Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Hitting Out

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.

I'm not sure whether, if I'd have continued, I would have become exceptional or anything, but I was keen and that's what mattered. And I certainly looked up to the instructor of the club—he was a strong male role model for me, and I would have followed his every instruction without question. If he had told me to jump off a cliff as part of a martial arts training exercise, I would have done so without too much hesitation.

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?


  1. I had a similar experience when I took Krav Maga (the Israeli martial arts) in Denver in the early 2000s, although it was nowhere near as bad as what you experienced. I’m sorry to hear that you experienced that bullshit. My experience with Krav Maga at the time was that the female associate instructor spent almost all her time helping the female students. Because I had learning issues, I spoke to the male head instructor about this problem. He didn’t get it, so I quit. Actually, I did have a similar sparring experience where one bitch in the class loudly complained after I put her on her ass twice (I grabbed her leg when she tried to kick me). She was obviously trying to garner sympathy, but the head instructor, to his credit, saw through her bullshit (he knew me and my personality) and didn’t do anything to me.

  2. I had a similar thing happen to me when I was in 4th grade, roughly around 1994. I was the nerdy kid in my school and for years had been the target. I would be cornered by groups of bullies and I was constantly coming home bruised. My mother scraped together some money to take me to a martial arts class, figuring it would be a win win. I would learn to defend myself and would be in a sport to get me out of the house. It was taught by a woman in her late 40s early 50s. As I was 9 or 10, the only thing I picked up on gender specific was that the girls were praised and promoted pretty quickly. I was a white belt, while girls who started at around the same time as me were yellow or orange. Any of the boys who were in the higher colors were usually much older and some had started somewhere else. The girls would also chat with the teacher before and after class. I was used in sparing examples on a regular basis and berated in almost every class. One thing that stands out in my memory is how much sympathy many of the other kids had for me which, I didn't realize until writing this, is an indication of how hard she was on me. I mean, how much does it take to have 10 - 18 year olds to say "thats just wrong.."? The breaking point was one night with a girl sparing partner, (yellow or orange stripped, but only a couple months ahead of me) I clipped the side of her shoulder during blocking exercises. The idea of the exercise was to block a punch straight at you by moving your arm up and to one side. We were doing half speed punches and one of her blocks only pushed my arm up enough for my pinkie finger to hit the top of her shoulder. Honestly, I think my finger got it worse than her shoulder. The girl told the teacher, who came over and started yelling at me about hitting my partner, then she slapped me hard across the face a few times saying, "How does that feel?!?". My partner was now protesting, saying I had not hurt her. Once the teacher was out of ear shot my partner apologized saying she wouldn't of said anything had she known what was going to happen to me. I was very stoic the whole time, at least for a 4th grader. But I was also shocked, not at what she did, but that she HAD to do it to me. I really was starting to believe I was a terrible person.

    I never complained that much to my mother as I knew it wasn't easy to pay for, plus I figured this was the norm. Mind you, I did complain, but it was the generic 10 year old stuff. When people were calling me lazy, fat, and stupid (kids, teacher at school, and the karate teacher. Overall 4th grade was a pretty rough year.) I figured it was the truth, that I needed to toughen up. When you are 10 you just assume that is how it is, as you have no experience to base it on. The kicker is that while I enjoyed the class for the first few weeks and got along with the teacher, once my mother paid for a few more months upfront I was suddenly not serious about being there and was a screw up. Even better she is a big name in Martial Arts in my area and has praise left and right and is still somewhat active. Thankfully, my mother pulled me out once she found out, describing the teacher as a "nasty woman." Her reasoning to my mother was that it was part of the training. As the goal was to keep me from getting beat on my mother felt pretty bad about it.

    I don't believe the teacher was openly biased towards men. In fact, 18 years later... I'm only about 90% sure it was a girl I was sparring with, which kinda kills the story. The important part in retrospect, was how many people just let it happen, especially in an environment that was meant to teach people how to stand up for and respect themselves and others. Even my sparring partner's protest was short lived. She was consoled as being a naive victim. Had it been a man slapping a girl or a even a man slapping a boy, more people would have said something. It's pretty easy to reaffirm your actions when no one challenges you.

  3. Thanks for your comments. I don't think experiences like these are uncommon at all.

  4. Andy,
    Just read your piece, really enjoyed it.
    Welcome to the dojo.

  5. A very powerful story. All the stronger for the sober way it is told.


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