Sex Talk

Public discourse has not caught up with the lived contradictions that lie at the root of sexual harassment and the culture of harassment. The media can’t get enough of these stories. And yet, no amount of coverage of rape, harassment seems to shift things. The story of one’s harassment/rape has always already been written by someone else. This is one of the many things that make sexual violence so awful. It is why DJT’s language matters, why it feels so familiar. We know that sentence, because we have felt it on our bodies.

All that talk — the blaring of the story of one grope after another — we are angry hamsters in a spinning wheel.

There is no necessary relationship between how much people talk about sex, and much sexual generosity/intelligence is produced by that talk. Plenty of sex talk is abusive, phobic, sexist and harassing. Much of that sex talk is presented as “knowing” but is in fact ignorant. Plenty of sex talk is a site of intimacy, bonding and generosity. Much of that talk is staged around one’s humiliation and ignorance but is in fact wise.

People sense a hypocrisy in public outrage vis a vis DJT’s behavior but can’t quite name its nature.

Harassment does not disrupt the workplace’s order; it actually regulates it. The more hierarchical and segregated the environment, the more this is true. Those who confront and resist harassment take a beating for this reason.

Take the strange and shifting place of sexuality in this anecdote lifted from a story in The Nation, regarding a recent DJT rally. The reporter describes a conversation with a female DJT supporter:

She also mocked the women who accused Trump of assault. ‘What we say in private, who cares? The other day, a bunch of women at work: We was talking trash talk, about sex and everything else, it’s what we do. None of us are saints. Who cares?’ She doesn’t care if he grabbed these women against his will? ‘Who said he grabbed them? And lemme tell you right now: back in the day, a billionaire had come by, I’d have been wanting him to grab me! I’m sure they were wanting him to grab them.’ Then she added, ‘Even though I am a victim of sexual assault.’ I told her I was sorry for that, and she brushed it off. ‘That right there with the women, if it happened, I’m sure it was wanted.’

We should not mistake the contradictions that this woman voices for stupidity. This woman is describing the lived contradiction shaping the life of the sexed worker — the worker who embodies sex, is sex, and moves through the workplace as the embodiment of the world that has already been mined for resources before she arrives for her working day. Sex haunts the workplace as the sign of all that has been stolen from the worker before she earns a dime. Groping literalizes that theft. It is a reminder: that body is not yours. Never was. In a way, there is a cruel truth to that fact. These stories of sexual harassment are slippery. The harassment story spreads like a germ from one man to another. This sick energy swirls around the figure of a powerful woman in a pantsuit who presents herself as a soulless wall — she is irrelevant. This is what harassment does to its victim. Maybe that position advances to: She is the same as him. She is the problem. Get rid of them both. But of course, she is not.

She is different, and yes — difference is the problem here. She is the one who will embody our embarrassment. That is HRC’s struggle — how not to become that figure (which has never not haunted her, as the public’s “good wife”).

We bemoan the fact that DJT’s racism never grabbed the public’s fascination in the way that his sexual behavior does — that, too, is a difference problem. One is knotted into the other: his campaign opened, after all, with the declaration that Mexicans are rapists. And because this country didn’t, in numbers, at that moment, recognize the seriousness of the problem in his candidacy — we are here, now, counting the numbers of women willing to come forward and tell the stories of how they were touched.

Until we get how harassment grows from the contradictions which structure our lives, until we come to grips with how, as Silvia Federici once put it, “sexuality is work,” we will not get very far in cleaning up this mess. In part because we’ve grossly underestimated its scale.

Locker Room

Brian de Palma’s Carrie opens with a nightmare. After a humiliating gym class, Carrie retires with the girls to the locker room. Her classmates are filmed in a dreamy haze — brushing silken hair, slipping perfect bodies out of and into their clothes. Carrie is taking a shower; water courses over her white skin. The camera is so close, her hands reach between her thighs and water streams between her legs. The scene is sexual. She starts to bleed and freaks out because she has no idea what a period is. Naked, wet and bloody she flees the shower and runs into the pack of teenage amazons. These beautiful monsters tease her by waving tampons in her face, they call her names and push her back into the shower — she cowers in the corner, still wet and naked, as they throw sanitary napkins at her. Blood is everywhere in Carrie. The whole film circles back to this moment — Carrie, bleeding; a pack of girls, laughing at her. By the movie’s end, she will be covered in blood and set her world on fire. Sex and horror; sex as horror. Her mother’s prophetic warning loops and warbles over the soundtrack: “They’re all going to laugh at you!” And they do — the whole crowd, gathered in the space where the film began — in a high school gymnasium — laughs at Carrie, as she stands there — humiliated, shamed again in her naiveté.

This locker room is a social space of a certain kind of privacy; it is where we learn that the private is always already public.This locker room is coercive: the locker room of our nightmares is not that of the spa, it is that of the school. This locker room is the space of sexism’s subconscious — this is one reason why it figures so often, and so prominently in film. It is where we imagine our private self is exposed. It is where our bodies are forced into the most primitive disciplining structures.

That “you can see there was blood coming out her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever” did not disqualify Trump — in either the media or the public’s eye — is a neat reminder of how deeply disgust with women’s bodies is integrated into everything that feels normal. Thus the exchange between Trump and Bush: they are sharing the fear of/disgust with women’s bodies as a kind of sex talk. This is how sexists shake hands.

You can hear the violence of this locker room in the phone messages that Richie Incognito left for his teammate Jonathan Martin — he promised to shit in his mouth, slap his “real mother” across the face and more. The player who complained is mocked for not being a man. This sexualized violence frames the locker room at Penn State — the place where Sandusky took boys to shower. In this not-quite private place sexual assaults were witnessed by athletic department employees. None of these men knew, really, how to talk about what they saw.

This locker room is a real and an imaginary space. It is an overdetermined space in American culture because we have absorbed sports and its changing rooms into the nation’s architecture. This locker room is a threshold space, a space of transformation. It is where our bodies are absorbed into the grid, as either sexual subject or sexual object. As human or as thing. We all pass through this space — much as we pass through women’s bodies — and emerge into the world as one thing or the other.

Serena’s Pose

all hail the Queen

Of course this is a controversial image.

The last women to grace this particular SI issue solo were “American Sweethearts” Mary Decker (1983) and Chris Evert (1976). Decker’s photo layers a portrait of the runner in her street clothes over another image of her finishing a race. She leans into the picture, her body excised by the image’s frame. She is dressed like a pretty suburban mom in a monochromatic jacket and turtleneck. Her pose and her expression suggest a woman embarrassed to be taking up even the space she occupies here. Sorry! she says with a smile.

Mary Decker SI cover 1983

This is, actually, light years ahead of the cover for the 1976 issue of SI dedicated to Chris Evert. There is no way on earth Serena Williams isn’t acutely aware of this photograph.

chris evert SI 1976

Evert is wearing the kind of restrictive tennis costume women players were forced to wear, in another century. She does not look like she has just walked off a tennis court. She looks like she just fell into an Edith Wharton novel. She is the picture of a proper white lady.

Maud Watson 1884

The 2015 issue is notable for oh so many reasons. Among those reasons is the way the cover sidelines the issue of gender difference and also foregrounds it. Gender difference is always a problem for women athletes who must both demonstrate that yes, they are women and apologize, as women, for existing. This cover image is assertive and unapologetic about Serena as a sexual subject.

The title of the award itself has been loosened from gender — this year it is “sportsperson” instead of  “sportswoman.” This is a signal: things are getting more interesting. In years past, even in the context of issues dedicated to more than one athlete — e.g. 1984’s issue, celebrating Mary Lou Retton and Edwin Moses or 2011’s issue dedicated to Pat Summitt and Mike Krzyzewski — the awards were titled “Sportsman” and “Sportswoman” of the year.

The thing about that word “sportswoman” is that it asserts a regime of femininity, at the expense of the athlete’s sexuality. It reminds us that the entire world of sports is segregated, and that its rituals tend to body forth contradiction, ambivalence and anxiety regarding just what that segregation is about.This is how one arrives at the idea of putting Cris Evert in Edwardian Lady Drag. That outfit is not about asserting her athleticism or her sexual power. It is, in fact, about restricting both. It is about framing her body within the gendered architecture of restricted movement.

Sexuality, in Serena’s cover image, pushes back against the raced and classed codes of femininity that govern the “proper” presentation of women athletes around the world. In this image, sexuality is freed, if you will, from the discourse of gender difference which evacuates all signs of strength and power from the feminine subject. That, of course, is entwined with racist discourse which figures a black woman’s sexuality as excessive, and as “unfeminine” and in which a black woman’s athleticism appears as some kind of interference with her womanliness — indeed, with her humanity.

A number of writers defend Serena’s cover image as a celebration of her femininity. But this is only part of that image’s story. For what is her femininity? The fuck-me heels? The spread of her legs? The dare in her expression? Femininity is a very poor word for Serena’s styling, pose and posture here. The proper feminine subject, for example, does not spread her legs for anyone. She does not wear shoes like that. She wears more clothes. Especially if she is an athlete, she makes herself look demure, or sexless.

I see, in this image choice, the ghost of Evert’s corset, re-presented here within the language of sexual domination.

all hail the Queen

Here, Serena gives us a glimpse of her sexual power. This portrait is intentionally sexy. It is dominating. She is the master of her sexual power, and in this context, that mastery is a shiny reflection of the control she has over her athletic power. With this image, she asserts that she will do exactly what she want to do, and that this is, in fact, also what we want her to do.

Second Sex, Artificial Turf


If we needed proof that the people who govern the beautiful game do not see women as real athletes, we need look no further than FIFA’s decision to play the 2015 Women’s World Cup on artificial turf. Players have been angry since was this announced; a complaint of gender discrimination has been filed with Canadian courts. Artificial turf forces a different game: tackling is different, injuries are different, the speed/pace of the game is different. You can play harder when the ground is softer. Football’s Sith Lords probably figured that women would prefer the artificial turf because it’s prettier and doesn’t stain.

The women’s game is treated by FIFA as charity work that serves to justify its monopoly over the “real” sport. Note the opening page of “The Laws of the Game,” which categorizes women as disabled players for whom the rules might be adjusted. If FIFA and the Canadian Soccer Association wanted to move the goal posts, make the field smaller, the match shorter, if they wanted to make women play with smaller balls, they could. They could do none of these things for men, unless those men were not men but children. Or over 35. Or disabled.

Screen Shot 2014-06-19 at 11.00.53 PM

If I were going after FIFA as a player, I’d call for a BOYCOTT. I’d demand that this “exception” for the women’s game be wiped from the books, and that FIFA change its leadership—dramatically. A few professional players might have a lot of success organizing amateur and semi-pro players—the bulk of the Women’s World Cup roster—especially players from countries where the administration of the women’s game is fucked up. Which is most places.

Sepp Blatter is as much a sexist bastard as Avery Brundage was an abominable racist. Why stop with a demand for real grass? How about a demand for real change!


No Lesson Plan: notes on a shooting

As something people experience and express, sexism is intensely variable. For some, systems of hate and fear are never more than a background hum. For others, those systems manifest themselves as discrimination in the workplace, police violence, and worse.

People with the Isla Vista killer’s suite of disorders (a cocktail of schizo-paranoid-psychotic thinking mixed with who knows what disorders) will tap into the grid of hate and fear. Sexist thinking seems to have given a shape to his persecution complex. It seems to have legitimized a God-like complex. This is to say that aspects of this person’s writings are surely sexist, but they are also hallmarks of certain kinds of paranoid/psychotic formation. Supremacist logics are grounded in these paranoid/psychotic/schizo formations. History does not suffer from want of evidence on that score. What to do with the coincidence (the happening-in-the-same-time-and-place) of the crazy and the real? With the singular (the “shooter”) and the systemic (“sexism”)?

Not all people who go on murder sprees leave an accessible archive of their psychosis behind them – this seems to be more and more common, however, as social media gives people new ways of expressing those thoughts. How should we read them? In fact, why does the public read them at all? What do they tell us that his murder spree doesn’t?

I’ve had the unfortunate fortune of working with detectives who specialize in threats, stalking, and intimate partner violence. They have an interesting way of looking at things. They are concerned by the way that a person’s tilt into violence is generally accompanied by a suicidal not-caring about what might happen to others, or to themselves. These detectives have a chance to prevent murder. What makes a person violent – as a question – concerns them deeply.  One scary scenario involves the projection of the death-drive onto the object of a campaign of harassment – in which hate/fear/desire drives a fantasy of mutual destruction – the object of their hate/fear/desire (the person who is the object of attachment but also rage) is absorbed into a suicidal mission. A person might dream of that cataclysm, but an awareness, a certain grip on the sane – a desire to live, a desire to stay out of jail – might keep them from acting that fantasy out. When that awareness falls apart – when that sense of a modest future of not-murder/not-suicide fades – that is one place where murder happens.

Women victims constitute a vast majority of their cases; perhaps because in disordered thinking the consequences of harassing and threatening women feels less serious – easier to get away with. That is, indeed, one shape that sexism takes. And, statistically, men are more likely to act out these murder/suicide fantasies – one of patriarchy’s signatures is its naturalization of a man’s impulse to harm and destroy. (A bitter twist: socially, threats of violence issued by women are taken less seriously; threats between men may also be taken less seriously as men are imagined as less vulnerable. So same-sex intimate partner violence may be ignored, minimized, its murderous potential disavowed or absorbed into a homophobic narrative.)

Sexism circulates as an explanation and as a fertilizer and as a foundation for all kinds of misery. It explains everything and nothing.

What made the people murdered by that guy vulnerable to his violence? Sexism is a part of that story, but there are other things that escape that word. One might meditate on sex and its relation to power; one might consider this historical moment as one in which things feel pointless, when life within the US feels pretty desperate – like living in the middle of an egomaniacal and embittered monster. What makes the world so chaotic, what makes the college campus and the female student such a compelling target? That’s sexism but it is also, say, a distortion of class warfare.

What makes someone want to burn down not only their life, but the world? To shoot up a sorority or deli, to drive his car into a crowd, to murder men while the sleep (one theory as to how he killed his roommates). To mainline the worst of everything?

I will not read that guy’s text or watch his video – I refuse out of respect to his victims, for, in fact, the broadcast of those messages – some kind of master-narrative – was surely one of his desires – but I do not need to read them to know what they say. Master narratives are always sexist and racist, self-serving and, at their core, crazy.

Sexism gave a sense of legitimacy to his psychotic narrative. And yet he didn’t only murder women; he started off by murdering his male roommates and one of their friends. He did not only blame women for his unhappiness; he blamed the men around him, too. Yes, we can understand that as part of sexism’s logics. We might also understand heterosexual culture as fucked up – the designation of women as the obstacles to sexual happiness is one of the heterosexuality’s worst features. He started off killing the people closest to him, however – these men (whom we can guess he was also harassing) were murdered with a knife. He murdered two women, four men. Most of his victims were men of color.

Sexism is such a powerful narrative structure – it gave him his “reason” – should it also give us so much explanatory force with regards these horrific events? People are compelled by his own explanation for his actions. But how much more do we need to know in order to understand that racism, sexism and class warfare were part of his life, and are part of ours?

Of course it is a good thing that so many people are thinking and talking about the relationship of sexism to violence, especially if that conversation unfolds with an awareness of how proximate discourse on “protecting” women from violence is to racist expressions of violence, especially if that conversation unfolds in the interest of maximal sexual freedom and happiness, and less carving up of the world by gender. As a queer theorist, however, I notice that the state of sexual emergency which we encounter in and around today’s campus makes advocacy for sexual freedom, for sexual generosity more difficult. More confusing and strange.

That this killer – a man – drove to a sorority seems to give this story some kind of shape. But does it, really?

Last week, in Santa Barbara, a profoundly distressed young man took all the pain and all the misery of his experience and loaded it into a gun. He enacted a murderous fantasy in the name of his desire. Whatever his rationale, he was an equal opportunity killer.

The knife, the gun – the act of violence – what meaning it bestows on the world is itself a brutality. What is there to think from such a place?

On the Sexism of Football Scholars and Sports Critics

“People want excellence in sports, and the quality of women’s soccer is not there.”

“Nobody wants to watch women’s sports.”

“The top women can’t take on the top men.”

These three things were said by attendees at a recent congress of leading scholars and journalists working on soccer.

The organizers of Soccer as the Beautiful Game deserve a lot of credit for bringing scholars and sports writers together. What follows is not a criticism of that conference, or of its organizers – quite the opposite. At this moment, it is not possible to organize a conference at which the above statements would not be made, unless one either excluded women and women’s football from all discussion, or invited only feminists to the table. The conference’s organizers worked to make sure that feminist scholars like myself were in the room because they are committed to changing the field.

As long as people writing about the men’s game write only about men, they can maintain the delusion that their work isn’t sexist in its very foundation. But the world does not line up with their writing. It isn’t composed entirely of men – not even where the men’s game is concerned (one scholar’s presentation on the recollections of English women football fans of the 1966 World Cup was illuminating not only in its content, but also in its rarity – even scholarship on fans tends to assume that they are all and always only men). With even just a few women in the room (men outnumbered women at this conference by what felt like 7 to 3) – with a just a handful of experts on the women’s game among the audience – overt and inferential expressions of sexism were inevitable. You can’t put us – feminists, women, women’s football fans – in a room with them – sexists (men who only care about men’s sports) – and not provoke some awfulness from a few of the sexists. (Most sexist sports scholars and critics are benevolent in their approach to women’s sports: they want to see the field developed – by women.)

From left to right: Simon Kuper, John Foot, Brenda Elsey, Alex Galarza, Grant Wahl, Peter Alegi and Charles Korr.

From left to right: Simon Kuper, John Foot, Brenda Elsey, Alex Galarza, Grant Wahl, Peter Alegi and Charles Korr.

To wit: A plenary panel composed of leading scholars and journalists addressed their experiences writing about the sport. Each panelists spoke briefly about the way the sport’s history, politics and economy impacts their practice as scholars and as journalists. Featured on the panel*: Grant Wahl – [until recently] the lone full-time journalist covering soccer for Sports Illustrated; Brenda Elsey – one of the conference organizers and author of Citizens and Sportsmen (a study of the amateur men’s fútbol clubs in Chile; she is writing about the history of women’s fútbol in that country); and Simon Kuper – author of Football Against the Enemy and a journalist for The Financial Times. Kuper, in particular, is a darling of the academic world, frequently invited to speak about the politics of the men’s game – his book is something of a sports-writing/academic cross-over.

In their opening remarks all of the panelists spoke about their writing about the men’s game. That the context for the conversation was the men’s game was taken as a given. During the Q&A, I raised my hand to ask Elsey and Wahl (who have both written about the women’s game as well as the men’s) to address how the situation changes when their writing turns to women. (For example, with the men’s game journalists and scholars both wrestle with economic and political pressures unique to the scale of its economy.) Elsey made a provocative point when she asked how dangerous must the women’s game be to have been banned for so long in so many countries – especially as the men’s game has been the site of so much important social organization. Wahl pointed out that if he wrote about another sport, he might never get a chance to report on women athletes – he considered himself lucky on that front.

Some hands went up in the audience, and the moderator – Charles Korr (a distinguished sports historian at the University of Missouri, St Louis) – picked a man I don’t know (I think this man was a member of the public, neither a scholar nor a journalist). That man said something like the following:

The thing is, people don’t want to watch women’s soccer: they want excellence, and the women’s game is not as developed as the men’s game. It’s slower, not as powerful.

I can’t quite remember what happened. I made a noise of some kind and some sort of gesture; a whole bunch of hands went up. Another man was picked to speak. He sounded relieved. Finally someone expressed something that everyone knew but didn’t feel like they could say in front of people like myself – although they were clearly dying to.

This man, Kevin McCrudden – a local journalist – invoked the WNBA as a evidence that “no one” wants to watch women’s sports: they need to be subsidized by the NBA, right? Unlike men’s teams, women’s teams lose money. (McCrudden seemed unaware of the fact that the television audience for MLS is smaller than that of the WNBA.) Other men jumped in to argue with these statements.

None of the senior feminists in the room raised their hands that I can remember. We did some combination of the following.

We locked eyes with each other.

We thought “what do we do?”

We debated in our minds if we could walk out. (As a keynote speaker at the conference, I did not feel I could.)

We tweeted.

Screen shot 2014-05-12 at 2.11.12 PMThe conversation seemed to go on, no one seemed able to stop the flow of sexist statements.

Finally, a young woman in the audience stood up and called out the sexists on their language: their imperial “we” and presumed “no one” left no room for her, as an ardent fan of women’s soccer who sought out every opportunity to watch it. I think she had to stand up because the moderator hadn’t called on her. I think, too, that she was a student.

If I didn’t say anything it was because I’d given a keynote address earlier in the conference; I had called out the segregated structure of sports scholarship as part and parcel of the sexist, homophobic and transphobic segregationist logics that underpin administration of the sport. I had also asked the question drew out the sexists – a question not aimed at the sexists, but at the people who make women’s soccer a part of their work.

I didn’t want to get into a shouting match with idiots. The other women in the room were far more seasoned that I am and even less likely to take the bait. I’ve spent most of my career writing about queer performance art, after all. Jean Williams literally wrote the book on feminist sports history where soccer is concerned. (Actually, she’s written three.) The fact that none of us spoke up at this point was evidence of our collective experience – these “conversations” go absolutely nowhere. They are not conversations. They are symptoms.

And I was particularly tired, because I got caught in a similar “discussion” the night before, in a sports bar, with at least one of the men on the panel.

In any case, the moderator stepped in to kill the discussion – it needed to happen but it felt like the wrong kind of intervention. Had I been moderating I might have just called out those remarks as sexist, and asked Wahl and Elsey, for example, how such attitudes shaped their experience writing about the women’s game. That isn’t what happened however. The moderator just wanted to put the whole mess back in the box – which makes sense, as I don’t think he’s ever written about women’s sports or sexism and perhaps he couldn’t handle it. Because if you don’t write about women’s sports or sexism in women’s sports – well, you have no expertise in the expert non-defensive communication skills required of such a situation.

Brenda Elsey, however, does. The lone woman on the panel leaned forward at that point and asserted her prerogative, as the conference co-organizer, to have the last word. She said something like:

“This whole conversation – the fact that it is even happening – is sexist.”

The mere introduction of women’s soccer as a subject of conversation provokes “common sense” observations from sexists about how “no one wants to watch women’s soccer” because women are weaker, slower etc. That is sexist. That the people who work on women’s soccer have to defend women’s athletic ability in order to participate in any conversation about women’s soccer – that is sexist.

And as it happens, I had spent the previous night arguing this point with Simon Kuper.

Earlier that evening, I’d been hanging out with Jean Williams and Stacey Pope, swapping notes on the talks we’d seen. We talked about Pelé, who was honored at a banquet that night, and gossiped about NY Cosmos goalie Shep Messing, who seemed to be flirting with everyone – me, but also David Goldblatt, for example.

I was feeling really high on the whole experience: Joshua Nadel, a scholar at North Carolina Central University, shared television footage of the 1971 Mexico City women’s world championship tournament – an event I’ve been obsessed with because it is the largest known audience for a women’s sporting event: over 100,000 filled Estadio Azteca to watch Mexico lose to Sweden. I’d only seen references to the event, I’d never seen actual footage of it until Nadel shared it with me. Stacey’s presentation on English women’s recollections of the 1966 World Cup was really moving and inspiring. I wanted to hang out with these folks, kick back and relax as all of us had given our papers by then.

We got separated, though, as we caught different shuttle busses back to the hotel. I went to the bar with fellow blogger Andrew Guest, Simon Kuper and a bunch of other attendees.

Within minutes of sitting down, Kuper and I became embroiled in an argument. Kuper returned to my keynote address – I had come out as hating the World Cup, not only because it’s a completely corrupt boondoggle, but because it replicates segregationist logics and broadcasts a fantasy world from which women have been banished. I posited another kind of football culture – one that fought segregationist logics rather than reproduced them. So, Kuper baited me:

The top women can’t take on the top men.

He continued by making assertions like: women are slower than men; women are weaker than men. And he kept returning to the following:

Marta could not take on Neymar.

I replied with something like:

They would not take on each other; they are both attacking players. They’d likely be on the same team, or on opposite ends of the field. You mean ‘Marta could not take on Puyol.’ And I want to see that. Maybe she couldn’t, but what if she could? People don’t always ‘take on’ other players by, say, outrunning them. And if she’s slower than Puyol (I don’t know that she is), she’s also a lot smaller. He’d have a hard time tackling her.

Kuper didn’t find this satisfying: he kept returning to the statements about women’s physical weakness, and he seemed to need me to agree with him on those points – that I refused to do so seemed to rattle him, but in a way that I think he enjoyed. I think he thought I was enjoying the conversation too.

I was rattled, however, in a way that I do not enjoy: because there I was in a sports bar, wrangling with the most primary expression of sexism. Those attitudes were being expressed by a man that people in the field think of as an important intellectual where this sport is concerned. (I, for the record, do not.) Everything Kuper said in that conversation was sexist, and what was particularly shitty was that he seemed not to know this.

As he pressed on, I thought to myself: This is why Simon Kuper has never examined the situation of the women’s game in any of the stories that he has written about football and international politics. Why SAFA or the Nigerian or the Spanish FA’s behavior towards their women’s sides (each its own scandal) isn’t newsworthy to him – or to most people who write about football, be they scholars or journalists. Such stories, in the mind of the sexist journalist and scholar, cannot be connected to Politics or Economics because the abject status of women’s football is a product of Nature.

They find talking about women’s sports a drag because they know nothing about it. They only thing they “know” is that women are weaker. And so that’s the conversation they insist on having, over and over again.

Oh, how I wish that I’d been having drinks with Grant Wahl instead. So that we might process the recent dismissal of the USWNT coach, so that we might talk about the upcoming women’s world cup being played on artificial turf, or the uneven development of the women’s game, and what is going on with Brazil – with the women’s team, that is. So that we might cast our “dream” mixed team. Oh, that I’d been sitting at a table with Jean and Stacey – so that they might chime in with their perspective on the Super League, and continue our conversations about their work as public historians.

But no. I was in a sports bar having an argument with an “intellectual” who wanted me to agree to his premise – that women are weaker – an argument that I also had with boys on the school bus when I was 8 years old. This perspective does not mature as boys turn into men; men either shed that attitude or it cements into their brain structure, like some kind of thought-killing plaque.

I refuse to have ANY conversation about sports that naturalizes women as the weaker sex as a precondition for entering into the discussion. So, in our discussion I kept returning to Kuper’s desire to force me to “admit” that Marta was somehow less of a player than Neymar, as if the aim of my own scholarship could be boiled down to this point. (People like Kuper do not read the work of people like myself.)

Thankfully, Andrew Guest partnered up with me in this discussion. So I wasn’t alone. But we were in a minority.

If you are woman forced into having that conversation over and over again, at some point you really just want to leave the room. At some point you might decide that life is too short to waste your time talking to these people. So the next morning, when a conversation about the material difference in the experience of writing about men’s soccer and writing about women’s soccer turned into the “natural” difference between men and women, I was not surprised but I did want to leave the room.

What does surprise me is how oblivious people in the field are to the toxicity of such conversations – it shows a total disregard for the conversation one might have in reply to a conversation like “how dangerous must women’s football be to have been banned for so long.” There is a place we can go that looks less like an elementary school argument, and more like the utopian “universalism” to which discourse about the game appeals. A place of not only gender equity, but gender fluidity. A world divided not in two but united in its assembly of singularities. Not Marta or Neymar, but Marta with Neymar.


*The panel was organized by The Football Scholars Forum, a terrific on-line seminar run by terrific scholars at Michigan State – Peter Alegi and Alex Galarza. Also on this panel was John Foot, who is based at the University of Bristol and is an important sports studies scholar in the UK.


Rape and the Sports Story: Some Observations for Sports Writers

Jessica Luther’s “Changing the Narrative” offers sports writers valuable guidance regarding the responsible reporting of stories about rape. It is full of good advice that should help sports writers to at least not make things worse. Luther’s excellent article inspired me to write out a few thoughts for the sports critic who wants to take their writing to a related, but slightly different place.

Given how often sports writers have to cover this kind of story, they might be wondering why “sports culture” has become synonymous with “rape culture.” Given the ubiquity of rape stories in sports news, perhaps it is time we entertained the possibility that sexual violence is not at the margin of sports culture, but is, in fact, at its center.

Some axiomatic observations:

Where there is segregation there is violence: Apartheid structures are enforced through violence. Radical segregation is enforced by terrorizing people. We need only look to the US’s history of lynchings to be reminded of this.

Mainstream sports culture is segregated culture: Sports culture is segregated by gender. This “sports nexus,” as Ann Travers defines it, is “an androcentric sex-segregated commercially powerful set of institutions that is highly visible and at the same time almost completely taken for granted to the extent that its anti-democratic impetus goes virtually unnoticed.”  (See Travers, “The Sport Nexus and Gender Injustice” in Studies in Social Injustice” 2:1 [2008])

Where we find segregation, we find sexual violence: Whether we are talking about segregation by race or gender, sexual violence is a vehicle for terrorizing people into keeping in their place. Within an intensely segregated environment, sexual harassment and sexual violence are normalized as a means for marking who belongs and who does not belong to a gendered space. The sex-segregated culture of sports, unfolding as it does within a racist framework risks producing women as “to-be-raped” and black men in particular as latent-rapist.

So – we might ask writers addressing rape in the sports world to consider whether or not their reporting participates in the above structures or fights against them.

Do we have to wait for a rape victim to file charges for a sports journalist to report on women in the sports world? To take up the question of the sports world’s sexism? Because as long as that’s the case, as long as women are naturalized as a sub-species by sports media – that media collaborates in creating the conditions of possibility for the normalization of sexual violence.

Sexing the Stop: Rousey vs McMann

Ronda Rousey, Sara McMann

Ronda Rousey and Sara McMann came out swinging, and for a little while it looked like we were going to have an excellent and entertaining fight. But soon Rousey had McMann against the fence – and while McMann defended herself well against a take-down, Rousey kneed McMann’s body – hard. On taking a shot to her liver, McMann dropped to her hands and knees. Before much else could happen, the referee stopped the fight. Did he stop the fight too soon? It certainly felt preliminary to the crowd and to a lot of fans who, of course, tweeted their frustration

Controversial decisions happen – the same referee had just stopped another fight late, allowing TJ Waldburger to take an astonishing beating from Mike Pyle: there was a moment when Waldburger appeared to flicker out of consciousness. And maybe that experience pushed Herb Dean to take a pre-emptive step which he might not otherwise have done.

Given the importance of the fight (it was long anticipated, it was a championship fight and the main event), and given the quality of that opening minute – it is natural for us to cry foul when the drama is cut short. Surely McMann should have been given more of a chance to stand up?

Given that it was a women’s fight, Dean’s decision brings out into the public something many women athletes and fans of women’s sports know well. Gender difference impacts how referees see women athletes. And gender difference also impacts how spectators see refereeing decisions. It can be hard to distinguish between these two things in reading a referee’s decision.

Did Dean allow himself to give in to the social conditioning which tells us that women are to be protected? On the football pitch, especially at the lower levels, referees will stop play over the smallest thing – assuming that any time a woman falls over she must be hurt; or, one encounters the opposite problem – referees will let women foul each other viciously on the assumption that anger between two teams over cynical play won’t erupt into dangerous play, or a fight. (My arm was broken in just such a match.) Of course, sometimes poor refereeing is just that – someone times one wants to see such things as about gender when, in fact, decisions will have been shaped by lots of other things. Gender might be the story, it might be a part of the story, it might also be how we see the story – sexism is not necessarily to blame for a crap decision made by a male referee working a women’s fight. The question is: how do we know where gender fits into our reading, our assessment of how women athletes are treated?

In general, we do not get to directly contrast refereeing in men’s and women’s sports. Until the UFC absorbed women into its professional world, we didn’t see – on the same night, on television and in the same hour – the same referee making decisions about men and women.

Immediately after the fight, McMann very graciously reminded people that the referee is there to protect the fighters; that this responsibility is paramount. Of course, this is why people – including the television announcers – were concerned about how long it took Dean to stop Pyle vs Waldburger. Why would Dean wait so long to stop one fight, and then stop the other so quickly, so reflexively? The contrast between the two refereeing decisions is stark.

The placement of women within a relatively desegregated context allows us to think the decisions together. And also to think about our investments in a fight, as a gendered story. For example: perhaps we ought to ask ourselves why, in general, we are more ready to accept the expression of brutality towards a man’s body than towards a woman’s? Or, why, as fans, we need McMann to have the chance to handle that brutality. I’m using the word brutality here (rather than violence) to mean that moment when a fighter is down – perhaps out – and when the opponent swarms, with the aim of “finishing” them. When the fighter losing the fight can barely buster any resistance – and begins to seem helpless. Dean kept the women’s fight – the main event, the last fight of the night – from going there.

And we are wondering: Was it just a conservative decision? If it were men fighting, would he have made that call? Would Dana White be championing it? Is it fair for us read the call as, perhaps, sexist? Or was it just a bad call, overcompensating for another bad call?

Cris Bierrenbach: The Uniform Shot

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The artist Cris Bierrenbach dressed in diverse uniforms, photographed herself, and then fired shots at the self-portraits, defacing each. “Fired” (2013) uses the different meanings of that word to provide a disturbing comment on labor, gender and precarity. Wedged into this project is a photograph of the artist in the uniform of Brazil’s national team. A given: women footballers in Brazil are vulnerable in the same way that ordinary women are vulnerable. That is not something you would assume if a male artist made this gesture to the national team. This work has me thinking about the relationship between gender and violence in experiences of/stories about the men’s game, and the violence that women encounter in the world as the background (the given) against which they play.  The artist is from São Paulo.

the rape of a teammate

In January 2013, two athletes sexually assaulted a co-worker and teammate.

The three members of the Lloyd Irvin martial arts academy ran into each other at a New Year’s Eve party at a nightclub. One teammate had too much to drink and didn’t want to drive home. The others offered this person a ride, but instead of bringing their teammate back home, they attacked her in a parking garage. The assault is described in detail in the criminal complaint filed against Matthew Maldonado and Nicholas Schultz: the police could narrate the rape in gruesome detail because security cameras in the parking lot recorded the whole thing. One of the least gruesome passages:

The Complainant then pushed Defendant Schultz off her as her body slumped to the ground with her head still against the wall. Defendant Schultz then advanced toward the Complainant and began to lie on top of her. Defendant Schultz again pulled the Complainant towards him, holding on to her until her body collapsed again, this time her head striking the ground. (from Zack Arnold on Fight Opinion)

As they assaulted their teammate, she fell over, she asked that they stop, she hit her head on the ground and against the wall.  When they finished, the two men left their Brazilian jiu jitsu (bjj) teammate unconscious on the parking lot pavement: it was 38 degrees. There she lay until someone walking by heard her cry for help. Schultz and Maldonado had offered her a ride home; instead of looking after a person they saw just about daily at their gym, they attacked her and left her for dead. As one member of the bjj community put it, they left her there like she was a piece of trash – which is, of course, exactly how other people in that community have talked about her.

When this story broke, it quickly came to light that in 1989 the man running their gym, Lloyd Irvin, had been charged with rape. He’d participated in a gang rape – most of the men involved went to jail. Because he didn’t have intercourse with the victim, this man did not.

This past winter, there was an exodus of fighters from this man’s gym: these athletes left as they learned of yet more harassment of teammates within the gym. This wasn’t a club they wanted any part of; they went public with their outrage. (See Brent Brookhouse’s reporting on Bloody Elbow/SB Nation; listen to Mike Fowler talk about these issues in an interview for Open Mat. That section starts at 1:14.)

This past week, in spite of video evidence of the assault, a jury acquitted the two men of kidnapping and first and second degree sexual assault. A mistrial was declared regarding a misdemeanor charge against Schultz.*

Over the past year, the leader of this gym, the man who’d escaped the rape charge in 1989, has scrambled to try to paper over the scandal of his conduct – much of this story has been acted out through social media, and much of his behavior has only served to confirm him as an abusive coach. People in the Brazilian jiu jitsu and martial arts community have been doing serious soul-searching: a public conversation about rape, violence, aggression and power began almost as soon as the story broke.

For example: from the start Georgette Oden, a bjj practitioner and an Assistant Attorney General in Texas, has been breaking things down for the bjj community on her blog Georgette’s Jiu Jitsu World. Her posts are very helpful to readers who need to understand what sexual assault is, and, more recently, how a jury might acquit defendants and why an acquittal doesn’t mean that the victim wasn’t raped.

Aaron France, a DC Police Detective who is also a bjj coach addressed the case in a Facebook post that has since been shared on Reddit and on blogs. He attended as much of the trial as he could, and saw the video evidence. When Maldonado was acquitted, some people were eager to celebrate this as a declaration of his innocence. France writes:

Ask yourself; if this happened to your wife, your daughter, your girlfriend, your sister, or even a close female friend, would you advocate Maldonado’s innocence? Most of you would be calling for blood. Some of you would even take it yourselves. So if we were to look at Maldonado’s behavior, put criminal implications aside and give him the benefit of the doubt, here’s the best thing we can say about him… He had sex with a woman who was intoxicated to the point where she could not walk, and afterwards he treated her like a piece of trash, by leaving her half naked on the cement floor of a parking garage, in the middle of the night, when it was barely above freezing.

And that woman? She was his “teammate.” Not many people outside of the Brazilian jiu jitsu Community can comprehend the bond that develops between training partners, due to the level of trust that training partners are required to develop in each other.

…Yet there are a few people who believe that we should let him back into the Brazilian jiu jitsu community. These people believe that he should be allowed to continue to sharpen his skills, learning to choke people and cause their joints to stop functioning. They apparently believe that he should be allowed to do this in the presence of women and children. How can you possibly ever trust this man not to just hang onto a choke, or not hold an armbar after you tap? He’s already demonstrated a propensity to do what he wants with another persons body, why should we believe it ends with sex?

That statement is preceded by a sobering account of the steps required to bring a rape case to trial: that it went to trial, he explains, has to be valued as a certain small measure of justice. Juries, he writes – citing the Rodney King verdict – don’t always get things right.

He reminds his readers that people who commit sexual assault pose a danger to everyone around them. It is wrong, he points out, to assume that the violence of their behavior towards a woman is somehow unique to their relationships with women. It is evidence of how they treat people. Martial arts students are physically vulnerable to each other; an irresponsible training partner will hurt the people in his world.

The Gracie brothers (members of the first family of Brazilian jiu-jitsu) posted a sincere and thoughtful discussion of the crisis to their popular Youtube channel in January. In that discussion they emphasize the challenge of martial arts training: it can either produce a balanced, peaceful athlete or an aggressive and antagonistic one. They, too, stress the vulnerability of training partners – not women, mind you: but all of the people with whom you study a martial art.

The story of the abusive environment cultivated by Lloyd Irvin has scarcely left the MMA bubble, however. If it were not for Bloody Elbow’s contributions to SB Nation, I’m not sure this story would have any presence at all in sports media more broadly. It surely deserves much more attention than it’s gotten.

It deserves attention because the victims, the abusers, the bystanders and the defenders were all teammates and training partners. There are few sports communities in which such a thing is possible. And to outsiders, such a thing is truly remarkable, given the nature of the sport we are talking about. In the U.S., young women grapple against young men in high school competition – those women expand their training into bjj, boxing, Muay Thai, MMA. Men can get used to training alongside and sparring with women pretty quickly, people enjoy having women compete on the same card as men, representing their gym in team competition and in amateur and semi-pro competition. Martial arts competitions are heterogeneous – men and women are both a part of the sport spectacle. They are athletes, fans, trainers and referees.

As Ryan Hall writes in his “Open Letter to the Martial Arts Community,” “I am surrounded by people I respect not only as fighters and instructors, but as men and women, as human beings. I feel incredibly fortunate.”

As authoritarian and hierarchical as gyms can be – and by all reports Lloyd Irvin’s gym was and is a frightening example of that – they can also be something else (this is the subject of Hall’s open letter). A gym can be a place of humility and respect, a socially level space in which people commit to supporting each other as they attempt to figure out their goals, and help each other to meet them. This assault represents a crisis within the martial arts community not because it seems to express a form of masculine aggression latent to the sport (which is how we tend to frame rape cases involving football players) but because it betrays the value that define it.

Sexual violence between members of the same community is engineered to either expel the victim from that community or to make her sexual subjection a condition of her membership. Unlike the women assaulted by football players in the stories that make national headlines, the woman assaulted in this story was not only a fellow teammate; she was also a fellow employee.

There can be no assertion that rape culture is somehow endemic or specific to a sport that is desegregated: a sexual assault in that environment is like a sexual assault in any environment in which the victim knows, and has some kind of relationship to her attacker. It isn’t the sexism of the sport that’s at issue, it’s the sexism of that gym-space, and the sexism of the world. These are, in fact, the conditions under which most sexual assaults happen. A person might be attacked by her co-worker, a member of the same military unit, she might be attacked by her boss, a teacher. A member of her family. And, actually, where these football stories are concerned: these young women are not outsiders. They are, almost universally, fellow students at the same high school or university.

Of course every community must work towards a world in which there is no sexual assault. Every instance makes us ask why and how. With regards the case at hand, we must consider how little justice there is for victims of sexual assault and how much harder such cases can be for those assaulted by people they know. (Would that jury have acquitted those two men if they were strangers to the woman they attacked? In what world do you leave a consenting sexual partner on the ground, outside in the winter when she is too drunk to even sit up?)

This case shows us that we need to consider how should we respond to such a profound transgression of the athlete’s community.

We must work not only to make another attack less likely, but also to embrace the person attacked: to refuse to exile and shame her. To refuse complicity with narratives which make the presence of women within the sporting community into the problem, the “cause.” We must make room for conversations about sex, violence and power.

The football-centered conversations about rape just haven’t been compelling to me. Too often, such conversations are anchored in a deeply patriarchal language that re-inscribes the social vulnerability of women to masculine aggression. And while you will see the shadow of that mindset creep into the Gracie brother’s discourse, overall, the conversation that they and Oden and Hall and others have been forwarding is actually centered on the integrity of fighting, as an art that defines a community.

At the heart of a fight is a consensual relation to violence. That consensus is not merely an agreement to fight: it is also an agreement to stop fighting when one fighter submits to the other and “taps out.”

That rape was a violation of the bonds of trust and dependence that make that sport even thinkable.

Bloody Elbow reported in February that Lloyd Irvin’s best fighters left when one of the women on the team confided in a teammate that she’d been subjected to classic harassment that was moving towards sexual coercion. She needed help and advice.

In how many sports does a woman talk to a man, as a teammate, about this?

That one gesture – in which a junior woman athlete turns to a male colleague – and that one productive response – athletes united in their outrage – demonstrates how things might go: within at least the community of fighters invested in a not-sexist training space, the problem isn’t men, and it isn’t women. The problem is the sexist, authoritarian leader. That authoritarian figure is as much as a problem for men as for women.

There is no such thing as a “rape culture” unique to “jock culture” – it is only (only!) the deep, dramatic segregation of football as a purely masculine space that makes the Steubenville-like stories of social, public group attacks on women feel somehow unique to the sport. I wonder if one attraction to that phrase “rape culture” isn’t the way it lets us disavow the fact that gender segregation builds sexual violence into a social structure. You won’t find an authoritarian patriarchal space that doesn’t in some way produce the conditions of possibility for this kind of attack, a kind of violence that partners well with homophobic attacks on genderqueer people.

Making this story all the harder to tell is the ferociousness of public ignorance about sex and power.

I imagine that people who join together in sexual assaults against people who are incapacitated (by alcohol, by drugs – sometimes by drugs given to them with malicious intent) are people who would not dare to consider their relationship to eroticism, to sex, and to pleasure.

I imagine that these are people who do not know how to participate in a conversation about sex and power. These are people who cannot solicit consent from a sexual partner – they are too afraid to ask even themselves what it is they are seeking in a sexual encounter that is as much with their male teammates as it is against the woman they are attacking. Even in the community of athletes trying to do the right thing, many stay away from the subject of rape, harassment and sexism. Few know how to talk about it.

I end with this set of observations because Irvin’s defense of the 1989 assault seems to amount to calling the woman a whore, describing the attack as a group “pulling a train” on a “freak” who then changed her mind. And that’s how many people want to think of the NYE victim. Would these men even know what consensual group sex within a BDSM context even looks like? Of course not.

Within the sports media community there is almost no room for bringing a sexually progressive voice to bear on this topic.

People who play with those scripts (group encounters, D/s, bondage etc.) tend to be quite practical about sex – working knowingly towards wisdom, often within pedagogical relationships with more experienced people. It is, in fact, entirely possible to seek out sexual communities that give you something like what a gym promises: A better understanding of one’s body, one’s desires and ambitions, a social intimacy not bound by romantic/domestic partnership.

Sexually progressive folks can be extraordinarily careful about consent and perfectly able to make that carefulness sexy. I wonder if the jury that acquitted those two guys have any idea what a consensual three-way looks like? Sex-phobic people will imagine it is people out of their wits going at it in a back alley, so blind drunk because no one would dare do such a thing sober so if you are that drunk isn’t that what you were looking for? If we can’t trust a jury to do the right thing, it is perhaps because a jury of one’s peers isn’t likely to be able to think through the relationship between sex, power and violence.

For me, this is one of the horrifying things about heteromasculinist, sexist, homophobic, anti-sex spaces. They produce a fantasy of community, of collective identity but at the violent expense of specific bodies. They are driven by a terror of that-which-they-are-not. A fear of the bodies against which they define themselves. Sex becomes an instrument for producing specific bodies as socially abject.

In the totally segregated universe of football, the communal aftershock is not felt deeply enough. But in the bjj community, it seems at least within some quarters, this event has led to serious, serious soul-searching and an affirmation of the sport’s ethos, an interrogation of the power structures that distinguish one gym from the next, and an affirmation of shared vulnerability as not a weakness but a value. A thoughtful relationship to consent and violence is, in other words, built into the sport’s heart. This, I think, might be one reason why so many women enjoy belonging to this particular sports community. Because on the mat, no really does means no.

*Revised Nov 7 as jury decision came down right after this was posted.

%d bloggers like this: