Can a trained woman beat an untrained man?

Photo by DIAO DARIUS on Unsplash

“This is one of the girls who kicks my ass everyday.”

That’s how Steve introduces me to his mate when we run into each other in town. Both of us are training in the same Thai Boxing camp, four grueling hours a day. I had a few weeks head start on him, and though I am still far from good, I do have the upper hand when we fight. I pummel him with kicks and punches, hoping that if I am fast enough, he won’t be able to take advantage of the fact that he has 20 inches and 40 kilos on me. “Breaking the patriarchy one sparring match at a time!” he laughs, high fiving me.

I used to be convinced of my own vulnerability. I thought that there was no way I could beat a man in a fight, however much I trained. Even though I grew up watching Buffy, The Vampire Slayer.

It was disheartening, especially after being the victim of sexual assault, to think that I would never be able to defend myself. That the taller, heavier person would always win. I’m not alone in this, when I tell people I’m training I’ve had a lot of guys say to me, “is there any point? You are really small. Whatever you do, men will always be able to kick your ass.”

Since I’ve started learning Muay Thai, however, I have realised that this is a myth.

Sure, there are anatomical differences, accentuated by gendered norms which lead men to be more physical and develop their bodies more than men. On average, guys have 40% more upper body strength than women.

But martial arts have long developed techniques that use others strength against them, or give more importance to technique than to brute force. If you are fast and know where to hit to immediately immobilise your opponent, you can beat a far larger, stronger person. This is especially true when it comes to self-defence, which is all about using fast, effective techniques, and then getting yourself out of reach of your attacker. It isn’t about long, sustained fights, where each side will inevitably strike the other, and the strength of those strikes takes all its importance. In this scenario, a trained woman can definitely beat an untrained man.

“It’s dangerous to teach any woman to try and strike or fight a man,” internet troll Kristopher Zylinski wrote on Facebook last October. “Even if they knew Brazilian jiu-jitsu they just don’t have the size or strength to use the holds.” He went on to suggest that 99% of women are “too weak” to fight 99% of men. MMA grappler Tara LaRosa took him up on his boast, and took out Zylinksi in a fight that lasted just over six minutes before he quit.

A 28 year old burglar got a surprise when he broke into the house of an 82 year old in Rochester, New York. A regular weight-lifter, the woman beat him up, and told local news “ “I’m alone and I’m old, but guess what — I’m tough. He picked the wrong house to break into.”

The myth that women are unable to beat men is harmful because it prevents women from trying to defend themselves in violent situations. Convinced they will lose and be further hurt, women often focus on de-escalating rather than fighting back. This can lead to psychological trauma after sexual assault, as women feel guilty for not fighting, as though that made them complicit in the violence. Plus, studies show that women who actually fight the rapist are less likely to be raped. Four out of five rape attempts fail — and they are more likely to fail if the woman puts up a fight. And the more aggressive the better. In a University of Nebraska study of 150 women who had been targets of rape, those who had screamed, bit, kicked, scratched, or ran were half as likely to be raped as were women who had done nothing.

We need to recognize women’s strength, and their ability to take care of themselves.

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