Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Thoughts on Wrestling Girls

Last week I commented on Facebook about the story of Joel Northrup, opining that while he probably thought he was being noble and moral when he chose to forfeit his shot at a likely state championship in wrestling rather than wrestle female opponent Cassy Herkelman, I thought he was "just being a sexist jerk." I got pushback from some of my Facebook friends, who said it was his choice to make, and that I was being harsh.

Well, I've been thinking about it. Of course, in the sense that nobody has the right to force a kid to wrestle if he doesn't want to, I agree that it was his choice to make. And I probably was too harsh in using the word jerk: He almost certainly intended to be acting honorably, according to the values he's been raised with. But "intentions aren't magic," and the more I think about it, the less I'm inclined to back off from calling this move sexist. Here's the thing: I believe it's poor sportsmanship, at least, to forfeit a sporting event without a truly compelling reason. Doing so disrespects the opponent and deprives her (or him, but in this case…) all the positive aspects of competing. Some of my commenters seemed to think he was the one who suffered, since she got the win… but I strongly disagree. I was never an athlete in high school, but I was involved in other sorts of interscholastic competitions, both as an individual and a team member. In my experience, what's truly important is not winning, per se, but competing. "Winning" by virtue of an opponent's default is a bitter, potentially humiliating, pill; losing after competing well, as you've trained for, is vastly preferable.

So I stand by my assertion that forfeiting without a good reason is bad sportsmanship, and the question is whether there's anything here that constitutes a good reason, and that is defensible against a charge of sexism. Northrup is quoted in several stories as being concerned about the fact wrestling is a "combat sport," and that he doesn't think it's appropriate to touch a girl in "that way." I'm guessing this really boils down to two issues: The societal taboo related to males doing violence to females, and the worry that wrestling, in particular, involves touching parts of the body generally considered private, in ways that superficially resemble sexual touching. It's easy to see how this boy might have felt discomfited by the prospect of wrestling a girl. But lots of sexist opinion comes under the heading of discomfiture; can we unpack this situation and find some non-gender driven moral imperatives that justify the forfeit?

I don't think so. First, let's take the reluctance to do "combat" against a girl. Leaving aside the progress we've made as a society toward gender equality in actual combat, it's worth remembering that wrestling¹ isn't combat, even if it mimics a form of fighting. The social taboo Northrup is responding to — essentially the admonition to not hit girls — is valid as far as it goes, but it's based primarily on the fact that human males are, broadly speaking, bigger and stronger than human females. Strip gender out of the equation, and it amounts to "pick on somebody your own size." This falls down as an excuse in this case for two independent reasons: Wrestling adheres strictly to narrow weight classes that guarantee your opponent is, for all practical purposes, somebody your own size. And, once again, wresting isn't combat: As a sport, it's a fully consensual experience, and regardless of superficial appearances, it doesn't constitute picking on anybody. If it did, that would be a good reason to abandon the sport altogether… but it's not a reason to default against a female opponent.

So that leaves the concern that wrestling a girl might feel too much like groping her sexually. Certainly a desire not to be guilty of unwanted sexual touching is admirable in a young man, but is that really what's at issue here? IMHO, wrestling is no more sex than it is combat. Incidental (or even deliberate) contact with breasts, buttocks, and genital areas isn't automatically sexual (just ask your gynecologist or mammographer²). This is one area where intent is, if not magic, at least relevant. Besides, whatever touching occurred would not have been unwanted: Herkelman entered the sport, and the tournament, voluntarily, so however she was touched (so long as it was within the normal realm of wrestling) would be entirely with her consent and, this being a high school sport, that of her parents. So it's reasonable to suggest that anything within the normal bounds of wrestling would have been neither unwanted nor sexual.

At least, not sexual from her point of view. Perhaps (and I'm admittedly speculating in what follows; Northrup has not, AFAIK, said this) the real concern is that he might have sexual feelings in the course of wrestling a girl. That seems plausible to me — I'm not so old that I can't remember what it feels like to be a high school boy — but is that… should it be… her problem? That's the logic of the burqua: Because we men can't control our lust, women must give up their freedom, self-expression, and range of activities. I reject that notion utterly; if it's his problem, it's his problem!

And if he had a problem with his ability to behave himself while wrestling a girl, he should have considered the likelihood he'd be faced with that situation, and opted out of the whole sport³. Even after pondering it for a week, it still seems to me that showing up for a tournament and then defaulting when you find out who your opponent will be is a punk move… especially when what bothers you about your opponent is her gender. In the final analysis, I can't think of any way to view Joel Northrup's treatment of Cassy Herkelman other than that he, for whatever reason, systematically treats women differently from men... and I can't think of any word for that other than sexism.

As I said at the beginning, I agree it was harsh of me to call this young man a jerk. His attitude is a product of his culture, and no doubt is in perfect accord with how his parents have raised him. But in this instance, I think his culture and his parents have failed him; he'll grow up to be a better man if he gets something other than unanimous applause for his "principled" stand.

Afterword: In checking name spellings and such before posting, I happened upon this defense of Northrup, penned by a woman who reports having played a variety of sports as a girl. After making many of the same points I have about disrespect and denial of the opportunity to compete, the blogger turns around and gives Northrup a pass, apparently because she's awed by his stalwart religious faith:

...Northrup holds a belief that obviously transcends any event or opponent. He will never wrestle a girl. According to the pastor at the Northrup family’s church, the “elevation and respect of woman” forbids any contact between the two genders in a “familiar way” — the way a contact sport demands.

I'm sorry, but how is that not a textbook description of sexism? Despite the word "respect," the "elevation" of women in a way that in fact restricts their freedom of action is, in my book, the polar opposite of admirable. I'm reminded of my mother's tales of being disappointed, in a male-dominated workplace half a century ago, that the men would hastily stop telling their racy jokes when she walked up. No matter how noble their motives, when men "elevate" women in this way, they're invariably really holding them down.

And BTW, since when is "well, that's what his church teaches" a refutation of sexism? Churches are famously promoters of sexism; couching behavior in terms of faith in no way means that behavior is not sexist.

¹ Keep in mind that we're talking about the real sport of wrestling here, not the torture porn peddled by Vince and Linda McMahon!

² For that matter, ask all the male wrestlers if touching their male opponents' buttocks and groins constitutes homosexual activity.

³ Apparently he did consider it, and said all along he wouldn't wrestle a girl, and even forfeited an earlier, pre-tournament match rather than face a girl. All this, IMHO, makes his case worse, not better: If you have a genuinely principled objection to the rules of a sport, don't play that sport! Showing up to play with your fingers crossed, hoping your principles won't get scraped, is just selfish and cowardly. I really don't understand why people are using words like "classy" and "mature" to describe this young man's behavior.


Diana said...

I follow your argument and agree with your conclusions. I do think, however, that your careful reasoning and logical conclusions are more than likely out of reach of a teenager, at least on the spot. I wish he could have a chance to read what you wrote, though, as something to prepare for the next time.

Carlie said...

*stands and cheers*

I agree with Diana that the teen in question might not be capable yet of following all of that through (especially in the short time he had to realize what was going on), but his coach, the referee, and his parents certainly should have.

Bill Dauphin said...

Diana and Carlie:

I agree that this level of analysis is a bit much to ask of a teenager, which is why I conceded that my initial reaction was a bit harsh... but it's worth noting that this was not a snap decision for him: He'd apparently decided before the season that he'd refuse to wrestle girls, and had done so previously.

I'm also dubious about leaning on his coaches, teachers, parents, etc. (some overlap there, as the kid is homeschooled) for guidance: Based on the quotes I've seen (including from the girl's father), the adults in this story are pathogens, not antigens.

Dornier said...

Uncertain if anyone anywhere ever pointed this out(only learned about this in the last 5 minutes) but, depending on how far into the tournament he had already gotten, he also disrespected any opponents he had already defeated. I am, however, ignorant about who is allowed to advance in the case of a forfeit, so this may not be the problem I think it is.