Martial Arts America, Chapter Nine

Martial Arts America, Book Cover


    I've broken the ribs of a 165-pound male sparring partner, given a nine-inch gash to a World Karate Association champion, and have knocked out several sexist black belts who couldn't believe that a woman could really fight.

— Kathy Long, May, 1992    
Black Belt magazine    

Capital 'T'hroughout this book I have taken the perspective of a self-defense-motivated martial artist. That remains the focus. However, in this chapter, the perspective needs to be refined a bit. Here, I take the only perspective I can: that of a male martial art instructor. Although most of what I share here is applicable to both male and female teachers, I believe that female instructors face additional issues that males do not. These issues include the perception that female instructors only teach other women and children, and questions about how a female instructor should deal with challenges from her male students. These are issues that I am not qualified to address. My perspective, therefore, can only be that of a male martial art instructor offering instruction to adult men and women.

Historically, women in the East received their martial art instruction privately and from close family members.1 In America, however, only the smallest minority of students (male or female) are taught privately by family members. American acceptance of feminine equality has thrust women into the modern martial art school. There they train shoulder-to-shoulder with men. But is the female martial art student receiving the training she wants? How do her male training partners feel about working with her? And are there differences or inequities in her training when compared to that of the men?


Before tackling these questions, we need to come to grips with some basic realities. First, a woman's chances of being attacked by a man are hundreds of times greater than being attacked by another woman. A woman needs, therefore, to train with men. She needs to study with men for the realism men bring to her self-defense training. Training with a man, a woman gets the feel of her technique as she applies it on the heavier, more muscular masculine body. In this way, she receives a more realistic appreciation of her strengths and abilities.
Woman Punching a Man

Men train with men because they, too, will most likely face male assailants. The difference, however, is that a contest between men is physically a much more even match. Even a smaller man has a better chance against a larger man than woman of comparable size has against the same large opponent.

The second reality we must face is that while it is beneficial for women to train with men for self-defense realism, too many men and women choose to ignore the fundamental differences that exist between them. Men ignore them because they do not wish to appear chauvinistic. Women ignore them because they believe . . . well, because some of them believe they are equal to men in every way.

World Champion tournament fighter and kickboxer Bill Wallace caught a lot of flak when, in one of his columns in a popular martial art magazine, he pointed out that, in fighting, women are not equal to men (Wallace 1992, 12). Wallace said that women are not physically designed for combat. One reader, in a letter to the editor disparaging Wallace's remarks, said that men are not physically designed for combat either. She is correct, but what Wallace meant was that, relatively speaking, men, being physically stronger than women, are better able to give and take punishment.

Arguments about avoidance and skillful evasion aside, a large part of any fight is still the ability to absorb punishment. Men have much larger bones and approximately 40 percent more upper body muscle than women. Paleontologists, for example, can look at a skeleton and immediately identify the individual as male or female simply by bone size and structure. This obvious difference in size means that, in a contest between the two, most women cannot absorb blows to the body as well as a man.

  Figure 2
  FIGURE  2   The assailant may outweigh his
  intended victim, but this trained martial artist
  is more than capable of defending herself.
  Figure 3
  FIGURE  3   Deflecting her assailant's
  unwelcome advance, this defender is about
  to give someone a free martial arts lesson.

An equally important part of a fight is the ability to inflict punishment. Like it or not, women simply cannot punch as hard as men. Further, their musculature does not afford them the speed advantage necessary to offset the man's natural strength advantage.

In the physical arena, then, we must recognize that women are not equal to men. However, inequality in this area does  not imply inferiority. Neither does it mean that women are second-class martial artists. They are not. In a street fight, a trained female martial artist can do serious damage to a man (see figures 2 through 6). Wallace even said as much. In his controversial article, Wallace said that he had no doubt that a female full-contact kickboxing champion "could knock a mugger into tomorrow if he didn't pay attention." However, Wallace also said he believed that in the ring, even a superbly trained female fighter cannot stand up to an equally trained and skilled male opponent in a comparable weight division. This is especially true in the sporting arena, because there the rules actually magnify physical gender differences.

This truth is a major problem for some – and one they try desperately to deny. To them, "different" means "unequal." "Different," however, is defined as  not alike, dissimilar, not identical, distinct. This has nothing to do with an individual's merit, worth, skill, position in life, or social standing. Saying that women are different, then, simply acknowledges that, regardless of everything else a woman may be, she is – simply and undeniably – different from a man.

Many examples showing how this physical difference plays out in real-life "battles of the sexes" can be presented. But such arguments are counterproductive, for they only lead us away from meaningful dialogue about differences and how to effectively train with them in mind. For example, I can argue that my 5' 10", 175-pound frame is equal to someone 6' 3" and 240 pounds. However, focusing on how we can train to better use what we have against a larger and stronger opponent is wiser. We must, therefore, move beyond arguments that cloud the issue and onto relevant matters that actually improve the quality of instruction all students receive – male and female.

  Figure 4
  FIGURE  4   An unexpected, but very effective
  lefthand strike to the assailant's groin really
  softens up the defender's larger and stronger

    Figure 5
  FIGURE  5   The defender's kick is well placed
  and quickly incapacitates her hapless assailant.

    Figure 6
  FIGURE  6   Remove the rules that restrict
  strikes to a handful of targets, and the female
  martial artist is very capable of defending herself.

Destructive Mind-Sets

The martial arts are open to everyone. Women certainly belong in the arts. If anyone needs self-defense skills, they do. Three out of every four women will face at least one violent crime in their lifetimes. In a day when law-abiding citizens and victims of crime have to wait days or weeks in some states before they can secure arms for personal protection, good self-defense training may be a woman's only option. There remain, however, two contrasting and equally destructive mind-sets that can severely limit a woman's satisfaction and success in the martial arts. They are the "Wimp" and "Feminist" mind-sets.

Some women are taught as children that their role is to be helpless, that someone will always take care of them. This is a serious detriment to life in general, but in martial art study, where attitude is everything, it is unthinkable. The reality is that, short of living in a police state, self-protection is ultimately the individual's responsibility. Wimp thinking only creates ready-made victims. A classic example of wimp-thinking is the student saying, "Oh, I couldn't do that to anyone," after the instructor demonstrates a particularly aggressive self-defense technique. In a woman or a man, such thinking is self-destructive, and it has no place in the martial arts.

A woman needs to realize that those who will force themselves on her, assaulting and violating her, have no such inhibition. Until she accepts this fact of life, there is little an instructor can do to help the female martial artist achieve her maximum potential.

The second self-destructive mind-set is the feminist attitude. Among today's female martial artists, the feminist attitude is actually more common than the wimp. It is also more self-destructive and more difficult to overcome. This mind-set is often characterized by a great deal of hostility toward others (usually toward men, but not always). The individual may not be aware of her hostility, but if it exists, it closes her mind to new ways of thinking.

What makes this feminist attitude particularly dangerous is the false sense of over-confidence it breeds. Some may feel this "overconfidence" is just good-old fighting spirit. But fighting spirit without a strong dose of reality is neither spirit nor courage; it is, rather, foolish bravado.2

Abdomen punching drill

Those blinded by the feminist mind-set must stop viewing all differential treatment as condescending acts of gender inequality. It may not be that at all. For example, in our school we engage in a drill where we blast each other in the abdomen. We wear gloves, but male students drive their blows home with full force. No one, however, strikes the female students with the same vigor. To do so might be considered "equal," but it is also unwise.


All Things Being Equal

In fighting, all things being equal, the male practitioner has the advantage. This is the way it is. A female student, then, should not be insulted if her male partner does not attack her with the same aggressiveness that he would another male. Not that a male instructor or training partner should make it easy for her; he should not. But neither should the female training partner attempt to unload on the male student to prove some imagined physical equality.

When sparring with a woman, most men walk a fine line. Aware of their strength and power advantage, they are reluctant to attack a female player with the same intensity as they would another male. No gentleman wants to hurt a lady; neither does he wish to lose to one. (Sensitive big guys have feelings, too, you know.) The dilemma that male martial artists must contend with is, "How do I train with a female partner without hurting her, without patronizing her, and without looking like I was whipped by her?" This is a very fine line, indeed.

Figure 9
The problem is compounded when a female partner capitalizes on the male's dilemma and uses the occasion to prove that she can fight like any man. If a man does his best to work with his female partner, he does not deserve to have her attack him with a level of ferocity and intensity that he would quickly answer, were the attack coming from another man in the street. If male students are to be considerate of their female partners' feelings regarding condescending attitudes and patronizing conduct, then female students must also consider masculine feelings when they are tempted to go full-bore on a guy who does not deserve it. (Feel free, however, to go all out on the bum who does).

It is important to remember here that, just as sport karate does not accurately represent the full spectrum of martial arts, neither do wimp-and feminist-thinking female practitioners represent all female martial artists. Clearly, they are a minority. But these two groups receive the lion's share of attention. Like all instructors, I find that 80 percent of my energy is spent on 20 percent of my people. Among female martial artists, those with wimp and feminist attitudes fall squarely into that 20 percent. Pretty unequal, I'd say.

Making the Art Fit the Individual
Training equally means that the instructor does everything possible to make each student's training realistic, challenging, and rewarding. To do this, the instructor tailors the training to match each student's individual abilities to his or her personal needs. Doing otherwise violates the cardinal rule of martial art training: Make the art fit the individual. Many instructors routinely make adjustments for their male students. However, the "equality" issue prevents them from doing the same for their female students. This must change! If, in an effort to make the art fit the man, we make adjustments, then we must do the same for a woman.

Equal Contribution
Clearly, male participation contributes significantly to the female student's practice and ultimate success in the martial arts. Women can return the favor. They can begin by making a small investment in protective equipment. Female students (like the males in the class) must wear groin protection. Additionally, they must wear breast protection. These are small but significant steps toward equality in training – and ones that improve everyone's instruction.

The female student's training improves because the realism she needs is provided without the threat of serious injury. Take, for example, learning a defense against a two-hand lapel or chest grab. With breast protection, the male student can grab his female training partner realistically. This is very important.

Most of the time you see the chest grab taught with the grabber using a static, stiff-armed and carefully placed "lapel" grab – hardly realistic. (Muggers and other thugs are not going to be nearly this nice.) Lapel grabs don't always have to be practiced at full force, but they do require some realism. Without it, even if a woman learns a given technique to perfection, her practice will only create a false sense of security.

The male student's training is also improved by his female partner's use of protective equipment. With protective equipment, the male partner has the freedom to attack and strike the same targets on his female partner that he would on another male (again, his most likely assailant). Without protective equipment, his training loses realism.

For example, a technique that requires striking the groin (something done with control even with protective equipment) will be lacking if your partner is not wearing groin protection. You simply cannot simulate a groin strike by hitting the leg or lower abdomen. The fact is that if we train to miss a target, we can be confident that we will miss the target in the street. Neither can you practice a groin strike with perfect (non-contact) control. This is because your the partner will not react correctly, and the lack of accurate reaction adversely affects your remaining execution and follow-up. Protective equipment solves these problems.3

Finally, breast and groin protective equipment reduces any discomfort men might feel from physical contact between the sexes. Gentlemen are often uncomfortable in training situations requiring close physical contact with "unprotected" women. Protective equipment minimizes this because any normally inappropriate or embarrassing physical contact is less disconcerting. (Now, before anyone says that these guys shouldn't feel uncomfortable, consider this: discomfort is not a concern to those who are less sensitive and ill-mannered.) Making the female student's male training partner more comfortable, then, will go a long way toward female acceptance in the martial art school.

Equality Training
Equality in martial art training begins with acceptance of this fact: physically, all are not created equal. If everyone was the same size and build, and came with the same physical attributes, teaching martial arts would be a lot easier. This is not, however, the case. Still, all students deserve the opportunity to train and study in an environment free of sexual advances, condescending attitudes, and macho behavior. A good teacher (and most teachers are male) can do much to encourage positive participation and discourage negative conduct on the part of his male students. But the responsibility for equality in training rests on more than just masculine shoulders. Female students have an equal responsibility. If female martial artists expect awareness and consideration of their feelings and their training needs from male instructors and training partners – something they have every right to expect – then they, in turn, have a responsibility to acknowledge and consider masculine needs as well.

Acknowledging, accepting, and then training within the constraints of our differences is the only way that real inequality in training will ever disappear. Practical suggestions are just a start, but they are far more realistic than the rhetoric that routinely overshadows this issue. By beginning here, the male and female student alike can train equally, grow, and become the martial artist each is capable of becoming.


  1. Feminine participation in martial sports, like the Chinese wushu teams, is considerable, and has been so for many years. However, this discussion is limited to martial arts only_specifically excluding martial sports.
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  2. By definition, bravado is: a pretentious, swaggering display of courage.
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  3. Groin protection has been available for more than thirty years. Really good protection has been available for the last five. The myths that groin protection gives one a false sense of security, or that the protection is insufficient, are not true. Unless one is kicking to the head, the groin is more difficult to hit and better protected than even one's face. Moreover, during nearly thirty years of training with groin protection, I have never gotten used to being hit there.
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Last update:  Aug. 6, 2016
by Bob Orlando
Web Site of Bob Orlando: Instructor in Kuntao-Silat (Chinese kuntao and Dutch-Indonesian pukulan pentjak silat), author of two popular martial art books: "Indonesian Fighting Fundamentals" and "Martial Arts America: A Western Approach to Eastern Arts"; and producer of four martial art videos: Fighting Arts of Indonesia, Reflex Action, Fighting Footwork of Kuntao and Silat, Fighting Forms of Kuntao-Silat. Offering practical martial arts instruction to adults living in and throughout the Denver metropolitan area including, Lakewood, Littleton, Morrison, and Golden Colorado.