Shape your life and embrace your aggression: a boxing project for female and trans survivors of violence.
This article focuses on an action research project called Shape Your Life, developed to teach women and transgendered survivors of violence recreational boxing at the Toronto Newsgirls Boxing Club, Canada's only women-led boxing club. In this innovative project, participants were encouraged to explore "healthy aggression" as a means of initiating change in their lives. As most research on aggression in sport focuses on young men, the aggression of girls, women, and trans (transgendered and transsexual) individuals remains a much under-studied topic. This article attempts to open up farther dialogue on gender, sport, and aggression by providing an account of survivors' aggression as an important source of empowerment, thereby moving beyond the narrow focus on female aggression as harm inducing and a cause for moral panic. The article also highlights the need for practical approaches to physical activity and sport programming that address the needs of participants whose lives are affected by gender-based violence.
Do you realize that in this age of the world the power of self-defense, or of indignant protest, is more necessary to women than to men? You will find that we do more startling and unconventional things here than learning to box ... It is an excellent place, we find, for the adoption of new ideas.--The Garden of Eden, U.S.A.: A very possible story (1895, p. 148)
The above excerpt, written over a century ago, comes from William H. Bishop's Utopian novel, which describes life in a community called Eden, a place of sexual and economic equality.(i) Bishop's novel is considered the first "to discuss rape as a social problem and certainly the first to suggest, as a possible form of resistance, boxing" (Boddy, 2008, p. 162). This article also engages in an examination of boxing as a possible form of resistance. It focuses on an action research project, called Shape Your Life (SYL), developed to teach women and trans (ii) survivors of violence recreational boxing at the Toronto Newsgirls Boxing Club, Canada's only women-led boxing club. In this innovative project, participants also engaged in "more startling and unconventional things" than just boxing. In particular, they were encouraged to explore "healthy aggression" as a means of initiating change in their lives. As most research on aggression in sport focuses on young men, the aggression of girls, women, and trans individuals remains a much under-studied topic.
The article begins with an overview of the SYL project. The focus then shifts to a review of literature on female aggression and violence, arguing that much of the growing concern about aggression and violence reflects broader cultural anxieties about gender and race relations, and continues to ignore the ways in which girls and women are systemically targeted for violence. Following this, the project's action research methodology is outlined. In the subsequent section, the concept of 'healthy aggression' and the meanings it holds in the lives of survivors of violence is explored. This section attempts to open up further dialogue on gender, sport, and aggression by providing an account of women and trans survivors' aggression as an important source of empowerment, thereby moving beyond the narrow focus on female aggression as harm inducing and a cause for moral panic.
Shape Your Life (SYL)
The Shape Your Life project began in the fall of 2007, as a one-year action research project in Toronto designed to teach recreational boxing to 120 women and trans participants who identified as survivors of violence.(iii) Shape Your Life originated as a community-university partnership(iv) between the Toronto Newsgirls Boxing Club; two multi-service feminist organizations that provide program delivery and social advocacy for women and trans individuals in disadvantaged life situations; and myself, a university researcher engaged in research openly committed to a more just social order. Shape Your Life began firmly grounded in anti-oppression feminism, a model of practice that acknowledges and attempts to address structures of oppression. Therefore, to offer an effective project and minimize barriers for participants, SYL was designed with consideration for the ways in which poverty, race, gender, homophobia, and other forms of oppression are experienced as social inequalities. Given this framing, it was necessary to consider the various processes that support violence and function to preserve inequities in gender relations including economic vulnerability, racism, inadequate health care, and other discriminatory processes (McKenna & Larkin, 2002). To this end, the SYL project was integrated with other services, programs, and resources that were helpful in the area of housing, income support, counselling, parenting help, healthcare, and community legal services.
With the awareness that gender-based violence(v) is compounded by other axes of difference, Scrapper, the SYL project coordinator, focused on providing outreach and support to a diverse group of participants, with the particular aim of trying to reach survivors of violence who live in disadvantaged communities. For example, Scrapper established connections, held workshops, and information sessions with, and took referrals from several agencies including sexual assault centers, crisis lines, community health centers, women's centers, counseling services, and agencies that work with disadvantaged women, trans, and youths. Within a short period of time the demand for SYL increased well beyond the capacity of the project, and each month names were added to a waiting list. Shape Your Life was free for all participants. Transit passes, childcare, and post-workout snacks were provided, as were shoes and workout clothing when needed. At the completion of the project, participants were also provided with an additional one-year boxing membership at the Newsgirls gym and their own new pair of boxing gloves for training.
Girls Behaving Badly? The Framing of Gender, Aggression, and Violence
Gender-based violence is undeniably pervasive and is widely acknowledged as a major social and public health problem. However the issue of violence against women and transgendered people remains largely overlooked by physical educators and sport and physical activity researchers who have predominantly focused on violence within the confines of sport. The literature that does address violence against women is dominated by a focus on women's self defense (e.g., Hollander, 2004, 2009; McCaughey, 1997, 1998) and is often produced by feminist scholars outside of critical sport studies. Moreover, there remains a noticeable absence of research on the physical activity experiences of survivors of violence.(vi)
Yet, within the last two decades there has been a rather curious turn in research that examines females, aggression, and violence (e.g., Moriettie, Odgers, & Jackson, 2004; Pepler, Madsen, Webster, & Levene, 2008; Simmons, 2002; Underwood, 2003). Sensational media reports and public accounts, including those generated by academics, have helped to construct the cultural view that girls and women are becoming increasingly aggressive and violent. Newspaper headlines like the "Dark side of girl power" (Monsebraaten, 2006) and books such as Garbarino's (2006) See Jane Hit: Why Girls Are Growing More Violent and What Can Be Done about It bombard readers with images of aggressive and violent girls and cite the importance of recognizing, intervening in, and minimizing the amount of aggression displayed by females. More recently the violent behavior of two college athletes went "viral," generating Internet-celebrity status and moral concern over the increasing levels of violence in women's competitive sport. Video highlights from a game in 2009 featuring New Mexico soccer player Elizabeth Lambert throwing elbows, colliding with players, and yanking the ponytail of a BYU player, resulted in media coverage not seen in women's soccer since Brandi Chastain removed her shirt (CBSNews.com). In 2010, Brittney Griner, a Baylor freshman previously known for her dunking ability, was suspended for two games for throwing a punch that broke an opposing player's nose in a playoff game (LATimes.com).
At the heart of these sensational accounts is a debate as to whether girls' and women's violence really is increasing. In simple terms, two opposing sides frame the debate (Luke, 2008; Wesley, 2006). Multiple sources of data show an increase in the rate of girls being arrested for violent crimes in the past two decades, providing evidence that girls' use of violence has increased. This claim is refuted by those who state that girls are not becoming more violent but that the increase in arrests can be explained by changes in enforcement behavior, higher incarceration rates of women and girls of color, and the failure of adequate social services for the most marginalized and disadvantaged girls and women, Luke (2008) critically flushes out both sides of this debate concluding that the
concern over the increase in girls' violence is a result of the co-occurrence of limited theorizing about violence primarily as an enactment of masculinity, cultural tensions over changing norms and understandings of race and gender, and what some have described as a backlash against the movements for social justice of the 1960s and 1970s (p. 38).
As Luke highlighted, the majority of research constructs aggression and violence as variously oppressive and inappropriate when enacted by females. Clearly aggression is overwhelmingly framed as the domain of men, which virtually ignores the causes, consequences, and meanings of aggression in the life of girls and women.
It is important here to distinguish between aggression and violence, as the two terms are not interchangeable. Violence, as understood here, can take three forms: (1) subjective, which is the most visible form of violence such as crime, terror, and physical acts enacted by individuals or groups; (2) objective, such as forms of discrimination and racism including those forms that are invisible and anonymous; and (3) systemic, which includes forms of violence inherent in economic and political systems (Zizek, 2008). Aggression, the more difficult term to define, relates to violence but is not the same thing, as it is possible to be aggressive without violence. Indeed, aggression is a word with a history. Kerr (2005) devoted an entire chapter in Rethinking Aggression and Violence in Sport to unpacking the numerous definitions of aggression in a variety of academic fields including sport, highlighting their major shortcomings. Kerr took up Apter's (2001) reversal theory to frame his discussion of aggression in sport and to argue that aggression can have a constructive and favorable effect. Reversal theory is concerned with the ways in which individuals experience their own motivation to a given situation at a particular time (Kerr 1999). Reversal theory, as advanced by Kerr (1999, 2005), provides a scientific basis for the study of aggression in autonomous individuals by providing a coherent model of motivation, cognitive processes, and affect.
Kerr (2005) highlighted that sport-sanctioned aggression and violence is a source of excitement, pleasure, and satisfaction. Indeed, sanctioned forms of aggression and violence are a fundamental domain of experience, yet such experiences often remain taboo or restricted in the lives of women. As boxing journalist Katherine Dunn noted, "We live with a distinct double standard about male and female aggression" (2009, p. 114). Consider, for example, that women's sport often removes or limits particularly aggressive forms of play such as prohibiting intentional body checking in hockey, and fighting two- rather than three-minute rounds in women's boxing. Indeed, sanctioned aggression and violence are still considered the hallmarks of masculinity and male-dominated sporting landscapes. If this were not the case, it is unlikely that the New Mexico soccer player's dirty play or the Baylor freshman's single punch would have generated so much spectacle and concern. As a result, a focus on men and masculinity still profoundly structure the concepts, frameworks, research, and dominant meanings of violence and aggression. What remains overlooked is the multiple meanings and experiences of aggression and violence in the life of women and trans people.
The incursion of female and trans bodies into what is still largely viewed as the masculine domain of boxing provides a unique opportunity to explore contrarian views about gender, aggression, violence, power, and strength,. Take for example the words of Joyce Carol Oates (2002), who famously wrote,
raw aggression is thought to be the peculiar province of men, as nurturing is the peculiar province of women. (The female boxer violates this stereotype and cannot be taken seriously--she is parody, she is cartoon, she is monstrous. Had she an ideology, she is likely to be a feminist) (p. 73, originally published in 1987).
Women have had to overcome numerous obstacles to gain entry into the ring (Denfeld, 1997; Dunn, 2009; Hager Cohen, 2005), and today boxing is one of the few sports where the skilled use of aggression and physical violence is sanctioned, acceptable, and celebrated.
Shape Your Life was developed as an action research project, an approach widely used in broader fields of education, but one that has a much shorter history in physical education and sport research (Frisby, Crawford, & Dorer, 1997; Reid, Tom, & Frisby, 2006; Tinning, 2000). Action research challenges and attempts to change inequitable power relationships by "bringing together theory, method and practice" (Frisby, Maguire, & Reid, 2009, p. 14). In other words, action research, in all of its various forms, is rooted in praxis attempting to contribute simultaneously to scholarship and social change (Carr & Kemmell, 1986). Shape Your Life fostered scholarship by making space for participants not traditionally supported in critical sport research, by calling attention to the pervasive phenomenon of gendered violence, and by addressing power imbalances that limit access to physical activity programs. Simultaneously, SYL worked toward social change by offering recreational boxing as a means of empowerment. Empowerment, in this instance, refers to "the ability of persons to make decisions and have control over their personal lives through the cultivation of resources" (Frisby, Crawford, & Dorer, 1997, p. 14).
Data collection for the project included a large body of observational, survey, and interview data produced over the first year and half of the project. Data for this article in particular, were drawn from in-depth, semistructured interviews generated from focus-group and one-on-one interviews with 78 participants. Shape Your Life participants ranged in age from 16 to 58 years old and represented a diverse group in terms of gender identities, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, and social class. However, one common thread connected all participants as--each self identified as a survivor of violence. One of the traditions of the Newsgirls boxing club that was extended to the SYL project is that boxers were encouraged to select a "boxing name." For example, one of the SYL sessions had participants named The Brampton Brawler, Pit-bull, Resilience, Tantrum, The Chili, and Soc'er Mom. These boxing names are used in this article as pseudonyms at the request of the participants who took part in the interviews. All interviews were taped and transcribed for subsequent thematic analysis.
The following section draws on these participant narratives to examine the meanings and experiences of aggression in the life of female and trans survivors of violence within the SYL project. Participants discussed the importance of aggression within the context of the boxing project and everyday life by considering the ways in which aggression can be experienced as healthy, productive, and as transformative in their lives.
"Healthy Aggression" The SYL project teaches recreational boxing that does not include sparring or hitting other participants. It is not the intention of SYL to manufacture fighters; rather, the project introduces recreational boxing as a means of connecting with and supporting survivors of violence in order to empower and affect social change. Within the project, participants learn and perform the skills used in boxing by hitting heavy bags, speed bags, and shadow boxing.
One of the "capstone" experiences in the project is when participants climb into the ring to "chase" an experienced boxer. This gives the SYL boxer the rare opportunity to work on their offensive skills in a more realistic setting and to hit an actual moving body target instead of a piece of equipment. Wearing heavily padded 16-ounce sparring gloves, participants work on throwing punches for an uninterrupted round of three minutes. The opponent is a trained fighter wearing head gear and gloves, who works on slipping, parrying, and catching punches, although they sometimes let the SYL boxer land a body punch or head shot, particularly after they tire and their punches are less effective. Participants are given the opportunity to experience being the only two bodies in the ring and the assurance that they will never be hit back. "Chasing" is often one of the highlights of the project as participants safely experience the pleasure, satisfaction, and intense physicality of being in the ring. Although it is argued here that chasing is a source of enjoyment and pleasure to most participants, it is also true that not everyone chose to participate in this experience, and a few SYL boxers did not want any physical contact with another person.
Aggression is essential in the sport of boxing. When Savoy Howe, founder of the Toronto Newsgirls Boxing Club and the head SYL trainer, works with women and trans individuals, and in particular with those whose bodies have experienced violence, she makes the case for what she calls "healthy aggression." Howe contends that aggression is both healthy and instrumental for women and trans individuals:
It is about being powerful and grounded, it allows you to be adamant about what you need to do for yourself, it's about making good choices for yourself. Healthy aggression is powerful but it needs to be rehearsed--if you don't rehearse it, you'll be as useless as tits on a bull. Healthy aggression changes the way you think about what you can do in this world. We have to retrain ourselves to be aggressive.
The above excerpt demonstrates the ways in which Howe rejects the notion of aggression as the exclusive domain of men and masculinity and insightfully argues that aggression is an essential component of self-care. Similarly, Dunn (2009) explained, "we tend to forget that the human capacity for aggression is more than a monstrous defect, that it is also a crucial survival tool" (p. 106).
In what follows, healthy aggression is explored in direct relation to the experiences of SYL participants. Their accounts are offered as an attempt to open dialogue about the promising benefits healthy aggression offers to survivors of violence:
Fancy Pants: I survived violence since I was a kid and boxing, the SYL project, isn't about fighting and punching people out. For me this project teaches aggression and it's about learning to stand up for yourself, so you don't have to get to the point where you're going to let somebody beat you up. Brawler: Healthy aggression is a way of thinking. I used to think very differently about aggression, that it always ended up in violence. Now I see it [healthy aggression] as a positive. I used to feel very insecure and not confident at all. I thought the abuse was happening to me for a reason and coming here, it's helped me a lot. Now I think about myself in a different way. You know, I don't deserve this abuse, it shouldn't be happening to me, and I'm not going to put up with it anymore because I don't have to. To me, that's what healthy aggression is. Pit Bull: Before (SYL) my viewpoint was always that aggression means something negative. It was always physical, verbal, derogatory, or anything negative. Whereas when I went boxing it showed me the positive, it turned it around. Being aggressive helps and doesn't have to be hurtful. Striker: My last relationship was very abusive and when I think about it now I really have to laugh 'cause I think, oh my God, I was such a punk ... I can never see myself standing there or taking a lick again [long pause]. Being aggressive means I don't have to even be there. I will take care of myself. So yeah, that is what this project has done for me.
The SYL project encouraged participants to think differently about aggression, and to explore how healthy aggression can be experienced without being destructive or harm inducing. Similar to the findings in McCaughey's (1997, 1998) ethnographic study on women participants in self-defense and martial arts classes, SYL participants reported feeling pride, accomplishment, and increased confidence in their body as they learned to be aggressive. In essence, they improved their capacity to stand up and care for themselves. As Striker discussed in the above quote, she was no longer willing to put up with intimidation of an abusive relationship. The SYL project provided an important social space to reframe aggression as healthy, as a constructive tool, as a means of undermining passivity, and as an important aspect of self-care.
It is important to note that participants gave complex, diverse, and sometimes overlapping meanings to their experiences with aggression. However, in all cases, SYL boxers discussed an emancipatory, change-enhancing, contextualized approach to healthy aggression. As the following comments reveal, there are multiple sources of oppression that are embodied and experienced on a daily basis. Healthy aggression provides an important component of survival as well as creativity. The following three quotes speak to the ways in which healthy aggression can build and maintain a sense of self:
Bee Sting: I think healthy aggression is particularly important for racialized women, women of color, and minority women. As a minority woman I am told everyday about limits. There has been a change of thought, a change of feelings, and also the change in my personality after being in this project. I know you can become whatever you want, do whatever you want. Now I'm finding if I don't agree with something I'll say, "No! I'm not going to do it." Killah Kuwahla: Through SYL I decided to commit myself to start to take care of myself. The whole physical aspect of the project was challenging, but also I was really interested in finding the power of aggression within my own body. Because I am small I wanted to see what sort of power was there that I haven't even tapped into. I have started to really listen to my body, which I never did before. I'm finding out that I can do good things by being aggressive, I can take care of myself, and I don't just have to react to stuff all the time. The Chili: Because of the abusive relationship that I was in I totally lost myself. Coming here I am finding the person that I once was. I really appreciate that because without being here and boxing and being aggressive I don't think I could have found my voice. I just became very timid and internalized everything, and I never really stood up for myself or had opinions. I just stayed in the background and did whatever anyone wanted and now I am working at coming out of that.
The participants clearly outlined the positive effect of the project and healthy aggression on their life. In addition, Bee Sting highlighted that there are wide ethnocultural differences among experiences of violence and aggression. Violence against women and trans individuals in South Asian, Caribbean, First Nations, or other non-white communities occurs within a racist nation, and access to resources is often more difficult to obtain. Bee Sting argued that race is not a trivial difference in daily life as a "minority woman," and that she was often further displaced within white-dominated culture, making healthy aggression particularly relevant. For Bee Sting and other participants, healthy aggression is enriching, rather than threatening, and an important tool in redefining oneself and one's own capacities.
Shape Your Life is a unique boxing project for female and trans survivors of violence. As a participant named Shortfuse remarked, "When you go through all those different instances of violence, it's like it's taking little pieces of you away, and here I am taking those pieces back and becoming me--who I'm supposed to be." At the heart of this inquiry into healthy aggression is the acknowledgement that violence and aggression often function to preserve inequities in gender relations. Indeed, normative claims of male physicality and aggression impact the ways in which power and dominance have been constructed on and through the body of women and trans individuals. Notwithstanding this limitation, over the past two decades there has been growing public and scholarly concern over female violence and aggression. The analysis presented in this article draws from Luke (2008), who examined the claims as a form of cultural anxiety over changing social norms regarding race and gender and that new policies for violence have resulted in criminal behaviors that were previously dealt with outside the court system, not in an actual increase in girls' and women's violence and aggression. Moreover, the focus on and fascination with the increasing visibility of aggressive girls, or on "girls behaving badly," blunts the ability to focus on gender-based violence conditioned by inequality.
Boxing anchored by healthy aggression has the potential to be an empowering practice for survivors of violence. The primary aim of this article was to delink connections between masculinity and aggression in order to open up spaces for fresh and productive interpretations of aggression in the life of female and trans survivors of violence. The article attempted to rethink the relationship between women's and trans' bodies and aggression drawing from data that explores the benefits of healthy aggression. Explicit in much of this work are two additional insights. The first is the recognition of the need for strategic and practical approaches to physical activity and sport programming that address gender-based violence. There are very few programs for survivors of violence that encourage participants to "learn by body" (Wacquant, 2004) and that actively engage the moving body. There is clearly considerable scope for further action research by critical sport scholars engaging survivors of violence. The second insight is the relevance of potentially new theoretical understandings of aggression, which will enable the development of a more situated and in-depth analysis of both oppression and resistance in the life of those impacted by gender-based violence.
This article would not have been possible without the willingness of SYL participants to share their stories. I am grateful and wish to thank all the boxers in Shape Your Life.
(i) Although this novel is noted for its pro-feminist depiction of gender roles and envisions a "new womanhood," the text clearly reflects and embraces racial injustices without further reflection.
ii My use of the term trans encompasses transgender and transsexual identities.
iii Funding for SYL was provided by the Ministry of the Attorney General, Ontario Victim Services Secretariat. Participants joined the project for a three-month session. Multiple sessions were held, each with 15-25 participants. The project is now operating in its third year and has worked with over 300 participants. SYL continues to operate on donations and money raised specifically for SYL through the Toronto Newsgirls Boxing Club.
iv Opportunities for Advancement and The June Callwood Centre for Women and Families partnered with Brock University and The Toronto Newsgirls Boxing Club to offer the SYL Project.
v The term gender-based violence, rather than violence against women, is used in this article because it acknowledges that gender relations are imbued with asymmetrical distributions of" power and to reflect a more trans-inclusive term (O'Toole, Schiffman, Kiter Edwards, 2007).
vi One exception is Concepcion and Ebbeck's (2005) work that examines the therapeutic use of exercise programs for survivors of domestic violence.
Cathy van Ingen Brock University
Cathy van Ingen, Ph.D. Associate Professor, Physical Education & Kinesiology Brock University 500 Glenridge Avenue St. Catharines, ON Canada L2S 3A1
Phone: (905) 688-5550 ext. 4981
Fax: (905) 688-8364