On the 5th of February, the Centre of Sport, Tourism and Leisure Studies at the University of Brighton hosted the first event in a series of seminars run by the new, AHRC-funded Martial Arts Studies Research Network, entitled Martial Arts Studies: Gender Issues in Theory and Practice. Dr Alex Channon and Dr Christopher R. Matthews, both of the School of Sport and Service Management, organised the event at the university’s Eastbourne Campus.
The event attracted 35 registered delegates and featured a line-up of nine speakers. Opening the event was Professor John Sugden of the University of Brighton, who spoke of the tradition of critical social science within the School of Sport and Service Management and shared stories of his own research into boxing; he was followed by Dr Paul Bowman of Cardiff University, who introduced the Martial Arts Studies Research Network and highlighted the work that various scholars are currently involved in within this vibrant new field of academic study.
The first presentation of the day was delivered by Dr Matthews and Paul Senior of Eastbourne Boxing Club (EBC). While Matthews’ discussion of his research into boxing provided a view into how the physical space and cultural norms of clubs can reinforce the sport’s traditional exclusivity towards women and sexual minorities, Senior showed that the exact opposite can be true by highlighting the work currently being undertaken at EBC to foster wider inclusivity. Together they argued that conscious effort by club owners/managers is needed to work around the subtler forms of exclusion that continue to exist despite formal claims to equality in sporting settings.
This paper was followed by Professor Kath Woodward from the Open University, who delivered a talk on the impact of women’s boxing being included in the London 2012 Olympic Games. Although striking an optimistic tone concerning how women’s boxing had been legitimised (or, in her words, ‘put into discourse’) through its mainstream acceptance, Woodward cautioned that much else needs changing in terms of contesting wider structures of sexism both within and outside of boxing. Subsequent discussion highlighted the difficult relationships that exist between discourse and practice, but agreement settled on the fact that events like those witnessed in 2012 open up crucial chances for imagining the possibilities of progressive social change.
In the afternoon, Anna Kavoura of the University of Jyväskalä and Catherine Phipps of the University of Greenwich delivered a paper which addressed the need to properly engage with and seek to understand the experiences of LGBT+ people within martial arts and combat sports environments. Highlighting the diverse and complex difficulties that shape LGBT+ engagement in sport in general, Kavoura and Phipps’ presentation argued that no ‘one size fits all’ solutions were possible, but echoed Matthews and Senior in their call for addressing unwritten cultural norms within clubs, such as the use of language, which operate in subtle ways to reinforce heteronormative expectations and might unknowingly foster a homophobic, biphobic or transphobic culture.
A plenary session followed this on the topic of how best to engage women and girls in martial arts and combat sports. Drawing on the collective expertise of the delegates, many of whom had practical experience of martial artistry in addition to their academic study, the session highlighted the need for contextual sensitivity towards what specific groups of women and girls actually wanted. For some delegates, the need to challenge subtle forms of sexism was key, as already discussed in earlier papers, while others highlighted ways in which traditional gender ideals tended to ‘sneak back’ into training environments, such as when instructors assume women will want to train only for self-defence reasons rather than to compete as athletes (a role traditionally ascribed to men), or describe lighter forms of exercise as, for instance, ‘girl push ups’, thereby devaluing the physical abilities of women and girls.
Dr Deborah Jump of Manchester Metropolitan University presented next, on the topic of boxing clubs and programmes which sought to encourage young men to desist from violence. While the day’s previous papers, along with both formal and informal discussion, had attempted to highlight opportunities for resistance against harmful, exclusionary visions of gender, Jump’s argument provided a sobering counterpoint. Highlighting how one particular boxing-based programme had in fact supported a masculinist culture legitimating the use of violence, Jump argued that attempts to challenge traditional gender orthodoxies within and through combat sports do not always lead to the desired results, and can in fact backfire.
Finally, Dr Channon and Dr Matthews introduced a nascent awareness-raising campaign, ‘Love Fighting Hate Violence’, which built on the themes addressed in the previous session to explore how a message focusing on resistance to domestic violence might find purchase among martial arts and combat sports communities. Following a brief presentation, the delegates were asked to discuss and suggest ideas for how such a campaign might best take shape and be effective. Enthusiastic and constructive criticism followed, with several ideas emerging around the applicability of the campaign as a resource for coach education, youth work, and an online/social media presence in the growing online communities of martial arts enthusiasts.
The event then closed with a book launch of Channon and Matthews’ edited text, Global Perspectives on Women in Combat Sports: Women Warriors around the World (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), generously funded by the Martial Arts Studies Research Network. The event was attended by many of the conference delegates as well as staff and students in the School of Sport and Service Management. Professor Woodward, along with Professor Jo Doust of the University of Brighton, thanked those in attendance and spoke highly of the contribution the book has made to various academic fields.
Reflecting on the event, Channon and Matthews would like to thank the various speakers for their excellent contributions, the delegates for their lively and engaging participation, and the Martial Arts Studies Research Network, along with the Centre of Sport, Tourism and Leisure Studies, for co-funding the event. Thanks also must go to the catering staff for their wonderful service on the day, which was warmly received by all!
For three further post-event reviews written by delegates, please refer to the following pages:
Martial Arts Studies by Paul Bowman
Budo-Inochi by Kai Morgan
Kung Fu with Braudel by Luke White