Monday, 13 April 2015

Fight Club - a prison of masculinity?

First rule of Fight Club is broken by former Prison Officer at HMYOI Feltham in blowing the whistle about fights organised by Officers amongst inmates.

I touched on some of these issues when I reviewed Rosie Meek’s work on Sport in Prison.  This is what I said about boxing:

For every boxer who claims that without the sport he would have ended in prison (for instance Luis Collazo) we might find lists of the ten best boxers who ended up in prison.  And yet we also have Prison Fight a charity which claims world connections but seems only to be Thai-based and uses Thai boxing as rehabilitation and holds out the possibility of amnesty; but to my untutored eye it looks exploitative.
Yet boxing rates only 3 mentions in Meek's book: one to note that in her survey boxing was the favoured activity for inmates though banned at the time (p109); that it had recently been approved for use with non-violent offenders (p33) and that it was now offered in a number of establishments (p28). 
In ITV’s Bring Back Borstal the ‘boys’ play a game of Rugby Union against a local team and go on cross country runs - shades of the book and film The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner - but they do not box.  Several fights break out and a punch ball takes a hammering in Episode 3 to allow one young man to ‘let off some steam'.  In Meek’s mentions and more generally it is not clear whether boxing training - i.e. pad work, speed ball, skipping or running - is meant or more serious sparring or even a boxing match - with headguards and gumshields.  Organisations like Boxing Academy and Fight for Peace use ‘boxing training’.

So it is interesting to come across Deborah Jump’s article in the Howard League’s Early Career Network Bulletin 26 based on her PhD ethnography in a boxing gym which concludes:

… this article discusses and elaborates on existing assumptions in sporting and desistance literature, and argues that while relevant, diversionary activities and sport-based programmes that incapacitate are only one element in the theory of change. In conclusion, I have argued that boxing actually traps men in an attendant culture of respect that requires them to respond in aggressive ways to maintain an image of both masculinity and respect. This attendant culture, that is transposable between gym and street, can override the pro-social incapacitating elements that the gym can offer, and reinforces the logic and discourses that evokes and traps men in habits of responding to violence. Therefore, in terms of future policy and practice, new directions need to be sought.

I agree and believe it chimes with my work on motor projects for my PhD where masculinity was an issue too.  Whilst I drive a car - and have done for over 40 years - I’m no ‘petrolhead’ and incline to the ‘green’.  However, I sort of concluded that motor projects for joyriders - where they get to fix and race cars - made sense within a ‘car culture’.  That is not that they ‘work’ but that the logic is interesting.

So boxing for violent men also makes sense in our current culture and is a targeted ‘bait’ for desistance work for some.  Boxing has been more acceptably mainstream in the past and my only experience of it is in boxing training - and Deborah’s article is illustrated with her in boxing attire, pose and surroundings - but as a former rugby union player cannot claim to be as non-violent as I’d wish.

If I understand Deborah correctly then I believe we are both saying that crime associated with troubling and troublesome masculinities can be ameliorated by working with that masculinity but that in the longer term work on masculinity needs doing.


  1. I agree with your comments entirely Nic. Sport as we know, is a beneficial structured activity that can engage and detain young people when their lives may otherwise be chaotic and unstructured. This is a positive thing. However, the discourses in hyper-masculine sports such as boxing, and rugby even, need to be deconstructed to allow for inclusivity, especially for those who do not meet the masculine hegemonic ideal of male, white, heterosexual and 'tough'. I believe this can be done through better training for coaches and also by challenging the dominant culture of sport, therefore, helping to break-down the prejudiced masculine structures and stereotypes that exist in sporting activity.

  2. Thanks a lot for that post it was really helpful.