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Mixed-sex wrestling:
A step back from equality and sense

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By Katherine Kersten

Last year, a promising Minnesota high school wrestler had to wrestle a girl at his sectional meet in order to proceed to the state tournament. His school, a private Christian institution, generally requires its wrestlers to forfeit to girls, thereby incurring a loss for both the wrestler and the team. The young man clearly didn't want to wrestle the girl. But given the stakes, after consulting with his father and his coach, he decided to proceed.

As the embarrassed boy walked out on the mat, spectators began to laugh. He quickly flipped the girl to her back, but couldn't bring himself to pin her, which required pushing directly on her chest. For about 40 seconds, the boy remained frozen. Finally his coach, in frustration, shouted, "Just do it!" The boy made his move, pinning the girl to the mat. But walking off, he looked defeated, not victorious. With hanging head, he strode - angry and humiliated - straight to the locker room.

Across the nation, scenes like this are becoming increasingly common. Last year, about 2,500 girls participated in high school wrestling, mostly as members of boys' teams. (Male wrestlers numbered about 240,000.) Title IX, the federal gender equity in education law, does not require public high schools to place girls on their wrestling teams, but many states allow it. South Dakota and Wyoming, on the other hand, prohibit mixed-sex wrestling, while Texas and Hawaii schools have separate girls wrestling teams.

Here in Minnesota, state law requires public schools to let girls try out for, and compete on, boys teams. (Boys, however, are barred from girls' teams.) A number of Minnesota high schools, including St. Paul Humboldt and Minneapolis De La Salle, have female wrestlers, and some schools are reportedly promoting the practice.

Concerns about mixed-sex wrestling arise from wrestling's unique nature as a contact sport. Wrestling's objective is to demonstrate control over one's opponent. A wrestler strives to take his opponent down to the mat, and scores points for dominating from behind or on top. Wrestlers frequently engage in pretzel-like contortions, such as forcing their head between an opponent's legs while struggling to turn him on his back. About 90 percent of wrestling holds involve grabbing the upper body or pelvic area.

In Minnesota, a few Christian high schools - including Trinity at River Ridge and Concordia Academy in Roseville - require their wrestlers to forfeit to female opponents as a matter of conscience. But a boy who forfeits may lose the chance to wrestle for a medal, and may even see his dream of becoming conference champion, or making the state tournament, evaporate. To make matters worse, boys who forfeit are generally taking a loss in a match they could expect to win. For while a few exceptional girls can compete effectively against boys in their weight class, most lose quickly to male opponents.

Our society tends to frame the debate over mixed-sex wrestling in the familiar terms of physical safety and legal rights. Critics frequently note, for example, that the practice poses health risks for adolescent females. Teenage boys have significantly greater muscle mass than girls, and can injure them when wrenching their joints, or lying heavily on top of them.

On the other hand, mixed-sex wrestling creates legal risks for males. Boys who wrestle girls, or practice with female teammates, must touch them in ways that would constitute illegal sexual harassment in any other setting. In our litigious society, coaches take a risk whenever they have close physical contact with young female athletes. (Some wrestling coaches have refused to demonstrate holds on girls.) Wrestling officials also incur risks at mixed-sex matches, since they must break holds by thrusting in their hands near girls' chests or crotches.

But while health and legal concerns are important, they do not go to the heart of the problem. For the primary objection to boys wrestling girls is this: A civilized society should teach men that they must not use their superior strength to overpower and control women. If the sexes are to live in harmony, they must ground their relations in a kind of compact, centered in mutual dignity and regard. A fundamental tenet of this compact is that decent men respect women, and view using force against them as dishonorable and unmanly. My father put it simply: "Boys don't hit girls."

Most boys have absorbed this lesson. The U.S. Air Force discovered this 10 years ago, when its Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) program carried out internal psychological surveys to prepare for the advent of female combat pilots. These surveys revealed that men react with significantly greater emotion when female colleagues are subjected to simulated stress and violence, than they do when male colleagues are similarly threatened. (To combat this tendency, SERE attempted to desensitize men by using a variety of techniques, like a realistic rape scenario, in order to overcome protective attitudes toward women that an enemy might exploit.)

Wrestling contests between men and women strike symbolically at the heart of the compact that should govern relations between the sexes. Mixed-sex contests desensitize boys to the need to behave with respect toward girls at all times. In addition, they promote a double standard that is sure to prompt cynicism and resentment on the part of male wrestlers. Boys know instinctively that it's unfair to permit one wrestler (the girl) to choose whether she wishes to grapple intimately with a member of the opposite sex, while forcing the other (the boy) to do so against his will.

Perhaps it's too much to expect our rights-obsessed society to understand all this. But at the least, contemporary Americans should be able to grasp that mixed-sex wrestling is inequitable from an athletic point of view. The average male is markedly stronger than the average female, and has a faster reaction time and greater cardiovascular capacity. As a result, contests that pit men against women do not provide either sex with a level playing field. Is a matchup between the LA Lakers and the all-female Minnesota Lynx anyone's idea of "gender equity"?

Girls who want to wrestle should have opportunities to do so. If interest is sufficient, high schools can sponsor all-girls teams. (The University of Minnesota-Morris has one of the nation's only women's collegiate varsity wrestling teams.) On the other hand, if interest is limited, female wrestlers can pool their resources and form single-sex community wrestling clubs, like the rugby or fencing clubs that other athletes organize. But putting girls on boys wrestling teams is not a step toward the liberation of women. It's a step back from equality for athletes of both sexes, and a giant step back from common sense.

Katherine Kersten is director of the Center of the American Experiment in Minneapolis. This article originally appeared in Minnesota's Star Tribune, Jan. 17, 2001.

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