The Junior Co-ed Derby Debate or: How Teenage Boys Could Be Learning About Feminism On the Track

Written by Kevin Dennison

A recent article on Rollin’ News entitled South Side Derby Delinquents – The Lost Boys: Where To Put Male Skates After Age 11? has reopened conversation on the age old debate of sex/gender segregation in sports and I can’t help but feel that the wrong message is likely to be sent to young boys through all of this. It seems that once the magical number of 12 is reached, there are a lot of concerns that it is at this age where male skater’s “testosterone is peaking and self-control is often-times lacking.” What kind of message are we sending young boys when we say that they can’t play with the girls anymore because their coaches, their role models, their mentors and other adults do not trust that they can “control their bodies and their emotions enough to resolve to not make inappropriate contact on the track”?

I strongly believe that we are all shaped a great deal by society and the environments around us. On a day to day basis children of all genders are exposed to Photoshopped body images, to slut shaming, to victim blaming and to sexism in movies, television, video games, music and more. Reality is that we live in a patriarchal (among other things) world with countless systems of oppression toward women and nearly every aspect of society, unfortunately, enforces it. But roller derby is different. It’s a place where that patriarchy is not only questioned but is actively challenged and as such, wouldn’t it be incredibly beneficial to KEEP these young boys in one of the most positive feminist environments around? Wouldn’t it be better to keep them in a sport where they can learn from countless, strong female role models?

I mean, why do we consistently insist on forcing harmful gender stereotypes on children BEFORE they’ve even had a chance to learn and grow as a young adult? Should a young boy be behaving inappropriately then yes, by all means they should be disciplined and, in the event of multiple offenses, perhaps separated from the pack, so to speak. But what good is doing that before anything has even happened?

The more that a young boy hears that they are untrustworthy, brutish, aggressive, and dominant, somebody who couldn’t possibly control their bodies or learn that “inappropriate contact on the track” is NEVER okay, the more they’ll believe it. They’ll learn to accept that. At a certain point I can’t help but feel as if we would just be feeding into a self-fulfilling prophecy of sexism and misogyny by asserting that a 12-year-old boy is on the way to becoming a “typical man”. It brings me back to an image I posted in the Sex, Gender, Identity and Expression in Roller Derby introductory piece for Trans* Awareness in Sports Week earlier this year:

 

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Personally, I feel that instead of reinforcing these stereotypes in young boys, ultimately perpetuating the cycle of patriarchy, leagues who offer age 6-11 coed junior play have a chance here to EDUCATE them through continued co-ed participation; and as coaches and role models, is that not what we ultimately want? Let them continue to play with the girls and use this time and opportunity to teach them about respecting women, teach them about the harsh realities of gender equity in sports, teach them about the institutional sexism toward female athletes from governing sporting organizations, teach them about the body image issues that females, be they athletes or not, face every day and teach them about feminism in general, as well as why it is so incredibly important. In my opinion, THAT would be far more productive and beneficial to all of these junior skaters during the most important years .

 

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As many young boys playing derby are often the son of a skater, official or coach, I think this message is of paramount importance.

 

That being said, I also fully understand and respect the need for female spaces where young girls and women can feel safe. Those already established spaces are not the ones I’m addressing here and I don’t suggest that those spaces be forcefully intruded on. Harking back to another recent article on Rollin’ News entitled Co-ed Roller Derby Isn’t for Everybody and That’s OK: “Sadly some women have come from a background of abuse and for them roller derby is ‘safe place’. No one should have to justify why they don’t want to skate with someone from the opposite sex. For a lot of women they joined roller derby specifically because it was a female dominated sport, that doesn’t mean they hate men or don’t want men to play derby, it just means they want to play with and against women. That’s totally ok.” I most certainly agree; it is ok!

What I personally take issue with is those leagues who were allowing young boys to practice and compete with girls, until they have reached a certain age where they are now going to be told they can no longer participate in that capacity because they are becoming “young men”. I take issue with it because it is too important an opportunity to waste! I take issue with it because feminist learning environments are VERY sparse for all kids, and these junior athletes are much more likely to learn about respecting women as people on their co-ed roller derby team than they would amongst their peers at school.

Roller Derby is easily one of THE fastest growing women’s social movements of the 21st Century. There is an insane amount of knowledge that a young boy playing co-ed derby, ESPECIALLY in his teen years after age 11, can attain in regards to developing an understanding for respect and equality. It is a place where he can learn that he is NOT entitled to a woman’s body. It is a place where he can learn that there is more to a girl than how she looks; and it is a place where he can learn that as a privileged, male member of society he has the responsibility to be a part of social change that benefits everybody. I feel to deny a young derby boy that awareness would be a great disservice to all of us.

 

Undoubtedly, we need boys who will grow up understanding and appreciating what it means to be female in our society as well as the world-at-large because they will benefit from that awareness and so will everyone else.”

– Amelia McDonell-Parry, How To Teach Boys to be Feminists

 

So, if your league has always been a women only space, I respect that and I wish all of your members a safe and enjoyable experience with this sport. However, if your league has been offering co-ed play, but only up until a certain age, I urge you to PLEASE reconsider that cut off mark. Roller derby is not like other sports that are dominated by male participation. In junior derby I would go as far as to say that the vast majority of skaters, even on a co-ed team, are likely to be female and as such the level of aggression on the track is not set by the boys. I would argue that it is the junior girls who control that competitive environment and given the chance, I’m confident that most boys would adapt to playing responsibly. Perhaps there is a way that young male skaters can continue to participate in a co-ed environment, even if that is permanently set at level 1 or level 2 play for those aged 12+.

One of my favorite quotes in favor of co-ed sports comes from Laura Pappano, author of Playing With the Boys: Why Separate is Not Equal, during an interview conducted by Star-Ledger Staff where she says: “When we think “female athlete” and “male athlete,” we come up with these prototypes of the football lineman and the female gymnast. Those do exist, but women and men come in all shapes and sizes. A lot of times it’s the skill, not the brute size of someone, that really makes a difference — especially at the high school level or younger.

In terms of fear of injury in regards to females playing with males, she further explains her opinion that:

 

“There’s a paternalistic attitude and belief that girls getting hurt is worse than boys getting hurt. When anybody gets hurt, it’s a problem.

The notion that a female athlete is more likely to get injured than a male athlete doesn’t make sense. That argument was used in New Jersey Little League back in 1973. The ultimate ruling was that just as Little League protects weak boys, it can protect weak girls. And in high school wrestling, judges have found that when girls are skilled and qualified wrestlers, there’s no need to “protect” them from injury any more than there is an interest in protecting the boys from injury.”

– Laura Pappano, Q&A: Co-ed sports benefit female athletes

 

Personally, I agree with these notions and though it may at first seem more difficult than it is worth, I feel that making co-ed junior derby work would ultimately be to the benefit of all. It could be a major stepping stone in the world of athletics.

*Feature image courtesy of Rob Vida Photography.

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7 comments

  1. Great read, Kevin. I can say from my own experience that being surrounded by a league ( or leagues ) full of women that I have learned a great deal about respect, personal space, feminism and of course exposure to the LBGT community. Much to all of this would never have happened without my participation in Roller Derby. I say this as an Adult and I agree with you that being part of this community and experience would be valuable to young male skaters.

    1. Glad you enjoyed it, Doug!

      Completely agree that the sport offers a great deal of knowledge and exposure to concepts and topics that really challenge participants to broaden their perspective of the world. It’s an all around frustrating debate as I get that people are afraid of body sizes when it comes to bigger boys competing against smaller girls, yet there are are options with skill levels of no contact/positional blocking (level 1) -> lean contact (level 2) -> full contact (level 3). Maybe keeping the boys in level 2 for longer until they REALLY exhibit safety, responsibility and sportsmanship is worth giving a real chance instead of just booting them to the officials or watching them walk away from the sport.

      Just some thoughts!

  2. Thank you for writing this blog! I think it’s a fascinating subject – looking at how choices and language instill and perpetuate gender stereotypes and patriarchy. I hope more people join this discussion!

    You ask this question: “What kind of message are we sending young boys when we say that they can’t play with the girls anymore because their coaches, their role models, their mentors and other adults do not trust that they can ‘control their bodies and their emotions enough to resolve to not make inappropriate contact on the track’?” I think it’s equally important to ask: what kind of message does that send to girls? It definitely feeds into the stereotype that boys and men are ruled by sexual desire, and if a woman wants to have a relationship with a man, she’ll need to submit to those desires or to be sexually available at all times in order to keep him happy.

    I can see so many benefits to keeping boys and girls together in the sport, but I think a lot of work must be done first. Coaches and leadership need to be educated about gender issues, to say the least. They should be intensely aware of the language they use and how they interact with kids. Coaching would be one hell of a responsibility, and I don’t know if many people could handle it with the patience, compassion, and knowledge needed. That’s not to say I think the kids should be separated. I think it would be an incredible step toward gender equality if society stopped separating kids into girl/boy categories.

    Thanks again for posting this. You’ve given me a lot to think about!

    1. Thank you for reading and commenting, Punchy!

      You bring up a very good point that I hadn’t considered the first time around that I agree with as well: “I think it’s equally important to ask: what kind of message does that send to girls? It definitely feeds into the stereotype that boys and men are ruled by sexual desire, and if a woman wants to have a relationship with a man, she’ll need to submit to those desires or to be sexually available at all times in order to keep him happy.”

      That is incredibly true and I think that point is reflected a great deal by much of the world of athletics (and film/television, music, video games, etc. too of course).

      I just feel that we have a chance to break some of these cycles through roller derby and offer an incredibly healthy, accepting, open environment for both young boys and girls that goes against the traditional one enforced everywhere else in their lives.

      However, you’re absolutely right that it requires a lot of work and it would take extremely strong, vocal, passionate individuals to fight a rather uphill battle to get there; one that they might not even see come to fruition in their personal derby career. As much as roller derby has been incredibly progressive, if you really look at things like this you can see that the gender binary, gender stereotypes and patriarchal notions very much so exist DO exist in this sport too, even in overwhelmingly female spaces.

      I’m certainly the type that wants to speak out against those things and look at how we could REALLY take big steps int he world of athletics, perhaps becoming the harbingers of positive change. That being said I also know that is not the case for many, which is okay. So, having conversations like this, hopefully, at least gets everyone thinking about things a little more!

      It’s definitely something I plan to think about and consider more as well!

      Cheers,

      Kevlar

      1. I couldn’t agree more! There needs to be nontraditional space for girls and boys where they can learn how to interact with each other without being force fed gender stereotypes. One of the most exciting things about roller derby, for me, was/is it’s matriarchal environment. I love that all genders are able to participate in the sport. It’s empowering on so many levels. I get so disappointed and frustrated when patriarchy creeps in, usually in subtle ways that most people don’t recognize because, outside of derby, patriarchy is “normal” and embedded in our perspective. It breaks my heart that anyone thinks boys can’t play with girls because of their testosterone and inability to control themselves. It’s also not surprising because that line of thinking is part of the patriarchal norm. Keeping boys and girls together is an incredible opportunity for everyone. I wish it could be seen as an opportunity, rather than a problem.

        Kevlar, I really appreciate you writing about this. It’s so so so soooooo important to talk about. Roller derby is a sport, yes, but to me it’s also a movement. One that brings incredible responsibility and opportunity.

  3. Kevin,

    Thank you very much for a well-thought-out and very timely post. Gender separation and co-ed play is a very sensitive topic for people on both sides even in adult derby; when you start talking about parents and kids, things get very heated, very quickly.

    I have seen a 4-foot-tall, 80-lb female skater holding back a 6-foot, 190-lb male skater single-handedly. I’ve seen a large, muscular female skater lay the hurt on a smaller male jammer. Laura Pappano’s point about skill, rather than innate ability, could not be more apt than in the sport of roller derby, where playing in skates helps to lend advantages and disadvantages to both (physical) sexes, while equalizing many of the things traditionalists have used to separate pay along lines of physical sexual characteristics.

    The objections to co-ed play I have heard unfortunately are often not made from the head, but are emotionally motivated and often have an air of scrambling to justify the position. I hope that many parents and juniors are able to set aside their emotional responses and think through the many advantages to continuing to play co-ed derby.

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