I woke up to a text message from a friend. “What’s more sexist?” he asked. “Chris Gayle hitting on an attractive TV reporter (like an idiot) or the TV network only hiring attractive women for sports reporting when the men can look like a foot and still be on TV?”
“They’re two sides of the same coin,” I replied. I thought that was obvious, but maybe not.
Then I checked my twitter mentions and, sure enough, there were men demanding that I acknowledge incidents where women had said sexual things to men during interviews. “That’s a false equivalence,” I said. “Hypocrite! Double standard!” they cried. Because they didn’t grasp- or chose not to acknowledge- that what Gayle said is part of something much bigger.
There were the men saying Mel McLaughlin should be more outraged, or that those of us who expressed our disappointment with Gayle’s actions should be less outraged, the ones who demanded that our responses be exactly what they expected.
And there were the men hurtling abuse at women who spoke out. Vile language, sexual slurs, outright threats.
All of these things, all of these reactions, are woven together by a single thread: that women’s participation in sport must be done in a way that is acceptable to men*. Whether playing or reporting or even talking about sport, women’s presence in the arena is closely monitored and policed.
Part of this policing is centring our sexual attractiveness as part of our value, or lack thereof. A woman’s presence in a position of power in sport is more likely to be tolerated if she is conventionally attractive. Consequently, female sport journalists on TV are almost always young, slim, with long hair. This isn’t to denigrate their incredible talent in any way, simply to highlight they must be both talented and attractive, a standard rarely applied to men in comparable positions.
When a man player makes a sexual comment to a reporter, he is not just harmlessly flirting. He is reminding her — and the audience — that her looks are part of her value. By centring the conversation on her physical attractiveness, it belittles the rest of what she does. It also places the “right” of the man to make a sexual advance over the woman’s right to be comfortable in her workplace. It reenforces the idea that we are only here on men’s terms.
But that is just one of the ways women’s participation in sport is policed by men.
Our conversations about sport are policed. Whether it’s men openly telling us to get back into the kitchen or simply attempting to correct us, regardless of whether the correction is accurate, women’s conversations about sport rarely happen without men asserting themselves as voices of authority and power. Last night, when we spoke about how we felt about the Gayle comment, we were told how wrong our responses were. “It was just a joke”, “lighten up, love”, “get a sense of humour”, “mountain out of a molehill”, “some people have real problems like…”. It was belittling-women’s-experiences BINGO. The underlying message was clear: that men have the correct response to these incidents and any response that wasn’t to laugh it off was incorrect.
Then there was the most vicious form of policing: attempts to silence via abuse. If you’re a woman on the internet who talks about sport, there is a very good chance you have been threatened with rape or murder or both. Some dudes have probably speculated about your sex life and the state of your vagina. Your appearance has been commented on, usually negatively. You may have been told to kill yourself.
As usual, it happened last night. Female sports journalists and fans alike were inundated with harassment. The harassment has a clear purpose: to make women think before they speak up about such behaviour. We all know that if we say something, we risk abuse. Sometimes, that shuts us up.
So is it any wonder that women don’t always call out bad behaviour when they see it? Some deal with it quietly — every female sportswriter I know has their war stories, and we often share them away from public ears. And some adapt by accepting the terms on which their participation is expected– by laughing off such actions as a joke. These are the three options that are available: to fight, to be silent, or to accept.
For me, the fight is important, if exhausting. Sport is both a source of fun and community, and also a cultural force of significant importance and power. Our place as women in the game — as players, as fans, as journalists and as administrators– should not be contingent on male acceptance. It is ours because we cheer, we cry, we write, we play. You can try to keep us from the arena, but we’ll be there. And if you try to keep us out, we’re going to speak up.
*Yes, not all men. Yes, some men have been great allies in this conversation. But those men usually know enough to know I’m not talking about them.