2013-06-27 T21:00 Post has been updated to add missing links.
Guest Blogger Bio: Miranda Freawine is a student studying obscure Medieval texts. She’s a long-time Feministe lurker and occasionally publishes feminist-themed screeds in her campus newspaper, for which she has received much (usually entertaining) hate mail. She’s begun, tentatively, to tell her own story of abuse at The True and Entirely Disrespectful Confessions of a Former Teenage Black Belt. She now competes in Olympic-style Tae Kwon Do for a local university.
I might not remember what it felt like learning that I had passed my black belt test, but I do remember the first time my instructor asked me whether I had the ‘hots’ for another student.
I told him I didn’t want to discuss it. So he put me in a headlock so that I couldn’t breathe and told me that good Tae Kwon Do students always do what “teacher” says. When he released me, I said, “Yes, sir.”
I was twelve years old.
I was a good student.
My story is rarely told but depressingly common. Studies of female athletes indicate appallingly high rates of bullying, sexual harassment, and physical, sexual, and psychological abuse at the hands of (usually male) coaches. The problem starts in local pick-up leagues and reaches its grimy hands into elite international competition. Some studies even suggest that the higher one climbs in the sports world, the worse the problems get. Terrible abusers can be wonderful coaches.
If I can’t take away the fact that my instructor was an abuser, I wish I could take away the fact that he was good. He taught me the hip tuck just like that, the lifting of the knee just-so that still evoke compliments today. Even when the PTSD is gone, my body will remember him in other ways. I had good training. The man who trained me was a child abuser. They can’t both be true. They are both true.
Why does it happen? For every reason and no reason. Human cruelty. Oppression. The intoxication of privilege and power. The hyper-masculinization of sports. The devaluation of female athletes. The close relationship between coach and athlete, Sensei and student. The trust, the connection, the belief (sometimes warranted) that you must put up with anything, anything if you want to win.
Lack of oversight is tremendously damaging. In my story, neither the police nor CPS were able to do anything: CPS, because a privately owned club doesn’t fall under their jurisdiction in my state; the police, because the county prosecutor wasn’t interested in borderline things that happened years ago. What else can I do? There is no board of Tae Kwon Do Players to appeal to. None that would care about my story, at least. Yelp reviews open me up to lawsuits and retaliatory harassment.
Then, the ignorance: a wholesome-looking ex-military officer couldn’t possibly hurt children. Child abuse doesn’t happen in leafy suburbs. The warning signs were all there, gruesomely bright. No one saw. No one wanted to see.
There are also problems unique to contact sport: how do you distinguish between a good hit and a bad hit? What is discipline and what is damaging, exploitative hyper-obedience? What is training and what is some creep’s fantasy of violent control over girls? I am a survivor of the latter, and I have had plenty of the former. Even I can’t explain the difference. Why should I expect a cop to?
Whenever I write about this topic, I feel old and sad. The anger left long ago. I’m weary of people telling me to take sports to empower myself; sports destroyed me. I’m weary of victim blamers telling me to learn martial arts to defend myself; my abuser was my martial arts teacher.
I’m weary of listening to men deprecate the state of female athletics. Do you want to know one of the reasons why girls don’t do athletics or martial arts or drop out of elite sports at record levels? Because (usually male) coaches are driving them away, as they do in every other sector of society. Hitting them, humiliating them, harassing them, raping them, abusing them. Us.
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