(Possibly a contender for the most interesting title of an article talking about the GDPR?)
This is going to be an article about consent and “opting in” when participating in martial arts, using examples that we are familiar with (or should be!) from everyday life. It is something that I consider to be extremely important in my own practice of karate and historical fencing and I would like to share some of my thoughts about it.
GDPR stands for the General Data Protection Regulations, a Europe-wide directive for data protection that was implemented in the UK via the Data Protection Act 2018.
It is rarely a sexy topic, although it is quite important for club leaders and event organisers to understand. But how does it relate to kicking and punching people, or to swinging a sword?
Opting in and opting out
Let us start with a simple choice. Do you design your martial arts practice so that your training partners “opt in” to the activity or to a higher intensity version of the exercise? Or do you launch into things and expect others to “opt out” if the intensity is too high for them?
We might be familiar with the ideas of opting in and opting out from all the cookie popup notices on websites, or from tickboxes asking if we want to sign up to mailing lists when buying from a website. What was very common a few years ago was to make the model one of opting out, whereby the “shall we send you lots of newsletter spam?” box was ticked by default, and you had to untick the box to avoid all the nuisance communications.
The GDPR changed this, requiring that such tickboxes are unselected by default, so that users have to actively opt in before consent is given – it doesn’t count as consent when people are enrolled by default and have to opt out.
We can think about something very similar when it comes to sparring. Do you include wrestles and disarms? This might be quite reasonable as the default for something like judo (since this is a wrestling art without much of a striking component), but it is a question worth asking for karate (a striking art that may or may not include wrestling, according to the different rules and flavours) and HEMA (which many people do because they enjoy swordfighting, and for which many clubs do not have the resources to practise wrestling).
So do you just start sparring with someone, and assume that if they don’t want to wrestle, they’ll opt out in some fashion? And then you move in and grapple with them and throw them to the ground, and they don’t know how to deal with it because they have never had an opportunity to practise safe falling or any such skills. This is clearly not a good situation – and while it might be reasonable to say that “a complete and holistic study of a martial art should include wrestling”, realistically, not everyone is going to have the opportunity to do that.
Instead, it would be better to have a quick chat with your training partner before starting the bout. Ask about wrestling – give your partner a chance to opt in or to remain opted out, rather than just assuming that everything is permissible. And this begins to sound very much like the concept of consent.
Consent when sharing bodies
I can’t help but observe that there is a great similarity between practising martial arts with another person and having whatever kind of sex with another person: you are both sharing your bodies with each other in some fashion. Ideally in a way that lets you both be happy and feel better about yourselves; hopefully not in a way that leaves one person feeling used, abused, or injured.
When sharing your body with another person for pleasure, you might reasonably expect that consent is important. You consent to certain things being done, and you do not consent to other things. And for any given act, you might consent one day but not another, or you might consent once but then decide that that was enough and you don’t want to do it again, or you might consent initially and then decide that actually you are not enjoying this anymore and so please stop it now. These are all entirely valid decisions and we (should!) understand that this is how consent works for sex.
I think that it is also exactly the same for martial arts.
On any given day, I might be wearing shin protectors or I might not, so I might prefer to keep the target area above the belt or I might allow the whole body as a target – but that’s a conversation I definitely need to have with my sparring partner.
On any given day, depending on how tired I am after looking after the baby (or, in previous years, how jetlagged I felt after flying to teach at the event), I might prefer to keep the sparring at a lower intensity, or maybe it will be a good day to take the intensity higher – again, an important conversation to have with my sparring partner.
Typically, I’m willing to include wrestling when I am sparring with the sword. However, if my sparring partner has never done any wrestling before, but is large and strong and very enthusiastic, then I’d much rather avoid it. Nothing scares me quite as much as doing wrestling with someone who is big and strong and enthusiastic but who has no concept of how much is “too much” on my joints. So I will quite happily give my consent to wrestling if I think my sparring partner will be able to do it safely, and I will withdraw that consent if I fear that it might lead to injury.
But ultimately, the very act of sharing our bodies with people is something that requires consent. If I am sparring with someone and am just not enjoying it, or if I am fearing injury because my partner is just not playing nice, then I don’t have to keep going. I don’t have to reach 5 minutes, I don’t have to complete 10 exchanges, I can just say “alright, I think I’m done. Let’s finish up there.” I don’t have to give any more reason than that (although for me, since I am often in the role of an instructor, giving feedback and coaching is usually why I am there in the first place and so I do try to do this wherever possible).
You don’t need to continue consenting to sharing your body in a violent game if your training partner is not being a good partner.
And if you want your partner to get the most out of the activity, you have to do things in a way that they will enjoy and find beneficial. Doing the whole thing for your own benefit is rarely a good way to make friends.
Don’t get me wrong. I have participated in many tournaments over the years, have won a variety of medals, and I think that it is really valuable for a holistic understanding of any martial art to do it at a variety of different levels of intensity, including the highest intensity against the most uncooperative opponents. But I also realise that not everyone wants to do that, not everyone can or should do that, and even when I was at my physical peak for competitive fencing, some days I just wanted to take it easy because my head wasn’t in the right place for high intensity sparring to be safe.
Consent isn’t about being “soft” or “weak”; consent is all about knowing what you want and where your boundaries are on this day, and communicating this to your partner, so that you both understand each other and can play the same game.
I hope that my examples make it clear how these concepts relate to martial arts.
I like to design my practices and club culture so that everything requires that people opt in to the activity or intensity. The default is always low intensity, minimal gear, and training in a very friendly and gentle and safe fashion. Anyone can turn up and get involved, even in sparring, because the default version of the activity is safe.
If people want to do something other than the default, then they have to opt in to BOTH the higher intensity and the greater requirements for protective gear – and this should be an explicit (not assumed) opting in, discussed with the other person.
And this is where consent enters the picture. Even if people begin by opting in, they are welcome to opt out again at any time by withdrawing their consent. No one needs to see the exercise through to completion if it’s just not going well or not enjoyable. I’d much rather than people feel empowered to give and withdraw their consent to any given exercise or training partner, at will, at any time, than to feel that they have to see it through and risk injury because they made “the mistake” of turning up to one of my training sessions.
My questions to you now:
If you are an instructor, then how do you run your club lessons and how do you set up your club culture? Are things opt in or opt out by default? How much are people able to exercise their consent, and do people exercise their consent? (It’s always a good proof that something is working when you see people doing it.)
If you are a student at a club, then do you think your club’s culture and lessons are run on an opt in or opt out basis? And how much scope do you think you have in your club to exercise your consent? Is there anything that your instructors could do to make it easier to exercise consent, or that would make the sessions better from this point of view?
Keith Farrell teaches HEMA professionally, often at international events (why not hire me to teach at your event?), and has an interest in coaching instructors to become better teachers. I teach regularly at Liverpool HEMA, and help behind the scenes with running HEMA in Glasgow at the Vanguard Centre.