Body Language – Clinch, Thailand and Gender

There are complications to being a woman - or more specifically, having a female body - in a male dominated sport.  As a fighter you are using your body...

There are complications to being a woman – or more specifically, having a female body – in a male dominated sport.  As a fighter you are using your body to perform an art and you must use it, hard, on a daily basis in order to insure that it will take care of you in the ring.  There is no room for half-hearted efforts; it’s just too frivolous when every mistake has so high a cost.

I take these complications for what they are and try to be aware of their consequences, both beneficial and detrimental.  I’ve written before about how western women will come into a Muay Thai camp wearing “workout” attire I would blush to wear in the US, which gets twice the attention in Thai culture, and I’ll watch her get better training than I do because of the attention it brings.  These women generally stay for a couple of days at most and then are gone with new day-long friendships and a few photos.  They get what they pay for in a sense and I do too, which is why I have to navigate the labyrinthine wall between a “serious” fighter who is also a woman and a woman who is training with her body in a precariously sexual environment.

Getting great clinch practice with Cassie in Colorado under the instruction of Sakmongkol.

Lanna is a very western-friendly camp.  The Thai trainers speak English readily and well and a large number of day-trippers rotate in and out of the camp.  They entertain themselves and gather in small circles to talk about whatever bros from different countries talk about and for the most part it’s easy to ignore them.  There are also “frequent flyers” who have been coming to the camp on a yearly or semi-yearly basis for many years.  They tend to be a little creepier because the camp is for some of them something like a teenage summer camp and they can look at new female faces like “fresh meat.”  It seems pretty gross.

The other day I was very focused in training.  It was the afternoon session and therefore the very last training session before my first fight.  I generally keep to myself and don’t fraternize with other westerners beyond a polite head nod – although occasionally I’ll offer assistance to new women at the camp who maybe don’t understand what a Thai trainer is asking her to do or to familiarize her with how Thai toilets work.  There were a number of new “frequent flyers” in the gym and one in particular had been hawk-eying me while I did my pad work in the ring and then followed me around to various areas of the gym while I performed my bag work.  The harder someone works to get my attention, the greater is my projected indifference to them.

At the last hour of training Nook – a beloved Thai trainer – called me into the ring to work on the clinch with him.  I’d had my ass kicked the day before in clinching and I was relieved and enthusiastic to try again with Nook today.  I unwrapped my hands and washed them before jumping in the ring.  Nook worked diligently to frustrate me, making joyous sounds all the while to let me know that even though I was being bettered, this was fun.  I tried to neutralize him or to gain the dominant position, which I did successfully a few times.  More than a few times I made the mistake of turning my hip sideways and in and Nook slipped around to take my back – a terrible situation, points-wise, in a Muay Thai clinch.

Clinch training with Sakmongkol in Colorado. He’s amazing.

This “frequent flyer” had been sitting outside the ring for the duration of Nook’s clinch lesson with me and he kept shouting, “don’t let him take your back!” to me.  I knew this, I just didn’t know how, technically.  As Nook and I continued to work, this guy stood up, pulled his shirt off and jumped into the ring.  He said, “Let me give it a go,” and cut in to begin clinching with me.

There were so many things wrong with this situation, both to Nook in the hierarchical structure of a gym wherein a trainer has much greater social weight than someone who trains there, regardless of how long they’ve been coming, and to me in the transgressive physical boundry-crossing of jumping into a physically intimate drill like clinching.  As a western female fighter, I have to be aware and somewhat diligent in clinch-training because it is a culturally transgressive act, even if it is truly for the purpose of technical training.  Just as it is for male/female training in Brazilian Jiujitsu in the west.  Not necessarily sexual in its context but certainly intimate in the crossing of normal physical boundaries.  It’s like this: if you’ve ridden in a car all your life it might feel like a physical boundary-crossing to suddenly hop on the back of a moped or motorcycle with a person of the opposite sex – it’s not sexual contact, but the proximity is crossing some normal physical boundary and it can very easily be turned sexual by one person interpreting it that way.

I feel that the assumption this guy made was completely inappropriate.  He may have actually been trying to help me and the information he expressed to me was good.  Having been tracking me around the gym that day and hawk-eying me for two days now, it was a suspicious and unwelcome assumption to have made.  On the one hand I want as a female fighter to be treated the same as a male fighter – I don’t want to be left out because of my female body just as I don’t want to be sexualized because of it.  In a way, just jumping in and clinching without question to the male/female divide should be a positive thing.  Had a Thai trainer done so, I would have considered it a positive and welcome situation. (In fact, the day before a Thai trainer had dismissed my current clinching partner, Boy, in order to clinch with me. This situation could have turned negatively very easily, but it didn’t because of the focus and sincerity of the training.)

But that wasn’t the situation.  Not only had this guy insulted Nook by cutting in the way he did, having no hierarchical authority in the gym, but he insulted me by being a creep who has now crossed every physical boundary in a gym space and there’s no line to draw now.  He’s the kind of dude who just starts giving shoulder rubs to women at bars, crossing physical boundaries first so that there’s no way to back up without appearing rude.  It comes off as skeezy even if it’s not meant to be.

What really pisses me off about it is that it’s not a situation in which I’m trying to interpret the intention of someone within the context of another culture – this dude is western and I know that culture, it’s from my own context that I’m insulted and deem his actions inappropriate.  Had he not been hawk-eying me and tracking me, had he not transgressed the hierarchy of the gym so readily in order to be creeping on me, had he not been a “frequent flyer” who knows the difference in context within a Thai gym, and had I not been ignoring him so thoroughly prior to this incident, it might have felt different.  And had this not been seated in  the context of a Thai camp with Nook in the ring and other Thai trainers all around me I might have responded in the way I would have in the States, unafraid that my revulsion and objection would be misinterpreted as a rejection of all clinch practice.  If I had free reign to behave without regard to the context of the gym and culture in which this situation was seated, as this guy did, he would have received my correction… thoroughly.

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A 100 lb. (46 kg) female Muay Thai fighter. Originally I trained under Kumron Vaitayanon (Master K) and Kaensak sor. Ploenjit in New Jersey. I then moved to Thailand to train and fight full time in April of 2012, devoting myself to fighting 100 Thai fights, as well as blogging full time. Having surpassed 100, and then 200, becoming the westerner with the most fights in Thailand, in history, my new goal is to fight an impossible 471 times, the historical record for the greatest number of documented professional fights (see western boxer Len Wickwar, circa 1940), and along the way to continue documenting the Muay Thai of Thailand in the Muay Thai Library project: see patreon.com/sylviemuay

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