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.

Capturing Semenya

As the women’s 800m approaches, headlines about Caster Semenya proliferate — once again, seven years after she won the World Championship in the 800m and became a news headline, we have been saturated with “debates” about her presence on the track. This year, these stories unfold in striking contrast with those celebrating other athletes who dominate their events. Where Usain Bolt’s singularities (at 6’5″ he is unusually tall for a sprinter) are presented as a blessing, hers are presented as a curse. In the past week, feminist writers have pushed back on the bullying of Semenya by the press. (See, for example, Jules Boykoff’s interview with bio-ethicist Katrina Karkasis, Kate Fagan’s op-ed on the racism and sexism which pattern writing about Semenya.)  The story of Semenya has been produced as the worst kind of clickbait and so, as exhausted as many of us are by seven years of making the same intervention over the same athlete, we cannot sit this news cycle out — we’ve been drawn, again, into the same fight.

This year, I notice that stories about Semenya tend to be illustrated by images in which she faces the camera. We see her broad shoulders, her braids, her serious face. Her speed puts her in the media’s view, but the preferred image of Semenya communicates not speed but strength. While the image of Usain Bolt’s lead is celebrated as already iconic, the image of Semenya’s physique circulates as a warning. It is used to present Semenya’s presence on the track as “unfair.”

RIOEC8F00STV1_1536x864-1

Iconic photo of Bolt’s lead.

Images of Semenya running, especially when those images are shot from the side of the track, illustrate her speed and also affirm her context: the women’s 800m. The dominant frontal framing of her image, however, excludes her competitors or leaves them out of focus — a visual tactic which affirms the “truth” of sexist/racist vision that cannot see her as a woman.

Ledecky Leading

The media approaches Katie Ledecky’s superdominance in the pool with a giddy enthusiasm. Editors seem to enjoy illustrating the distance that Ledecky puts between herself and everyone else, and how Usain Bolt manages to come from behind in the world’s fastest sprint. Ledecky’s stamina is a miracle, Bolt’s stride expresses the blessing of his freakish height. The potential of Semenya’s speed on the track, however, has been narrated as a “ticking time bomb” and a threat “to the future of gender based athletics.” Over the image of Semenya’s broad shoulders Slate’s editors drape the question, “Should Semenya be allowed to compete against women?

Behind that question is the long story of the attempt to create a “fair” gender test, given that gender differences are not reducible to any single aspect of a person’s being. Debate about gender testing has been staged almost exclusively around Semenya since she first came onto the world’s stage in 2009.

This attention to Semenya and the IAAF’s (the recently suspended) use of testosterone levels to police women athletes has distracted people from the myriad of other rules which enforce gender segregation.

To ask if Semenya should be allowed to run against women, for example, suggests that Semenya has some other option. Even if a woman runner wanted to compete against men, even if such competitions were allowed (they aren’t), that athlete’s performances against men would not qualify her for events like the Olympics even if she ran faster than all the men in the world. Not only would such a thing not “count” as a women’s world record, it would not qualify her for the Olympics in any gender category. Women are not only not allowed to run against men, in some ways, they are not allowed to run with them.

IAAF regulations regarding qualification for the Olympics are quite clear on this:

Performances achieved in mixed competitions in track events will not be accepted. Exceptionally, in accordance with IAAF Rule 147, performances achieved in events of 5000m and 10,000m may be accepted in circumstances where there were insufficient athletes of one or both genders competing to justify the conduct of separate races and there was no pacing or assistance given by an athlete(s) of one gender to an athlete(s) of the other gender. [IAAF Rio Qualification and Systems Standards]

The prohibition of cross-gender pacing was produced to address the fact that men and women often run alongside each other in longer distances, especially the marathon. A few years back, disturbed by the spectacle of this athletic miscegenation (in sports, men and women are treated as a different species in a manner that closely resembles white supremacist and eugenic discourse about racial difference), IAAF officials decided to distinguish world records set by women in women-only races from records set by women running in “mixed” races (where the fastest women are running with, and being paced by men). Records set by women in “mixed” races should not, according to the IAAF, be understood as women’s records. The IAAF treats pacing — the situation of every runner who is not the fastest on the track — as a form of unfairness only when the men and women are on the track together. And so mixed races cannot be used to qualify for the Olympics.*

There is no good reason for this rule.

Women are prohibited from being paced by men because the fastest men make the fastest women faster. Top women athletes in a range of sports — from running to soccer to judo — train alongside and against men. So, why can’t women run with them? Why don’t women’s achievements in competitions that include men count as a women’s achievements? If mixed-gender pacing is so wrong, why allow it in training?

The spectacle of mixed gender racing unravels fascistic models of sex/gender difference and sex/gender purity.  Every woman runner competes with the lie that men are faster than women. That fiction can only be maintained by ensuring that men and women never run with each other — when men and women run with each other, they scale down each other’s understanding of their differences.

The truth is: the fastest men are faster than the fastest women. Some men are faster than all women and most men, but some women are also faster than most men. Most men reading these sentences, for example, are quite a bit slower than Caster Semenya — most men reading these sentences are, in fact, quite a bit slower than the slowest women running her event in Rio.

[For example: Mary Keitany finished the 2015 NYC Marathon in 2:24:25. This time was the 19th fastest overall that year, and about fourteen minutes behind Stanley Biwot’s winning performance. She finished, in other words, 19th in a field of nearly 50,000 people. She ran the marathon faster than all the women and faster than about 28,880 men. Keitany started the race 30 minutes before the men: her time would likely have been faster had she been running with the professional men. Marathon starts are staggered: people are lined up according to their pace. It is only at the “professional” level that men and women are segregated from each other.

A fun fact, in 2015, a slightly higher percentage of women completed the NYC marathon than men.]

Protecting Women from Each Other

The IAAF presents its prohibition against cross-gender pacing as a defense of the integrity of women’s running events. The suppression of the fastest women’s capacity for speed by the prohibition of cross-gender pacing in long distance running is not, however, in women’s interest.

Arguments for Semenya’s exile from sports are not unlike that stupid rule. As sporting bodies confront the fact (and this is a fact!) that there is not one isolatable element which “causes” men to the men and women to be women, they are losing their ability to police the difference between men and women. That policing is now clearly visible as unethical: it is categorically unfair by every measure of sporting fairness.

Bioethicist Karkazis explains:

So-called sex testing policies have been around for decades and are aimed at controlling sex and policing who can legitimately compete as a woman. All of the policies, which rely on an individual criterion—for example, chromosomes—to determine women’s eligibility, have been based on the faulty assumption that any singular marker of sex is adequate to classify people as male or female. Because no one sex marker is definitive, the policies have always unfairly excluded some women.

Sports governing bodies have said they abandoned sex testing in the 1990s. But they clung to a reserve clause allowing them to investigate any woman they deem “suspicious.” They investigated Caster Semenya [in 2009] during the period the policies were “abandoned.”

Despite the scientific-sounding rationale about competitive advantage, only the screening criterion has changed; it’s now testosterone levels. Unlike chromosomes,T levels can be manipulated, and so for the first time women are required—effectively coerced—to change their bodies to maintain eligibility, consequently “violat[ing] ethical standards of clinical practice and constitut[ing] a biomedical violence.” Policymakers nevertheless characterize the regulation as “progressive.”

Note that no other extraordinary athlete has been singled out with such determination for this form of exile or medical intervention — not Michael Phelps, not Katie Ledecky, not Usain Bolt, and not Simone Biles. Each of these Olympians is arguable more dominant in their sports that Semenya is in hers; Phelps and Bolt, furthermore, have maintained their dominance over a long stretch of time.

The US women’s national soccer team, which for decades has advanced to the semifinals or finals of every major international tournament (but not this one!), is not banned from international competition for the massive advantage the team enjoys by virtue of the fact that the USSF is not as sexist or as corrupt as Brazil, Spain, Chile or Mexico’s federations, which hobble their women’s teams. If journalists and pundits actually cared about “protecting” the integrity women’s sports they might investigate the intersection of corruption and sexism in sports. Sexism and corruption actually harm women’s sports. Gender variance enhances them.

Competitive sports are about difference. They produce differences in speed, distance and skill. Women are quite different from each other. Men are also quite different from each other. Usain Bolt’s physical difference from his competitors is actually very similar to Caster Semenya’s difference from hers (they both look stronger than everyone else). In sports, men’s physical differences from each other do not lead to their disqualification. Usain Bolt is so tall (6’5″) that he covers his distance in fewer steps than do his competitors. This is one of the many things that makes Bolt so fast. It does not make him so much of a man that he has an “unfair” advantage over other men. It makes him into a hero, not a monster.

Women athletes who perform above people’s expectations regarding women’s capacity — especially when they are black — are scrutinized not as athletes, but as women. Meaning: they are evaluated according to a racist and sexist sense of what defines women. Any aspect of her being which defies that image, which is in conflict with cultural notions about what makes a woman a woman is at risk of being identified as having “unfair” advantage — she is, in this view, a threat to other women.

As Kate Fagan argues, in conversation about the rules maintaining sex segregation in sports, where those conversations are not informed by expertise regarding sex/gender differences, women’s sports has increasingly been presented as a “protected category.” This has, she points out, gotten worse as sports federations have been forced to confront the bad intentions (and bad science) behind any number of gender tests. Fagan writes:

This “conversation” is supposedly about fairness and protection. Or, rather, protecting female athletes whose appearance reflects society’s standard of femininity. Ross Tucker, a South African professor of exercise physiology who has banged the drum the loudest (and who did not respond to multiple email requests for an interview), offered this quote to the Guardian: “If Semenya can eventually run 1:51 she is better than [Usain] Bolt comparatively. But Bolt doesn’t compete in a protected category for people with fast-twitch muscle fibers. He isn’t subjected to the same classification issues as Semenya is by virtue of the fact we’re trying to protect women.”

Who are women being protected from in this instance, Fagan asks, if not each other?

Malcolm Gladwell and Nicholas Thompson indulge the same line of thinking in an awful conversation published recently in The New Yorker. Gladwell explains to Thompson,

no one is saying that Caster Semenya shouldn’t be able to compete. People are only saying that women’s athletics—as a “protected category”—requires her to have testosterone levels in line with her competitors’.

The two non-experts express their agreement with what “people are saying” and proceed to dress up their sexism with technical-sounding bullshit about testosterone, hyperandrogenism and gender difference. They discourse about these issues as if it were self-evident that all women athletes should have testosterone “in line with her competitors” even though (for example) no such requirement is made of men. Gladwell and Thompson stage this conversation without any meaningful discussion of the decision issued by the International Court for Arbitration in Sports, which supported Indian athlete Dutee Chand’s challenge to IAAF/IOC rules which would require women with high T-levels to take hormone suppressants or face a lifetime ban.

Runner’s World published a terrific breakdown of CAS’s decision:

What did the CAS decide?

First, the court decided that the Hyperandrogenism Regulations are clearly discriminatory, in violation of the IAAF and IOC charters, because they apply only to women. There is no equivalent rule disqualifying high-T men from competition. Second, both Chand and the IAAF agreed that there should be a distinct female category of competition, and such competition should be “fair.” Third, the Hyperandrogenism Regulations are unlike other athletic bans in that they are essentially a lifetime ban, not a time-limited ban. Fourth, Chand failed to prove that a high-T woman taking estrogen and other female hormones would suffer a significant decline in performance.

Fifth and most important, the IAAF failed to establish that a woman born with naturally high testosterone levels has a significant performance advantage over other women

Unfettered by the weight of the science on this issue, uninterested in the rationale behind the decisions of the juridical bodies that determine what constitutes fairness in sports, Gladwell and Thompson borrow from the arbitrary nature of sports structures to explain why Semenya should not be allowed to compete. In an extraordinary bit of group masturbation, Gladwell and Thompson cite some more men to make Semenya’s exclusion appear as if it were necessary to maintain the structure of athletics. Again, Gladwell:

People need to understand that an athletic competition has to have rules; otherwise there can be no competition. David Epstein wrote a characteristically brilliant piece for Scientific American last week in which he quoted the philosopher Bernard Suits, who once described sports as “the voluntary acceptance of unnecessary obstacles.” And that’s what’s at issue here. Semenya is equipped with an extraordinary and anomalous genetic advantage. The previous policy of international track was that she could compete as a woman if she took medication to lower her testosterone to “normal” levels. That restriction has now been lifted. And so we have a situation where one woman, born with the biological equivalent of a turbocharger, is now being allowed to “compete” against the ninety-nine per cent of women who have no such advantage.

At about this point Gladwell cites Ross Tucker (the man Fagan cites as beating the testosterone drum the loudest), who explains,

We have a separate category for women because without it, no women would even make the Olympic Games (with the exception of equestrian). Most of the women’s world records, even doped, lie outside the top 5000 times run by men. Radcliffe’s marathon WR, for instance, is beaten by between 250 and 300 men per year. Without a women’s category, elite sport would be exclusively male.

Gladwell glides from the arbitrary nature of sports (“the voluntary acceptance of unnecessary obstacles”) to the subject of the difference between men and women in order to naturalize the expulsion of women from the category of women’s sports. This suggests, for example, that the contrived structure of track and field (why race 800 and not 850 meters?) — and an athlete’s “voluntary agreement” to compete within such a structure is akin to, say, one’s participation in sports as a man or a woman. This is, on its face, a stupid comparison.

(There is more nuttiness to the Tucker passage Gladwell cites: Why, in this imaginary world in which there is no “category for women,” would it be only the odd woman riding a horse who might qualify for the Olympics!? Why not archery? Or synchronized swimming? Or rhythmic gymnastics? Or wrestling? What about Ledecky, whose 1500m freestyle is already in the zone of men’s times? It’s quackery!)

This end-of-women’s-sports fantasy imposes on women’s sports a surprising fragility given that almost every women’s sport we can think of has survived being actively suppressed by men with arbitrary regulations and outright bans (limiting, for example, women’s tennis matches to three sets instead of five; barring women from marathons, virtually outlawing women’s soccer).

Women’s sports will not disappear because women with different hormone levels are allowed to compete against each other. PERIOD.

Women’s sports is not a “protected category.” It is, instead, the category that takes the most beatings.

Athletes compete as women by virtue of the alignment of their identity (as they perceive it, as others perceive it) with this already-existing category of gender. That alignment is not stable; it is a site of constant negotiation. And it is compulsory. We do not have women’s sports because women need to be protected from men. We have women sports because the world has women athletes. We also have women’s sports because gender difference is such a powerful, defining aspect of our experience of being in a body that we enjoy – as athletes and as spectators — the spectacle of gendered subjects in competition with each other as gendered subjects. Quite a few of us, furthermore, also enjoy direct physical competition across gender and know to our bones that women must be allowed to lose to men in order to win against them. And so when it comes to mixed-gender competition, there are a lot of us out here who say: bring it.

As IAAF regulations stigmatizing the speed of women racing against men show us, protecting women from direct physical competition against men holds women back. (Lindsey Vonn, the downhill skier, has bumped up against even more intense rules whose explicit aim is to slow women down. Men’s and women’s courses are mapped out differently, women’s courses are designed to be slower. When Vonn petitioned to race against men, she was petitioning to be allowed to race the same course as men — in order to achieve faster times. That petition was denied.)

The only thing worse than these rules — which do nothing other than slow women down — is the attempt to root out from women all traces of their own masculinity — the shaming and humiliation of women on this score has got to stop.

Women’s sports is not a defensive structure from which men are excluded so that women might flourish. It is, in fact, the opposite of this: it is, potentially, a radically inclusive space which has the capacity to destroy the public’s ideas about gender and gender difference precisely because gender is always in play in women’s sports in ways that it is not in men’s sports (with a few exceptions — e.g. figure skating). Because men have been so committed to the “end of women’s sports” for so long, women’s sports thrives in the zone of destruction. It has its own character thanks to the gender trouble at its origin. If women’s sports has one job that really is different from men’s sports, it is the destruction of sex/gender difference. Men’s sports (with a few exceptions which prove the rule) reinforce ideologies of gender difference. Women’s sports destroy them.

We must  take notice of that fact that for seven years the conversation about the relationship between gender difference and women’s sports has been staged exclusively around the body of Caster Semenya, even though there are other women athletes who are more dominant in their sports than Semenya and even though there are other very problematic gender-based rules in sports. Pundits choose Semenya’s story over these other subjects. Her broad shoulders, her hairstyle, her manner of dress, her sexuality — the queer, black female masculinity which she presents  — allows these pundits the cheap thrill of unveiling a queer interloper. Malcolm Gladwell and Nicholas Thompson refer to her body with an invasive clinical language that masks their ignorance about it. This casual discussion of physical difference is an appalling rhetorical echo of the sexual violence of lynching campaigns (which were often staged in the name of protecting white womanhood). It resonates, too, with the murderous violence directed at gender non-conforming people the world over.

I have not seen anything like this sustained level of aggression in reporting on Katie Ledecky, whose dominance in her sport is much more spectacular than Semenya’s. Where Ledecky is subject to hushed speculation (“is she like Semenya?”), the media approaches Semenya as if she were a walking scandal. What makes one athlete’s superdominance appear like victory, and another like theft — what makes people agree on the need to protect one kind of athlete from another, if not the queerness of her blackness?

The Sex of Speed

We do not think of a race as a particularly gendered event. A race has an absolute clarity. This is its defining element: the spectator thrills in the event’s clarity, its definition. Someone wins, everyone else loses. The win and the loss are decisive.

This is quite different from obviously gendered sports like gymnastics and figure skating — in which the performance of gender is built into categories of judgment. These events are scored by a panel of experts. They are judged, and the moment of judgment is a part of these sports’ theatrics. The subjective nature of the way those athletes are judged is a part of that sport’s drama. The theater of these sports is not about things that are measurable (speed, distance, strength), but rather an unattainable perfection. The “perfect ten” must be elusive: once achieved it risks becoming not perfection but, instead, a standard. And so when perfect scores started to populate its scoreboards, the standards of measurement in gymnastics were changed. (This is the subject of Dvora Meyers’ The End of the Perfect 10.) The sport plays with a sense of flawlessness — a flawlessness which one can approach but never actually achieve.

Katie Ledecky and Caster Semenya’s performances are not about flawlessness. They are, instead, about the capacity for speed, pure and simple. Are they the fastest? Are they faster that all those who have ever raced?  The answer to the former is yes, but the answer to the latter is no. One is taught to think that they are not the fastest ever because are they are women. What if we saw this difference differently? All men who are not Usain Bolt are slower than Usain Bolt; this is not because Usain Bolt is more of a man than they are. It is, quite simply, because he is faster.

Of course gender matters — we enjoy watching women compete. It is important enough for us to have fought quite hard, in fact, for the right to watch women compete against each other.

Women athletes who compete in sports which appear to be about absolutes, which promise the spectator a decisive result surface the fictive elements of their sport’s certainties and guarantees — what does it mean to be the fastest woman, but not the fastest person? What is a woman? Is that what prevents her from being faster? How do we know what that thing holding her back is?

Caster Semenya’s speed is mute reply to that question. Women who are the fastest and strongest stir up the matter around them. They open up new spaces of differences when they stretch their lead over the field. That space is gendered — and yes, the boundaries which define that space are porous. A handful of athletes in a lifetime slip through that gendered net. Whether that moment is figured by sports officials and the press as a kind of transcendence or as crime for which she must be punished has everything to do with the color of the athlete’s skin.

If Caster Semenya has the capacity to defy people’s sense of how fast a woman can run, let us hope she does that and more. Let us hope she sets one world record after another, and that these records stand for a hundred years as a cosmic payback for the shit she’s been through, the shit every woman has been through— cis, trans, black, brown, poor, gay, promiscuous, pregnant, abortive, sick, over-worked, underpaid and pissed-off.

Let her leave her sisters in the dust and laugh her way across the finish line.

 

[*I am using the word “pacing” in a non-technical way to refer to how one’s pace is set by the people in front of you. Within running sports, “pacing” often means something more specific: the use of a runner to set a fast pace for a race’s initial laps. These runners usually contract to run a certain pace and distance, and drop out of the race. International competitions (excepting the Olympics) allow for the use of pace-setters or “rabbits”: these runners will go in front of the pack and set a goal pace — this wards off the kind of tactical races one saw in these Olympics (which often leads to slow times). This is different from the “frontrunner.” The frontrunner aims to win the race, a pace-setter/rabbit aims to make the entire race faster. IAAF rules which do not recognize times achieved by women in mixed gender formats treat women as having been illegally paced by men. Thought I ought to add this, as you could see what not having a pace-setter means: so many of the middle and long distance races at the Rio Olympics were very slow. It also demonstrates how much pacing is a part of the sport. They are, today, a very important part of creating the conditions of possibility for setting world records. For more on “rabbiting,” read this post from a runner who has done it: Lauren Fleshman.]

Passions United, a review

The bored room.

A FIFA boardroom, in which passions are united.

United Passions is fascinating. Not as a movie, of course. FIFA’s 30 million-dollar self-portrait is, instead, fascinating evidence. FIFA leaves its fingerprints on every aspect of the work’s form and content.

Structurally, the film stages a bold intervention against story-telling practice. United Passions demands that cinema catch up with the times: the dominant narrative form used by the people who govern our lives from conference rooms is that of the bullet-point presentation. This biography of a corporation thus appropriately takes the form of Powerpoint Cinema.

Blocks of information are presented in a static visual form, usually in a manner that is not entirely unlike this sentence: a passive presentation of the way things are. Randomly-generated transitions move the viewer from one information block to the next. A cause-effect relationship will be implied by the flow of one slide to the next. Sequencing is, in and of itself, all one needs in terms of structure. Information flashes across the screen; the audience is spared the burden of understanding and insight. This presentation of information is usually accompanied by an image grabbed through a google search.

One might call this a “lie-back-and-think-of England” approach to one’s audience.

This phrase, “lie-back-and-think-of England,” for the reader lucky enough to not know, refers to the advice given to women regarding the inevitability of sexual coercion in their married lives. United Passions gives us a new spin on that phrase, as several bullet points are dedicated to demonizing the men of the English Football Association. The English FA’s pomposity is here developed as a background — perhaps the only available background — against which FIFA leadership might indulge the idea that they are merely humble servants to the beautiful game. FIFA/the English FA: this the film’s most compelling face-off. Or perhaps I should say, “most compelling bullet-point sequence.”  The only thing that unites the passions of FIFA’s founding characters is their shared hatred of that other imperialist congress of entitled white assholes. (To be clear, true to its form, this is indicated in the film, rather than, say, written and acted.)

Passions United is admirably open about the scale of self-serving ambition that lies at the root of the organization. FIFA was founded, we are told, for the sole purpose of having total control over the game everywhere such control matters, mainly because a few European men were annoyed that a few English men were bitchy to them. Men in suits, largely indistinguishable from each other, declare that the only rules of the game that will matter are their rules, that the only associations that matter will be FIFA associations. Voilá! FIFA Article I: Football will not exist outside of FIFA. This naked desire for monopoly is presented by the film’s swelling score as a “win” for the game.

Sprinkled throughout Passions United (I can’t get enough of this title) is imaginative thinking which presents FIFA’s so-called political neutrality as a simultaneously anti-fascist and populist politics — e.g. a party sequence in which an English FA executive spews racist and sexist nonsense at a horrified woman (Rimet’s daughter, more on her below), a bizarre boardroom scene that recycles debunked myths regarding wartime matches (these stories are also so badly told that one can’t actually follow them anyway, so their veracity is perhaps less an issue than their coherence). These moments are reassuringly familiar as staple elements of FIFA’s pantry: bad faith and pure bullshit.

Of course, as a feminist football critic, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that women are not only not forgotten by United Passions, they are all over its Powerpoint script, as is, shall we say, the idea of Africa.

The film confirms something we have long suspected: women and Africa occupy similar, even perhaps the same symbolic territory for FIFA. The film wonderfully maps out FIFA’s psychopathology so that we might better understand the exact roles that women and Africa play in the organization’s self-understanding. Women and Africa appear in United Passions as spaces of conquest, ownership, and creepy intimacy.

Africa functions as a scapegoat for FIFA’s corruption. One scene (one bullet-point) identifies Africa’s increased participation in FIFA as a “pandora’s box”—Africa functions in this film at once as a territory to be rescued, the locus of all foul play, as cash cow, and as a trophy. Women operate as both an alibi guaranteeing FIFA’s good intentions and, also, as evidence demonstrating the nature of FIFA’s bad intentions.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The daughters of Jules Rimet and Sepp Blatter are given a shocking amount of screen time.

Nary a scene happens without one or the other fille: they are represented as essential conversation partners—the people with whom Rimet and Blatter talk out all of their ideas—within the script they are, really, the only people that these patriarchs can trust. This creates a little confusion. Normally, when a man talks this much at a woman in a film, it is because she is the object of his sexual interest; possession of her functions as an affirmation of his phallic power.

In short, the father-daughter partnerships of United Passions are startlingly incestuous. This is in no small part because Rimet, played by Gerard Depardieu, constantly puts his hands on his daughter (played by Jemima West), and because in at least one scene, in which the two are standing in an empty, large open public space, they stand so closely that Depardieu’s belly touches poor West. It is also because both women “characters” (that is really not quite the right word for them) function as fluffers: their sole function is to pump up Daddy’s ego. Take one of the most infamous lines of the film—as Rimet worries that playing a World Cup during the Great Depression might be wrong, his daughter says: “When have dreams ever been appropriate?” Indeed.

I appreciate the way that United Passions re-envisions Hollywood casting practices, in which women young enough to be the daughters/granddaughters of the male lead will be cast as their romantic object of interest as if such sexual relationships were fun to watch. Here, at least, that romance is called out as fundamentally incestuous—and it is presented as extremely uncomfortable viewing.

But this perhaps also reflects FIFA’s actual world, in which women can never function as equal partners, or should I say co-conspirators? The only appropriate position for a woman is as a “daughter” to FIFA’s “daddy.” Lie Back…

[I now have to wash out my eyeballs and scrub down my brain.]

Readers totally unfamiliar with the most banal conventions of the sports film might be surprised to learn that the film’s narrative superstructure is provided by a joyous pick-up game, played by children who have taken over a dusty pitch in a worn-out stadium on the edge of a city in an “emerging” nation. They are the children of the world—one of every color, and even one of the “other” gender (fair-skinned, of course). This sequence, which opens and closes the film — a “bullet point” which declares the game’s universal appeal — was filmed in Azerbaijan, whose government generously funded Passions Uniting Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations, and is therefore listed as a production partner.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

This sequence, ironically depicting exactly the kind of game over which FIFA has no control whatsoever, as well as a kind of match (mixed-gender football) that FIFA explicitly prohibits, is the part of United Passions that one might equate with the google-search-produced image dropped into a Powerpoint slide. Of course, at first the lone girl resigns herself to playing goal. And she doesn’t know how to defend, apparently, because she makes barely a gesture to blocking shots—accepting humiliation and uselessness as her gendered lot—until, at the last moment and for no particular reason, she takes the ball, dribbles it up the field, shoots and scores. Her teammates are overwhelmed with joy. “Who would have believed this!” The film’s audience is asked this in a voice-over—an editorial accident superimposes the surprise that FIFA has lasted as long as it has, “accomplished” as much as it has, over an image which suggests a community’s surprise that a girl knows how to kick a ball.

Embedded below, the film’s conclusion. “Enjoy” it while you can.

I Hate FIFA More Than You Do, a poem

I hate Sepp Blatter

as much as I hated Jesse Helms, may that homophobic, racist monster rot in hell.

I hate FIFA

like I hate the contemporary art market, which is run by bankers and assholes.

I hate Sepp Blatter

more than I am disgusted by rotten meat.

I hate FIFA

in exactly the same way that I hate Capitalism.

I hate Sepp Blatter

without the pleasure of hating a villain in a movie.

I hate FIFA

because FIFA hates women.

I hate Sepp Blatter

more than I hate Manchester United, a club I don’t hate as much as one should.

I hate FIFA

with a white-hot passion that seems to know no scale.

I hate Sepp Blatter

only slightly less than I hate the assault on structures that do not service the rich, which is still a high order of hate.

I hate FIFA

more than I hate the sexism of my workplace, which surprises me.

I hate Sepp Blatter

more than you do, unless you aren’t on FIFA’s payroll, in which case

You hate FIFA as much as, maybe even more than I do.

FIFA can’t even handle its SEXISM right

Screen shot 2014-10-28 at 7.16.22 PM

Most sex discrimination complaints break down not around the original discriminatory action, but around retaliation. Threats of retaliation escalate the problem created by the defendant’s sexism. They demonstrate a disregard for the process; they are easier to track and to prove. They are, also, against all sorts of laws.

So how does FIFA respond to the sex discrimination complaint filed by 40 women players, regarding FIFA and CSA’s decision to play the Women’s World Cup on artificial turf?

FIFA threatens players from a handful of FAs that it thinks it can bully—Mexico, Costa Rica and France (which wants to host the next women’s World Cup). Officials told women on these teams to withdraw their names from the complaint or they would not be selected to play and, in the case of France, their country might risk losing its future bid.

Result: said players withdraw their names—and file a retaliation complaint. And the number of players signing on to the original complaint jumps to 62.

Read the retaliation complaint here: Oct 2014 Letter-to-human-rights-tribunal-re-threats-against-players.

Good for the Canadian Gander, Too Good for the Goose

Screen shot 2014-10-05 at 7.39.09 PM

 

Point 33 from Players v CSA/FIA.

Sexism, Hope Solo and “the domestic violence case no one is talking about”

Commercial sports media is unrelenting in its sexism; it is no better or worse than the leagues, teams and schools that give the media its headline fodder. The sports media’s framework for conversations about gender, violence and power is not formed by any feminist intelligence—quite the opposite. The media reproduces an ideology of sex which presents gender difference as a difference in species. On some fundamental level, media pundits love stories about “domestic violence” because it lets pundits (mostly men) luxuriate in a patriarchal language about women’s absolute vulnerability/monstrosity. (Media discourse tends to present women as both at once—the victim who seeks out abuse; the victim who asked for it etc.)

This level of institutional sexism is, in fact, a much bigger problem for women in the sports world than is, say, rape and intimate partner violence. This sexist super-structure not only allows gender-based violence to flourish; it requires the violent demonstration of women’s weakness, women’s essential vulnerability. (Ann Travers describes this matrix as “the sports nexus.”) If, say the coach of your team is demanding sex from his players, exactly where do you go for help? Do you go to your national football association—run by men who are as bad, if not worse? How, people ask, as they tune into 48 hours of weekend broadcasts of men’s sports, are these abusers allowed to get away with treating women like dogs?

A world of absolute gender segregation requires heavy enforcement. That enforcement might take the shape of passive acquiescence to the idea that “this is just the way things are” (“well, I can’t report on the women’s football season because editors don’t think that women’s sports is a story—what can I possibly do?”). It might shape the public’s sense of “interest” (“watching women’s sports is boring”). It might take the form of disavowal — a turning a blind eye (as did various people working with Sandusky at Penn State), or self-censorship (“If I come out my career is over”/”If we hire him, we’ll lose our fan base”). Enforcement takes those shapes, as well as more “active” forms—sex-based harassment and worse (e.g. locker-room abuse, gang rape). In media reporting on gender and violence, the active and the passive combine.

We must be nearing the last act in the “NFL and domestic violence” story cycle: media pundits are now calling for Hope Solo to be pilloried. Fans of the USWNT will know well that Solo is facing assault charges. That story is not new. Washington Post editors might want to claim that this is “the domestic violence case that no one is talking about,” but that claim only works we ignore The Seattle Times, which, for example, has covered the story consistently, and responsibly, through their Seattle Sounders FC blog (Solo plays for Seattle Reign). The fact is that the national news media basically doesn’t give a shit about women’s sports stories unless they can be made into stories about men. Unless Solo’s case, in other words, can appear as a footnote to the Ray Rice story and (worse) absorbed into some broad popular sense that women, in general, are somehow getting away with something.

For the media pundit, all of these cases are all the same. This is, in fact, how sexist and racist ideologies work—the media discourse will move towards a “there are two sides the story” structure. Given that there is no way to produce a story of Janay Palmer as the aggressor from the image of her knocked unconscious, we must find some other woman—a woman who is violent just like men are violent. And thus the turn to Hope Solo, who faces fourth degree assault charges stemming from a (by all available accounts on both sides) chaotic, drunken, violent confrontation with her half-sister and 17-year old nephew. Solo’s case is still pending: it was a brawl—and it’s unclear how it got started. The situation was bad enough, however, to merit the charges advancing through the system. Her teams are standing by her. Seattle Reign have been clear that they’ll take appropriate disciplinary action pending the outcome of the court case.

Solo’s story, it must be noted, does intersect with that of the NFL—Solo’s marriage began with another brawl, also involving a group of people.  The police were called out in the middle of the night to respond to a “disturbance.” Her fiancé, Jerramy Stevens (who played for the Seattle Seahawks), was arrested on suspicion of assaulting Solo. The charges were dropped. It was another woman, not Solo, who went to the hospital with a hip injury, and a third person was also reported as injured. Solo’s brother blamed the fight on a few unknown men who crashed their party. The fight, consistently reported by the media as domestic abuse, involved eight people at a party that “got out of control.” Is Solo a victim or an abuser? Or something else?

The idea that Solo is an abused partner/abusive partner makes for a good story: “Hope Solo is the Ray Rice of women’s sports.” Women—just like men, except they get away with more!

It is a very sad fact that people in abusive situations get caught up in violent conflict; they can get caught up in the system. They mark each other, and end up marked. I don’t know Solo, I have no idea how to understand these stories of drunken brawls except as an indication of the ubiquity of intense, alcohol-fueled violent conflict in her family—a reasonable take, especially if you’ve read her memoir. In some situations, especially from a depersonalized distance, you can’t see the difference between the abuser and the abused. Violence circulates. This is one reason why police will sometimes take all parties involved in a fight into custody. It is a reasonable assumption that Solo was at risk of being an abused partner. But that Stevens was arrested does not make this so. Similarly, in Solo’s current case, we can’t know exactly what went down—even when the court deciding the case comes to whatever conclusion it settles on.

It is also the case that the court system is woefully inadequate when it comes to addressing intimate partner violence, and that throwing people in jail is no solution to the problem. Community based, restorative forms of justice are rarely discussed in these situations, but they should be. But, then again, where women and mainstream sports are concerned, there is nothing to restore. There is no community to repair.

What we have now is: men talking about men, men coaching and administering men’s sports and women’s sports, addressing an audience imagined as men — women are exiled to a separate and totally unequal system. We get the occasional public sacrifice of gender non-normative people like Caster Semenya (the difference between men and women must be enforced!), or the ritual hanging of problem masculinity (almost always black men) — these figures render the systemic discrimination which defines the NFL, ESPN and just about every apparatus handling the sport spectacle into an anomaly (Semenya) or a managerial problem (Rice) to be resolved.

All of this is to say that it just isn’t helpful to equate Solo with Rice, or, for that matter, Rice with Peterson. Or to imagine that the solution is to pillory any of these individuals. The answer certainly is not to sweep this level of crisis under the rug, but there must be something better than the facile moralizing which seems to be the order of the day.

There are lots of reasons for separating out Solo’s case from those plaguing the NFL and other sports. There is a whole category of precedent-setting Title IX rape cases involving football players and programs. The entire culture/sociology/economics of mainstream men’s sports is defined through intensely gendered forms of brutality. Penn State didn’t happen because people ignored one incident, or downplayed it. It happened because the entire system is set up to protect masculine forms of power and authority.

I recall here that in 2010, there was not one meaningful story published in US or UK-based sports news about the fact that the head coach of the South African women’s football team was sexually abusing players — that this was happening through the men’s World Cup, almost certainly with the knowledge of people at the South African Football Association. It’s hard to believe that FIFA administrators were ignorant of this. And I’d frankly be surprised if that was the only national women’s team that was poisoned by this level of sexual harassment. In 2009, the biggest story in women’s sports was a series of ludicrous fouls conducted within a regional, amateur women’s soccer game that happened to be recorded and broadcast (that in and of itself is a rarity). Everyone reported that incident like it was news.

There are months when it seems that women only appear in the sports pages if they win a world championship or file a rape accusation. So I guess we should be glad Solo’s personal life is so awful, so explosive. Were it not, the US’s win over Mexico and Solo’s shut-out record wouldn’t have appeared in the news as the footnote it is to the story “no one is talking about.”

All of this is to assert that the media’s relationship to women is itself violent. And as long as the day-in-day out struggle of women athletes—to win games, to set world records, to win appropriate support for their sport—remains the story that “no one” is actually talking about, no one gets to indulge the fantasy that a woman athlete’s domestic assault charge is “the same” as that faced by a multi-million dollar male athlete playing for a billion dollar business run by and for men.

Women: They are all the Same to Sepp

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

Grant Wahl’s Sports Illustrated article on FIFA’s sexism opens with story from Abby Wambach:

U.S. forward Abby Wambach tells one from the time she and her now-wife, Sarah Huffman, were backstage in a VIP room in January 2013 before the World Player of the Year awards gala in Zurich, Switzerland. “[FIFA president] Sepp Blattercame into our little area, and he walked straight up to Sarah and thought she was [Brazilian star] Marta,” says Wambach.

“Marta!” Blatter said, hugging a bewildered Huffman, who doesn’t look much like Marta. “You are the best! The very best!”

“He had no idea who Marta was, and she’s won the award five times,” says Wambach. “For me, that’s just a slap in the face because it shows he doesn’t really care about the women’s game.”  Read the rest of Wahl’s story here.

Blatter has not only met Marta Viera da Silva many times; his organization has used her and Wambach as alibis for the “good work” FIFA does for the world. Marta is not just another great player—she functions quite specifically as a poster-image for the world game.

There’s a lot more to say about the incidents recounted in Wahl’s article—but that one moment speaks volumes.  Imagine if Blatter mixed up, say, Kaká and Klose. (Men in suits—who can tell them apart?!) Given the difference in the game’s scale, however, the bar of our expectations regarding Blatter’s ability to recognize women players is actually quite low. One would expect him to be familiar with only a handful of people who look nothing like each other—Wambach, Marta, Nadine Angerer, Birgit Prinz, Homare Sawa and Hope Solo. Sepp Blatter can’t even manage THAT.

Second Sex, Artificial Turf

images

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!

 

%d bloggers like this: