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I invited Alastair J. Roberts, author of the big forthcoming book, Heirs Together: A Theology of the Sexes (Crossway, 2017), to share his thoughts about the popular phenomenon of women like Ronda Rousey fighting other women in mixed-martial arts.

Tonight, Ronda Rousey returns to the ring, after last year’s surprising loss to Holly Holm, to fight Amanda Nunes in the UFC.

The Rise of Women in Mixed Martial Arts

Rousey is an important figure in UFC: she was the first to sign with them, was a catalyst for their opening up to women, and has been one of their greatest audience draws.

The commercial success of women in mixed martial arts has been remarkable, with the women’s sport proving more popular in many cases than its male counterpart, albeit still with an overwhelmingly male audience (MMA has one of the greatest disparities in the gender ratio of its audience).

People like to watch women fight.

The female sport just makes sense for UFC. It is a huge money-spinner. It connects with new audiences and increases the interest of existing ones. The curiosity and sex appeal of women fighting is a considerable draw—“easy on the eyes, hard on the face”—and the UFC has foregrounded this in much of its publicity over the last few years.

Including women has also allowed the UFC to develop progressive credentials, improving the reputation of a sport that has had an unwelcome association with domestic abuse and had an exceedingly male-dominated audience. Ronda Rousey has been portrayed as a feminist standard bearer for many, someone who nicely fits the ubiquitous “first X to do Y” scripts that proliferate in the contemporary media.

Men and Fighting

Pugilistic sport has long been viewed as a largely male preserve. This isn’t an accident. The physical differences between men and women in strength and muscularity are exceedingly large. Even the most powerful women seldom exceed average male strength on criteria such as grip strength. As David Puts observes:

Men have about 90% greater upper-body strength, a difference of approximately three standard deviations (Abe et al., 2003; Lassek & Gaulin, 2009).

The average man is stronger than 99.9% of women (Lassek & Gaulin, 2009).

Men also have about 65% greater lower body strength (Lassek & Gaulin, 2009; Mayhew & Salm, 1990), over 45% higher vertical leap, and over 22% faster sprint times (Mayhew & Salm, 1990) . . .

Beyond these huge differences, however, men have always had a much greater propensity toward, aptitude for, and interest in both violence and agonism [=struggle]. Across human societies, the sex differences in this area are displayed in everything from gender ratios in the committing of violent crime, to participation and interest in agonistic sport and competitive activities, to fighting in militaries.

The extent of sexual differences in such areas is an embarrassing fact for a society that would like to neutralize the reality of gender. Continued efforts to include women in modern militaries, for instance, have repeatedly met with entirely predictable setbacks, as the natural reality proves unamenable to our desired social constructions (although new social constructions can provide opportunities to mask this).

Women’s Fighting and Gender Non-Conformity

It is unsurprising that, in activities that swim against the flow of sexual difference, people who are so-called “gender non-conforming” in broader respects should predominate. The term “homosexual” masks the fact, but sexuality is a gender difference, entangled with all sorts of other differences in behavior and interests (over 95% of men are gynephiles [sexually attractive to women or femininity] and over 95% of women are androphiles [sexually attracted to men or masculinity).

Androphilic men exhibit many commonalities with women and gynephilic women many commonalities with men (for instance, lesbians are hugely overrepresented in prisons and perform much more like men when it comes to the earnings gap, preferring higher wage, male-dominated jobs). The authors of an important recent review of science on the subject of sexual orientation observed:

Shared interests and personality characteristics beyond a common sexual orientation likely facilitate the formation of such subcultures. Same-sex-attracted individuals often have more in common with each other, even when they come from disparate cultures, than they do with their larger culture, in part because of gender nonconformity (Norton, 1997; Whitam & Mathy, 1986). For example, across cultures, androphilic men tend to be more female-typical and “people-oriented” in their interests compared to gynephilic men; conversely, gynephilic females tend to be more male-typical and “thing-oriented” than androphilic females (Cardoso, 2013; Lippa, 2008; L. Zheng et al., 2011). Not surprisingly, androphilic males in many cultures worldwide share interests pertaining to the house and home, decoration and design, language, travel, helping professions, grooming, and the arts and entertainment (Whitam & Mathy, 1986).

Opening up the UFC to women has put it on a front line of the wider cultural war against gender difference, perhaps most notably seen in the controversy surrounding Fallon Fox, an openly transsexual competitor in its featherweight division. A large number of UFC fighters have also come out as lesbians: Amanda Nunes, Liz Carmouche, Aisling Daly, Jessica Andrade, Raquel Pennington, Tonya Evinger, etc.

The Public Appetite for Fighting Women

There is a significant appetite among the public for “kicka*s women,” perhaps especially seen in the trope of the “strong female character,” typically a thin, underdressed, conventionally attractive young woman who can comfortably beat up men much larger than her [think Jennifer Garner as Sydney Bristow in Alias, for example]. Such women exemplify the virtues of much contemporary feminism and gender theory, which commonly seek to deny the reality of sexual difference, overturn all gender norms, and disproportionately celebrate women who achieve in traditionally male activities or contexts. Kicka*s women improve the “representation” of women in male-dominated realms and are frontline heroes from the ongoing war against the patriarchy.

Young and attractive kicka*s women hold a great appeal for many men too. Not only are they nice to look at, they can also relieve men of some of the burdensome sense of duty to treat women differently from men, to be gentler towards them, to protect them, to accord them particular honor, to be mindful of the advantages they generally enjoy naturally over women in power and agency, and to recognize the fact that women and men have many deeper differences in personality, behavior, and interests. Such representations of women can play into a pornographic mindset, which celebrates sex purged of the deeper reality of sexual difference, ridding sexual relations of any genuine reckoning with the particular subjective and objective otherness of the other sex, an otherness that should excite wonder, love, responsibility, and care.

In a manner similar to pornography, in celebrating women fighting, a taboo is being broken, something that may add to the frisson of the female sport for many audiences. However, this taboo is an important one, one that upholds the dignity of the sexes in their differences. As women fight and are exposed to violence for our entertainment, the male fantasy that men could justifiably treat women with the greater roughness with which they treat men is being indulged. We are dulled to our responsibilities towards women, to our need to hold back our strength for their sake, and to our duty to employ it for their well-being and in their service.

A Negative Development for Women

The strength and athleticism of women such as Rousey and Nunes is worthy of admiration in many respects. However, the rise of female pugilistic sports and the presentation of women in such sports as standard bearers for their sex is not a trend to celebrate. This is just another indication of our culture’s idealization of those women who most break with the natural tendencies of their sex and our desire to deny the insistent reality of sexual difference more generally. It is a further example of the idealization of women who most conform to male norms of behavior, interests, and aptitudes, an idealization that can make unlikely allies of contemporary feminists and male fantasists.

The vast majority of women, whose differences with men are far-reaching in ways that they may not be for a fictional female action hero or a lesbian UFC fighter, may be those who are most ill-served by our cultural fixation on celebrating those women who most conform to male norms and succeed in male realms. In the intense celebration of such figures there has been a corresponding devaluation of natural female tendencies, interests, and aptitudes. As our cultural awareness of sexual difference is effaced, many of the forms of honor, recognition, and protection that were once extended to women in society are being removed. While these cultural norms were often sadly caught up with abusive attitudes towards and restrictive constraints upon women, in relieving ourselves of the latter, we risk jettisoning many of the good things that characterized the former.

The Good Ends of Creation

In Scripture, natural differences between men and women are related to more fundamental realities. In Genesis 2 and elsewhere, we see that men and women were created for different yet inescapably intertwined purposes. The physical differences in strength and the psychological differences in relation to agonism between men and women aren’t accidental and unimportant contrasts, but relate to the more basic differences between the purposes for which men and women were created. The differences between male and female strengths, tendencies, interests, and aptitudes testify, to greater and lesser degrees, to these differences in creational purpose. That, from Genesis 2, the duty of guarding and, by implication, fighting falls to the man is a reality borne out through the rest of the Scriptures.

The many moral questions raised by pugilistic sports in the case of men are very considerably heightened in the case of women when we appreciate the manner in which such an activity cuts against the grain of the ends for which they were created.