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Why do men like to play fight, and when does it cross the invisible line?

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Louis Staples
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The psychology and masculinity / Play fighting / why and when

From their earliest childhood, men have thrown punches for fun, but as the Roxanne Pallett saga proves, maybe this ‘harmless banter’ has had its day

Have you been spending the final days of summer 2018 doing productive things like “life admin” or “work”? No? Good. Well seeing as you’ve been in the gutter with the rest of us, staring at your TV and scrolling through Twitter, you’ll know that the subject of “play fighting” has been dominating the news. Why? Because of Celebrity Big Brother, of course.

While locked in the iconic Elstree compound, former Emmerdale star Roxanne Pallett accused Coronation Street actor Ryan Thomas of “repeatedly” and “deliberately” punching her after he engaged her in what appeared to be innocent play fighting.

“Oww! Woman-beater! That bloody hurt!” she teased immediately after the incident, but in the ensuing days she escalated the incident by complaining to ‘Big Brother’.

“We weren’t play-fighting, it wasn’t banter, it wasn’t a joke,” she said.

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Viewers became increasingly distressed as the drama unfolded. If Ryan’s play fighting had not been caught on camera it is very possible that these accusations – which Roxanne herself now admits were “wrong” – could have ruined his life.

Roxanne has since apologised for her actions. She has acknowledged that, although his did punches hurt, they were just innocent play with no malicious intent.

Yet despite the story dominating the news (Digital Spy has reported that so far 25,257 complaints have been made to Ofcom, the UK’s media regulator), thus far the conversation has largely avoided any analysis or explanation of why so many people, but particularly men, engage in play fighting. 

Roxanne’s reaction was out of proportion and her accusations were false, but are there times when play fighting can make people feel uncomfortable or cross an invisible line?

Why do we like to play fight?

Ryan Thomas, who is now the favourite to win Celebrity Big Brother

As a gay man, my relationship with play fighting is complex. When I began to realise my sexuality as a teenager, I noticed that my male classmates and peers were increasingly engaging in this playful, tactile behaviour. It appeared to be a form of male bonding, but was definitely something I didn’t feel comfortable with and, to be honest, was never invited to participate in. But I also have an older brother who I have play fought with from a young age.

So why do men like play fighting?

Play fighting is common in other species, such as dogs. According to Stan Rawlinson, one of the UK’s leading dog behaviourists and obedience trainers, younger dogs use play fighting to learn social skills. 

“Puppies play fight up until the age of 16-18 weeks to learn to communicate with other dogs”, he explains. Rawlinson, who studied human psychology before branching into dog behaviours, observes that human play fighting normally peaks during adolescence. 

“It’s to do with surges in testosterone that teenagers go through. Though unlike dogs, play fighting in humans tends to be a mostly male behaviour”.

Why do men like to play fight?

You, basically

Body language expert Judi James also asserts that play fighting is a natural behaviour that primarily occurs between animal and human siblings. She suggests that it is part of “toughening up”, honing survival techniques and assessing physical boundaries.

But as Ryan learned, there can be issues when this type of behaviour is used with new people. “The problem comes when people believe it is appropriate with people outside that close and finely-tuned group”, James explains. “If you do engage, it is always important to read the other person and tune into their responses.

“Touch of any kind can be complex, difficult and risky and it’s far too easy to assume what is normal for you works for the other person”. 

James reasons that men often exhibit this type of behaviour as a way of flirting. “It’s an attempt to touch one another and judge reactions without being openly sexual”, she explains. Similarly to animals, potential couples use play fighting to build trust and establish the sort of touches that are acceptable.

But women I spoke to gave this technique less than glowing reviews.

“I’m fully aware that Roxanne is a total moron and misjudged this situation, throwing actual abuse victims under the bus in the process, but I also f*cking hate it when guys try to play fight with me,” says 25 year-old Anna* from Edinburgh. Anna says that even when play fighting isn’t malicious or violent, it can sometimes feel like an invasion of personal space.

“If you don’t like someone or know them well, why would you want them touching you? I’ve never given you any signal that this is something I want, so why are you doing it?” Alana, 28, from London adds that “sometimes men don’t know their own strength.

“Of course it’s not intentional but that doesn’t mean it’s not insanely irritating,” she says. 

Of course it’s not just men who play fight, or initiate it. We’ve all seen the episode of Friends in which Joey dumps a potential girlfriend because she won’t stop punching him playfully. 

But there is a perceived link between play fighting and masculinity, particularly during young adulthood. Alexander Leon is a 26 year old who grew up in Australia, which he describes as an overtly macho society. He perceives that play fighting is popular among young men because male socialisation in western societies heavily restricts male-to-male physical or emotional intimacy.

“It’s a socially acceptable away of allowing heterosexual identifying men to express affection and engage in physical intimacy”, he explains. “It’s kind of telling that the only way straight men are ‘allowed’ to do that is through aggression”.

Scientific evidence also suggests a link between aggression and play fighting. 

A 2014 study by the department of Biomedical Sciences and General Psychology at the University of Padua, Italy, analysed the relationship between play fighting and aggressive behaviours. The study concluded that, when compared to playing a low-contact activity such as volleyball, the teaching of play fighting during PE classes significantly reduced aggression in a group of 210 teenagers. These results suggest that play fighting, or contact sports such as rugby, can be outlets for aggression.

Alex began to shy away from play fighting when he began to think he might be gay. “I’d been programmed to see male-to-male intimacy as wrong and I didn’t feel I could engage in play fighting without being accused of being gay. I wasn’t secure enough in my ‘straightness’ to take part”. Once he came out and felt more secure in his own sexuality, he became more comfortable play fighting with a close heterosexual friend.

Archie*, a 29 year old from Brighton, told me that although he used to play fight a lot, he has since stopped. “When I was younger, I used to play fight a lot with my brothers and close mates,” he explains. “I suppose it’s kind of messed up that we’d rather punch each other than say something nice, but sometimes it’s not that deep and just bit of fun.”

Following the death of his father, who held a central but “mixed” influence in his life, Archie began seeing a counsellor to process his emotions. “Come to think of it, since I started counselling play fighting isn’t something I’ve done a lot of. Maybe I’ve just gotten older? Or it could be something deeper I suppose.” 

Why do men like to play fight? 1

Roxanne entering the Celebrity Big Brother house

As Big Brother’s “punchgate” proves, play fighting can be complex and have potentially serious consequences – especially at work. Kevin Poulter, an employment partner at law firm Freeths, says that the key thing is to be hyper-aware of other people’s potential sensitivities, even if these do not align with your own. “Banter” can be a grey area within workplace procedures. With sensitivities heightened, people often perceive comments or jokes differently to how they were intended.

People could be more likely to react strongly to innocent play fighting if they have a history of physical abuse. This may not justify Roxanne’s behaviour, but Women’s Aid have stated that play fighting could potentially trigger past trauma, even if it is meant affectionately. 

“Play fighting may not seem serious but if you have been in an abusive relationship it can seem frightening and even trigger memories of the abuse,” the charity said, concluding: 

“Domestic abuse means you don’t feel safe in your home environment, and as a woman who has previously spoken about being in a violent and abusive relationship, Roxanne clearly did not feel comfortable going to sleep in the same room as someone who had physically hurt her, even if that was not his intention”.

It appears that play fighting is a natural behaviour that occurs in other species. Yet in humans it is emboldened by social factors and societal pressures, not all of which are positive. As a behaviour associated with the dominant masculine culture, play fighting can alienate men who don’t feel that they can take part. While it may seem completely harmless, it isn’t always welcomed by those on the receiving end - even if they know it isn’t meant maliciously.

*Names have been changed 

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(Pics: Getty)

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