This post provides guidelines for Muay Thai practitioners, gym owners, trainers and even content creators for supporting women in Muay Thai. It starts by looking at how one post got it wrong.
“Confirmed! Women are valued by men in Muay Thai”, strength and conditioning coach Don Heatrick declared at the start of one of his videos last year.
He confirmed that by posing a question to men in an Instagram story, asking “are women training in Muay Thai a distraction to male fighters?”
The idea came to him after he received a sexist email in response to an interview with fighter and blogger Angela Chang, expressing that women shouldn’t train with men. Heatrick claims that he was “shocked” that this viewpoint existed, and felt that he needed to find out if it was common. “I had to play devil’s advocate and bait out any support for this”, he said.
When he didn’t receive any negative responses, he concluded that the original emailer was simply an outlier. “It was a classic case of a bad apple”, he said.
If only it were that simple. Here’s why this approach, albeit well-intentioned, is misguided.
Playing Devil’s Advocate
Playing devil’s advocate is never needed or useful. The idea of women being ‘a distraction’ to men isn’t something that should ever be up for debate. Presenting it as such allows people to question the right of a woman to simply exist in the gym. Even as a social experiment, it’s sending the wrong message.
Sean Fagan of Muay Thai Guy did something similar in 2019 when he posted a photo of Sylvie von Duuglas-Ittu with the caption “women in Muay Thai – your thoughts?” The post included a link to Sylvie’s article about women being banned from fighting at Lumpini Stadium, which came after she received a barrage of negative comments online for simply questioning the rule. Posts like this one present the topic of women’s rights in the sport for debate in order to garner social media engagement without offering any opinion on the matter, let alone any public support to the women who are affected by these issues.
Asking the Wrong Questions
Heatrick baits his audience by titling his video ‘What do Men REALLY think about Women in Muay Thai?’
What men think about women in Muay Thai isn’t actually important or even interesting to women, because we don’t require or seek their approval. The question we should be asking is whether women in Muay Thai receive equal opportunities and treatment. To get the answer to that, we need to be asking them.
This kind of click-baiting approach can lead female readers to wonder whether we’re genuinely being supported, or just used for content.
Asking the Wrong People
The idea that sexism doesn’t exist because men haven’t openly admitted to it is not a valid conclusion. Heatrick’s survey was about as effective as asking ‘are you sexist? Select yes or no’.
You’re never going to get an idea of the conscious or unconscious biases men have by just asking them. Instead, you should be asking women. We can tell you exactly how common sexism is, because it’s part of our lived experience. Women in Muay Thai have been talking publicly about this for years already, so a quick Google search could provide some insight before even having to ask one of us.
At no point during Heatrick’s post does he ask women what we think or experience. In fact, the only point during the video in which he actually addressed women directly was to tell them how to respond to sexism.
“As a woman in Muay Thai, if you come across a man with a sexist opinion, realise it is just him, and that it’s certainly not everyone in Muay Thai”
This is not a new, constructive or valuable viewpoint, and serves to only bring comfort to men. A man who comes out with ‘not all men’ only does so to affirm that sexism/gender inequality/gender-based violence isn’t a real problem, and if it were, he’s definitely not part of it.
While he does go on to address those who “allow themselves to be distracted” and tells them to stop playing the victim, he doesn’t actually address men or misogyny specifically in the video. It’s a strange way to skirt around the issue of sexism without actually calling it what it is, despite making it the basis of the entire video.
When you listen to women in Muay Thai and speak to us rather than for us, it becomes clear that sexism is not a rarity at all, in our sport or anywhere else.
“The vast majority of men in Muay Thai have truly got your back”, Heatrick says. Unfortunately, to many women, it doesn’t always feel that way. Men who do feel as though they have our backs may simply not know how to express it, where they might be going wrong, or what they can do to support the women they train with. Read on to learn how you can do better.
What it’s Like to be a Woman in Muay Thai
For the benefit of anyone else who may be shocked by the idea that sexist attitudes exist in Muay Thai, here’s a short list of things that I’ve personally experienced due to my gender, in no particular order:
- Being excluded from certain parts of training.
- Not being taken seriously as a fighter.
- Inappropriate touching by male trainers.
- Having my own experiences and training mansplained to me.
- Being hit on by trainers and training partners who refused to take no for an answer.
- Being sexually assaulted by a trainer.
- Sexual harassment from trainers and male training partners.
- Being dismissed by boys and men who refused to spar or clinch with me properly, or at all.
- Being leered at by trainers and made to feel uncomfortable in the gym.
- Being told that women shouldn’t be allowed to train with men.
- Being paid half as much as men for fighting on the same show.
- Receiving consistent comments about my body that make me feel uncomfortable.
For reasons such as these, women often have to be more selective in where they choose to train. Instead of just considering things like price, location, and quality of training, we have a myriad of other aspects to consider, simply because of our gender. This includes how welcome, or even how safe, we’ll feel.
Here are some more specific anecdotes:
- A fighter once threw a tantrum during training after I’d previously rejected his sexual advances. During sparring, he started an altercation with other men in the gym (who I’d been interacting with while distancing myself from him), after which he stormed out mid-training session. He almost immediately tagged me in a social media post calling me a ‘mean girl’ and explaining that ‘this is why men shouldn’t train with women’.
- One trainer harassed me both in and out of the gym. Every day that I trained with him, he would make flirty, ‘joking’ comments to me and ask why I wasn’t interested in him. When I wasn’t at the gym, he repeatedly bombarded me with inappropriate messages and voice notes. When I reported this to the gym’s management, I was told that he’d done nothing wrong.
- When I told people that I had been sexually assaulted by a trainer, some responded by asking me “what did you expect?” They told me it was my fault for going into a ‘male-dominated’ environment.
- After I told the men at my gym about my sexual assault, they responded by bullying and sexually harassing me for the rest of my time there. One of them went as far as drunkenly punching down my door in the middle of the night.
- A male training partner approached me and mentioned a female fighter I knew, just to say “yeah, she’s not attractive” before walking away. It was completely out of the blue and uncalled for, and almost as if he was reminding me that he thought our looks are the most important thing about us.
- A gym owner and the head trainer had a conversation about my body in front of me, in which they openly made inappropriate, objectifying and sexual comments, and said that I had a ‘perfect little body’. I was supposed to take this as a compliment.
- I’ve lost and gained significant amounts of weight several times throughout my years in Muay Thai. When I’ve been bigger, I’ve received almost daily criticisms and disapproving looks. When I’ve been smaller, I’ve been flirted with by trainers, told I’m ‘more beautiful’, encouraged to lose even more weight, and and teased for how ‘fat’ I used to be. Either way, it feels terrible.
This isn’t an exhaustive list, and if I’d included the things I’ve witnessed happen to other women and the countless stories that have been shared with me, it would be much, much longer. But those aren’t my stories to tell. This list also doesn’t even touch on the prevalence of abusive and manipulative trainers who prey on female students — a large and pervasive issue that deserves a post of its own. If you’re a gym owner, scroll down to see how you can avoid this issue in your own gym.
How to be a Better Ally
In a Facebook post of the video, Heatrick admits to his own culpability in not calling out sexism at his gym in the past, and advises men not to accept ‘Muay Thai chauvinism’, taking a step in the right direction. While his approach may not hit the mark, it seems that he does want to offer support women in Muay Thai. Those who want to make a positive impact should keep the following points in mind.
1. Don’t Assume that Sexism Doesn’t Happen Just Because You Haven’t Heard About it
When faced with statistics about gender discrimination, sexual harassment or abuse, some men’s initial response is disbelief. Realistically, every woman they know will have at least one story. ‘That can’t be possible’, they think. ‘Otherwise, I would have heard about it’. But that’s not how it works. If no one you know has shared these stories with you, it’s not because it hasn’t happened to them. It’s because they don’t feel comfortable telling you.
If you’re wondering why that might be, think about what you’re projecting. Do you make misogynistic comments or ‘jokes’? Do you like to play devil’s advocate when gender issues come up, or turn them into a debate for your entertainment? Are you dismissive of women’s experiences? If so, you’ve probably put women off from ever opening up to you in this way.
Think carefully about how you react to stories of sexual abuse, whether they’re in the media or your own community. Each time you speak about these stories, you’re letting the women around you know if they can trust you with their own.
It’s also worth noting that responding with something to the effect of “I’d kick his ass” when talking about an abuser is completely unhelpful. This is simply a display of toxic masculinity, which provides zero benefit to the women you may be trying to comfort, and it’s not the ‘solution’ they want. It centers you and your hero fantasy, when you should be centering the women who are affected by the abuse. Most importantly, it means nothing if you aren’t willing to do the bare minimum of standing with victims or challenging misogyny in your own gym. Don’t tell us that you’d come to our rescue, when we’ve seen time and time again that men will do nothing, or worse.
No matter how open or empathetic you may be, don’t expect women to tell you their stories just to educate you. It can be tiring at best and retraumatizing at worst to share these personal experiences, and no one is obligated to tell you these things for your benefit. Instead of asking others to do that emotional labour, spend some time looking at the wealth of information that women have already put out there online.
2. Look Inward First
It’s easy to think of an issue like gender discrimination as something that is separate from yourself, something that happens elsewhere, and therefore you couldn’t possibly be a part of. Those who train in the West may shake their heads at women going under the ropes or being banned from certain stadiums in Thailand, while doing nothing to address or even acknowledge the exclusion, harassment, or other forms of mistreatment women experience in their own gyms.
No matter how repugnant you might find gender inequality, you could still be unknowingly complicit in it, especially if you’re not questioning your own biases or speaking up against the oppressive structures in your own environment. Call out misogyny when you see it. Not just performatively for a female audience, but when women aren’t around, too.
3. Be a Good Training Partner
It can be difficult for women to find suitable and supportive training partners. When we do, it makes all the difference to our gym experience.
This is especially applicable when it comes to sparring. There are some men who feel uncomfortable sparring with women. “I respect women too much to hit them”, they say. But if they respected us, they’d treat us like equal training partners. Some, when paired up with female sparring partners, choose not to engage, instead only blocking or even just shadow boxing in front of them in some form of misplaced chivalry. By doing this, they’re taking away their chance to learn and improve.
I’ve had plenty of sparring partners like this, and a few have even invited me to hit them as hard as I can (without blocking) in some kind of display of strength or masculinity. One finished a round by dropping his hands, sticking his chin out and telling me to continuously punch him in the face for 30 seconds. It seemed as though he thought this would feel empowering for me, but instead it felt patronizing and pointless. I want a partner, not a punchbag, and even a bag moves when you hit it.
Other sparring partners take it too far to the opposite end of the spectrum, throwing far too hard to avoid the perceived embarrassment of ‘losing’ to a female sparring partner.
Don’t make these mistakes. The way you spar should vary depending on who your partner is, but this should be based on size, experience and skill level. Not gender.
4. Get to Know the ‘Woke Misogynist’ Trope
There are men out there who cloak themselves as supporters of female fighters, or even call themselves feminists, in order to prey on women, and they exist in the Muay Thai world, just as they do everywhere else. Some of the most vocal male supporters of female fighters have been known to be creepy, controlling or abusive to women in their personal lives.
I’ve personally encountered several types of ‘woke misogynist’ in Muay Thai. I’ve met coaches who advertise themselves as trainers of female champions, but hold deeply misogynistic views. I’ve met gym owners who welcome female fighters into their gyms, but use their positions of power and respect to enter into sexual relationships with many of them. I’ve also met promoters, coaches and fighters who publicly advocate for gender equality in Muay Thai, but physically or emotionally abuse their female spouses, or the women in their gyms. This behaviour isn’t limited to trainers or fighters. There are others in Muay Thai who make a vocal support of female fighters part of their brand image, while also having a history of mistreating women in the sport.
All of these people present themselves as allies, and are generally viewed as such, but are very much part of the problem. In some cases, these men are simply using female fighters to promote themselves. Often, they use this public persona to hide the fact that they’re abusers, or to build the trust and respect that allows them to get close to women. Jill Filipovic wrote about how to spot such men in ‘The Problem with ‘Feminist’ Men’ for the New York Times.
“We should look at the male feminists’ relationship to power: Are they willing to cede and share some of what they have to qualified women, or do they use women as helpmeets and steppingstones for their own careers? When women challenge them, how do they react? — are they respectful or resentful? When they’re pushing for women’s rights, what’s more important to them: the result or the recognition?”– Jill Filipovic, The Problem with Feminist Men, New York Times, 2018.
This is not to say that men should worry about supporting women for fear of coming across as a dreaded ‘woke misogynist’. However, they should be aware that these men exist, and that this is yet another dynamic that women have to deal with. For women who’ve encountered men like this, it can be hard to know what’s real and what’s performative or even manipulative. So, what looks like progress can often have an underbelly that’s much more complex. We can’t take everything at face value.
5. Don’t Use Us to Justify Transphobia
When the topic of transgender fighters is raised, many men who’ve never once spoken up about issues in women’s sports suddenly become very vocal, expressing outrage at the idea of trans women fighting cis women.
In doing so, they claim to be advocating for fairness and equality for women in sport. Yet, they never seem to show the same concern for unequal pay, abuse, lack of equal opportunities or funding, or discrimination in women’s Muay Thai.
Whether these attitudes stem from ignorance of trans issues or just plain transphobia (more often than not, it’s the latter), the common thread is a belief that cis women are somehow inferior, fragile, and in need of protection.
If you cared about our welfare, protection or rights, you’d advocate for us when it comes to the very real issues that affect us. If you’re just using faux concern for us to justify bigotry, you aren’t on our side at all.
Note: Read former MMA fighter Rosi Sexton’s article for Outsports on how she previously spoke out against trans fighters in MMA, but now supports them after learning more about the subject and listening to the voices of trans people.
6. Get Comfortable with Being Uncomfortable
As you’re learning to be an ally, you might make mistakes or get called out along the way, and that’s OK. This is how we learn, grow and improve. If you’re not willing to do that, then you’re not really interested in making a difference.
Take a look at the continuum of sexism below as ask yourself where you stand. If you’re anything other than anti-sexist, you certainly can’t consider yourself an ally.
How to Create Better Training Environments for Women
If you’re a trainer or gym owner who’s concerned about these issues, there are steps you can take. Here are some guidelines for those who want to make sure their gyms are healthy, welcoming spaces for women.
1. Don’t Tolerate Harassment
Have a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to harassment and abuse. That goes for everything from misogynistic and objectifying comments to sexual assault. The gym is a place where everyone should feel welcome, safe and free of judgement. For many, it’s an escape, and a outlet that allows them to heal from trauma. It shouldn’t be somewhere that they’re subjected to it.
2. Set Processes for Reporting
Have a process in place for reporting misconduct, and give people the option of reporting anonymously. After receiving reports, take visible action. It’s important for gym members to see that the process works, and isn’t just performative. Otherwise, it will quickly lose all meaning and function.
3. Handle Reports Correctly, with Care and Empathy
If you receive a report of sexual assault or abuse, do not attempt to resolve it by mediating between the two parties. This can be harmful for the victim, giving the abuser a chance to manipulate the narrative and revictimize them. Instead, you should make sure they never have to face the abuser again.
Don’t brush it off as a personal or private issue. Listen to the victim, and let them know that you believe them, and that they’re safe with you.
Offer support if they choose to make a police report, but never force the issue. Making a formal report is a traumatizing process which often results in more consequences for the abused than the abuser, and no one should be forced into that process. It’s not the victim’s responsibility to stop the abuser by making a report. It’s your responsibility as a gym owner to make sure that abusers are not welcome or tolerated at your gym.
4. Don’t Make or Allow Comments About People’s Bodies
Comments about people’s bodies, whether they’re intended as positive or negative, can be harmful. This is especially true for those who have histories of eating disorders. One throwaway comment that you may not remember making can have a significant, lasting impact on someone’s mindset and self-image, and can even discourage them from coming back to the gym. As a sport with weight classes, it can be hard to avoid talking about weight in Muay Thai, but losing weight isn’t everyone’s goal, and there are so many other, more meaningful reasons to train. As a coach, it may be your job to help your fighters to make weight, but a good coach doesn’t shame them into doing it. Don’t make uninvited comments about anyone’s weight, ever. Let people experience the joy of Muay Thai training without having to be self-conscious about their bodies.
5. Don’t Use Favouritism
Be aware that different women come to the gym for different reasons. Some want to fight, and some just want to move their bodies. The ones who aren’t ‘training like fighters’ shouldn’t be treated with any less respect or attention. Playing favourites can create feelings of resentment and competition among your gym members, which can quickly become toxic. In some gyms, women are rewarded for ‘training like the guys’ and being ‘not like other girls’. These are not compliments, they’re forms of misogyny. Avoid making these types of gendered comments, and respect all your members, no matter what their goals may be.
6. Take Control of Sparring
Keep a keen eye on sparring, and separate partners if things get out of hand. It’s not just about making sure people don’t go too hard. Those who’ve experienced trauma can find certain aspects of training triggering, and these issues can crop up during sparring or clinching. It’s important to be aware of that, and to identify when people are feeling uncomfortable. Check out Off the Zone to learn more about how to conduct trauma-informed training.
7. Screen All Your Trainers Before Hiring
Martial arts can often attract traumatized women who are looking for a way to rebuild themselves, their confidence and relationships with their bodies. At the same time, it can also attract abusers. Abusive, manipulative individuals will seek out positions of power, and this is why they often become trainers. It gives them access to victims. As a gym owner, it’s vital to be aware of this dynamic, and to screen every trainer you hire. However, due to the underreporting and woefully low conviction rates of domestic and sexual violence, these crimes won’t always show up on public records. So, a clean record doesn’t always mean that a trainer is safe to work with. That’s why it’s important to be vigilant, to listen to your gym members, and to have a clear reporting process.
8. Be Wary of Romantic Relationships Between Trainers and Students
Be aware of trainers who pursue romantic or sexual relationships with students, and don’t tolerate those who make a habit of it. That’s not to say that people can’t have healthy relationships within the gym, but for some individuals, this can be a sign of manipulative or abusive behaviour. When a trainer works with a student, there’s a power imbalance, especially when there’s a significant age gap. Last year, UK laws recognised this by making sex between sports instructors and teenagers under their supervision illegal. However, it’s not just young people who are targeted by predatory instructors. Even when both individuals are adults, this can lay the groundwork for a toxic or even abusive relationship. Don’t allow your trainers to prey on students.
When You Know Better, Do Better
Muay Thai is more accessible to women than ever before, but that doesn’t mean there’s a level playing field. We’re still far from equality, and there are still boundaries to women getting into, progressing, and staying in the sport. By implementing some of the points listed here, you can start to change that.
Have any points to add? Mention them in the comments, or visit the Muay Thai Roundtable Forum, which features a women’s-only space where women can discuss their gym experiences.