Sex, Violence, and the UFC

*I’ve edited MMA to read UFC in several references.  I think there is a culture among the formal sport that does not correlate exactly the same to private training and exercise.

I interrupt my regularly scheduled Post Trump series to offer some thoughts on a recent article at The Gospel Coalition against female mixed martial arts fighters. Though I’ve been thinking through my Trump thoughts for 6 weeks and these thoughts for less than 48 hours, I’ve been engaging on the topic via twitter and comments on the original post the last 2 days. As I did so, I realized that the issue of female UFC fighters raised around the recent Ronda Rousey fight played into things I have been thinking on for years, particularly since my days sitting under my UFC loving, violence promoting, former pastor Mark Driscoll. The TGC article used gender norms as the particular foundation for criticism of female MMA fighters, but I have a different concern with women in MMA, the overlooked concern (at least among Christian writers) of the interplay of sex and violence particularly evident in MMA, and long evident in the sport before women became fighters in the ring. This issue plays into my long concern over modern re-interpretations of Genesis 3:16 that frame the battle of the sexes as women wanting to dominate men.  This can result in a lack of awareness of the long road of sexualization and abuse that sets up many women to step out of gender norms that were used against them without penalty by male powers, in this case men with physical power in a sport that glorifies violence.

Aimee Byrd pointed out in a tweet that, while the TGC article focused on sexualization through gender non-conformity, explicit sexualization has long occurred in the UFC through supposed gender conformity as well, for instance, the ring girls. I was also struck by a statement in the original TGC post –

“Including women has … allowed the UFC to develop progressive credentials, improving the reputation of a sport that has had an unwelcome association with domestic abuse and had an exceedingly male-dominated audience.”

This was key, and down the rabbit hole I fell.

HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel did an expose in 2015 on the disturbingly high rates of domestic violence among MMA fighters as compared to both NFL players and the larger population as a whole.

domestic-violence-mma

Turns out that MMA has twice the rate of domestic violence of the larger population and three times the rate of the National Football League. So you have a culture that is sexualized around gender norms that is also excessively violent toward women. It only makes sense to me that the next iteration of fixation for male fans of the sport would be violence between women in the ring, which of course is still sexualized.

Time Magazine noted this back in 2013 when things first started taking off for Rousey.

One issue that has persisted is the sexualization of female fighters in conversations about the sport. About a month ago, UFC fighter Conor McGregor apologized for a tweet he sent about the sexual things Rousey and Tate might do; UFC president Dana White later said that it was “real dumb.” (The UFC is reportedly working on social-media guidelines for its fighters.) Even mere weeks before the Ultimate Fighter finale, a Fox Sports blog post about whether fans were beginning to root for Tate rather than Rousey was given the headline “Are Ronda’s fans no longer aroused?” That headline was later changed but the original can still be found in online archives, complete with the implication that the reason fans are tuning in may not be just an athletic interest in who wins and who loses.

Since the earliest days of creation after the Fall, women have worked the system they’ve been given, and rarely has the system been a righteous one. Some such as Esther have worked unjust systems righteously, while others like Rachel and Leah not so much. In Rousey’s case, if she wants to compete (as opposed to being either ignored or exploited) in a culture known for sexualization and violence toward women, it makes sense that it requires sexualization and violence.

Rousey says that “she’s aware that women are judged on looks in any industry so she may as well accept it.”

“… she’s just glad to be written about. ‘I want everyone to talk as much as possible about everything. As long as they’re talking, I’m happy. The bills get paid. I can feed my dog,’ she says.”

A lot of women watching Rousey fight simply admire her strength. I’ve been concerned at times over my physical dependence on men, some I could count on and some I could not. For women who’ve been verbally or physically bullied by men, Rousey’s strength is inspirational. For women who’ve been sexually assaulted, developing a version of her skills seems a basic survival skill, for the gender norms of physical strength have long set up women for abuse.

Men, in contrast, seem to enjoy Rousey for a different reason. She became the next iteration in the female wrestling contest.

Females fighting seems to be more interesting to males than to other females, and the ten best female fights in movies certainly attract more than their fair share of male attention.”  1

I’m always curious when a woman steps out of conservative Biblical comfort zones for how women should behave. I’ve learned that there is almost always a larger story, a provocation that prompted her response. Sometimes, such a woman pushes us to consider whether our comfort zone is cultural or Scriptural. The TGC article makes the case that discomfort with female MMA fighting is Scriptural rather than cultural. I’m not going to challenge that per se, but having sat under a conservative reformed pastor who for years promoted MMA, I would like to encourage more Christian male leaders to step back and examine the culture that provokes or promotes it. I’m hoping for a little less criticism of feminism and a little more inspection of masculine oppression that sets it up as the safer, self-respecting option for a large number of women in modern society.

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17 Responses to Sex, Violence, and the UFC

  1. Jenny Rae Armstrong January 3, 2017 at 11:14 am #

    Anything related to MMA is WAY outside my sphere of experience, but I found this article really interesting. I have a few girls (and boys) in my youth group who are black belts, and while I think their settled confidence comes more from their upbringing than their training, I feel like there is something very powerful about adults telling girls “it is good to be strong, I want you to defend yourself, and I am going to empower you to do that.” The mission school I attended in Liberia taught us all the basics of self-defense, and besides coming in handy on a few occasions, being given permission and tools to defend oneself (without causing lasting damage to another, as carrying guns might) sends an empowering message.

    • Wendy January 3, 2017 at 11:20 am #

      That’s an important point, Jenny.

  2. Helen Louise Herndon January 3, 2017 at 11:19 am #

    I guess I have to wonder when any sport that involves or promotes violence why too often the Christian community does not decry any of it–male or female. Violence toward another–even in sport–seems to me to go totally against any Christian teaching from Christ to the apostles.

  3. A J MacDonald Jr January 3, 2017 at 11:26 am #

    I agree with Helen. Christians should have nothing to do with this sort of thing. The fact that people who call themselves “Christians” are even discussing it reveals the corrupting influence of our decadent culture.

    • Wendy January 3, 2017 at 11:38 am #

      I encourage you to consider the topic, why some think it is OK and why others are ambivalent but not dogmatically against. I’ve noted with my upcoming book titled “Is the Bible Good for Women?” that some dismiss the question without engagement. Of course the Bible is good for women! Well, the problem is that not everyone thinks that and Jesus’ example is of engaging such questions with both authority and humility, not arrogantly dismissing them.

  4. Alastair Roberts January 3, 2017 at 8:02 pm #

    Thanks for the interaction with my article, Wendy!

    A few brief points and clarifications in response.

    1. ‘…while the TGC article focused on sexualization through gender non-conformity, explicit sexualization has long occurred in the UFC through supposed gender conformity as well, for instance, the ring girls.’ Part of my point is that these phenomena are not discontinuous with each other (something even more clearly apparent in WWE, where Rousey might be headed in the future). The desired gender non-conformity is a limited one. The women in UFC are sexualized and they are ideally expected to be objects for male fantasy. The gender non-conformity is that they are also given the role of combatants, rather than being protected.

    Combatants are fair game for rougher treatment, the way that men generally treat other men with a roughness with which they don’t treat women. Men can fetishize women who have the sex drive and agency of men, because such women can be handled more aggressively and would not be off limits for aggressive behaviour as most women are. Just as a weaker man can be despised and treated as fair game for stronger men, so the woman who has the combatant status of men can be preyed upon. For the predatory sexuality of many men, this is an attractive prospect. Such men can rather like the prospect of an aggressive f*** or be f***ed world, where consent is meaningless (read this for a window into such a world). Even men without a predatory sexuality may like the notion of a woman with whom they wouldn’t have to be so physically and relationally gentle.

    2. Within the article I highlighted the male sexuality aspect, but also the way that feminism celebrates the ‘strong female character’. Both certain men and feminists appreciate this character, albeit for opposing reasons. Feminism celebrates the strong female character in large part because the woman cannot be and haven’t been honoured as a weaker vessel. It exacerbates the problem in many respects, but it is responding to genuine injustice.

    3. ‘The TGC article makes the case that discomfort with female MMA fighting is Scriptural rather than cultural.’ That isn’t my position. Discomfort with women fighting in the UFC is not exclusive to Christians at all. Most cultures with robust concepts of womanhood would be uneasy with it, much as they would question the appropriateness of women fighting on the front line. The reasons I gave for unease were natural law reasons (natural law being more of an ‘is’ than an ‘ought’ in this case, the reality of the difference between the sexes that gives concepts like ‘manliness’ and ‘womanliness’ both empirical and a measure of moral weight). At the end, I gestured towards a scriptural argument, without making it.

    The post is a very helpful one, though: I hope none of the above points will be seen to detract from that. Thanks! 🙂

    • Wendy January 3, 2017 at 8:51 pm #

      That doesn’t detract at all. I’ve really appreciated your interaction.

      On point 3, I should say instead that the TGC article makes the case that the discomfort is both Scriptural and natural. Does that accurately fit your argument?

      As for point 1, I agree with you. It isn’t something I like to write about, but there is a flourishing world of male fetish re: predatory sex.

      I agree with point 2 as well. The celebration of the strong female by women juxtaposed with its celebration by predatory males just reminds me again how ineffective our coping mechanisms for the fall are without the hope of Christ.

    • The Music Student January 3, 2017 at 8:59 pm #

      My observations on women fighting have been much the same as Wendy’s. The only time I came across a televised women’s fight – I do not know if it was UFC – I was disturbed by the overt sexual objectification of the women who were fighting. Popular media has long made comments on men’s enjoyment of watching women fight, from the ‘catfights’ in bar scenes of old Westerns to the ‘cat suits’ of female action characters like Emma Peel and Black Widow.

    • Alastair Roberts January 3, 2017 at 9:22 pm #

      Yes, that is a fair representation of my point.

    • Retha January 4, 2017 at 8:21 am #

      “Feminism celebrates the strong female character in large part because the woman cannot be and haven’t been honoured as a weaker vessel.”

      – Alastair Roberts

      How do you understand honouring a weaker vessel?

      In my understanding, feminists, both religious and secular, are pretty good at giving honor to those who are physically weaker and in a weaker social position: They speak up for not mistreating women, nor underpaying them, nor treating their opinions as less than, not expecting them to yield to men any more than men are expected to yield to them, nor keep them out of influential positions in politics and the church and business because of it, nor use the physical weakness as an excuse to rape them, nor expect women to do more than their share of the unpaid thankless behind-the-scenes tasks, etc.

      Compared to that, how do you suggest honouring women? Or, if you want to answer a concrete rather than an abstract question: I am a Christian woman (woman – not a mother or wife). What do gender role people say that give me honour as a woman?

  5. Helen Louise January 4, 2017 at 8:52 am #

    The Apostle Paul wrote this in Romans 12:10: “Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves.” Perhaps honor isn’t supposed to necessarily be different between the genders. Physically there are differences. Spiritually we are all on the same level. Honoring has to do more with our sameness than our differences. We are first created in the image of God and secondly for believers we are recreated from the effects and consequences of the fall. Before the fall, woman was “meet” for the man, which does not suggest subservience. The fall affected that relationship deeply. After the fall, males were circumcised, served as priests, levits, etc. After the recreation, male circumcision was no longer required, baptism was for both male and female, the fruit and gifts of the Spirit were given sovereignly without gender requirement. It appears for some in the Church there is the desire to remain gender-wise in the throes of the fall. Just a thought. Complementarianism tends to focus on a few narrow verses that might be addressing a local and specific situation rather than the overall treatment of women in Scripture, and this affects how women are or are not honored. “Honor one another above yourselves” seems to be the answer for both men and women for the believer.

    • Wendy January 4, 2017 at 9:03 am #

      But this isn’t about complementarianism, at least it isn’t for me, and I also don’t think that is Alastair’s initial point either.

    • Retha January 5, 2017 at 11:52 am #

      Thank you, Helen Louise, and I agree with you. (Click on my name, and you get my explanation of giving honor to a weaker vessel who share in the great gift of God-given life.)

      But my question was how Alistair Roberts, whose comment I quoted from, understands it.

  6. Helen Louise January 4, 2017 at 4:06 pm #

    It seems my previous response disappeared, but I believe Romans 12: 10 responds clearly and succinctly for us all regardless of gender: “Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves.” There is no gender issue nor conditions or whys or wherefores. Scripture is so clear, direct and incredibly simple. I too am neither a mother nor a wife. The Scriptures include us even though frequently the church excludes us.

  7. Helen Louise January 4, 2017 at 9:45 pm #

    Twice my comments have disappeared?

    • Helen Louise January 4, 2017 at 9:45 pm #

      Oops! Sorry, the last one is there.

    • Wendy January 4, 2017 at 9:46 pm #

      They should be there. I haven’t deleted anything.

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