How I Learned To Combat Toxic Culture & Sexist Stereotypes In The Martial Arts World

By Hebe Halstead

Martial arts when practiced well teach respect and allow you to use your own power. I find it almost cringe-worthy to use the word “empowering”, but as a women I have found in this something immensely empowering, to allow a defense. In short there was nothing I loved more than an opportunity to fight back. For many years I practiced Kendo at my university, which is Japanese sword fencing. To add some context this sport is practiced with a bamboo sword and protective armor, and, yes, people are actually hitting each other with bamboo.

It is well worth a Google search and is really much better than I am making it sound. For any woman, the world of warnings about how one should not walk home alone, how it is really much more polite if you are just quiet, that all this shouting and screaming and fighting – it is really not the done thing; martial arts in no matter how a smaller way provide a chance to fight back. I have long thought how much better the world would be if every little girl was taught to be a warrior not a princess, and I stand by that still. To fight is a show of strength and there is no more natural partner than strength and a woman.

Although I once had nothing but praise for my martial art and indeed spent much time and effort promoting it, I have found in this community troubling patterns that are echoed in wider society. Kendo when looked at on paper should be a feminist ideal. Teams are mixed genders and the very nature of the sport means your success is not determined by strength or stature but rather by skill. Anyone with the willingness to train and the spirit to fight can win – that is what I was always taught anyway.

However, the reality is far different from this mantra. I should say first that there are many examples where dojos are are that place where women are safe and respected. But in the UK Kendo community I have found there to be a toxic culture, and it saddens me, because that this will come as no surprise to anyone. I cannot even express how very disappointed I was in a martial art so focused on the respect you show for others to be told time and time again that it was cute that I was trying, what a good girl I was, and I found this wearing.

To have experienced and heard a hundred times since of the men that should have been teaching us taking the opportunity instead to leer, to be inappropriate and to know that this behavior is well known and it is seen as a joke. If make a big deal then you should have been flattered, and why can’t you take a joke, why aren’t you any fun, be more fun. After a while it seems just not worth the trouble to point out that jokes about men mistreating women make women themselves part of a joke. People speak about Senseis who have allegedly done terrible things but it does not matter because they are good at Kendo and so all is forgiven and we should all go to them and learn from them.

There are parallels to every other community I can think of here, that it is a sad fact the treatment of women is routinely as things that are there and less as people. I used to tout Kendo as a way to train women to be warriors, to prove the world how fierce and unbeatable we could be, but I cannot in good conscious suggest any woman enter into such a toxic culture.

I have also found these toxic ripples extend out into my other social circles, it seems all you do is defend yourself and the choices you have made. It got to the point where I simply gave up and left this sport in which I had invested so much time and effort and heart and money. To have such a disheartening battle on two fronts, I am ashamed to say that I just didn’t have the fight in me anymore. I could deal with my friends telling me how odd they thought my hobby, and I could tolerate how strangers frequently told me that I did not seem the type to do a martial art.

That was everyday and although there’s a good chance no man has ever had to answer the same questions, I always saw it as a chance to educate people as to how wonderful this thing was. But then there were other times, times when my male friends were told how inspirational and amazing their fighting was and I was told that it was alarming, that they never thought be so violent. Then there were parties where men told me that they really liked a woman who could fight back and women told me that I would never find a man occupying such aggressive ways.

I will not pretend that these did not all weigh on me, the absurdity all I had wanted to do was learn to fight and I found myself defenseless to all these words. Respect women who choose to fight, respect women who choose other pastimes, respect women – that is all I ever wanted. They are not your kinky cosplay, and they are not angry or covering some deep issue up, they are just people doing a sport.

It is a danger to think you are alone in such a quandary, and even though I know so many other women have experienced the same, you still feel alone. That’s why they left one by one and that is why I left. I hope one day to go back to Kendo because I honestly did find something really wonderful in it, but I need some time. When it is demanded that you fight on so many sides constantly, it is tiring and I am tired. I never thought fighting for my place at the table would have such ironic undertones, but we all know there is only one way to truly fix this.

We have to stay and we have to call every single person out every single time and we have to do this in every community where we find ourselves. I was so worried about writing this, I feared it would come across as disrespectful to the community that has given me so much, but if we cannot talk about this, if this cannot be accepted as an endemic issue then there is nothing to be done. Then there is no progress and those words about how welcome women are are just words after all.




Hebe Halstead is a graphic designer living blissfully in England. She has a dog, a cat and a vague need to make the world a tiny bit less awful. Follow her on social media: @PainInTheArts1 and check out her website:

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