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:
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 .
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.