I guess you could say I have a funny relationship to pain. On Wednesday and Friday nights — and sometimes on weekends — I get together with friends at Hogtown Roller Derby and we knock one another down. Then, at the end of the night, we gleefully compare our bruises. If you haven’t seen roller derby before, imagine a bunch of women playing rugby on roller skates. I’ve snuck up behind a friend and sent her flying into a wall, dislocating her shoulder. I’ve been clotheslined by a woman (aptly nicknamed Jilldabeast) who was easily three times my size. In my first year of playing, I saw two people break their legs. The fact that I limp around for days after each game, and periodically sprain a shoulder or thumb badly enough that it’s hard to turn the key in my front door, doesn’t really bother me, though. Injuries are like badges of honour.
I love how playing roller derby combines physical exertion with intimacy. It’s an intense mix of violence, pain, sweat, tears, yelling, laughter, euphoria, bodies pressed together and grabbing each other and, most of all, trust. We don’t get up close and personal like that in many other spaces in our lives, except maybe the bedroom. The marks we leave on one another’s bodies (handprints on the upper arm, bruised ribs and the occasional black eye) could easily be mistaken for signs of domestic abuse. We all have stories about getting funny looks at work or the swimming pool. The worst bruises come from falling on your own skate and getting a wheel to the crotch. But the fact we give these bruises to ourselves and our friends makes them different.
I probably shouldn’t be playing such a violent sport at my age — I’m 43. Just over a year ago, as we were cooling down at the end of practice, I pushed myself to try something new: transitioning from rolling forward to running on the rubber stoppers on the toes of the retro roller skates I wear. I managed to pull it off a few times, starting with my right toe, and then challenged myself to try with my left. As soon as that left toe touched down, however, my leg bent out at an impossible angle, just above the ankle. I knew it was broken before I even crumpled to the floor. I can still see it happening, as if in slow motion.
It was a long night in the ER and an even longer 10 weeks on crutches. I was incredibly lucky my job allowed me to work from home, my partner was willing to pick up the slack and my parents were able to help out for several weeks — no matter how infantile it felt to have my mom make me grilled cheese sandwiches for lunch, like she did when I was five. I also felt really stupid for having done it to myself, without even an exciting story to tell about how it happened.
You’d think such a massive upheaval would make me never want to go back, but I didn’t stay away for long. My team needed me. A couple of players told me they were afraid to play after seeing me get hurt, so I had to show them I was okay. And I needed them, too. It’s hard to explain why I put myself through this, aside from the thrill I get from thoroughly horrifying my mother.
I’m not the only one laughing in the face of danger. Roller derby is one of the fastest-growing sports in North America. According to Roller Sports Canada, there are about 8,000 people (only about 100 of them men) involved in roller derby in Canada, including players, referees and coaches. That’s up from 6,000 in 2015. Other violent women’s sports, like boxing, have been growing steadily in popularity, too. Until the 1990s, women’s boxing was banned in the U.K. and the U.S. But there are now female-focused boxing gyms popping up in major cities across North America.
It feels ironic that many women are choosing violent sports at the same moment as the #MeToo movement is bringing to light the widespread sexual violence many people encounter daily. I don’t think the explanation for this coincidence is as simple as women wanting to learn to defend themselves. The skills you learn in roller derby might come in handy when you need to wedge yourself onto a crowded bus at rush hour, but hip-checking a would-be attacker in a dark alley is a bizarre approach to self-defence. Strange as it may sound, I think women are choosing violent sports in part to heal from the sexism, trauma and violence in their lives.
What people expect and what people get out of roller derby are often very different. It’s a common refrain that people thought they were joining to learn to skate but ended up with a new family. Roller derby began in the 1920s as an endurance race and then evolved in the 1970s into a staged spectacle, like professional wrestling on wheels, before mostly disappearing. The sport was reborn in the early 2000s in the American Southwest as a countercultural response to women’s sports being either ignored or hypersexualized. In modern flat track roller derby, there are teams of five. One player (the jammer) tries to lap the other team around an oval track, while the other four (the blockers) try to stop the opposing jammer from getting past. Punching, kicking and headbutting are not allowed, and you can’t hit players in the back, in the head or from the knees down for safety, but ramming your shoulder into an opponent’s rib cage at full speed is perfectly legal, even encouraged.
Roller derby has retained some of the glitter of the sexy spectacle it once was, but now boutfits (special outfits worn for bouts) of fishnets, hot pants and glittery makeup are for the enjoyment of the players themselves, not a cheap ploy to sell beer. My league, Hogtown Roller Derby, revels in creating a crafty do-it-yourself show. We host themed bouts in which we dress up as superheroes and supervillains or pirates and mermaids, complete with giant cardboard pirate ships. But it’s becoming more and more about athleticism, too. Many players’ outfits are no more exciting than baggy shorts and athletic socks, and some leagues are forgoing the tradition of sassy alter ego derby names (like Syphilis Diller, Black Sabbatha, Vulva Las Vegas and Genghis Mom) in an effort to give the sport a more serious image.
Part of what makes this kind of violence feel safe is that, thanks to its countercultural roots, roller derby is welcoming to those who are the biggest targets of gendered violence and those who are most often excluded from mainstream sports. This includes people who don’t fit the expectations (or leotards) of ballet and figure skating, who grew up fearing gym class or who don’t fit society’s strict norms of femininity. Players of all shapes and sizes have roles to play, from the speedy little people who can squeeze through tiny gaps to the brick houses who are impossible to knock down. There are active discussions in many leagues about how to encourage more racial diversity and accessibility for players with disabilities.
While some women’s sports are known for body policing and paranoia around lesbians in the locker room, the official policy of the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association (the international body that governs 450 leagues on six continents) is a commitment to inclusion and anti-discrimination. Nobody cares who you sleep with or what’s underneath your spandex — unless it’s a tattoo, in which case everyone will be excited to see it.
Some of my teammates tried roller derby simply because they wanted to make new friends after moving to a new town, needed to reinvent themselves after a rough breakup, or were attracted to the display of unbridled female power after being told as kids that they should save their pretty faces because sports weren’t for girls.
Emily Fowler (a.k.a. Holly de Havilland), the head coach for Hogtown Roller Derby, got into the sport to escape a bad relationship for a few hours a week. At 29, she is halfway between a gawky teenager who’s just had a growth spurt and a Kardashian. In high school, she thought “sports is for suckers,” but loved being in the mosh pit at concerts, “knocking huge dudes over, only to have them and their friends do a double take and question how this skinny girl could knock them over.” Roller derby, she says, “looked like a mosh pit on wheels.” Fowler admits that before she started playing, she never felt like she was as good as anyone else, never felt like a strong person and didn’t have any confidence or self-esteem. Now, the whole league cowers in fear and admiration of her gazelle-like grace and punishing hits.
Other players find that hitting hard is great stress relief. Wendy Strickland (a.k.a. Fanny Slamtastic) is known just as well for her cute print dresses as for her cat-lady kindness. But she says hitting is her favourite part of derby. It helps her get out of her head after a stressful day at work. Strickland celebrates how her size makes her hard to push around on the track: “It’s one of the few things in life where being on the heavy side is an advantage,” she says. Roller derby has given her the confidence to proudly wear short shorts she never would have worn before.
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The sport is also a popular mid-life crisis outlet for moms who need me time.
Margaret Rezza (a.k.a. Funky Roll Medina) shows up to practice in a Mini Cooper, with big curly hair and bling glasses, clutching a designer purse. She is 42 and joined after having her fourth child, convinced that if she didn’t start crossing things off her bucket list, they were never going to happen. Life before roller derby was all about caring for her family — she described herself as “just a cook and a taxi driver.” But her husband jumped on the idea when she said she’d like to try it and started coming home from work early on practice nights. It took Rezza about a year to get over the fear of getting hurt (and she still doesn’t like messing up her hair), but she has transformed herself into a goal-driven machine who takes no prisoners (“If someone took me out, it would become my goal to take that person out,” she says). Although she grew up with “clear rules of what a woman should be” — girls play with dolls, have long hair, wear dresses to church and do the laundry — she has come around to thinking that women “don’t have to be soft.” The message isn’t lost on her short-haired teenage daughter, Caterina, who has been training with the junior team.
For me, playing roller derby was an easy choice because I grew up as a rink rat, was always a little too rough on the playground and am a wee bit competitive when it comes to making Halloween costumes. I grew up playing sports (ringette, soccer, softball and volleyball, and then, later, hockey, lacrosse and martial arts), but I never felt at home in jock culture. My friends tend to be sportsphobic nerds, artists and wimps. I’ve been searching for a long time for a sports league where I can go full throttle and then talk about something more interesting in the locker room. Roller derby is very physically intense, with free rein to knock people down, but the fact that it’s essentially a costume party with an eclectic mix of sportsphobes is nice.
There are very few contexts in which you can hurt people on purpose without it counting as assault.
Doctors can cut people open for surgery, nurses can stick needles in children’s arms, and dental hygienists have plausible deniability when they sadistically prod your gums until they bleed. Likewise, football players can smash their heads together on the field, and boxers can knock each other out in the ring. In all contexts, consent is key. Dentists aren’t allowed to harvest your organs when you thought you were just getting your teeth whitened, and boxers aren’t allowed to punch people in the grocery checkout line.
Violence in sports has a curious history. When boxing was made legal in the U.K. in the 1890s, the justification was that “manly diversions,” like friendly fights between gentlemen, serve a social purpose by training young men in the skills and strength needed to defend their country in war. There are even cases where Air Force officers have been let off the hook for assault after drunkenly setting each other on fire because it was just “horseplay.” Courts in many Western countries uphold “boys will be boys” exceptions to assault. But the exception only seems to apply if you follow traditional gender roles. In the notorious 1993 Spanner case, gay men were convicted of assault for violent sex that they consented to because it was deemed not conducive to “family life” and not to count as a “manly diversion.” Non-consensual sexual violence against women often gets shorter jail sentences.
Consent for violence in roller derby obviously doesn’t fit the “manly diversions” story, and it isn’t clear that it’s conducive to family life. A lot of us play to forget about our kids and husbands. Since it’s one of the few sports that’s almost exclusively played by women, violence in roller derby can hardly be excused as “boys will be boys.”
There is even something particularly feminine about the way we negotiate consent to hurt one another. We are careful to make sure everyone is comfortable with any body contact, check in regularly to confirm everyone is still okay and are constantly apologizing for accidental boob grabs. When we send a teammate flying with a big hit, we always stop to make sure they’re laughing. Fresh-meat classes gradually progress from pushing and leaning on one another to doing light body checks and harder body checks to finally learning how and where to grab your teammates when you’re working together to block the other team’s jammer.
When new players join the team, veterans go easy on them for a while. Rezza remembers when Fowler started to hit her harder as a rite of passage: “I’m a little proud of that, because she knew I could take it.” Players returning after injury also go through a gradual calibration of how much contact they can handle. You learn from experience which players don’t like to be hit in certain ways and continually read their signals to decide how hard it’s okay to go.
Sometimes people do get pushed further than they’re comfortable with. When accidents happen and someone does get hurt, the person crying the hardest is inevitably the one who laid the hit, and we organize care teams to visit broken players. The care packages often include chocolates, fancy teas and cross-stitch kits. Strickland used her expertise working in urban forestry to help me plant my garden when I had a broken leg. And when she had to put one of her cats down, we pitched in for a donation to the Humane Society in her fur baby’s name.
As with any group, sometimes tempers flare and lines are crossed. There have been incidents in which people yell at each other when they’re not in position or make personal attacks that feel like verbal assault. When that kind of thing happens, we have a conflict resolution task force that steps in to mediate the dispute. I’ve heard stories about leagues where players are verbally abusive on a regular basis, and it’s not uncommon for new leagues to be born out of rifts in older ones.
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Consent for touching and hitting is definitely sensitive territory. Most likely, everyone in the league has experienced or witnessed gender-based harassment or violence in their lives. The irony, given how handsy roller derby is, is that there are a lot of players who hate being touched. I usually flinch at anything more touchy-feely than a solid handshake, but at roller derby, neither the grabbing nor the hard hits bother me.
Rachel Furlong (a.k.a. Velvet Thunder, or V for short), a bubbly accountant from the town of Clifford, Ont., who is barely five feet tall and packs a mean wallop, agrees: “I don’t like people touching me — at least not nice touching.” Teaming up with Furlong for drills is the best because the more we hurt each other, the harder we laugh. Strickland says that even though she loves the hitting, it was hard to get used to the touching. I’m no psychiatrist, but my guess is that part of what we get out of hitting one another is a low-stakes way of working on our intimacy issues. Mine probably have their roots in a junior high experience that was like wading through a sea of catcalls, bra-strap snaps and ass grabs long before I was mentally prepared for puberty.
My personal reaction to #MeToo was a slow cascade of half-buried memories of all the times I narrowly talked my way out of an almost-rape situation or considered myself lucky to only be assaulted a little bit. Several of my teammates have told me about abusive ex-partners and parents. For some, the careful, considerate negotiation of consent that should be part of any intimate relationship was experienced for the first time at roller derby and only later made its way into their personal lives. “I basically spent all of my adult life being forced into sex by men,” admits Fowler. “But I kind of just assumed that’s how sex was because most women who sleep with men complain about sex.” She didn’t know about consent.
Fowler describes roller derby as a “safe space” to be herself and feel like her body is more than “just a vehicle to transport my mind around.” She has learned she can train her body to do what she wants it to do instead of letting things happen to it. She is now in a relationship with one of our teammates in which the intimacy is consensual for the first time. She thanks roller derby for showing her that “that was a thing.” We were all a little afraid of Fowler before that relationship started, but she doesn’t walk around like a furious ball of anger anymore. She has become almost a nurturing presence and even occasionally cracks a smile. Fowler has a long list of things she says roller derby has given her, including the support to get out of a bad relationship and be honest with herself about her sexuality, the confidence to speak in front of a room full of people, the reward of helping others learn, and the lesson that she doesn’t have to be perfect the first time she tries something.
Whether it’s working through intimacy issues, finding a safe space to battle your demons, getting to know what your previously non-sporty body can do, improving self-esteem and body image, breaking out of the shackles of traditional gender roles, getting out of your head for a few hours or just making new friends, there’s a lot to be said for knocking people over while careening around on roller skates. By exploring pain in a women-controlled space where consent is taken very seriously, we help one another work through the trauma of the gendered violence in the outside world. It’s a bit like how a therapist makes you open up, even though it hurts, because that’s the best way to move past the pain.