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I invited Alastair J. Roberts, author of the big forthcoming book, Heirs Together: A Theology of the Sexes (Crossway, 2017), to share his thoughts about the popular phenomenon of women like Ronda Rousey fighting other women in mixed-martial arts.


Tonight, Ronda Rousey returns to the ring, after last year’s surprising loss to Holly Holm, to fight Amanda Nunes in the UFC.

The Rise of Women in Mixed Martial Arts

Rousey is an important figure in UFC: she was the first to sign with them, was a catalyst for their opening up to women, and has been one of their greatest audience draws.

The commercial success of women in mixed martial arts has been remarkable, with the women’s sport proving more popular in many cases than its male counterpart, albeit still with an overwhelmingly male audience (MMA has one of the greatest disparities in the gender ratio of its audience).

People like to watch women fight.

The female sport just makes sense for UFC. It is a huge money-spinner. It connects with new audiences and increases the interest of existing ones. The curiosity and sex appeal of women fighting is a considerable draw—“easy on the eyes, hard on the face”—and the UFC has foregrounded this in much of its publicity over the last few years.

Including women has also 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. Ronda Rousey has been portrayed as a feminist standard bearer for many, someone who nicely fits the ubiquitous “first X to do Y” scripts that proliferate in the contemporary media.

Men and Fighting

Pugilistic sport has long been viewed as a largely male preserve. This isn’t an accident. The physical differences between men and women in strength and muscularity are exceedingly large. Even the most powerful women seldom exceed average male strength on criteria such as grip strength. As David Puts observes:

Men have about 90% greater upper-body strength, a difference of approximately three standard deviations (Abe et al., 2003; Lassek & Gaulin, 2009).

The average man is stronger than 99.9% of women (Lassek & Gaulin, 2009).

Men also have about 65% greater lower body strength (Lassek & Gaulin, 2009; Mayhew & Salm, 1990), over 45% higher vertical leap, and over 22% faster sprint times (Mayhew & Salm, 1990) . . .

Beyond these huge differences, however, men have always had a much greater propensity toward, aptitude for, and interest in both violence and agonism [=struggle]. Across human societies, the sex differences in this area are displayed in everything from gender ratios in the committing of violent crime, to participation and interest in agonistic sport and competitive activities, to fighting in militaries.

The extent of sexual differences in such areas is an embarrassing fact for a society that would like to neutralize the reality of gender. Continued efforts to include women in modern militaries, for instance, have repeatedly met with entirely predictable setbacks, as the natural reality proves unamenable to our desired social constructions (although new social constructions can provide opportunities to mask this).

Women’s Fighting and Gender Non-Conformity

It is unsurprising that, in activities that swim against the flow of sexual difference, people who are so-called “gender non-conforming” in broader respects should predominate. The term “homosexual” masks the fact, but sexuality is a gender difference, entangled with all sorts of other differences in behavior and interests (over 95% of men are gynephiles [sexually attractive to women or femininity] and over 95% of women are androphiles [sexually attracted to men or masculinity).

Androphilic men exhibit many commonalities with women and gynephilic women many commonalities with men (for instance, lesbians are hugely overrepresented in prisons and perform much more like men when it comes to the earnings gap, preferring higher wage, male-dominated jobs). The authors of an important recent review of science on the subject of sexual orientation observed:

Shared interests and personality characteristics beyond a common sexual orientation likely facilitate the formation of such subcultures. Same-sex-attracted individuals often have more in common with each other, even when they come from disparate cultures, than they do with their larger culture, in part because of gender nonconformity (Norton, 1997; Whitam & Mathy, 1986). For example, across cultures, androphilic men tend to be more female-typical and “people-oriented” in their interests compared to gynephilic men; conversely, gynephilic females tend to be more male-typical and “thing-oriented” than androphilic females (Cardoso, 2013; Lippa, 2008; L. Zheng et al., 2011). Not surprisingly, androphilic males in many cultures worldwide share interests pertaining to the house and home, decoration and design, language, travel, helping professions, grooming, and the arts and entertainment (Whitam & Mathy, 1986).

Opening up the UFC to women has put it on a front line of the wider cultural war against gender difference, perhaps most notably seen in the controversy surrounding Fallon Fox, an openly transsexual competitor in its featherweight division. A large number of UFC fighters have also come out as lesbians: Amanda Nunes, Liz Carmouche, Aisling Daly, Jessica Andrade, Raquel Pennington, Tonya Evinger, etc.

The Public Appetite for Fighting Women

There is a significant appetite among the public for “kicka*s women,” perhaps especially seen in the trope of the “strong female character,” typically a thin, underdressed, conventionally attractive young woman who can comfortably beat up men much larger than her [think Jennifer Garner as Sydney Bristow in Alias, for example]. Such women exemplify the virtues of much contemporary feminism and gender theory, which commonly seek to deny the reality of sexual difference, overturn all gender norms, and disproportionately celebrate women who achieve in traditionally male activities or contexts. Kicka*s women improve the “representation” of women in male-dominated realms and are frontline heroes from the ongoing war against the patriarchy.

Young and attractive kicka*s women hold a great appeal for many men too. Not only are they nice to look at, they can also relieve men of some of the burdensome sense of duty to treat women differently from men, to be gentler towards them, to protect them, to accord them particular honor, to be mindful of the advantages they generally enjoy naturally over women in power and agency, and to recognize the fact that women and men have many deeper differences in personality, behavior, and interests. Such representations of women can play into a pornographic mindset, which celebrates sex purged of the deeper reality of sexual difference, ridding sexual relations of any genuine reckoning with the particular subjective and objective otherness of the other sex, an otherness that should excite wonder, love, responsibility, and care.

In a manner similar to pornography, in celebrating women fighting, a taboo is being broken, something that may add to the frisson of the female sport for many audiences. However, this taboo is an important one, one that upholds the dignity of the sexes in their differences. As women fight and are exposed to violence for our entertainment, the male fantasy that men could justifiably treat women with the greater roughness with which they treat men is being indulged. We are dulled to our responsibilities towards women, to our need to hold back our strength for their sake, and to our duty to employ it for their well-being and in their service.

A Negative Development for Women

The strength and athleticism of women such as Rousey and Nunes is worthy of admiration in many respects. However, the rise of female pugilistic sports and the presentation of women in such sports as standard bearers for their sex is not a trend to celebrate. This is just another indication of our culture’s idealization of those women who most break with the natural tendencies of their sex and our desire to deny the insistent reality of sexual difference more generally. It is a further example of the idealization of women who most conform to male norms of behavior, interests, and aptitudes, an idealization that can make unlikely allies of contemporary feminists and male fantasists.

The vast majority of women, whose differences with men are far-reaching in ways that they may not be for a fictional female action hero or a lesbian UFC fighter, may be those who are most ill-served by our cultural fixation on celebrating those women who most conform to male norms and succeed in male realms. In the intense celebration of such figures there has been a corresponding devaluation of natural female tendencies, interests, and aptitudes. As our cultural awareness of sexual difference is effaced, many of the forms of honor, recognition, and protection that were once extended to women in society are being removed. While these cultural norms were often sadly caught up with abusive attitudes towards and restrictive constraints upon women, in relieving ourselves of the latter, we risk jettisoning many of the good things that characterized the former.

The Good Ends of Creation

In Scripture, natural differences between men and women are related to more fundamental realities. In Genesis 2 and elsewhere, we see that men and women were created for different yet inescapably intertwined purposes. The physical differences in strength and the psychological differences in relation to agonism between men and women aren’t accidental and unimportant contrasts, but relate to the more basic differences between the purposes for which men and women were created. The differences between male and female strengths, tendencies, interests, and aptitudes testify, to greater and lesser degrees, to these differences in creational purpose. That, from Genesis 2, the duty of guarding and, by implication, fighting falls to the man is a reality borne out through the rest of the Scriptures.

The many moral questions raised by pugilistic sports in the case of men are very considerably heightened in the case of women when we appreciate the manner in which such an activity cuts against the grain of the ends for which they were created.


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Comments:


30 thoughts on “How Should We Think about Watching Women Fight Women?”

  1. WoundedEgo says:

    Isn’t this simply “moralizing” of the sort that Jesus and Paul found so offensive?

  2. Jason Estopinal says:

    This article is s train wreck. More Strawmans here than a cornfield

  3. Vincent says:

    Good work, guys. Let’s not forget to purge the narrative concerning Deborah and Jael (the woman who drove a tent peg through her husband’s temple), lest we give any Bible-readers the wrong idea.

    1. Justin says:

      Jael didn’t drive a tent peg through her husband’s temple. She did so to Sisera, the enemy general, who she coaxed into falling asleep in her tent. She didn’t beat him up. She executed him in his sleep. Not even remotely the same as the UFC.

      Same goes with Deborah. There just isn’t a connection between that Biblical story and celebrating two women kicking the poop out of each other for money and our entertainment.

      It is interesting, though, that you appeal to the book of Judges to support female UFC fighting, a book that highlights just how upside-down Israel’s morality became since there was no king in Israel and everyone did what was right in his own eyes (Judges 21:25).

      1. Justin Taylor says:

        Just an FYI that the commenter above is another Justin, not me (JT).

        1. Justin R. says:

          Sorry about that!

          I didn’t even think about the possible confusion I could cause by giving just my first name. A foolish oversight in hindsight when commenting on a blog written by another person named Justin.

    2. Suzanne Evans says:

      War is different from fighting for sport. War is tragic. Sport is entertainment.

  4. Robert says:

    I want to start by saying I love your work brother and thank God for you.

    However this article is really poor on a number of counts.

    1. The physical comparisons between men and women listed are completely immaterial as women do not fight men rather other women their own weight.
    2. Regarding the sexualisation of women who take part in MMA I find this a really strange one, seeing the skill and dedication of female athletes whether they be fighters, tennis players of whatever should lead men to look beyond merely objectifying women and respect them for the talented, dedicated individuals they are.
    3. Regarding women taking on traditionally male roles, well the same could be said for just about anything from driving a car to playing golf to working outside the home, but we do not write articles invalidating those pursuits.
    4. The great benefits of MMA in general are clearly overlooked in this article. I am an evangelical pastor and a boxing/mma coach and have seen great benefits from the sport both personally and for the mission. Young men and women from largely working class areas (a people group often neglected by the church and for the most part from the sterling work of the gospel coalition conferences, books and blogs) have stability and discipline in the gym which is seriously lacking elsewhere in their lives. Personally I have the respect and ear of dozens of young men who normally wouldn’t dream of ever interacting with an evangelical Christian. In an age of gluttony, type 2 diabetes, video gamers and porn addicts I am glad to see many young men and women turn up and the gym and dedicate themselves to be hard working and disciplined, to listen to their elders and respect those around them.

    Brother keep up the good work and if you don’t like MMA that’s cool I won’t fall out with you.

    1. Jessica says:

      Yes! Thank you for this response

    2. Steve Treichler says:

      I could not possibly agree more with everything Robert says above. I am a huge fan of you, Justin, and I know you didn’t write this article, but I have to chime in with strong disagreement in this article. the “gender non-conformity” piece here is simply an incredibly poor argument. #1 If you take MMA to be a sport (not agreed by all, but let’s for the sake of argument allow it to stand), then #2 Women, in their own class and “sporting” with other women does not blur anything. Their is not one division of MMA. There are two: Men’s (with different weights) and WOmen’s (with different weights). THe sport HIGHLIGHTS gender conformity! Men are not fighting women (that would be gender non-conformity.

      His real argument agains MMA is this:
      #1) Fighting is not lady-like
      #2) These ladies are fighting,
      Therefore, #3) These ladies are not lady-like.

      He gets there by reasoning on body strength and stats of male aggression. Really? Should all “sporting” then, be only for men? The logic, straw men and patriarchal thinking here actually blows me away.

      Don’t get me wrong. I am 100% complimentarian (not egalitarian and not patriarchal). However, unless you can show me how MMA is not a sport, I have no problem with women who want to participate in it for a variety of reasons.

      Just my thoughts.

      Trike

  5. As with his previous blogposts on gender dynamics, I appreciate some of Alastair’s observations even as I think he infers more than he argues, and what he infers doesn’t necessarily stand up to scrutiny.. Simply put – that men possess significantly greater physical strength and have long enjoyed fighting are observations to be examined, not simply accepted. For what purposes was male strength created? Is the male desire to fight other men for the sake of fighting in and of itself moral, or in fact just as immoral as it is for women to do the same?

    I’m looking forward to reading the book. It sounds like an important conversation starter, even if I can anticipate some sharpening disagreement. :)

  6. Wendy Alsup says:

    “Including women has also 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.” I am much more concerned with the need to examine and teach against male fixation on this bloody sport, whether women are fighting or not. It’s association with domestic violence is not imagined.

  7. Vincent,
    There is a great very difference between the exceptional and peculiar cases in Scripture where a woman employed violence (such as Jael, or the woman dropping the upper millstone on Abimelech’s head or, outside of Scripture, in characters such as Judith) and the normalizing of women employing violence. Scripture has no problem recognizing or celebrating these women who struck opportunistic deathblows, while simultaneously clearly treating the exercise of violence in combat as a peculiarly male calling.

    Deborah is another example worth considering, as she actually strengthens my case. In contrast to almost all of the other judges in the book of Judges, she is a prophetess, rather than a warrior. She is like Samuel in some respects, in that she doesn’t lead Israel in fighting, but is a prophet who brings God’s word to the military leader of the nation (Barak in her case, Saul in Samuel’s). She accompanies Barak, but does not fight.

    In fact, in response to Barak’s insistence that the prophetess accompany him, Barak is judged by being told that Sisera will fall into the hands of a woman (Jael) and that he will not get the glory of victory that he could have enjoyed. Implicit throughout is the assumption that fighting is the male task, that Deborah should not have been charged to accompany Barak and that Sisera falling into the hands of a woman and being executed in his sleep is a remarkable and God-ordained twist of events, a twist that depends upon the norm of men as those responsible for combat.

    The contemporary emphasis upon the story of Deborah is telling in various respects, and not just because her story is so carelessly read. Deborah, a shadowy figure who lived at the dawn of Israel’s time in the land, is so heavily focused upon because the other women in Scripture so consistently undermine many of the points that people are so keen to make in the current context. We definitely should pay close attention to her, but she doesn’t provide support for women in combat, and, if she did, the most she could prove would be the legitimacy of women directing military action as advisors, generals, or strategists in rare and exceptional cases, without themselves participating in immediate combat. As Justin points out, this is an exceedingly different sort of thing from women engaging in martial sports for the public’s entertainment.

    Robert,
    Thanks for your charitable pushback.

    In a brief piece written in little over an hour, there will doubtless be many hostages thrown to fortune, points that depend upon careful and charitable readers, who will ask follow-up questions to get a clearer sense of the argument. There are several points upon which my piece is potentially ambiguous or unclear and a number of things that it brackets out of the discussion entirely (e.g. ‘the many moral questions raised by pugilistic sports in the case of men’).

    One of the things that has struck me more generally about people’s response to the piece is that many seem to have assumed that I am making normative statements at many points where I am making descriptive ones, or that I am implicitly making normative statements in these descriptive statements. In most of the piece, however, I was chiefly concerned to bring key dimensions of the phenomenon to light, to equip us to make better moral reflections. The normative points can emerge in time, but they don’t follow so straightforwardly from the descriptive statements as many seem to presume that I think they do.

    Towards the end (from The Public Appetite for Fighting Women onwards), I begin to gesture more directly towards some concerns with the broader phenomenon of women fighting each other for the entertainment of a predominately male audience and with the way that this plays into a more general cultural desire to efface sexual difference. Finally, I conclude by pointing to the fact that the sexual differences that society is trying to efface have deeper divine ends and purposes.

    If I had wanted to write a more prescriptive article, I could easily have done so: I am strongly persuaded that women shouldn’t be fighting in the UFC and have more explicit arguments with which to make that case, arguments which would, admittedly, require more latitude to develop. However, those arguments tend to require a prior attention to reality and Scripture that often simply doesn’t exist in the current context. Consequently, I framed things more descriptively, focusing on sensitizing people to some of the issues that emerge from the phenomena and making prescriptive statements with a light brush.

    To your points:

    1. The point of the contrasts between men and women weren’t simply that men are MORE equipped for combat than women, but that as a general rule they are built for and oriented towards combat in a way that women as a general rule aren’t. The difference isn’t just quantitative, as it were, but more qualitative.

    2. First of all, is this actually the case? Men may recognize such women’s skill, but is a predominately male audience watching women’s MMA primarily for the skills? Doesn’t UFC’s advertising of the woman’s sport suggest that sexualization is an important part of the picture? Beyond this, however, the issue of the taboo that I mentioned is important. This taboo isn’t just one of not hitting women (even strong women), but of preserving women from violence more generally.

    3. I think you are probably misreading my argument in this point. The fact that an activity is typically male or female doesn’t mean that it is necessarily off-limits for the other sex. However, it does provide important background for the other questions I raised, such as how the celebration of atypical gender behaviour in such areas plays into broader cultural attempts to erase sexual difference, or what it means for more typical members of a sex.

    4. The questions of the sport of MMA more generally were ones I purposefully bracketed, as any remarks upon them would raise a host of issues I wouldn’t have had space to settle. This is the case in large part because ‘the sport of MMA’ is a complicated phenomenon. There are serious questions that are raised by the sport of MMA as public entertainment (the phenomenon I was focused upon), for instance, that aren’t raised in the same way by the sport as a discipline connected with the military, or even by the sport as a form of personal bodily exercise undertaken by private citizens. These questions can be compounded by the participation of women.

    Speaking to this point, I completely agree with you concerning the value that the discipline, stability, and community of a gym can have in the life of many. Furthermore, I believe that there is also great value in training for martial arts. However, questions of telos are especially important here. It is one thing for a woman to learn martial arts skills as part of a self-defense course, for instance, or even as a part of a bodily exercise regimen while minimizing pugilistic contact. It is something rather different to pursue the martial character of the art as an end in itself. Men can have a justification in training themselves in the arts, disciplines, and virtues of martial combat that women do not. Men can be called upon to use violence in ways that women cannot appropriately be expected to.

    Rachael,
    Thanks for the response.

    I have already remarked on this in my response to Robert (see my response to his third point, for instance), but I think you may be inferring things about my supposed inferences that aren’t in fact the case. To make one key point more explicit, for instance: I do not believe that the fact that something is atypical for a sex necessarily means that it need be regarded as wrong or not to be celebrated (and, as the proud owner of my own knitting blog, I would be quite the hypocrite to say so!). However, our treatment of gender atypical practices can raise other moral issues (especially as it plays out in terms of our cultural emphasis upon a more forceful gender non-conformity), as I went on to argue in the piece.

    The questions you raise about men and violence are important ones, questions that I purposefully bracketed to a large extent (see the opening of my final sentence). When Justin invited me to write on the subject, it would have been easy to dodge the force of the question and make some general points about violence for public entertainment being more broadly inappropriate. However, I think that women engaging in such violent sports raise some more particular problems and I believed it was important to point towards those in a more direct manner, rather than eliding the very significant differences between male and female involvement in such violent sports. Had I done the latter, people would justifiably have accused me of cowardice in dissembling my more specific objection to women’s martial arts beneath a supposed equal opportunity set of objections to martial arts as such.

    The male instinct for fighting is something that is presented as a good thing when it is ordered towards the appropriate ends in Scripture. Almost all of the great leaders in Scripture were marked by and even celebrated for personal participation in physical violence against other men in some context or other. Most killed one or many other men. Such violence is connected with their exercise of faith in various places. Many are peculiarly blessed or set apart for service in the context of violent acts. Jacob is renamed and blessed following his wrestling with God. The Levites were sanctified following their slaying of 3,000 of their brethren. Phinehas was blessed with an everlasting priesthood after his zealous execution of the Midianite woman and Israelite man. Etc.

    The leaders of Israel and the early Church were men who were often marked by an instinct of violent zeal for God. The priests were men of fire, blood, and a knife. The faithful ‘shepherds’ of the people were marked by use of violence to protect the people from their enemies and to uphold the boundaries. This may unsettle us, but it is important to remember that just as Scripture gives a lot of attention to the life and death struggle of women in bringing to birth, it gives a lot of attention to the life and death struggle of men in physical and spiritual warfare, in taming and subduing the serpents arrayed against the people of God. There is a sort of sanctified violence that characterizes the ‘pastoral’ leaders of the people, who must take and give life in struggles with immensely high stakes, leading the struggle in a world where people are dying and being damned. The loss of the sense of violent cosmic struggle, the sort of struggle that both elicits and is manifested by genuine manliness, is one cause for concern in the contemporary Church.

    Wendy,
    I definitely share some of your concern, which I suggested in my final sentence. I am appalled by the unhealthy glorification of violence as an end in itself in contemporary American culture (it is nowhere near as pronounced an obsession in the UK, although it is still an issue). Violence has its place, but it is a weighty and a serious thing, not to be treated as mere entertainment.

    1. I appreciate your reply, Alastair. Once again, your (and my!!) preference for long form writing is vindicated – had you been able to include some of the points you make here in the original blogpost, there *might* have been less hue and cry. (Then again, this is the Internet.) Your point about women fighting women as uniquely wrong is something I want to think through more, even as I still think there’s an argument to make overall that man fighting man for entertainment (vs. for salvation and the defeat of evil) is also uniquely wrong.

      Lots of food for thought and I always appreciate the sharpening.

      1. Wendy Alsup says:

        Thanks, Alastair. I’d love to see an article that explores the violence of male MMA fighting and its harm to women (evidenced by the domestic violence studies) as more young, restless, and reformed types get a vision of a Christ-like manhood that is better for women than the one pushed early in the movement.

        1. Thanks, Wendy.

          We’ve discussed dimensions of the ethics of sport on Mere Fidelity in the past. In this episode, we focus upon the problems with high contact sports such as American Football. In this episode, we focus more upon the culture surrounding sport and the way that it can often dull us to brutality and injustice.

      2. Thanks, Rachael. I’m always delighted to have my preference for long form writing vindicated! :-)

  8. Jez Bayes says:

    Alastair, please could you justify this statement from Genesis 2 alone?
    ” … from Genesis 2, the duty of guarding and, by implication, fighting falls to the man … “

  9. Robert says:

    Thank you for your detailed reply brother, I still however respectfully disagree with your article and follow up. In an article in which you are telling Christians what they ought or ought not to do you need to be more lucid, in fact you need to show that the practice in question is actually sinful to participate in or watch which you have not.
    I would like to touch on a few points raised.
    1. The whole point regarding that the UFC is watched by a predominantly male audience. This could be said for the vast majority (if not all sport) of sport so there is nothing new here. Since the introduction of female fighters, more and more women are joining the sport learning MMA and therefore the female audience is growing. If more men watch female Judo, Tennis, hockey and wrestling at the Olympics does that mean they have an unhealthy fascination with women competing against women?
    2. The link between MMA and domestic violence against women is an unfair one. I am not saying that there are not men who watch MMA who commit this horrible sin/crime; however what are the stats for other sports? I know that football fans (the real football you actually play with your feet) when a popular team loses are more likely to commit this crime, but that is hardly a reason to ban football whether male or female. It would also need to be shown that levels of domestic abuse have actually risen among UFC fans since the introduction of women. If we wanted to push this point even further it could be noted that during the 50’s 60’s 70’s and 80’s when there was no UFC this was still a massive (maybe even bigger) issue. This is of course a sin issue which has been around a lot longer than the UFC.
    3. It also seems that this article hints that women were only introduce into the UFC to raise the sex appeal of the sport, again this is pure supposition. The women involved in the UFC are some of the best competitors in the sport and their matches are often more competitive and skilful than the men. They are there on merit not sex appeal. Of course if a female fighter is considered to be aesthetically attractive this will raise their star profile but this is true of every sport and element of the entertainment business. Seeing women perform at the highest level of any sport should and I believe does raise respect levels for women not diminish them.
    4. Now to the issue of entertainment. I realise for the uninitiated that MMA can seem like a barbaric way to be entertained. Whether it’s men or women fighting, to many it seems like an odd way for people to have fun. This will be hard to fathom for some, but there is a great art amidst the seemingly chaotic competition. The athleticism and skill involved is truly amazing, it simply isn’t just about blood and a gut, in the jiu jitsu side alone the art is phenomenal. It should also be noted that it is perfectly possible to hit someone, wrestle them to the ground and choke them, without any malice toward that person. I think this point is one that is hard to understand for people who have never taken part in combat sports, and I appreciate that. The fact is, I could have an amazing night, punching and being punched by my best friends with no malice or ill will involved at all.
    5. On the blurring of gender distinctives, which is clearly what this article is all about the UFC seems to have been a trending topic to pick on to discuss it. Let me state that I am a complementarian pastor and believe in clear biblical distinctions for men and women in the church and in the home. However to drag these distinctions into the sporting arena is to take them into an environment where your arguments do not stand up to scrutiny. All the arguments made in the article could equally apply to all sport or physical activity just as much as UFC.
    Please do not take these points as a personal attack brother, Happy New year.
    Love
    Robert

    1. Thanks for the response, Robert. I welcome the pushback.

      To your points:

      1. Yes, most sports are watched by a predominately male audience. However, UFC’s audience is considerably more male than others.

      2. Once again, I think that you may be misreading my piece, assuming that I am making categorical or normative statements when I am making descriptive ones. I don’t know whether there is any necessary and consistent connection between MMA and domestic violence. However, in actual practice, the UFC has had its reputation hurt by stories of domestic violence involving its fighters. My point was simply that including women allowed them to move beyond some of this negative publicity.

      3. That wasn’t something I claimed, nor is it something I believe. On the issue of raising respect levels for women, one of the questions close beneath the surface throughout my piece concerns the way that women are held to implicitly male standards and the way that women are especially celebrated when they are more masculine in their tendencies and behaviour, often adopting tendencies that are also unhealthy in men (for instance, the careerist is celebrated over the committed mother). The great celebration of women in things such as MMA is sadly in many respects and contexts the converse of the lack of celebration of women in their femininity and a cultural drive to push women away from pursuing womanliness towards a neutralizing of their gender.

      4. I respect and can appreciate the athleticism and the skill. I can also quite understand why it would be a great deal of fun. Even thinking back on the fights I was in in my childhood, I know that they can be exhilarating and even bonding experiences, while recognizing many ways in which the fighting I engaged in wasn’t healthy or good. High contact combat sports do raise serious moral questions, though, much as other sports that can involve breath-taking degrees of skill, athleticism, and aesthetic artistic beauty also raise difficult questions (such as free climbing, for instance). I think that there is often an appropriate place for such sports and that, rightly related to fitting ends (for instance, in a military context, or as necessary training for self-defence), they can be good and even praiseworthy practices. I also believe in a more modest place for public displays and competitions involving these sports and skills. However, the ends of pugilistic (or risk-taking) sports as mass entertainment can be considerably more blurry. Especially when we recognize that the culture that surrounds such pugilistic sports is simply unhealthy, and particularly when we move into the realm of the amoral circus of modern wrestling, which often devolves into mere choreographed violence as spectacle.

      5. Again, I think that you are misreading my argument, reading descriptive points as categorical or normative. I do not think that there should be female competitors in the UFC and could have made a categorical and prescriptive argument to make this point. However, I wanted to do something rather different, which was to encourage people to reflect upon the actual reality and upon the ways that the celebration of women’s participation in such sports plays out in that reality, rather than just in more abstract moral theory. How does our culture handle gender atypicality and its relation to gender non-conformity? How do such gender atypical practices play into cultural attempts to erase distinctions between the sexes? How do such visions affect gender typical women? What might some men find attractive about these visions? In and of themselves, these aren’t categorical reasons to refuse to let women participate in UFC (again, I believe such reasons exist, and more generally gestured towards this in the final section). However, they are questions that should give Christians serious pause.

      At the heart of much of my work is the point that sexual difference is, at the most basic level, a fact, rather than a set of rules and roles. There are rules and roles, but these are secondary and derivative from the fact. They are a matter of working with the grain of our natures. Natural sexual difference is the elephant in the room of our society that people are wary of speaking about. It affects so much, but people want to pretend it isn’t there, to pretend that, with enough social engineering and the like, the sexes could be interchangeable behaviourally, physically, psychologically, etc.

      Many Christians fall into the same problem. Many egalitarians speak as if equality could be established by sheer fiat, as if the far-reaching gender differences in society could be removed simply by adopting a new ideology, failing to appreciate the degree to which such differences are the organic outgrowth of fundamental realities of natural difference. Many complementarians fall into similar errors. They think that sexual difference is to be thought of chiefly in terms of ‘gender roles’ that apply in the home and the Church, rather than as a great big fact that affects everything. Living with such a fact well is less about prescriptive gender roles (although they do come into play at various points), and much more about the wise and good living out of what we are as men and women, about learning personally and socially to work with the grain of our sexed natures, learning to respect what God created us to be and learning to honour the other sex for what they are.

      Thanks again for the interaction!

    2. Brian says:

      Robert-

      I think you may be missing the larger point of whether or not Christians should participate in a sport where the aim is to beat others up. Of course other sports could be accused of involving violence (boxing, football, etc.). However, of them all, it does seem that ultimate fighting is the prime contemporary example of sport mixed with violence against another human.

      I think it’s a question very much in the realm of fairness to ask if Christians should participate in such activities. I understand from your earlier post that you coach such activities. Certainly you list various goods attained through your coaching (e.g. relationships with youth you might not normally get to build relationships with). However, I couldn’t help but think that the rational undergirding your argument at that point was that the ends justify the means. “I get to build relationships with youth therefore it’s ok.” I don’t know you but I strongly suspect you would put limits to such things. You wouldn’t, for an extreme for instance, run a drug cartel, so you could build relationships with youth. That would be inherently immoral as all would see. The question is in what way(s) might MMA and UF belong to some classes of immorality (maybe not quite the right framing but hopefully you get my question).

      The unexplored thought I have in relation to this article is whether or not Christians should participate in a sport where deep displays of violence against another person is so interwoven into the very fabric of the sport?

      1. Robert says:

        Brian,

        I am certainly not missing the larger point, you definitely hit the nail on the head. At the end of the day it needs to be shown by the author and yourself that two people of sound mind, good physical health and of their own free choosing (not coerced) agree to compete against each other in boxing, wrestling , judo and Jiu Jitsu is in itself inherently sinful, and if it cannot then it is the end of the argument.

        Again Brian it should be noted that it is very possible (I do it every week) to compete in this way with friends whom I mean no ill will or malice, can you comprehend that? So ill will and malice are not the drivers of this ‘Violence’ but the demonstration of technique and athleticism.

        The rational undergirding my argument is not merely the contacts that I make and the evangelistic opportunities among a largely unreached people group, as you say I did ‘list various good activities’ associated with the sport these put together with the fact that such sport is no-where prohibited in scripture make mma an acceptable sport for me to watch and participate in.

        To the question of my supposed utilitarian ethic, this Brian is really stretching things from your point, of course the ends do not justify the means I nowhere said it nor insinuated it. Drug dealing is sinful and evil on many levels so even the slightest comparison with MMA is a complete straw-man hardly worthy of a response.
        Brian can you show from scripture that two people of sound mind, good physical health and of their own free choosing (not coerced in anyway) agree to compete testing their skills against each other in boxing, wrestling , judo and Jiu Jitsu under the supervision of commissions, judges, doctors and referees is in itself inherently sinful?
        If you could conclusively do this then the argument would be over.

        Regards

        Robert

  10. Robert says:

    I see the title of the article has been changed, this is very wise and helpful.

    1. Justin Taylor says:

      By using the original title I probably read some readers astray in terms of expectations for understanding what Alastair was doing.

      1. JR says:

        Wise decision to change title but would be good idea to correct spelling error. Thanks for all your work on TGC. A priceless resource!

  11. Robert says:

    Dear Alistair I do not wish this to be a tit for tat argument, I respect your position, yet I do think you have applied your reasoning to a sport that has in my view far more benefits than draw backs. Your reasoning is so general it could be applied to almost any sport or place of work. You did drop in ‘Domestic violence’ a fact others here have picked up, you did mention sex appeal ‘The curiosity and sex appeal of women fighting is a considerable draw—“easy on the eyes, hard on the face”—and the UFC has foregrounded this in much of its publicity over the last few years.’ You also dropped in homosexuality and the fact that some of the women involved are lesbians. All in all brother I feel the UFC has been picked on when the exact same article could be applied to any sport traditionally thought of as male dominated or job for that matter.

    Robert

  12. Nikki says:

    As a woman, Christian, and feminist, this article is so beyond offensive. You have no idea of what non-radical feminists stand for and do a great disservice to women and men everywhere for writing this article. Men, you are so much better than to feel sexually aroused and thereby threatened by any attractive women that passes your way. This article condones rape culture in putting all of the blame on women instead of asking men to do better. Women, please be who God made you and do what God has gifted you with. You want to talk about how strong women are? Have you had a baby? Women are strong and fierce and divinely made to do more than have sex with men and sweep. Shame on any Christian who believes what is written in this article is ok. Shame on any man who has a conversation on an issue like this without having a woman who is an MMA fighter involved. This article is reprehensible. White male privilege.

  13. JW says:

    The more I read the responses, the more convinced I am that the author should just stop writing. Period.

    Sooooo, let me see if we’re clear….male fighting is ok.; female fighting is not. And the author justifies it by proposing that it is because males have physiological and cognitive aptitudes towards combat, and females don’t? This kind of absurd distinction can only come from a guy who hasn’t yet transcended his own male biases and is mired in complementarian ideology.

    Then, in some of his later responses he justifies male fighting via “the Old Testament is full of men fighting and killing each other.” You are murdering Christian scholarship with this nonsense. Text-proofing the OT while completely excluding the NT proscriptions against violence just doesn’t qualify as scholarship. It’s really hard to take this author seriously.

    It’s not worth my time to point out the many, many ridiculous assertions offered by this author, e.g. lesbians are over-represented in prison and martial arts because they are lesbians? It’s unbelievable that a person could actually commit this to writing. Has he heard of “begging the question”? (And that’s just one example out of many self-referentially incoherent statement the author makes in the article!)

    He also claims that a “large” number of UFC fighters are lesbians. Off to statistics and research methodology land we go! The author lists 7 lesbians who are fighters. I counted 80 female fighters listed on the UFC website (which took me less than 2 minutes and required the use of only one finger to point and count), and 7 out of 80 is around 8.75%. Even if this number holds true for the entirety of the female mixed martial arts competitors the world over (which I would suspect it wouldn’t, resulting in a drop in percentage), 8.75% will never count as “large”, unless you consider that then 91.25% must, by this logic, count as “small.” The stats he presents are utterly absurd. You can’t offer stats as support for a categorical claim about a population, unless you have carefully researched that population; the author made no attempt to conduct research to that end. This entire article, as I have just demonstrated, is riddled with blatant failures to understand basic logical fallacies and statistical analysis/research methodology.

    I admit that by the time I got to the author’s opinion that “UFC female fighting” and pornography are similar taboos (female fighting is taboo? According to whom? The author? Petitio Principii, again!), I stopped reading, because continuing would have been an even greater waste of time.

    Instead of arguing for why female fighting goes against both created order and human nature, wouldn’t it be better to start with something like “human conflict not what God intended”, and then go on to explain why ANY sanctioned fightsport, male or female, goes against God’s intent for creation and humanity? It would. That seems a more defensible thesis, from OT to NT.

    It would also be best to scuttle this article; it’s truly an amazing disaster. It’s also just another man defining what is acceptable behavior for women. How stupid.

  14. Lisa Marie Mutchler says:

    Thanks for sharing your views and especially for engaging here in the comments, Alistair- I always appreciate a writer who is willing to engage with other’s thoughts rather than use their platform for only a monologue.
    Overall, I am in disagreement with your view here, but certainly am wanting to fairly consider your points. I notice you mention you have a knitting blog; I wonder why you (presumably) believe this to be acceptable while a woman pursuing her own personal interest in MMA is unacceptable. How is your interest in the typically-feminine activity of knitting categorically different from Rousey’s interest in MMA? Is it because men watch women MMA fighters and can then be led into sin? If so, this sounds again like women being blamed for men’s sins.
    I am also very curious to further understand your statement “to be mindful of the advantages they [men] generally enjoy naturally over women in power and agency”. This sounds exactly like the patriarchy that feminists are fighting to eradicate; that men should recognize they naturally have power and agency over women in our society- and therefore work to create equality there. Perhaps I am misunderstanding what you mean by “power and agency,” or what it means for men to be “mindful” of it?
    Thanks again for your time and thoughts!

  15. Haze says:

    God made lionesses smaller and generally less aggressive than lions. But surely the lioness can be violent without acting contrary to her God-given nature.

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Justin Taylor, PhD


Justin Taylor is executive vice president of book publishing and book publisher for Crossway and blogs at Between Two Worlds. You can follow him on Twitter.

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