men, masculinities and gender politics

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On “getting chicked.” (When it comes to competing against women, men can be pretty sore losers.)

The other day the Canadian Broadcasting Company aired a radio program on female athletes who are preparing for this summer’s Olympic Games in London.  One of the women, a cyclist, spoke about how the men she sometimes trains with react badly when she beats them in a race.  They become embarrassed.  They feel humiliated.  And they even have a term for it.  When a woman beats them, they call it “getting chicked.” 
 
I find the term getting chicked pretty offensive.  But even more than that, I wonder why male athletes find it so uniquely embarrassing to lose to a woman.  I think that they should probably just get over it, and focus on their own performance rather than on the gender of the person who just trounced them.
 
Modern sports privileges male bodies.  It is true that in most sports, most of the time, men prevail over equally-fit women.  When we think about the evolution of sport, this only makes sense.  Most competitive sports emerged from military-based activities that were designed to ensure that the powers-that-were had a fit (and male) fighting force:  running, jumping, swimming, throwing, shooting, hand-to-hand combat, etc. 
 
Anyone thrown a javelin recently?  Or done the modern-day biathlon in the Winter Olympics?  You know, the event where the athletes race through the woods on cross-country skis, stop periodically, drop to the ground, and then shoot at something before skiing quickly on?  These days they shoot at a target.  But that target is really just a modern-day proxy for an enemy soldier.  Women can and do participate in both the javelin and the biathlon.   But in both of these sports – indeed in most sports – the elite men typically outperform the elite women because these sports all evolved around the relative strengths of the male body. 
 
This is why men win most of the time.  It’s all in how we built the game. 
 
Fight like a woman.  But women’s bodies have unique strengths as well.  It turns out that there are ways that physical activities can be developed that actually privilege women’s bodies over men’s.  Some self-defense classes have begun to incorporate this awareness in order to enable a woman to successfully fight off a rapist.  Several years ago I helped out in one of these programs, playing the role of the attacker.  The women I was “attacking” were all smaller and weaker than I was – at least in terms of how we typically think of physical strength. But by using these specialized techniques, the women were able to draw upon the physiological differences between us in order to fight smarter.  To throw me around.  To knock me off balance.  To escape my clutches, and to leave me totally unable to do them any further harm. 
 
(Some of these programs are also helping women to use their wardrobe choices to their advantage.  I won’t disclose any of these creative tactics here, other than to say that the stiletto heel, which is often seen as a sign of women’s oppression, can also be used as a tool to incapacitate, to contain, and to physically control a male attacker until the police arrive.)
 
Male physical supremacy over women is not a universal or inevitable condition.  It has as much to do with how we choose to play – and how we choose to fight – as it does with raw physical capacity.  The women who were in that self-defense program were fighting smarter – using areas of innate female biological superiority – and they were winning.  Even though I am a relatively strong and relatively fit adult human male, and I was “stronger” than they were, these women were kicking my ass! 
 
Yes, I was “getting chicked” every time.  And I was cool with it.
 
(And it’s a good thing my ass was the only thing they were kicking!  After all, any male who ever happens to receive a well-placed blow to the testicles will quickly reconsider just who the “weaker sex” truly is!)
 
To avoid “getting chicked,”  some men simply change the rules.  But some men can’t deal with “getting chicked” – getting beaten by a woman.  Ever.  So what do they do?  They change the rules.  They play dirty.  Or they refuse to play at all. 
 
I have a female friend who was a wrestler while in high school and in university.  In high school, she was frequently the only female wrestler at the meet.  So she often wrestled against males.  Some of these guys were fair competitors, but others responded outrageously.  With the active support of their coaches, these thugs would grab my friend in overtly sexual ways.  They would try to pull down the top of her singlet and her bra in order to expose her breasts.  They went out of their way to grab her crotch unnecessarily as their male teammates – and their adult male coaches – roared with approval.  This was sanctioned sexual harassment – and sexual assault – on the wrestling mat.  All while adult males urged the boys on.
 
But according to my friend, what felt even worse to her was when the other side simply refused to even put a male wrestler up to oppose her.  She would walk out onto the mat, ready for the match, only to have no male wrestler from the other side join the competition.  Even though the other team had male wrestlers in her weight class, they would take the forfeit rather than “wrestle a girl.”  And while actual matches against these boys could be brutal experiences of gender-based sexual violence, my friend felt even more humiliated when she was denied the opportunity even to compete.
 
And just what was the other side’s justification for not participating?  Simply that they didn’t think it was “right” to wrestle with a girl.  Now, I try not to make too many assumptions about adolescent males, but I think it is pretty safe to assume that there were probably a good number of male wrestlers on those teams who on a Saturday night wouldn’t have minded a little close physical proximity to a girl like her.  Even a little wrestling, perhaps.  In a different context, of course. At a party.  Or in the backseat of a car.  But it probably would not have violated their moral code to invade her personal space – or to have her invade theirs. 
 
I don’t think the boys’ discomfort was about getting physically close to a girl – or even about crawling all over her.  No, what I think troubled the boys (and their coaches) was the possibility of losing to a girl.  They simply couldn’t bear the idea.  So what did the coaches do?  Like spoiled brats who don’t like the way the game is being played, they kept their wrestlers off the mat.  They took their boys and went home.
 
Spreading the Sorrows.  And I think it was that same threat of possibly losing to a girl that also led to the decision the other day by a conservative Catholic boys school in Arizona (called “Our Lady of Sorrows”) to forfeit the state championship baseball game because their opponent, Mesa Preparatory Academy, had – GASP! – a girl playing second base! This young woman, finding no girls’ softball team at Mesa Prep, was allowed to (and was good enough to) play on the boys’ baseball team. 
 
Out of respect for the refusal of Our Lady of Sorrows to field a team against a girl, this young woman had already gone over and above what should have been expected, and had sat out the two regular season games that Mesa Prep played against the Catholic school.  But she refused to sit out the championship game.  In response, Our Lady of Sorrows decided to sit all of their boys out from the final game and to forfeit the championship.
 
 
I really hope it was worth it, guys, to deny your boys a chance at the state championship in order to prove your point.  A point that was… well, what, exactly?
 
A spokes-man for the school said: “Teaching our boys to treat ladies with deference, we choose not to place them in an athletic competition where proper boundaries can only be respected with difficulty ... Our school aims to instill in our boys a profound respect for women and girls.”
 
Let me see if I follow the logic here: the boys are supposed to learn to respect girls by not being allowed to compete against them?  The school somehow honored the young woman by not taking the field against her?  That’s a load of patriarchal crap. 
If Our Lady of Sorrows truly wanted to “show deference” to the young woman involved, they would have asked what she wanted to do… and what she wanted to do was to play ball! and have the opportunity to win the state championship fair and square.
 
Our Lady of Sorrows claims that playing baseball against a girl would mean that "proper boundaries can only be respected with difficulty."  First, baseball does not involve that much physical contact.  And, second, I would suggest that the only boundary that the male-supremacist-priestly-patriarchs-of-the-arch-conservative-Society-of-St.-Pius-X-that-runs-Our-Lady-of-Sorrows truly care about is the one that prevents women and girls from participating on an equal footing with men and boys throughout their world – whether it be serving on the altar in their churches, achieving positions of leadership in their schools, or playing second base out on the ball field. 
 
Dealing with the real world.  The Women’s Sports Federation, in its response to the choice made by the school not to play, pointed out that such a choice was leaving the boys of Our Lady of Sorrows ill-prepared for life in the modern world.  Nancy Hogshead-Makar, Senior Director of Advocacy for WSF, said: “In real life, these boys are going to be competing against the girls for jobs, for positions in graduate programs or in trade schools.  In every other area of their life, they are going to be competing side by side."
 
These boys lost out on the valuable learning experience of facing a girl who might be better than they are.  Who might well beat them.  And that’s something all males need to be prepared for.  Because if you haven’t lost to a woman yet, chances are it is only a matter of time before you do.  So you had better get used to the idea.
 
Even though we still have a long way to go before women achieve full equality, feminism has already born(e) fantastic and copious fruit.  The notion that men are somehow innately superior to women is rapidly crumbling worldwide as ever-increasing numbers of women attain positions of power throughout society.  And it is likely that in the very near future you will find yourself reporting to a female boss, consulting a female lawyer, seeing a female doctor, or being on a plane that is flown by a female pilot. Many of us have had all of these experiences already.  We males need to get over our male supremacist b.s. and learn to deal with the fact that increasingly in life there are situations where women will have positions of power over us.
 
May the best (hu)man win!  But more than just trying to cope with the fact that there are women who are in positions superior to us, we should learn to actually appreciate this situation.  For example, the other day I met a woman who is far smarter than I am. 
This happens for me all the time.  (I say this happens for me and not to me because I consider it a gift whenever I encounter anyone who makes me think larger and in new ways, regardless of their gender or chromosomal array.  And my identity as a man is simply not tied up in any need to be superior to women.) 
 
This openness to women’s greatness is critically important because nearly every day I encounter women who more intelligent, more creative, funnier, and more accomplished than I am.  For me to be resentful of this situation because of some antiquated, sexist notion that as a man I am supposed to be superior to every woman I meet and interact with would be both highly offensive and ultimately self-defeating.  It would deny me the opportunity to learn from these brilliant women, and it would demean the immense contributions that they make to our world.
 
So if you are a male who does happen to find yourself “getting chicked,” try be admiring instead of resentful.  Congratulatory instead of bitter.  Accepting instead of humiliated.  Drop your obsession with the gender of the woman who beat you, and figure out what you can learn from her performance. 
 
Embrace the reality that at times the best man for the job is in fact a woman!
 
And let’s lose the stupid term getting chicked.