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FIGHT FOR PROGRESS: EXPRESSIONS OF GENDER & SEXUALITY IN WOMEN’S BOXING

With awareness and understanding of the LGBTQ+ community increasing within society, the world of sport is no exception when it comes to re-evaluating and challenging previously held ideas surrounding sex, gender and sexual orientation. In line with this progress, one area of sport psychology research where inroads have been made is the study of gender and sexuality. This contributes to what is known as Cultural Sport Psychology (CSP) research which involves understanding and finding solutions to challenges that limit expressions of identity, and inclusion within sport.

Previous research finds that despite the possibility for a range of gender and sexuality expressions within athletes, the way in which women in sport are viewed contradicts recent progress. As an example, women are deemed to be accepted within sport as long as they conform to typical standards of femininity, including being attracted to the opposite sex, being passive, and quiet in terms of temperament and less muscular in physicality (Cahn, 2015; Krane, 2001). These ‘standards’ are learnt through the media, sport opportunities and language used when discussing female athletes. Consequently, when female athletes deviate from heterosexuality and femininity through expressing so-called masculine traits such as physical strength and aggression, they may be excluded and have their identities and status as ‘real women’ called into question (Cahn, 2015; Waldron, 2016).

Sports Psychology research on LGBT identities is in its infancy, however, it has been noted that some cultural expectations surrounding masculinity, femininity and sexuality have changed, resulting in some level of inclusion and acceptance of LGBT athletes within pockets of sport (Krane, 2016). One particular sport which challenges the key ideas of femininity is boxing, which involves women demonstrating characteristics typically linked with masculinity, such as strength, aggression and a muscular physique. Previous research suggests that boxing provides women with the opportunity to challenge socially acceptable forms of femininity that can constrain them (Channon & Phipps, 2017). However, contradictory research suggests that women’s boxing may restrict women’s expressions of their gender, as some women feel pressured to be ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ to align with socially acceptable forms of femininity. As an example, female boxers may feel compelled to wear certain clothing (e.g. skirts, satin shorts and pink gloves) to gain media attention and male gaze (Lafferty & McKay, 2004; Tjonndal, 2016; 2017). As a result, although women are seen to be accepted within typically male-dominated sports such as boxing, they are perhaps still pressured to participate on men’s terms.

A recent study by Mcgannon, Schinke, Ge, Blodgett (2018) of Laurentian University explored the identities of 10 elite female boxers in relation to inclusion and marginalisation on the Canadian National Boxing Team. Participants fought in different weight categories and were from diverse race and ethnic backgrounds, with five identifying as queer, bisexual, or lesbian and five as heterosexual. The study, which was published in the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, involved arts-based interviews to encourage story-telling. Participants were asked to draw a circle (i.e., mandala) on a blank piece of paper and include an image reflecting “who they are” as boxers on the Women’s National Team in relation to parts of themselves. Arts-based methods broadly, and mandalas specifically, have been used in sport research to assist participants in explaining lived experiences. These drawings were then used to facilitate an unstructured, conversational interview.

Through this research, the central theme ‘boxing as empowering and constraining’ was identified. Within the Canadian Women’s Boxing Team, open expression of identities in terms of physicality and sexuality was encouraged. This challenged socially normalised expressions of femininity by placing value on aggression and skill to gain power and status as female athletes. However, the study also found that not all of the women’s gendered identities were accepted within their environment, particularly in terms of femininity and physicality. This resulted in a literal fight for female boxers to gain respect and resources.

This fight for equality resulted in the female boxers missing out on the positive psychological experiences that are associated with inclusion within a team, such as confidence, focus and satisfaction. Instead, the marginalised women felt less valued and less motivated. The study also found that the perception that men’s boxing is superior to women’s boxing is unintentionally (and perhaps sometimes intentionally) reinforced both by others within the sport – such as coaches and heterosexual women – and through less organisational support which often manifested in the form of verbal slights or jokes.

Interestingly, despite the findings suggesting that boxing can be considered a ‘safe space’ in terms of gender expression and sexuality for homosexual women, this same tolerance is less afforded to homosexual men. This further highlights the prevalence of cultural constructions of masculinity and perceived ‘compulsory heterosexuality’ for sportsmen. As a result of these restrictive expectations surrounding masculinity, male boxers who were ‘not heterosexual’ were not afforded the same inclusion or sense of cultural safety.

The aim of this study was to explore and increase understanding of inclusion and marginalisation within an elite sport context. The present study has added to Cultural Sport Psychology (CSP) research that demonstrates the value of exploring self-identity as socially constructed. Therefore, this study has further added to work on gender and sexuality in Sport Psychology within elite sport. As the current climate shifts towards an understanding of gender being socially constructed, further research of individuals’ experiences of their gender and sexuality is necessary in order to allow the sport and exercise industry to further understand individuals, challenge antiquated views of gender and sexuality, and essentially, move with the times. Therefore, this study contributes to the growing body of research which is facilitating this transformation.

Despite contributing towards this area of research, the current study is not without limitations. Although the research provides a snapshot of the social construction of elite female boxers’ negotiation with gender and sexuality, this research was limited to North American female athletes who exist within the concept of binary gender and sexuality. Future research could look to go a step further and explore the experiences of individuals who do not exist within this binary, such as intersex, transgender and pansexual people, in order to give voice to a diverse range of individuals within the LGBTQ+ community. In addition, the interaction between gender and sexuality with race, ethnicity and social class may another dimension to research.

Other individuals within the sporting context could also be interviewed such as family members, coaches, sport science support staff and also male boxers regarding their own identities and how these relate to the identities of female boxers. Additionally, given the importance of others within the boxing environment in terms of embracing or marginalising aspects of individuals’ cultural identities, observations of performance environments and how athletes interact with coaches and peers could also provide further insight into female athlete experiences when negotiating gender and sexuality within the world of sport.

Although there are significant further avenues for progress within research – and consequently practice – when considering expressions of gender and sexuality in sport, this study of female boxers’ experiences in navigating these challenges, paves the way for future research to continue exploring these societal shifts and the role of the sporting world within them. By giving voice to a diverse range of individuals through research, the field of Sport Psychology can increase understanding and knowledge in an effort to inform practice and facilitate safe spaces for all individuals within sport.

*This article has been peer reviewed by members of the LGBTQ+ community. o