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Girl wrestlers: Boundaries, faith and false equality

Mary Hasson

In high school, I ran cross-country—the only girl on the boys’ cross-country team. Running made me happy and I was good it.

But with no girls’ team at my high school, I churned up the hills with the boys’ team. The miles I’d run with my dad and brothers over the years made competing with the boys’ team as natural as running itself.  (And beating even a few male runners on the racecourse was, I admit, satisfying.)

So I get it.

I understand Cassy Herkelman’s athleticism and her desire to compete against the best athletes around. I really do get that.

Cassy Herkelman, by the way, is a 112-pound high school girl, a freshman at Cedar Falls High School in Iowa. The problem, however, is that Cassy competes with high school boys in a sport where success depends on breaching all the natural boundaries of male-female physical contact. 

She’s a wrestler.

And what I don’t get is her parents’ decision to let her aim her athleticism and competitive drive at the wrestling mat. I don’t get that at all.

Cassy and another girl wrestler, Megan Black, earned spots in this year’s Iowa State Wrestling Tournament for the first time. But Cassy’s first round match proved to be a test of faith and conviction rather than skill … for her opponent, at least.

Her scheduled opponent, Joel Northrup, was a promising young wrestler who finished third in last year’s tournament. But Joel withdrew from the match, handing Cassy a victory by forfeit.

Why did Joel refuse to wrestle Cassy and, with that refusal, end his title hopes?

Because his faith taught him better than to grapple violently with a girl, grabbing at her body parts for handholds, mentally focused on subduing her. He knew that the sports context didn’t make the contact less problematic. Joel’s strong character propelled him to do the right thing—forfeiting--even though it cost him a shot at the championship he’s worked towards all season long.

To his credit, Joel speaks well of Cassy and acknowledges her athletic talent.  But he goes on to say, “wrestling is a combat sport and it can get violent at times … As a matter of conscience and faith, I do not believe that it is appropriate for a boy to engage a girl in this manner. It is unfortunate that I have been placed in (this) situation…” 

Joel’s right.  It should never have come to this. 

Even if dunder-headed school administrators lacked the common sense to keep girls from wrestling boys, the girls’ parents should never have allowed it. For the girls’ sakes as well as the boys.’

While wrestling moves aren’t overtly sexual and must conform to set rules, wrestling is a contact sport – an aggressive, body-on-body contest. Unlike the jarring, two-second contact of tackle football, wrestling entails sustained grappling, grabbing, squeezing, pressing, and even gouging. As the match progresses, opponents might end up lying on top of each other, wrapping their arms and legs around the other’s torso, or grabbing through the opponent’s legs to flip or pin the other.

“She can take it.”  I can hear the argument now.  But this isn’t a question about whether a girl is tough enough to physically endure those demands on her body.  Certainly an athletic girl can condition her body as well as a boy, and learn the techniques to deftly escape or take down an opponent. 

Yes, girls can be fit, well-conditioned, competitive athletes. But that misses the point.

Throwing girls and boys on the wrestling mat together involves more than relative strength or skill level. Girls’ bodies are, well, girls’ bodies, different from boys.’ And that physical difference extends to the way they think and feel, as well as their natural inhibitions and inclinations. Our norms about appropriate physical contact are a way of respecting those differences.

Consider this: 15-year-old girl wrestlers, like Cassy, must allow a succession of 15-year-old boys (friends? strangers?) to handle their bodies roughly, intimately, aggressively on an open mat in front of a crowd, in an atmosphere of adversarial domination.  And, in order to win, they must respond in kind.

Do we really want a girl to shrug off this kind of contact? To overcome her innate emotional resistance to having her body handled roughly by random males? To accept an adrenaline-driven male grabbing her face, reaching through her legs and flipping her, pinning her? Or for her to grab a teenage boy the same way?

Do we really want our boys to put their physical aggression in high gear against a girl, “fighting” her, while they simultaneously experience her touches and grabs in sensitive areas?

For a boy and girl to wrestle each other requires each to make internal compromises – mental shifts to overcome the ingrained, rightful boundaries we have about how males and females should interact physically.

I believe it’s a good instinct for a girl to recoil from a stranger’s rough touch, especially in intimate areas, just it’s a good mindset for a boy to pull back from causing a girl physical pain or overpowering her in pursuit of physical dominance. 

So what on earth are parents thinking, when they allow their son or daughter to wrestle an opposite-sex opponent? I just don’t get it.

Cassy Henkelman lost her subsequent matches and has been eliminated from the tournament.

She failed to win a medal.

But does she even know what she lost in the attempt?

Topics: Culture , Family , Parenting

Mary Rice Hasson, the mother of seven, is a Fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, Washington, D.C. She blogs at wordsfromcana.

View all articles by Mary Hasson

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