent visuals readily accessible to prospective martial artists.

It seems rather difficult for the general public to be as engaged and invested in sports like MMA when the bloody faces presented by promoters are female. A common question I have been asked about my own participation in Muay Thai is why I would want to “ruin my pretty face.” I think a lot about Sylvie Von Douglas-Ittu’s blog post about women’s bloody faces. Sylvie asks female fighters to submit images of themselves with bloody faces in order to change the discussion about women’s faces being “too pretty to ruin” by fighting. She notes that for men, cuts and bruises are a badge of honor. For women, it prompts concern and discussions of abuse. In fact, many of the women surveyed for my research stated that one of the challenges of training martial arts is that non-practitioners mistake welts, cuts, and bruises for signs of abuse. When asked what difficulties they have faced while training, many responses cited visible injuries:

“Having to explain weird bruises to non-martial arts friends, professors, and peers. People sometimes think I am in an abusive relationship because of the markings.”

“Injuries. Worrying about things like black eyes, visible black and blues, etc. On a man it’s a badge of honor, on a woman it’s having to clarify ‘no my husband didn’t abuse me.’”

Before my own body became more conditioned to taking hits without major bruising, I was approached by a man in the grocery store and given a card for a service he believed could help me if I was in trouble. I was initially confused, and then realized how many bruises and cuts were visible. It was the first moment I felt panicked by my own injuries – injuries I was previously a bit proud of. I was putting in hours of work for those markings. Yes, most indicated failures. But I was proud of myself for putting aside fear and taking on the challenge of sparring with bigger, better, and faster partners.

Yet, for many women, these kinds of marks are reminders of a violent, traumatic past. I believe what makes participation in martial arts, and the many cuts and bruises that come with it, so different from those of victimization, is choice. We all choose to participate in these sports knowing the associated risks to our bodies. Martial arts injuries come from the hours we spend building our bodies up. Women’s bodies are constantly placed under scrutiny and are forced to conform to ideas that reinforce traditional roles of femininity and masculinity. Participating in Muay Thai and other martial arts, however, allows women to use bodies to resist and rewrite this traditional narrative. Our bodies can become sites of resistance, and as women develop physical strength, these bodies challenge traditional notions of femininity.

In the words of the survivors who shared their stories:

“I’ve had a lot of experiences in my life in which everything was completely out of my control, what happened to me, who could touch me, whatever everyone else wanted from me, it was theirs. The power you feel and the control is something I needed for so long and didn’t even know it. I love the impact when you kick or punch the pads, the pressure. No one will ever touch you again.”

“I am a rape survivor, and the better I become as a fighter, I feel I can survive better and better. It has helped me heal more than any mental health or prescription medicine ever has.”

“Martial arts has helped provide me with a space to help confront my PTSD (result of date rape) and become comfortable with myself.”

“I began combat sports because I lived through the major trauma of a long-term abusive relationship with a marriage partner who had a substance use disorder. I was diagnosed with complex PTSD after I left him. …. I needed to feel like I could defend myself again and I needed to work out my anger in a healthy way and I needed a way to shut off my mind for an hour. PTSD is ever present and the one hour of class and the learning turned it off. MMA made me so happy and fulfilled and really helped my PTSD.”

As such stories indicate, martial arts provide a means of gaining control through fighting that has prompted healing for many women who have suffered from physical and emotional abuse. This is not to indicate that the answer for all survivors is to train in martial arts. Healing has the potential to take many forms, but with such a large group of women finding strength and healing through fighting, it is worth considering the impact that this physicality has to help survivors gain control and reclaim their bodies.

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