24/08/2017 08:16 BST | Updated 24/08/2017 08:16 BST

Does Intergender Wrestling Encourage Domestic Violence Or Is It Empowering For Women?

Men going face-to-face with women in the wrestling ring is an issue that divides opinion. Some think it may encourage domestic violence by normalising a man hitting a woman to an audience. Others think it's empowering for women to be athletically at the same level as a man given we are, after all, talking about a scripted sport. It is a debate that rumbles on both in the mainstream and on local wrestling shows across the globe.

Last year in New York, the state athletic commission stopped a match between a man and a woman on the grounds that it was illegal. The event - which was stopped just after the match had started - caused an outcry from the fans watching, confusion from the performers and the referee of the match picking up a microphone and calling the officials sexist. "I didn't react very well," says Kris Levin, the referee in question. "I'm a huge believer in equal rights and when I saw that this was being stopped, solely on the basis of Jess being a woman. I was just shocked and appalled. It was state-sponsored sexism, it's ridiculous."

As the crowd shouted "This is bullshit" in unison, Kris, the wrestlers, the commission officials and a lawyer from the audience went backstage and flicked through a rulebook. It was explained that the match was scripted and, eventually, the officials left with their tails between their legs. The match went ahead and received a standing ovation.

On the independent wrestling scene, though, intergender matches have been flourishing. Abbey Laith, a wrestler who has now signed for WWE, became the first woman champion of a major non-female promotion when she held the title for Chikara last year. She says intergender wrestling is empowering to young women watching, comparing it to female superheroes on screen fighting men. "It gives them a strong character to look up to and want to aspire to be" says Abbey.

As someone who has been a victim of domestic violence herself, she believes that people who think it encourages that should open up their perspectives a little bit. "It's a live action movie that you're watching with storylines and characters and plotlines and watching how everything pans out," she says. "If you open yourself up to looking at it from a different view, then it doesn't really enforce domestic violence at all depending on how it's done."

Andy Quildan, the founder of Revolution Pro Wrestling, a UK promotion that runs shows in Bethnal Green and Camden, won't book intergender matches. "You go to wrestling and suspend your disbeliefs and what's not socially acceptable is a man hitting a woman. So when you see that happening and no one doing anything about it, you're kind of pulled away from it a little bit," says Andy. "Only in the right scenario do you have that intergender style match. Yes, women should be equal to guys but fundamentally women and men are built differently and there's nothing I can do about that."

Now, men versus women matches don't really happen in the mainstream anymore but it certainly used to. And in the late 70s there was one man who brought it to the world's attention on prime time TV. That man was Andy Kaufman, the late Saturday Night Live comedian who was portrayed by Jim Carrey in the film Man On The Moon. In addition to wrestling women from the crowd on SNL, he also wrestled hundreds of women on college campuses. I spoke to Bob Zmuda, Andy's best friend and co-writer. He also refereed those matches.

Bob told me that Andy's aim was to recreate the days of the carnival and that wrestling gave a framework for Andy's comedy style because it blurred the lines between what was and wasn't real.

Bob also made some startling claims about Andy's motivations behind wrestling women. "Andy was excrutiatingly shy. He didn't date much or anything but he realised, after he could wrestle a woman, he broke down all those physical barriers. He said "You know, Zmuda, someday I'm going to open up intergender wrestling palaces all around the country" and he would've done this had he lived - so shy guys could go in and they can meet these girls and they could wrestle them and eventually, if things worked out, they could have sex with them. That's exactly how he thought about it. I'd say 8 out of 10 times he'd end up on these college campuses sleeping with that girl that night because he really believed that it broke down the armour and they were so into it."

Bob has made claims before, most notably about Andy potentially faking his own death, but these allegations were quite remarkable and sat very uncomfortably with me, changing the perception of a celebrity wrestling innovator and pioneer to something far more sinister.

Bob said Andy's persistence to wrestle women seriously affected their ticket sales and eventually was a big contributing reason to him getting voted off SNL.

That wasn't the only time men wrestling women has made it into the mainstream. WWE's 90s star Chyna regularly wrestled men, winning championships and entering the Royal Rumble. And it wasn't limited to mainstream wrestling in the United States. There was a woman who wrestled men in the UK as well. It was on ITV on a Saturday afternoon, and amongst the names Big Daddy, Giant Haystacks and Mick McManus was one woman: Klondyke Kate.

"They didn't want to wrestle women because some are quite the gentlemen and quite sexist and sorta thought we weren't tough enough to be wrestled by men or they didn't want to hurt us but the thing is we had to work twice as hard to prove ourselves because it was predominantly a male business," says Jayne, who played Klondyke Kate. "To this day, a lot of men still don't accept it so it is very sexist but women are doing so well now, more so than I ever imagined"

Everyone I spoke to rejected the idea that intergender wrestling promotes domestic violence but there are clearly issues related to that that would make a wrestling product less PG and lead to some promoters not presenting those matches.

Wrestling journalist Dave Meltzer says "I don't think it encourages it any more than professional wrestling encourages violence period. But I think that there's a portrayal that's kind of  hot button topic in the United States right now and so that's like a visual that I would want to avoid. 

Will it happen again in thefuture? "On a case-by-case basis, the idea that there could be a storyline that would involve that? Yeah I do think it will will happen at the right time," says Meltzer. "As far as being a predominant part of the presentation, I don't see that happening any time soon."

Intergender wrestling is explored in depth on The World According To Wrestling podcast, available now on iTunes.

The World According To Wrestling is on Twitter here and Instagram here.

A version of this piece was published in The Independent on 20 August and can be viewed here.

Poster: The design practice of James Lunn / Paul Cooper