Derby: Violence and Aggression

CN: brief mention of relationship violence, and also for the entire post being about (consenting) physical aggression.

In roller derby, we talk a lot about hitting each other. I’ll be honest- we’re generally pretty gleeful about it. It’s not the only thing we do (god, not even a tenth) but there’s something deeply satisfying about landing a good hit. Some of my favourite memories are of taking down people twice my size, getting them in just the right spot to send ’em flying. And then there’s all the times I’ve been knocked over just to somersault back up again without missing a beat.. or the time someone sent me flying into some unsuspecting audience member’s full cup of coffee in a game. Good times, you guys. Damn good times.

Also, it turns out that hot coffee really does mask the stench of elbow pads pretty well, so there’s that.

We talk about hitting each other a lot, and we call it violence. But there’s a conversation I’ve had with a(n impressively insightful) friend of mine a few times about this, and I’m not sure that violence is the right word to use. This is gonna be a paraphrased version of their point and mine and the whole conversation.

Violence, you see? Violence is harmful. And violence isn’t just physically hitting someone. We can be violent in a ton of ways that aren’t physical. The vast majority of oppressive violence is nonphysical. In relationships, physical abuse is the tip of a hell of an iceberg- do you think for one second anyone would stay if there wasn’t a hell of a lot more going on? There’s the violence of economic systems that grind people down and take away their options to determine the course of their own life. There’s the violence of religious and cultural discourses that convince people that they are undeserving of happiness, love, or even the right to their own bodies.

I could go on. What all of these things have in common isn’t that they leave a bruise, because the vast majority don’t. They have in common the fact that they are imposed on us without our consent, and that they cause far more harm than the physical. Violence is destructive.

Then there’s derby. I woke up this morning aching all over after four hours of gloriously full-on training yesterday. A quick inventory in the shower showed all sizes of bruises and a generous distribution of velcro scratches, not to mention the invisible sorenesses that haven’t made marks, and the usual raw redness on my upper arms where I scrubbed and scrubbed the ink from my skater numbers off.  Just like always, I smiled to myself as I saw ’em. Damn, girl. You worked hard yesterday.

Sure, in one sense those bruises were caused by destructive forces- I’ve got some capillaries that need to get repaired, and someone’s velcro sure did destroy the integrity of my skin in places. But a few capillaries and a strip or two of skin (let’s not even start on the toenails..) are nothing in comparison to the joy and satisfaction that come with them.

I think my friend was right. This may hurt, but it isn’t violence. The word they figure we should be using is aggression, and I can’t but think they have a point.

You see, there are a lot of reasons to hit someone in derby. Mostly, it’s ’cause they’re in your way and you want them to be somewhere else. Or they’re in someone else’s way and you want that someone else to be somewhere else. Sometimes it’s to distract them- nothing’s quite as distracting as a razor-sharp hip or shoulder jabbed squarely into one of your more sensitive legal target zones. Sometimes it’s even to piss them off, so their mind might be less on the game than getting revenge.

The one thing that it’s never about is actively harming anybody.

That’s not to say that people don’t get harmed playing derby. It’s a full-contact sport! On goddamn roller skates! We do everything we can to mitigate risk, but people break and twist and sprain and dislocate things all the time.

I’ve never heard of anyone wanting that to happen, though. While I’m sure there are some vicious asshats in the derby world- we’re a bunch of humans after all- in the couple of years I’ve been in this community it’s simply not something I’ve heard of.

Our aggression is about a lot of things. For me, it’s been about finding a space within myself to not hesitate or be scared, to know what I want and how I’m gonna get there and just do it. And I can’t begin to explain how healing it’s been to my catastrophising, anxiety-ridden self to get knocked over, again and again, and get right back up and do it again until I find a way through.

If violence is about destruction, maybe aggression is about uncompromising forcefulness. If violence is necessarily harmful, maybe aggression can be something neutral- something we can use in positive and constructive ways as well as neutral and negative. And I, for one, like the idea of using words that emphasise that.

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Derby: Violence and Aggression
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13 thoughts on “Derby: Violence and Aggression

  1. 1

    People don’t talk about the difference between aggression and violence often enough. Aggression is part of who and what we are as human beings, and there is nothing wrong with that. It’s been a strength for the species. I tend to think of it in terms of hostility. Hostility turns aggression into violence. When you make a solid hit in derby it’s playing hard. When you do it on the street because you have a problem with the person it’s violence. When my partner shoves me down grabbing my crotch and nipple it’s love and desire. When it happens in an ally to a stranger its rape. When I am loud and insistent and demanding in a debate it’s conviction, when in a conversation it’s an attack. Hostility has the power to destroy us. Aggression in the face of obstacles can move us forward. This is a difference that really needs more exposure and discussion in the world today as aggression and violence are often conflated both positively and negatively.

    1. 1.1

      Absolutely! It feels like.. I don’t want to say “this is what we’re talking about when we talk about consent”, but it definitely feels like there are two very closely related concepts and phenomena there.

  2. 2

    I can totally relate, as I did martial arts and various forms of hand to hand combat for most of my life. There’s something satisfying to those that just isn’t replicated by other athletic pursuits like running around or kicking a ball, and I suspect part of it is that it’s pushing one’s limits in a very primal way.

    On fighting, I always found some kind of grappling more satisfying, mostly since getting a submission is just *so satisfying* and in a sense, even if you’re going to lose, it’s something to make the other person work as hard as they can as long as they can.

    An interesting legal case is James Butler, a boxer who punched his opponent after a fight and was charged for it, as well as being banned from boxing. I’ve found it a useful ‘not sexual but consent related example’ that makes sense to people. It’s kind of sad story, but worth a mention.

    1. 2.1

      You’re so right, it’s definitely a gloriously primal thing to do. It feels like you’re mustering every part of you from the analytical to the strategic to skill to strength to sheer unwillingness to give up, ever, and throwing it all into this one thing, this one moment.

      And I’m well on board with that boxer being banned from the sport for punching after the whistle. What makes it okay is that we do it within agreed upon, enthusiastically-consented-to bounds and that we leave it all on the track. Or in the ring, as the case may be. We create a particular parallel world where the rules are different, bounded, and where we know we are free to leave at any time.

  3. 3

    This is similar in many ways to (American) football. Sometimes, though, it does get out of hand, and people get into real fights in a game. The problem with low levels of (barely controlled) aggression/violence is that they can easily get out of hand.

    I have also studied martial arts for 20+ years, and we never even let our students spar with other students until we were sure both had very good control. It was less about the belt, though, and more about the individual.

    I race motorcycles, and we can get physical with each other ay 100+ mph. But we get back to the pits and we are all family. Even when someone accidentally causes and incident, that person will usually be the first over the downed rider’s pits 1) apologizing, and 2) helping put the bike back together.

    It takes a level of maturity and self control though, that I think is lacking (or at least isn’t emphasized enough) in mainstream sports, to be able to deal with that kind of competitiveness.

    1. 3.1

      I wonder what causes some sports/subcultures to have that kind of maturity and self control as part of our cultures, though, and others not?

      In derby, I’d point to factors like.. We’re a small community, so our opponents and us are really in it together in creating and growing and playing this sport we love. And we spend so much time with our teammates training that you get pretty close to them- it’s kind of a massive, dysfunctional, stinky family. Maybe there’s something in the fact that it began as a female-dominated sport as well- we were able to create our culture without having to worry about a lot of the hangups about expressing genuine support, affection and vulnerability that our society makes difficult for people gendered as male.

  4. 4

    I think the small community aspect is the biggest factor (tribalism, again, but one of the positive aspects). The same can be said for martial arts and mc racing, as noted above. Most martial arts schools are small, and the traditional emphasis helps there.

    Much like roller derby, racing is mostly the same group (generally less than 20 at a time) racing/competing against one another.

    1. 4.1

      I wonder if it’s a feature of lesser-known and amateur sports? Because even if we’re competitors in the moment, in a far bigger sense we have far more in common than we have against each other? Whereas with more mainstream types of sport, having that thing in common isn’t so unusual so it isn’t as much of a bond?

  5. 7

    […]  Derby – is it aggressive or violent? “In roller derby, we talk a lot about hitting each other. I’ll be honest- we’re generally pretty gleeful about it. It’s not the only thing we do (god, not even a tenth) but there’s something deeply satisfying about landing a good hit.” Its not only satisfying to land a good hit but it also something to celebrate when you receive a perfectly executed hit! […]

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