by Alex Channon
Sex segregation in sports is so widely accepted that it is hardly ever discussed. But this outdated and harmful notion merely reinforces a sexual hierarchy in society, and the assumptions behind it need some serious re-examination.
Participation in sports among women and girls is recognized by sports scholars — feminist and others — as having a major impact on the way in which sex differences are constructed and lived out. Sport, long held to be a “bastion of masculinity,” protecting men and boys from the effects of a “feminized” society, was premised on the exclusion of women. It was used to accomplish a kind of social engineering aimed at protecting and celebrating the assumed “natural” strength and power of men.
This arena for showcasing masculine “superiority” was only fit for this purpose so long as it could sustain the belief in female “inferiority,” accomplished principally through women’s exclusion. While boys could learn how to be physically tough and robust, enjoy their bodies’ capacities for quasi-combative performance, and establish a sense of identity based around these things, girls weren’t able to develop in these ways.
Despite the fact that small numbers of women were actively involved in the same kinds of sports as men for almost as long as these sports have existed, the widespread acceptance of women’s participation took considerably longer to achieve. Thanks to the efforts of feminist campaigners, legislative measures in the latter half of the 20th century helped erode the institutionalized discrimination that had previously preserved the exclusivity of sport as a male privilege. While equality in sport is still not fully guaranteed, one thing is clear: sport is no longer an exclusively male space.
Women Can Play, But Not With Men
One aspect of contemporary sports culture that remains locked into the past is the near ubiquitous insistence that men’s and women’s sports – despite involving the same activities – must be kept separate.
Sex segregation does not register as a problem for programmers of women’s sports, yet current trends in research suggest that integrated sports might be beneficial in challenging ideologies of “natural” male “superiority.” Resistance to this integration is often articulated around the same crude notions of sexual difference that were once used to keep women out of sports altogether.
It should not be a surprise that, in a culture obsessed with notions of essential, “natural,” sexual difference, a persistent belief exists that one group is “better” at some specific task or other. As I regularly remind my undergraduate sociology students, “difference” is often just another word for “hierarchy,” and separations based on difference are the practical means by which such hierarchies are sustained (apartheid states, for instance). When sport cultures are kept separate, they work to maintain a fictitious hierarchy between men and women by stressing the intrinsically “superior” physicality of (all) men over (all) women. In this logic, integrated sports would not work because men are considered “naturally” stronger, faster, tougher and more competitive and aggressive, while women are thought of as “naturally” weaker, slower, softer and more suited to cooperation and nurturance.
Accepting this gendered set of differences is used to justify women’s exclusion from playing with or against men, especially in sports that require physical contact between opponents. This thinking is clearly situated on the same ground as the logic that prevented women’s historical exclusion from sports. Ultimately, it is to say that women cannot ever be as physically powerful as men, so no contest will ever be fair — meaning segregation is actually in everyone’s best interests.
Mixing Sexes and Integrating Sports
My particular interest in this subject stems from my research into mixed-sex martial arts classes. Having participated for many years in a sporting activity rooted in the practice of combat skills, which are often performed against resisting opponents, I have plenty of first-hand knowledge about the actual abilities of men and women in the arena of mock-combat. I interviewed many women and men similarly involved, and found that sex-segregation rarely serves anyone’s interest.
In the course of my research, women shared particularly strong feelings about integration and segregation. Kickboxing instructor Marie, 30, told me: “Dividing based on sex means women almost always lose out, the men just get more time in the ring, with the coach. Women have to fit around the men’s schedule — it’s no good if we don’t get the same attention or opportunities; how will we ever get better?”
“I remember when I first got beaten by a girl”
Formal segregation is often not a practical possibility because of the limited number of women training in martial arts clubs, but it is practiced implicitly by men who only engage with female partners in very restrained, limited ways. Women cite men’s reluctance to hit, throw or grapple with the assumed “weaker sex” as a major problem in the development of their martial arts ability.
Helen, a 29-year-old competitive kickboxer who trains at a gym with a mostly male membership, described her frustration with men who “held back” in training: “I need to get used to being hit, you can’t block or avoid every punch that comes your way… you get that false sense of security and you believe you’re doing better than you are. I just need someone to be able to hit me, that’s the only way you learn how to keep your defense tight, if you get hit in the face.”
According to Helen and others, segregation – formal or informal — means that women are not able to develop the same kinds of skills and physical toughness as men. They are producing the very difference (and hierarchy) that they claim to be operating within; cause and effect are reversed as the clubs or members deny women the chance to develop their skills.
Despite such problems, the persistent effort and demonstrable ability of female martial artists can pay off in ways that transform their male counterparts and the training cultures of their clubs. Speaking of his extensive experience of sparring against women, 34-year-old Kung Fu instructor Jack described how he had changed: “Once I’d learned about women’s abilities, it was different. I fought against a girl I knew in my club, and it didn’t make any difference to me personally that she was female because I knew what she was capable of. If I didn’t take her seriously, treat her the same, she’d kick me in the head, she’d hurt me… training like that forces you to look at women differently.”
Rather than explain women’s talented performances as simply good “for a girl,” men who are tested by female sparring partners are forced to challenge their assumptions about the hierarchal differences between the sexes. They must decide between the sexism of segregation and the compelling proof of women’s combative prowess. Simon, a 27-year-old Karate black belt, tells the following story: “I remember when I first got beaten by a girl, she knocked me out I guess, elbowed me in the head. And that was a bit of a moment when I thought, well, I should definitely take girls more seriously and not feel weird about hitting them when they can hit like that!”
Integrating sports – even those sports that involve seemingly “violent” clashes between opponents – provides the dramatic evidence needed to challenge the sexual hierarchy of our culture and contesting sexism in the contemporary world. In order to realize this potential, sports programmers should seek opportunities for sex-integration, so long as their participants are willing. It is the experience of training and competing together that provides the basis for transformation. As 22-year-old Brazilian Jujitsu and Mixed Martial Arts competitor Rachel puts it: “I don’t think they’ll understand it until they’ve done it or at least seen it. It’s hard to see inside something you don’t do.”
Dr. Alex Channon is a lecturer in the sociology of physical education and sport at the University of Greenwich, UK. He has practiced martial arts for several years, and his doctoral research was concerned with mixed-sex training and the “subversion” of gender.