It was the mid-1980s, and I was fourteen years old. I'd recently seen the movie An Officer and a Gentlemen, and became interested in karate as a result.
Now, I ask you, what teenage boy wouldn't want to do karate after watching that movie?
I think the scene where teenage Zack gets beaten up by a Filipino gang did more to get young boys involved in martial arts than anything else at the time. It certainly worked on me, and I started attending a local karate club shortly after. I became reasonably good at karate over the next year or so.
But there were some unhappy aspects of my childhood. I didn't mix too well, and in some ways, the truth was that I lonely and isolated. I spent most of my time reading science books, programming computers and listening to classical music. In fact, I thought that everybody my age did those kind of things, but later, I would learn that this wasn't the case. An interest in the opposite sex didn't happen for me until I was seventeen years old, but around the age of fourteen to fifteen, the only things I cared about were computers, electronics and science.
So getting involved in martial arts was an important break for me. It gave me an interest that was not solitary in nature, and it did a lot for my self-esteem. But then one week, a sequence of events would have unfortunate consequences for me. These are memories I've not been back to for a very long time.
The club I attended practised the Shotokan style of karate, and during training sessions, we would often find a partner and spar with each other. I liked sparring session best of all, because it was competitive. It was kind of like play fighting I guess, but it wasn't full contact and pretty harmless. However, I recall that in one of these sessions I was tapped on the shoulder by a woman who had been sparring with someone else behind to me. She told me that I had caught her hand with a stray kick. I hadn't realised, but she seemed OK, so I apologized and thought nothing more of it at the time.
Later the same week, there was another, but unrelated incident. An older woman attended the club one evening. She was in her forties perhaps. As far as I can remember, it was the first and only time she came, and as we often did, we paired up for a sparring session that evening. I found myself in the unfortunate situation of having to pair up with her.
Looking back now, it's obvious to me that a genuine desire to learn karate was not the real reason she was there. I suspect that there had been some anguish in her life, and perhaps she was there because she wanted to learn "self defence". I don't know, but whatever the reason, the only thing she wanted to do that night was to hit out at a male—any male. And a fifteen year old boy would do.
She came at me, her face contorted in rage, wildly swinging hook punches. This wasn't karate at all! Confused, I simply moved around and avoided all contact with her. At the end of the session I went to shake her hand, which was the custom, but she walked off toward the instructor. A few seconds later, he called me over.
When I got there, I caught the end of her calmly explaining how I had hit her. It wasn't true, but I never got the chance say a word.
Without, a second thought, the instructor turned to me and "punched" me in the stomach. He held back the blow, so the effect was more one of shock rather than physical harm. He said something about not hitting women and told me to get back in line. I just kind of accepted my "punishment" because I didn't really understand what had just happened. I remember thinking it was a bit unfair, but I don't recall reading too much into it at the time. I was more confused than anything. I never saw her again anyway, but things didn't end there.
I turned up for training at the club, as usual, the following week. What I didn't know then was that the first women, the woman who I had accidentally clipped with a stray kick the week earlier, had spoken to the instructor since. She had, apparently, received a fractured bone in her wrist. I say "apparently" because I hadn't known about it—I only learned that information quite sometime later through a chance encounter. However, on the basis of what he heard, the instructor had decided that he was going to teach me a lesson, I guess.
Toward the end of the class, he interrupted training and asked me to come out to front, where he had pulled out a table. He told me to get on it and to start doing press-ups, which I did. This went on for quite some time, and I began to struggle because the sweat that was dripping from me on to the smooth table surface was causing my feet to slide uncontrollably.
Next, he suggested that we spar—just him and me—in front of the class. As a lanky teenager against a fast and powerful adult black belt, I stood absolutely no chance. Time and again, he punched me in the forehead and my legs buckled underneath me, and each time he dragged me up by my hair and forced me to carry on.
In reality, the attack was controlled and I suspect that his targeting of my forehead, rather than landing punches on my nose, was deliberate. Nevertheless, it was a public beating and a humiliation that was intended to be some kind of example. Eventually it ended, and so did the class. In the changing room later, a guy told me that he thought what had just happened was "wrong".
I cried while cycling home that night, without actually knowing why.
I went back to the club a few times, but my heart was never in it after that and I soon stopped going. I switched from karate to running, fell back into solitary activities, and spent my evenings with computers, electronics, physics books and science fiction. People were too difficult, confusing and painful for me.
I had lost something important that night.
Afterword: I originally wrote this as an experiment in challenging society's attitudes toward males. However, the account is entirely true—it happened to me. But it's not your sympathy I want, but for you to ask yourself a few questions...
In the text, I qualify the woman's actions with, "I suspect that there had been some anguish in her life." Maybe you felt a little sympathy for her, despite her anger? I certainly did, and in fact, it felt almost obligatory for me to put in some kind of compassionate justification for her behaviour in there. But then I asked myself, why? Would I have been so considerate if she had been a he, for example?
Ask yourself this...
What would your reaction be on reading a story in which a 40 year old man turns up to a karate club one night and deliberately attempts to punch a 15 year old girl in the face?
No doubt you would simply regard him as a monster, and nothing more. Please don't misunderstand me; this isn't about a bad woman or a bad man, it is about the double-standards in our attitudes.
Moreover, were the actions of the club instructor in my story not really based on misguided notions of chivalry, rather than any rational assessment of the situation? Is it not true that it is often males who display prejudice to other males, but it is not actually regarded as prejudice in our society? Would he have been so willing to beat up a 40 year old woman, had he known the truth, I wonder? (I'm not suggesting that's what he should have done.)
Finally, I also wanted to communicate that men and boys have feelings—we hurt. Not just physically, but emotionally too. It seems that this needs to be said, because male suffering often goes unseen and unacknowledged. In fact, hostility toward males is normalized in the media to such an extent that males are seen as legitimate targets of aggression. How often do you see TV shows or commercials where a man gets slapped in the face or kicked in the groin, and invited to laugh?