Q&A: Martial Arts, Violence, Pain, Abuse, and Romance

Hello! I’m writing a martial arts kinda romance story thing (I’m a new writer and may have bitten off more then I can chew). I have the couple I want to eventually get together fighting in a consensual battle. They’re not intending to kill, but they will get injured (as anyone does in a fight; nothing too terrible though). Is this okay or does it promote abusive romance? Is it cringey?

Abusive? Probably not, but that’s a more complicated issue. Cringe? Yeah, “cringe” doesn’t really cover it.

Sparring is a real thing. The way it is frequently presented in popular media is as “play fighting,” or a safe way to stage duels between characters without risk of harm, is incredibly incorrect. Sparring in fiction tends to be a bit like hacking in fiction. Yeah, the term is technically real, but the fictionalized version is unrecognizable to reality.

In a lot of fiction, sparring is used to allow two characters to fight without worrying about them being horribly injured. Thing is, if you’ve got people who are just flailing at each other, someone’s going to get hurt, if it’s not stopped quickly, that risk will rapidly increase.

Hell, twenty-five years later, I still have a visible scar on my lip from where I took an elbow to the face during practice. We were practicing methods to break free from someone grabbing you from behind, which would end with you running your elbow into their face. My training partner was a little too enthusiastic, and as a result my teeth were permanently rearranged, and had a gash on my lip that would not stop bleeding.

So, are there, “martial artists,” who will, “spar,” as depicted in pop culture? Yes. And they will get weeded out, and ejected, from any competently run school. They are a legal liability. If you let the students beat on each other, someone is going to get hurt, and the school is going to get sued.

This is something you nailed perfectly. If you play around, “sparring,” with another student, someone’s going to get injured. It probably won’t be anything incredibly serious, but there is a real risk of inflicting (or suffering) a life altering injury. Spinal and cranial damage are the two that come to mind, but, my teeth are, literally, not in their original positions because of a training mishap.

The mistake is in thinking that those injuries are an acceptable outcome. Any sane school, which wants to continue doing business, needs to take steps to reduce that risk. This is also applies with militaries and any other system training you for real combat. The reason is that if you are injured, you can’t train and, worse, you will need to be retrained after recovering from your injury. Conditioning, which is your endurance, your speed, all those attributes your thinking of, have to be maintained through constant, daily workouts. If you slack off, you will lose your conditioning. It’s why a lot of people from high energy activities gain weight after they stop training at the levels they were at previously.

Instructors are not omniscient. Mistakes and accidents happen, and you can get situations where students go off-syllabus. This can result in students injuring one another because they weren’t given sufficient direction, or weren’t supervised. Either way, letting this progress to a fight is negligence by the instructors. A good instructor will shut that down before it goes that far.

Now, if you’re wondering whether your story promotes an abusive relationship, given the information you’ve provided, it is impossible to say with certainty.

This may sound strange, but not all violence is abusive. Also, not all abuse is violent. This is especially true when talking about forms of romantic abuse. One of the important metrics for evaluating abuse in a romantic relationship is determining whether both parties have equal agency in the relationship. This can be incredibly difficult to determine from an external perspective, as it hinges on the psychological and emotional states of both people.

The problem is that people can, and do, have entirely healthy relationships that may appear very aggressive or even hostile.

Granted, if they’re both trying to inflict physical harm on one another, that’s not a great sign. And, yes, some couples do use pain as foreplay, however, I’m drawing a significant distinction between, “harm,” and, “pain.” Harm is where there is a lasting injury (physical or emotional), while pain is a sensation.

If harm is involved, there’s an inherent asymmetry in the relationship. It doesn’t automatically mean it’s abusive, but you are walking a very fine line.

If you have a couple who are into inflicting and receiving pain, the priority is being able to trigger the sensation without causing lasting damage. Lasting damage stacks up, and means you have to wait for wounds to heal before you can go again, which just kills the momentum.

I can’t speak for every martial artist, but if pain is one of your turn-ons, I seriously suspect that extended martial arts training will numb you to that. Training is painful. You’re going to be pushing your body way past the point when it’s done with this whole, “physical activity,” thing. This will completely destroy the novelty of pain for you. And, that’s something you’ll find with most martial artists. Pain is just something we all live with at one time or another. It could still get you going if that’s your thing, but it’s probably not going to excite you.

It is also important to mention, in a fictional context, that the sexual tension of a fight scene is not drawn from the violence or the infliction of violence on their partner but from the characters enjoying each other’s company. What draws people to the Battle Couple is not that they are violent individuals. What people love is the way their relationship becomes an equal partnership with the two characters unconditionally supporting each other. In order to fight back to back with someone in battle, you need to trust them completely and trust they can take care of themselves. It’s a “partners first, lovers second” relationship.

So, sexual tension in two characters sparring comes from those characters engaging in an activity they each enjoy separately and doing it together. If your characters are not established as enjoying the practice of martial arts or taking pride in their skills, they will not enjoy sparring each other and the scene won’t be sexy. In the end, they’re not sparring because they enjoy hurting each other. They’re sparring because they enjoy testing and showing off their skills. This only works with two characters who are on the same page. Otherwise, it’s assault.

Hurt/Comfort resulting from a sparring match is one character abusing the other, and any blossoming relationship will be tainted as a result. Asking your reader to overlook one character’s potential romantic partner breaking the character’s arm because they took the competition too far is messed up. Also, a hard no. That is not love, that is abuse.

So, while I can’t speak for every martial artist, I’ve been the guy standing there bleeding from deep gashes on my hand thinking, “well this is fucking annoying,” not, “oh my god this hurts.” Incidentally, if you have the option, I do not recommend taking cuts on the fingers or palm; you way too many nerve endings there, and it is singularly unpleasant.

(Michi Note: When I’ve had the wind knocked out of me by some dude, my immediate response is “I can’t breathe” and not “oh god, he’s hot.” Times I’ve been attracted to guys on the martial arts floor (and I went through puberty doing martial arts so it happened a lot) was usually while watching them demonstrate, not from physical contact. I also don’t get warm fuzzies from guys from physical corrections, like putting my elbow into the correct position. Grappling was distinctly nonsexual for me in my teens and, my school was usually short on girls, I trained with a lot of guys of different age ranges. So, wrapping your legs around someone’s waist is not inherently sexual, especially when it ends with you choking them.)

Thinking, at least for me, the moment that changed was probably when I was dealing with that split lip, and having to tear away damaged tissue to get it to stop bleeding, but this outlook is not unique to me.

If you find experiencing pain sexy, I’m not going to judge you, but it is a completely alien concept for me. I understand it on an academic level, but I can’t relate. For you, it may be an exciting and intoxicating experience, “but for me, it was Tuesday.”

(Worth noting, I’m not talking about the BDSM community here, but I’ll come back to that in a second.)

If you want to avoid writing abusive relationships, my advice would be to make sure both characters are equal participants. That doesn’t mean they have to be the same person (they should be distinct individuals), but they both need to have an equal say in what they’re doing. When one of the characters has far more power or control than the other, you have a serious risk of an abusive situation. Especially if you have a situation where only one character has the option to walk away. This is especially a risk when one of the romantic partners is a teacher and the other is a student. An imbalanced relationship is not automatically abusive, but there is an extreme risk.

If you’re familiar with the BDSM community, a lot of the community’s rules are there to prevent abusive situations. As I just mentioned, when you have imbalanced power dynamics, you have a real risk of abuse occurring. The thing is, BDSM isn’t about the pain (it may be an important part of the experience for some, but it’s not the raison d’être), it’s about managing asymmetrical power and control dynamics between the participants, while keeping them safe from abuse. The rules that the community creates are there to protect them.

Again, no judgement on this count. I’ve known a few martial artists who were also in the community. Granted, not many, but, it’s also deeply personal information, so the number may be higher than I aware of. If you are going to delve into this subject, I strongly recommend you do your research on how the community actually operates. Their presentation in pop culture is often played for shock value or as a joke, which stigmatizes the community. The are real consequences for real people as a result.

As a new writer, you do deserve some serious credit here. Unpacking everything you’re wanting to do here would take some serious work, and this is tapping into some difficult subject matter. I would not recommend these topics until you’re comfortable enough in the full ramifications of those subjects.

Even as a non-writer, when you’re looking at these concepts, it is very important, for your growth as a person, to really sit back and consider what’s being said by the media you consume.


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