By Felix Rodriguez, Staff Writer
TXMMA wanted to explore the differences between what it’s like being a male and female mixed martial artist. We interviewed several female mixed martial artists in diverse stages of their careers to learn about their own experiences in Women’s Mixed Martial Arts. We found out that although fighting is fighting, when it comes to gender and the treatment of females in MMA, a fighter is not always just a fighter.
The first part of our series dealt with how journalists portray WMMA and how this affects the way fans and other media outlets perceive female fighters and WMMA in general. The next two parts will focus on how women are treated differently than men in several aspects of their lives as fighters.
In this part of the feature we will discuss how sexual harassment and unwanted advances affect women who are striving to further their mixed martial arts career.
Addressing the Obvious: Sexual Harassment
Female fighters like Tara la Rosa and Jessamyn Duke have recently come forward accusing MMA fight manager, Brett Atchley of inappropriate behaviors towards females. These allegations made sexual harassment one of the first and most obvious topic questions to ask our fighters about when researching this feature. After speaking with our group of mixed martial artists it became clear that sexual harassment is prevalent in WMMA and comes from all directions. None of the women we spoke with had any complaints about sexually inappropriate behavior by their managers; and they mostly offered praise for facilitating their career’s progress. “As far as managers go, my manager, Paul Stockler, really knows his stuff and has my best interests at heart,” said Lauren Taylor (pro 6-0); Amber Stautzenberger (pro 3-1) added, “a good manager will get you there without physical contact, lack of respect, or black mailing. I think my manager is doing quite alright with our business relationship and my fight career.” Although their experiences with MMA managers was largely positive, most of the fighters we spoke with had encountered at least one negative occurrence dealing with inappropriate conduct, unwanted advances and flat out sexual harassment from men they’ve encountered in and outside the gym.
Harassment From Fans:
Fans and the media are the people furthest removed from the lives of fighters, but this doesn’t mean their rude behaviors go unnoticed. Female fighters receive a plethora of messages through social media that can often be disturbing. The Internet is a double –edged sword for these women because it allows them to interact with fans, who do not hesitate to tell them how they really feel. The shield of anonymity provided by a computer screen can make fan interaction go from positive to mean-spirited and beyond. Comments like “I’d do her,” “she’s hot” and “she’s a dude” are unnecessary, yet female fighters have learned to deal with them as par for the course. Women who don’t ascribe to standard conventions of beauty are routinely featured in memes and other web jokes, which question their gender and sexuality. Rude comments about attractive female fighters can also cross the line and become down right creepy propositions. For example, Amber Stautzenberger was offered several thousand dollars to wear revealing lingerie and physically abuse a man while being filmed. Stautzenberger and several of the other women interviewed here believe part of the reason why fans would be comfortable, propositioning them as prostitutes, is the way some journalists choose to cover them.
Harassment from Journalists
In the first part of our series fighters like Lauren Taylor and Paulina Granados helped highlight the effect of irresponsible media coverage for WMMA. The women we spoke with expressed frustrations that went beyond media coverage and dealt with the manner in which male journalists treat them as women; many of them had a problem with Examiner blogger Eric Holden in particular. Jason Adams, a writer for Promoting Real Women exposed the issue of Holden’s inappropriate communications with female fighters in an interview with Cassie Rob and Stephanie Skinner. The article showed text communications in which Holden told Rob and Skinner that their status as a same –sex couple “gave him boners.” Holden has also reached out in an inappropriate manner to other fighters. For example, Stautzenberger complained that Holden sent her a picture of himself urinating. She explained, “you couldn’t see his genitals,” but the picture was “disrespectful” because she didn’t “know him on a personal level.” The pool of writers who cover WMMA is not very deep yet so female fighters must choose between dealing with unnecessarily boorish behavior or risk angering one of the few sources of media exposure that give them attention. It is worth noting that TXMMA has never received complaints from male fighters about similarly abusive communications from Eric Holden or any other journalist.
Harassment from Teammates and Training Partners
Harassment of this type is inexcusable and, unfortunately, not confined to interactions that take place outside of the gym. One of the extra challenges women face in MMA is that same-sex training options are limited in a sport that is largely male-dominated. When ladies join an MMA school they are a very noticeable (and welcome) minority; some training partners can take this welcoming spirit too far. Maria Lopez and River Warth are Austin-based mixed martial artists who have experienced the unwanted advances of male training partners. According to Lopez, who recently fought Paulina Granados at Legacy Fighting Championship 20, females “sometimes aren’t taken as seriously by males.” She noted, “I have had men approach me regarding training/fighting only to find out in the end that it was only their attempt to get my number or try to get close to me. Our passion for the sport is the same; we should be treated as equals.” Warth is an amateur fighter who will face Karen Lingle Kovach at a Belts of Honorious event on June 29th. Warth has had similar experiences as Lopez. “We come to the gym to do work, train, improve -just like the men. I am not there beating up my body, expending all of my strength, putting my heart and soul into training so that [men] can make unwanted advances and ask me out. I am a fighter when in the gym, not a girl at a bar,” said Warth. Stautzenberger also added, “I have gotten felt up in BJJ at the old gym I trained at, and [been] told things like your guard is tight, you must have strong thighs, I like it.” Female fighters face the same obstacles as men do in their paths as mixed martial artists. Needing to have their guards up in their own gyms is an unwelcome distraction that can prevent them from establishing trusting bonds with their male training partners, who make up the majority of their resources for improvement.
Harassment from Instructors
Most people in the martial arts community believe that, talent aside, the quality of training available to them factors greatly in the success they can have in their careers. This makes the bond between a fighter and her instructor an extremely important one. Warth explained, “There is a very different connection between a fighter and a coach. You are going into a cage” where opponents can “harm you [so you’re] armed with the strength, knowledge and skills that your coach has given you. There is a huge amount of trust that goes into that. The breakdown of a fighter before a fight is a very personal journey between a fighter and a coach. There is a connection that no one else can understand.” When Amber Stautzenberger’s old coach failed to look out for her and discipline the student she mentioned as acting inappropriately before, the bond between her and her coach was compromised, and this played a big role into her seeking different training options.
Having the bond between a fighter and their coach broken, due to unwanted advances made by the instructor of a female fighter, can be a disappointing and even career altering experience. Allegations of unwanted sexual conduct has led to visible repercussions for coaches like Lloyd Irvin and Hermes Franca, but they also have a devastating effect on the women who receive these advances. When discussing this issue Warth told TXMMA, “I have been put in an uncomfortable situation by a person with great ranking. And by not accepting the unwanted advances and attention, I am sure that I have slowed my advancement for promotions. However, that will not discourage my training nor inhibit my learning. I am here for me, and I have more self-respect because of it.”
The Importance of Accountability
This type of behavior is deplorable and will hopefully decrease as WMMA grows in popularity. It is worth noting that not every female fighter experiences these types of unwanted advances, but the issue is that none of them should. Ever. Jinh Yu (1-0) is a professional mixed martial artist fighting out of Mohler’s MMA in Dallas. Out of all the women we interviewed she was the only fighter who had not encountered negative experiences of some sort. “Luckily I haven’t really experienced anything like that. I didn’t even know any of this was going on,” said Yu. Unless fans, media, training partners and coaches are singled out for these inappropriate behaviors Yu’s experience as a mixed martial artist will continue to be more of an exception rather than the rule it should be.
Please check back for the third part of this feature where we will discuss how interpersonal relationships affect the lives of female fighters, and we discuss additional challenges women face that men don’t have to. Upon the conclusion of our three part series we will also feature an interview with Eric Holden where we will allow him to address all of the claims made by the fighters we interviewed. Please check back for that as well!