The radical malleability of human embodiment

Before my first BJJ training session I read about this martial art in Wikipedia. There I discovered that two of the basic positions “Mount” and “Guard” refer to”[I]n the mount position the practitioner sits astride the opponent’s chest, controlling the opponent with their bodyweight and hips…”, and “the practitioner is on their back controlling an opponent with their legs…In closed guard, the bottom grappler has their legs around the opponent’s trunk and has their ankles closed together to provide control and a barrier to escaping the position”.  Just reading this, imagining what it would feel like, made me feel pretty much mortified. These positions seemed awkwardly intimate, charged with sexual connotations.

Indeed, beginning was a bit crazy. In my first training session I was asked to perform a Side mount which means lying across your opponent with weight applied to the opponent’s chest- chest to chest.

To my surprise pretty soon forging close intimate contact with my training partners became a non-issue, losing its previous erotic charge. In fact, it was much easier for me to feel comfortable sitting on a person’s chest than to lose my inhibitions around pain. While it took me approximately few weeks to be completely comfortable rolling on the ground with most training partners, today, almost two years after I have entered the world of martial arts, I still painfully grapple (pun intended) with the mere thought of accidentally inflicting pain on another body.

If you would have told me that I would feel comfortable grappling before I had experienced it, I would call you crazy. It is only the fact that by that time I had already set my mind on researching gender and the body in the martial arts that gave me the courage to try. I thought, “yeah, it’s completely crazy, but it’s for the sake of science”.

I am not arguing that each and every one of us needs to challenge our normative ways of embodiment. Some of us may be absolutely content with ways of embodiment that are already inscribed by mainstream culture. Some radically different modes of embodiment may be unethical. I do, however, believe that my experience demonstrates the radical malleability of human embodiment, with its liberating potential.

Paying the price of learning to use violence

This post is a response to this post.

In the past I was certain that I want to acquire the ability to use violence to defend myself. As a woman, I feel constantly exposed to violence. But the more I experiment with martial arts; the more I realize that there are prices one has to pay in order to acquire the ability to use violence.

One has to be able to practice the ability to use violence on others, e.g. training partners. In the very least one has to be able to exert bodily movements or to move his or her body in ways that simulate violence. Or, he or she may need to induce pain in others, or take the risk of inducing pain in others.

Sometimes I feel like I don’t want to pay these prices. I don’t want to get my hands dirty. I want to be a good person. I feel that perhaps it is better to remain in the position of the defenseless victim than to acquire the ability to use violence.

I want to describe what I feel in my body when I’m asked to perform a movement that simulates violence. Imagine that my body is a car. I’m driving my car on the road, nonchalantly. When I have to perform a movement associated with violence, the road I was driving on a minute before disappears. Now I’m driving a car that’s hanging on a cliff’s end. I can’t drive at all.

On the one level, I know that this part of my gender socialization, and my oppression as a woman.

On the other hand, this is a part of me I don’t know if I can ever change.

Also my gender socialization has positive aspects.  I’m an extremely sensitive person. I experience many things on a very primordial, child-like level, without many filters. I think that I have a strong capacity to connect to others and feel what they feel.  I can’t watch aggressive sports because I can’t take pain or violence as a form of entertainment, even if the participants consented. Trying to watch the UFC in past had actually made me cry. Living in a society whose members exhibit greater degrees of comfort with violence then me, I often wonder what is wrong with me. But what if things are the other way around? Perhaps society would be a better place if more men and women were weak and too sensitive, like me, then if people like me would get tougher?

An update: I think this post is the mirror image of this one

Update #2 this is really appropriate to put here.

Do you breed in captivity?

Consuming documented prostitution (AKA “pornography”) means consuming the sexuality of strangers as a commodity. It is neither natural nor universal, but a social institution with concrete history. In addition to the advanced technology it requires for mass reproduction, it depends on specific forms of material and cultural power relations. To allow some people to achieve sexual gratification in the privacy of their home, without any social costs, the participants in pornographic videos suffer significant social and emotional costs, losing their right to privacy for good.

A pro-feminist male friend of mine tended to agree with my negative view on documented prostitution but said  that “then again, I read somewhere that when a few individuals of a rare kind of animal in a zoo wouldn’t procreate, the zoo personnel showed them videos of other individuals of their kind mate, and that caused them to procreate.  So, I guess that being aroused by seeing videos of individuals of your kind mate is natural”.

My friend gave me a wonderful metaphor to think about pornography and human sexuality. The animals in the zoo are locked in a cage. Either they were hunted down or born in captivity. They are deprived both of the stimuli of their natural habitat, and of the possibility to freely encounter and engage with other individuals of their kind. They are probably under continuous stress caused by being displayed to the enjoyment of people.

Whose captives are we that we have become dependent on seeing a video of strangers mate in order to stimulate and satisfy our sexual desires?

Our sexuality is not the most significant issue at stake. Our ability to truly encounter the Other and forge an ethical relationship with him or her is also at risk.  Following the research conducted by my friend and colleague, Dr. Sara Cohen Shabot, into the ethics of Simone de Beauvoir (you can read two relevant articles of her  here and here), I believe that when we encounter another human being, each of us has a responsibility to engage in an active struggle to free both himself or herself and the Other. We cannot meet the person whose sexuality has been commodifized for us, let alone strive to free him or her. In fact, by consuming pornography, we actively learn to dissociate sexual gratification from the responsibility of encountering the Other as equal and independent.

On the irreversibility of pain

Merleau-Ponty wrote about the inherent reversibility of the hand shake: both hands, both bodies touch each other and are being touched at the same time. The movement is reversible; the bond that’s created is mutual.

This is true whenever I touch another person (except when I’m using an object to touch the other person). The reversibility of the movement- the fact that both of us touch and are being touched at the same time- is essential to the bond between us.

When I induce pain in another body through my touch- this bond is ruptured.The Other  now feels an intense stimulus that takes control over her or his attention. He or she feels something very strong. What I feel becomes close to nothing. The intensity of the pain the felt by the Other minimizes my own weaker and more mundane sensations. The movement is no longer reversible. The bond is ruptured.

Change

One of the reasons I enjoy practicing martial arts so much is that it changes me.  I often feel that while intellectual learning may grant me more knowledge, it doesn’t have the power to change me.

I was raised on the belief that physical aggression is bad and forbidden, and that displaying any form of physical aggression is primitive, shameful and humiliating.

I remember two instances in which the faintest expression of physical aggression as a child brought on such a severe reaction that I understood quite well that such a behavior is not tolerated.

This and other forms of feminine gender socialization have made me much more comfortable with being or imagining to be the target of physical aggression than being the agent of physical aggression.

Merely playing the role of the attacker during martial art class can be extremely difficult for me. I feel out of place, embarrassed, my limbs heavy.

But I adapt to it. After a while, playing the role of the attacker comes more naturally, eliciting less embarrassment. I feel relieved. This relief comes from having the opportunity to rework and change the corporeal and emotional patterns I was socially wired to in relation to aggression.

During this class, I not only became more proficient in one language of the human body (one can view different martial arts as different forms or dialects of body languages), I had also changed. When I change, I feel as though something in the world outside me has reached through to me and penetrated my soul.

Measuring up to myself and not others

As a child, I was very afraid of falling, or of losing balance. I remember my mother telling me once that I tumble like a rock. One time I fell on my face and broke both of my front teeth. My entire childhood, I couldn’t do a simple forward roll. Once a friend had tried  to help me, and I rolled but I instantly felt rage because of the helplessness I experienced during the roll. So I never tried it again.

BJJ is the perfect martial art for me, because it involves mainly ground work. But when I came to my first BJJ training, I had to roll forward and backwards as part of the drills during warm-up. I cherish my first coach’s empathy, un-judgmental encouragement and competence in teaching. Thanks to him.  both the fact that I rolled at this first training, and it didn’t make me feel helpless or enraged. I persevered and now BJJ is one of the best and most enjoyable experiences in my life. Through my first coach’s help, I could transcend the limits of my body and mind, and genuinely improve myself. Improve myself in relation to me, not in relation to others.

I’ve been training for a year and a half now, and I usually “lose” sparring matches in both clubs where I train. I often get comments from my training partners, such as, ” You always gives me your back”‘, or “you shouldn’t put your weight forward in guard”, “why did you do this, last time you were better”, or “Why do you keep repeating this mistake”. I know their intentions are good, and that they are trying to help me to improve, but these comments make me feel helpless. I try to do my best. Really. I try to  follow the principles I learned, and I try to work well. But when I get these comments, I feel like I’m not as competent as I should be, or that my understanding is flawed. These comments make me appreciate all the more the teaching style of my first coach. When we rolled, he rarely criticized me. He always succeeded in finding the right level of game that will challenge me yet give me a clear sense of enjoyment and sense of competence.

When I shared my frustration with one of my current coaches, he told me to focus on my successes and not failures. So I want to focus on my success in transcending myself. Yesterday, I had to do a drill that mortified me. It involved jumping to a closed guard when you partner is standing. It was the first time I observed the drill, and taking part in it really scared me. Jumping was relatively easy. Being jumped, was another story. I don’t know whether my fear was related to my body (the fact that I am a woman, and that most partners are much heavier than me), or a mental one (the fact that I never had to stand up with the weight of another person on me).

This really scared me, and the fact that the first time that I tried it I fell on my face and on my training partner did not help. A blue  belt at the club stayed after training to teach me. He had the patience to break up the drill into several stages and I felt that he had faith that I could do it, despite my fear. After several attempts as well as escape attempts (on my part, I already said that I am a coward) I managed to stay on my feet for two seconds with the weight of another person on me. I know that it is probably not impressive in relation to others, and I know that I probably “barely” did it. But I succeeded in doing something that I was mortified from at first. And it was the best feeling I had in quite a while and an accomplishment I cherish. For me, this is the meaning of measuring up to myself, and not others.

On the body and shame

I don’t remember exactly how old I was. I was transitioning from childhood to adolescence. I started growing hair on my armpits. I was probably in fifth grade because I remember a friend showing me her two new hairs on her armpits the summer before at summer camp for fourth graders (and I didn’t have any hairs then). Somehow I knew that growing hairs on my armpits is not good. That it was embarrassing and that these hairs should be removed. But I wasn’t sure how to do it. I think that I said something to my mother and she dismissed it, saying that I was only a child.

Then I went to the swimming pool. A group of two or three boys around my age or a bit older noticed my new grown hairs. They started to mock me and make fun of me because I had these new hairs. I was frozen with humiliation and didn’t know what to do. I dived deep into the water so as not to hear them laughing at me.

Somehow this early experience of body shame was made into a part of my body. I carry it with me ever since. If I had to physically locate this experience, I would locate it near my armpits. Like invisible irremovable hairs, which cause shame and embarrassment. I guess that over the years new “organs” like this joined my physical body –  I will always be that kid that was laughed at because she was fat, or deemed ugly and unattractive.        

Free me from gender binaries

A couple of days ago I posted on my facebook wall that I hate being assigned to the category of a woman. One facebook friend referred me to a plastic surgeon she knows, writing that he could “help me become re-assigned to the other category”. Another posted: “Then, what category would you want to be assigned to?”, implying again the male category.

Despite the fact that scholars from various scientific disciplines have challenged the notion that the human race is divided into two complementary, opposite sexes (see Lacquer and Fausto-Sterling, for example), most people continue to stick to a binary idea of gender and deny the existence of biological, social and cultural gender varieties or continuums.  Gender or sex is a very complex phenomenon which depends on a correspondence of at least a number of levels: hormonal , genetic, anatomical , the appearance of external genitals and psychological and subjective identities. There are many instances in which this correspondence does not exist (for example, queer identity, XXX females or Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome). A recent study found that most “gender normative” individuals do not identify solely or even mostly with their assigned gender. Just recently, a female friend from martial art class asked me whether I think that she has too much testosterone because she likes to fight.

Whenever I point this out in a conversation, I’m told that these examples are mistakes of nature, or, when I’m talking to an extremely liberal person, that these are the exceptions that prove the rule.

Imagine that we would recognize only extremely tall or extremely short individuals. Everyone in the middle would have to correct themselves by some medical procedure. Or that we would have accepted the existence of only brown and green eyed individuals. The rest would need to wear contact lenses.

I propose that instead of talking about gender in a binary way, we would talk about gender continuums, or genres (This is the suggestion of French philosopher Luce Irigary).

What will we (as a society) gain from using this terminology?

We will be able to recognize and accommodate persons with physical attributes that are now (under the gender binary) labeled as belonging to the opposite gender- such as males with gynocosmetics, or women with certain patterns of facial and of body hair.

We will be able to accommodate intersex and other persons with ambiguous sexual/gendered features.

We will allow people to express and develop traits that were hitherto associated with the opposite sex (men would be able to be tender and women could be physically aggressive).

Sex based segregation systems, for example, in ultra-orthodox Jewish  communities (see this for one aspect of gender based segregation of ultra Orthodox Jews) or occupational segregation (crowding women into low paying jobs and in charge of emotional labor, for example) , will be undermined and harder to maintain.

Compulsory heterosexuality would become largely meaningless, if we don’t limit our identities or our partners’ identities to an either/or sexual identity.

What will we lose by abandoning gender binary?

We will lose most of our known cultural mediation mechanisms of organizing relationships between men and women, and people in general in our society. We would have to conceive, imagine and cultivate new modes of connection and communication. A lot of hard work. Glancing over the history of most known (patriarchal) societies, I would say that this would be a good thing.

And this  is a very useful link: Judith Butler explains the idea of gender performativity in three minutes.

Why are we afraid of women competing with men in sports?

Lindsey Vonn, one of the most successful skiers the United States has ever produced, requested the opportunity to compete against men at the prestigious Lake Louise competition. The International Ski Federation rejected her request because “one gender is not entitled to participate in the races of the other.” If men are biologically stronger and faster than women, why is there a need to shelter them from competition with women? Skiing is not a contact sport – one races against the clock and the slope.

Professor Mark Stoddart from Memorial University of Newfoundland argues that skiing is charged with gender associations, as risk-taking and speed are associated with masculinity, whereas caution and control are interpreted as “feminine”.

This is hardly surprising: the belief that there are inborn, permanent and biological differences between genders is the foundation of social order, not only in relation to sports but also to sexuality, parenting, work and combat.

In this context, the gendered and sexual identities of women who excel in “masculine” professions often come under scrutiny. Just last year, it was decided that South-African middle-distance runner, Caster Semenya, must undergo a “gender verification test” before she can participate in the World Championship competition, a test which she eventually passed successfully.

Nonetheless, in marathons and golfing, women have already been permitted to compete against men, following legal action. This has not just changed the lives of women who practice these sports, but also these sports’ gender biases and masculine codes, and gradually, our society in general.

There are many ways to create gender-equitable sports contests, yet still match equivalent competitors, such as introducing an “open weight” category, and adding another gender-open competition, alongside the separate ones. These changes are a necessary and positive adaptation and manifestation of women’s gain in physical and social capital.