Body Autonomy for Boys

Disclaimer: Just like “Save the Whales” doesn’t mean other species are expendable, this blog post highlights challenges that some boys face. Of course most of the content of this blog applies to everyone else as well.

“Boys will be boys.”

In some contexts that’s true. I remember reading about a mother whose three-year-old twin boys triumphantly carried the lid of the toilet tank through the house, then accidentally dropped it. Using the phrase “Boys will be boys” in this instance is meant as a half-amused, half-annoyed acknowledgement that yes, sometimes boys will break the toilet. But all too often there is a more damaging use of this phrase.

Many of us have read about the harm caused by using “Boys will be boys” as a way of excusing misconduct towards girls. I’m not going to delve into the ramifications of that in this blog. Others have covered that ground better than I have. But I do want to take one aspect of the issue and apply it to boys. Yes, “Boys will be boys” has been used to dismiss female body autonomy, but the phrase also dismisses a boy’s right to body autonomy too.

Body autonomy is the right for a person to govern what happens to their body without external influence or coercion. This is an important concept for all children to be taught and to understand.

Shalon Nienow, MD

When we hear about body autonomy it’s usually in the context of girls, women, abortion and/or sexual assault. Sometimes boys get a brief mention when sexual assault is addressed. That is a disservice to boys and I very much hope someone has written about the issue. My own focus in this blog is non-consensual rough play and bullying.

Did you catch the term “non-consensual?”

Some boys don’t like horseplay. They have the right to stand up for themselves if someone tries to force it on them.

If you’re having unkind thoughts about that, stop right there. A penchant for or a dislike of rough play has absolutely nothing to do with gender, gender expression, or sexuality. If you think for one instant that anyone who doesn’t fit your idea of “normal” is worthless, is “other,” and deserves to be made fun of, beaten, or even killed… You’re not going to like what I say next.

All too often, parents, school officials, coaches, etc. attempt to downplay bullying by calling it “horseplay,” and often summarize their views by saying, “Boys will be boys.” This is an egregious denial of the victim’s right to body autonomy. Boys have the right to go about their day without their body being pummelled, shoved, and/or struck with various objects. If you believe all that is harmless, you might as well say to boys, “You have no right to your own body.” Not only that, you’re teaching boys that it’s OK to violate someone else’s rights.

I have participated in a number of self defense seminars as a supplement to my base art (karate) and so I can learn how to teach such seminars. One of these classes was open to anyone, the rest were for women only. That’s fine, I understand women need a safe space to learn. But I think children, particularly boys, need these seminars too. I’m not dismissing the needs of girls, rather I’m acknowledging that boys are more likely to experience the dismissal of their right to protect themselves. Boys need a place where their rights are supported.

Everyone knows karate is a system for learning self defense. Most of us karateka (people who study karate) know or have been taught the value of kihon, kata, and kumite as tools for learning self defense. In the dojo some of us teach or have been taught self defense techniques that aren’t part of the dojo’s curriculum. That’s all well and good, but let’s dive a little deeper. Most everyone knows karate builds self confidence, and when bullies see the positive changes they often (but not always) go hunting for easier victims. Deeper still… Karateka learn self control. In a schoolyard situation, self control is key.

I believe my job as a sensei is to teach not only the techniques, but also the correct application of techniques along with a good helping of self-control on the side. Allow me to illustrate this with an anecdote from my own life…

I was working in a kitchen when a man put his arm around my waist and pressed in close while reaching for something on a shelf above me. He could have asked for the item or waited for me to complete my task. I gave him a very light elbow to the stomach. I could have doubled him over, but in that context all he needed was a bit of a warning. His wife gave him worse (verbally).

This kind of self control is incredibly difficult in the context of physical harassment at school. “He threw a rock at me,” is often just one of hundreds of things that the boy has endured up until the point where he finally complained to someone. After all, he’s been taught all his life…

“Boys will be boys.”

“Just be more like the other boys.”

“Turn the other cheek.”

“You sissy!”

“Try to be friends with them.”

“It’s not that bad.”

“No fighting. Zero tolerance.”

The underlying message behind all of this, of course, is that the boy has no right to body autonomy and, in the case of zero tolerance, no right to defend himself.

Do you see how damaging this is?

Often there comes a breaking point, especially when a child knows the adults either can’t or won’t help him assert his rights. The dojo (karate school) is a safe place to explore those big emotions. Those big emotions will come up in the dojo even when one is in a good place in life. Part of learning self control is learning how to work with and through emotions. More importantly, being able to choose to fight is empowering. If one doesn’t know how to fight, there is no choice to fight or not to fight. There is only fear and anger if one can’t fight. It’s even more empowering when one knows the appropriate degree of violence to employ in any given situation.

If he’s being bullied, getting your boy into karate classes can be a great move. A good dojo is a community where your boy will be respected. That’s a welcome change for someone whose soul is battered from constant harassment. Sensei(s) usually recognize everyone’s right to body autonomy because fundamentally, karate is self defense. Whether a sensei explicitly teaches it or not, your boy will start to realize his right to body autonomy. He will be more confident in standing up for himself, whether that be verbally with a school principal or physically with someone who tries to force him into rough play.

In closing, I would like to acknowledge that not all boys can, or even want to join a dojo. Perhaps a self defense seminar geared towards boys would be a good alternative. Of course even a seminar might not be feasible or desirable for some boys. But all boys can benefit from society ridding itself of the systemic dismissal of boys’ rights to body autonomy. I believe my responsibility as a sensei, as a karateka, is to be an ally. That means standing up for victims, even to the point of verbal or physical intervention if appropriate.

“Karate stands on the side of justice.”

Gichin Funakoshi

Sex and Karate

Now that I have your attention… Gender, people! Gender! What were you thinking?!?

Here’s where I’m coming from. For the vast majority of my life I have been hugely ignorant about the multitude of real live human beings who don’t fit the rigid definitions of “male” and “female” that I grew up with. This is actually pretty silly of me because my husband and I didn’t quite fit the definition of “normal.” The unkind labels given me were “tomboy” and “butch.” My dear husband was “sissy” and “fag.” And here we are now – a monogamous heterosexual couple with a little over 28 years of marriage under our belts and two grown offspring who are quite obviously our natural biological children.

28 years of marriage means my husband and I are “normal,” right?

What is normal?

One psychologist asserts that “normal” is merely a setting on the clothes dryer. The word is meaningless when it comes to human beings.

This is the lens I’m looking through as I write about gender and Karate.

Up until the class schedule was changed to a time that is incompatible with my work schedule, I helped out with the Karate PE class at the community college. This college is one of the most diverse in the nation, so my little white cysgender bubble has been expanded. Maybe two years ago, we had two students who, I saw, were at least friends. One day I happened to be eating lunch in the student union, and… Oh! It was pretty obvious they were more than just friends! I squished down some stupid ideas I’d learned somewhere along the way and decided to keep on being the best assistant instructor I could be.

It’s called respect, and it’s a key component of martial arts.

A couple of months later, one of these youngsters got a job at the grocery store. They were most definitely a part of my community for a season. I was sad when they moved away, as young people often do. Even when you’re just an assistant instructor, most of the time you form ties with students. Often you learn from your students, and sometimes the lessons are unexpected. My world was expanded by those two students. They were people I cared about.

I’ve recently finished an autobiography of a martial artist (Searching for Grasshopper by Cathy Chapaty). Her sexual orientation was an issue in a dojo she once studied in. That chapter was tough for me to read. Fortunately, years later Cathy and her former sensei reconciled. But oh, the pain of those lost years! I shudder to think of how much damage I could have inflicted on those two young college students. I read about the damage done to Cathy and I’m now very firmly committed to respecting every student.

If you think gender isn’t a big deal, think again. You need to see your student or your fellow karateka holistically in order to begin to comprehend where they are coming from. It’s the first step in seeing the world through their eyes. That’s called empathy. Empathy is the polar opposite of those careless remarks, those little hurtful things that might slip out when we are not thinking about the other person. The discipline of dojo etiquette is a great conduit of empathy. Communication between student and sensei and communication among students must be respectful, and brevity is encouraged. With such restrictions in place there’s less chance of putting one’s foot in one’s mouth. In other words, we have to think before we speak.

I can hear it now… “Oh, but they should have thicker skin than that, especially because they’re karateka. After all, I was only joking when I said…”

Stop right there.

A dear friend of mine explained this truth to me. Maybe I’ve been stung a few times in my life because of who I am. But she gets stung at least once every single day of her life – some days several times. Yes, Karate gives us strength of character to withstand that. But those stings shouldn’t come from our fellow karateka.

So, don’t discriminate. Right? Well… Here’s an uncomfortable truth for everyone involved. There are still practical things that must be addressed when it comes to gender and karate. What about tournaments? What about belt tests? What about training requirements? I have few ideas, and maybe I’m still ignorant about a lot, but I’m trying. Here are my opinions, for what they’re worth.

I am grateful for the fact that we’re making progress in accommodating transgender individuals in formal competition (Google search International Olympic Committee transgender policy). It seems like there are a lot of restrictions and rigid definitions in those policies. But it’s a start, and I see it as a positive development. There are no easy answers, so I’m sure the IOC is doing the best it can.

Belt tests:
In the United States of America, this is strictly a matter for students and their sensei(s). Some organizations’ testing requirements differ for men and women. Some don’t. There is absolutely no interference from any local, state, or federal government agency. This is a good thing. It allows each organization to grow and develop as it sees fit. Lack of government regulation allows each student to discuss their upcoming tests with their sensei(s) confidentially. The last thing that anyone of any gender needs is to have to go to some stupid government office to file paperwork about their identity and their upcoming belt test!

Training requirements:
I know what it’s like to run a class full of people with diverse physical types and fitness levels. The college PE class I used to help with gets an almost entirely new group of students every quarter. I’ve helped out at regular dojo(s) too. The best advice I have to offer is to simply think of your students as collections of strengths and challenges. Don’t think, “Oh, she’s female, her strength is in her legs but she won’t be able to do push ups worth jack.” No. You could be wrong on all counts. If you see a student of any gender who can do thirty push-ups but can’t hold a deep horse stance for longer than 20 seconds, you know where they need work.

And, ahem… As far as “equipment” goes… Protect yourself where you need protection. Mmmkay?

So. Maybe I’m still an ignoramus when it comes to gender issues. Perhaps I’ve stuck my foot in my mouth multiple times in this post. In my defense, I offer this. What would things be like if nobody were examining these issues? I grew up in an era when we didn’t talk, we didn’t form ties with people who were different from us. It was unhealthy at best, deadly at worst. The dojo is supposed to be a sanctuary for those who feel the need to learn how to defend themselves. We’re supposed to be building self confidence in our students and fellow karateka. Let’s do it. Let’s build those communities. Whaddaya say?

Gender and Age

Just another Saturday informal practice time. One of my sensei  was showing me a way to set someone up for a crescent kick to the head. As I watched I casually put my gloved hand up to the side of my head whenever I saw Sensei’s leg come up for the kick. As Sensei explained the movements he repeated them again and again so that I had plenty of opportunities both to watch carefully and to try and see what it might look like if I didn’t know what was coming. At one point I stepped outside myself and thought, “Wow, this is actually kinda funny – a woman my age letting someone kick to her head and she’s just casually blocking like it’s no big deal.”

I admit that I still have a persistent vision of what typical middle age looks like for women. Saturday morning could mean sitting in a chair reading a good book and sipping hot cocoa – maybe call Mom and see if she wants to go to the antique store later. This contrasts sharply with my Saturday mornings filed with weights, calisthenics, basics, forms, sparring, bruises, and gallons of sweat. Maybe I’m laughing at myself when I find humor in the contrast between what my life is like and my vision of typical middle aged womanhood.

“Brave” is how one friend outside my martial arts circles describes me. Why? Because as often as possible I get into a tournament ring to spar with karateka who outrank me. Because I am not scared to explore beaches and forests with only my little dog for company. Because I risk injury every time I spar or am thrown. Because I consider most bruises to be badges of honor. Because I’ve taken the first of the “really hard” belt tests. Is this brave? I’ll bet many of my martial arts “brothers” take these things for granted. But for an average middle-aged woman… Different story. We’re “supposed to” be well on our way to retirement.

I’m not the only middle-aged lady acquiring bruises for funsies (as Jackie Bradbury puts it). Heck, two middle-aged lady martial artists are in my dojo and they outrank me. There are more in the Karate organization I belong to. I’m acquainted with even more from tournaments and seminars. There are a few who are Internet buddies of mine and I hope someday to meet them in person. But if one were to ask any given person on the street to describe what a martial artist looks like, that person will most likely describe a young, buff male. Go a step further and ask any given person on the street to describe what a martial arts student looks like and you’ll probably hear a description of a little boy. Not a grown woman who’s started the next half of her life.

Admittedly there are some physical things I do that are concessions to my age. I have noticed it takes me longer to heal from injuries than when I was younger so I take even minor twinges seriously. Paying attention to proper form in stances and adjusting one stance ever so slightly should help stave off knee problems. It takes me longer to build muscle and I must be content with small gains over long periods of time. I absolutely must fall properly when I’m thrown. I have to watch what I eat and carefully time when I eat on workout days. I’ve got to stay hydrated. I must go to bed on time. Taking naps between work and Karate has become a habit. All that said, there are young people out there who can’t do half the things I do. I might have to work around some things but that doesn’t mean I can’t or shouldn’t pursue my art. I know this, but sometimes my past still whispers to me.

Old thought patterns die hard. I was born in 1970, and society was quite different then. Little girls were supposed to be cute and fluffy. They were supposed to play with dolls and tea sets. In most literature for children boys had wonderful adventures. Most books about girls bored me to tears. Ice skating was an “acceptable” sport for my mother, and knitting was an “acceptable” pastime for my grandmother (who was only 42 years older than I). Women were supposed to have big hair and wear the latest fashions. I was bombarded with movies and TV showing women as silly little sex objects who were often in need of rescuing (mostly because they did something stupid or failed to take action). Most telling – I was the first woman in my family to graduate from college. I’ve fought hard to be who I am today.

Still… The other day I came home from Karate class and mused, “What a strange hobby I have,” as I flexed my upper back to ease the ache from being thrown about a dozen times. Then I realized my gender and age bias. As I wrote above, old thought patterns die hard. What’s strange about someone finding something he or she likes to do? What’s strange about that someone setting goals, achieving them, and setting new goals? What’s strange about someone becoming more physically fit, more mentally disciplined, more confident? What’s strange about anyone acquiring knowledge of how to survive if attacked? Everyone deserves opportunities to pursue excellence. Karate is my “way,” and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Related reading:  Gender Inequality

Playing Rough

Forty years ago when I was climbing trees instead of playing with baby dolls a middle-aged lady taking up the art of Karate would have been a huge shock.  Yes, I’ve heard Karate training was pretty brutal in the mid 1970’s, but I guarantee you that even today’s more relaxed expectations would have been deemed far too hard for a lady, especially a lady my age.

Most American women my generation and older were brought up with the notion that rough play is taboo for girls and women.  Meanwhile, boys were encouraged in the types of play that taught them early on that experiencing pain doesn’t necessarily mean suffering lasting harm. Admittedly, rough-housing, contact sports, climbing trees, and activities like skateboarding can lead to serious injury but most of the time only bruises and scrapes are acquired.  When I was growing up little girls were discouraged from such activities.  Women did not learn their capacity for pain until they gave birth.  How many women have wilted under a mild blow instead of rallying and fighting back against an attacker?  I shudder to think.

In spite of a ton of support from my parents to go ahead and climb trees and, later, take up Karate as a teenager, that cultural expectation still lurks in the back of my mind.  It whispers to me when I’m sore, tired, or injured – especially when my middle-aged body isn’t healing as rapidly as it did when I was a girl.  When someone else gives that cultural expectation a voice sometimes it’s hard for me to give a civil, polite answer.  I don’t talk much about mild aches and pains, but there’s just no hiding a limp or a black eye.  People are bound to talk.  Someone might even say to me, “You can’t be serious about keeping this up and earning your black belt.”

I am serious.  I have learned that I can survive.  Training is getting harder.  I’ve noticed there’s a bit more of an “edge” lately.  I’m taking more falls and more hits.  Falling isn’t the end of the world.  My instructors, training partners, and tournament opponents are not trying to hurt me, otherwise I’d be dead by now.  Because my training partners and my instructors control their techniques, getting hit more often than not simply stings, and there might be a small bruise later.  I’m learning to put pain in perspective.  I’m learning these lessons as a middle-aged karateka, not as a child playing with other children.  Most guys my generation and older had this advantage while growing up.


One of the best things that ever happened to my Karate is I was kicked in the jaw.  I fell to the mats, stunned.  When I regained the use of my body I got up and into fighting stance again.  My sparring partner was horrified by what she’d done.  But really, she did me a favor.  I learned that I had it in me to get up again.  I don’t think I’ll ever forget how empowered I felt.

That was only a little bitty hurt compared to what could have happened in a real attack.  Unlike a real attacker, my opponent did not go in for the kill.  If I don’t have the capacity to survive one kick that didn’t do any lasting harm (just a few days of soreness), how will I ever find it in me to survive a real attack?

Learning about falling and taking hits in a safe environment has allowed me to explore possibilities for coping with a real fight.  If I’m unexpectedly taken down, I still think, “Oh, ****!” and might reflexively clutch at an arm.  But now that I’m more or less used to this kind of rough play, I’m finding I can play back.  As I’m lying on my back I might see a perfect opportunity for a backfist to the groin, so I’ll execute it (of course aiming for six inches short of actually hitting).  Because I’m getting used to playing rough, I am increasingly ready for exploring more about my art.  This will no doubt help me as I advance through the ranks.

Slowly, the cultural disadvantage I grew up with is being eroded.  I am doing more and experiencing more than many people think a middle-aged lady can do or ought to experience.  I wasn’t a little boy growing up, but I’m finding that I never needed to be a little boy.  Nor do I need my culture’s approval.  All I need is an open mind and a brave heart as I follow the lead of my instructors and training partners.

Gender Inequality

Picture taken 5/15/17 for re-posting of this blog

black eye 2015 Joelle White
Bruises are fun!!!

Earlier this week (Week of September 20th, 2015) I failed to adequately protect my face while sparring, and yep, I have bruises.  It’s been 20 years since I’ve had a job in an office, not in a swimming pool.  I didn’t think about what would happen the next morning.  It’s a good thing my new co-workers know I’m “into” Karate.  Still, one lady was a little taken aback by a teeny tiny little bruise on my lip.  I began to think seriously about makeup.

Then I realized something.  I landed this job without makeup.   My previous job, the very first time I met the potential employer I was in a swimsuit and absolutely covered with livid bruises (talk about awkward).  Why would one little bruise on my lip make me think about something that has not been a part of my identity ever since the day I forgot my makeup and my boyfriend (now my husband) said I look just fine without it?

The answer is that all my life, I’ve been told that women have to be beautiful like the dolls I once kept on hand for when friends visited (I played with Star Wars action figures).  Don’t get me wrong, ladies – I appreciate beauty in all its forms and I don’t mind one bit if you look drop-dead gorgeous in your makeup and with your shiny long nails, dyed hair and perm.  More power to ya!  It’s just that form of self-expression is not for me – never has been except on very rare occasions.  What’s hard for me is society’s expectation that I ought to be wired the same way you are.

There’s definitely gender inequality.   If a man comes to the office with a black eye, everyone assumes he’s been doing something macho, like a bar fight or a Karate class, and it’s OK.  If a woman sports a black eye, the automatic assumption is she’s being abused at home.  Fortunately for me my co-workers can go to the building next door during lunch hour on Mondays and Wednesdays  to see that I really am a karateka.  But the complete stranger at the supermarket will assume the worst simply because I am a woman.

I know this attitude stems from concern.  I appreciate that.  So riddle me this – why is that same concern not generally extended to men?  If a teenage guy has a bruise on his face, is it because “boys will be boys,” or is his father abusing him?  Gender inequality again.

People – stop assuming.  Do ask – many a life has been saved that way.   But please – don’t treat me any differently than a guy who has a bruise.  Either that or don’t treat guys who have bruises any differently than you’d treat a woman with a bruise 🙂