Of all the sports functions I’ve attended over the years (and there have been many), one sticks out in my memory for all the wrong reasons. Towards the end of the evening, I went to the ladies’ room. When I came out of my cubicle and headed for the washbasin, I saw a man leaning against the wall. And he was staring at me. I knew him (he’s well known in sporting circles), and I’d been speaking to him earlier in the night. The sight of him stopped me dead in my tracks. He registered the look of confusion on my face and offered up a smile. He then unzipped himself and pulled out his penis.
It’s not like me to be lost for words, but moments like this freeze the brain. Mine iced up in about half a blink, leaving me at the mercy of my autopilot – which fortunately walked me right out of the bathroom door just as the rush of blood to my head almost blinded me. My last memory of the encounter is of him standing there with his appendage framed against his grey suit trousers, his glazed eyes, and his smile rapidly fading from his face.
I didn’t confront him at the time. And I didn’t tell anyone at the function what had happened. What did he think he was doing? What was going through his head as he made his way towards the women’s toilets? ‘Hey, I’ll show Ange something that’ll really break the ice.’ What did he want? A round of applause? For me to invite him into the cubicle for further examination? Was it his way of flirting? (99.9 per cent of women would find being flashed about as attractive as watching someone lose control of their bowels during an intimate dinner.) I certainly didn’t flirt with him, so there was no way that he could have misinterpreted our earlier conversation – not that this would be excusable. At the end of the day, if someone is going to show me his business, I want to have some say in the matter.
I talked to friends of mine about it and was shocked to hear how many of them had suffered a similar experience at some point in their lives – at work, a work party or after-work drinks … I was also surprised to learn that they hadn’t said anything about it. I’m not suggesting that this flaunting of the organ is common practice – most guys I know would be horrified by it – but what strikes a chord with me is how many others also felt compromised about speaking out, even though they knew it was an outrageously inappropriate thing to do and that some kind of action should be taken.
Let’s be real, though. It’s never simple to speak out about uncomfortable things – most people take a deep breath, then weigh up the pros and cons (because there are always pros and cons). We all want to get by, and we all want to fit in. We get by on the choices that we make – we do this and we get accepted, we do that and we don’t. What’s going to happen if I say this? What will the reaction be? It gets complicated, and part of the problem is that we’re often forced to shift our moral boundaries to get by, to be liked, to feel part of a group. We’re all forced into complicity, though perhaps for different reasons depending on our gender.
I didn’t confront the man (I should have) and I didn’t tell his peers (I should have), and I’m not going to name him here (maybe I should, but I’d rather play the ball than the man on this occasion).
I knew that it was more trouble than it was worth. I was new on the scene in Melbourne, the sporting capital of Australia: I knew that my story would label me, I knew it would follow me everywhere, I knew it would set me further apart from my peers in sport. I already felt like an outsider – as a woman and, even worse, a woman from Adelaide. I was trying to carve out a career in sport in a new city, and the last thing I wanted to do was to further ostracise myself.
So I opted for the way of the three wise monkeys: hear nothing, see nothing and say nothing. Some would call this ‘cowardly’, some ‘smart’. And some would call it ‘necessary’. I left my conscience behind and I buried my values deep – something I would do over and over again in work situations to keep relationships intact. I knew that by turning a blind eye to one of the darker elements of sporting culture, I was compromising my values. It was a conscious decision to just get on with those around me, to make my work life as comfortable as possible and kick career goals. I didn’t feel great about it.
Most women have a story about wanting to speak out against something they thought was wrong, but not going through with it. Most women have witnessed behaviour that’s left them feeling compromised. Most women have said what needed to be said inside their heads and kept their mouths shut – because in the real world (not our fantasy world where we’re bulletproof) speaking out on matters of sexism and inequality often marks you as a troublemaker: a fire starter, a poor sport (how ironic), not one of the gang, an uptight bitch, a femmo, a prude, a killjoy. Sometimes it’s just easier to go along with things.
The sad reality for girls is that this kind of deal with the devil starts early. Girls are encouraged to ‘be nice’, to please, to be quiet, to accept intrusions and impositions and insults without causing fuss – especially when they’re made by men in powerful positions.
Former Victorian Police commissioner Ken Lay cried when he read, in a survey of community attitudes towards family violence, that girls as young as ten are diminishing the seriousness of abuse they receive from boys. The 2015 National Community Attitudes towards Violence Against Women Survey, commissioned by the Federal Government, shows that while 96 per cent of Australians condemn domestic violence, underlying attitudes entrench the problem. It found that blaming the victim is so automatic that many people don’t realise they’re doing it. Lay, now chair of the COAG Advisory Panel on Reducing Violence against Women and Children, said that despite his years leading Victoria’s police force, he was shocked and saddened by the survey:
When presented with some scenarios of aggression by boys, I heard with sadness about ten-year-old girls already diminishing the abuse they received from boys. I heard girls say about boys harassing them: ‘It’s not that bad, it’s not like he punched her.’ I heard boys justifying the violence by saying that they just wanted to be heard, that it was harmless.
How often do we hear ‘boys will be boys’? These children don’t know that they’re complicit in perpetuating gender stereotypes: it’s what they see and what they hear.
Left unchecked, these attitudes are carried into their teenage years. I remember the lengths that some girls went to, trying to be popular with the boys at school. These girls distanced themselves from their bookish or ‘nerdy’ friends, and some very athletic girls dropped out of sport because they were ‘too cool for it’. Every action was done to please the boys – even if it meant compromising themselves and their ability to express themselves.
For women in a male-dominated workplace, it’s usually not about impressing the boys with your femininity: it’s about ‘being one of the boys’. The temptation to ‘go with the flow’ when you don’t agree is a hell of a lot stronger than in other parts of life. You’re a rare female voice, so the last thing on earth you want to do is speak out against anything – let alone anything that has a whiff of controversy.
This sense of not wanting to rock the boat is perhaps greatest in team sport. In the lead-up to the London Olympics, Australian swimmers Eamon Sullivan, Matt Targett, James Magnussen, James Roberts, Tommaso D’Orsogna and Cameron McEvoy took part in a ‘bonding’ session that involved taking the sleeping drug Stilnox. Despite inconsistencies in accounts, it seems that some time after midnight a group of male swimmers started making prank phone calls to female swimmers’ rooms and knocking on their doors.
Olympic swim team member Jade Neilsen spoke out to the media about the relay team’s behaviour towards her and another female teammate that night, saying that it was ‘completely inappropriate … so inappropriate it was not funny’. Another member of the swim team, Emily Seebohm, also complained to the Australian team’s head coach Leigh Nugent. But no further action was taken.
Shortly after Jade Neilsen spoke publicly, another female swimmer, Cate Campbell, was put on the spot by The Today Show. Clearly uncomfortable about answering any questions on the incident, she eventually offered the line: ‘Boys will be boys.’
Despite confirming they found the behaviour obnoxious and disruptive, the female swimmers stopped short of calling it harassment and chose not to pursue the matter under Swimming Australia’s ethical behaviour by-laws. Although Neilsen was willing to speak out about what had happened in general terms, she refused to be specific about the allegations. Her roommate on the night in question had her name withheld in the media, presumably because of an unwillingness to publicly come forward. No other female swimmers have spoken publicly about what happened.
Whichever way you look at it, there appears to have been a disturbing cone of silence around the incident. Can you imagine the uproar if the girls had hassled the boys in the same way? Dawn Fraser still gets grief for stealing a flag in Tokyo – and that was in 1964.
There’s another side of complicity that keeps the wheels of sexist sporting culture turning: male complicity. Women can absolutely make a difference by challenging norms, but there’s a limit to how much can be achieved when your views aren’t equally respected and you don’t have the same decision-making clout. Men have the power to smash the paradigm, if the will is there. They have a birthright to an opinion in sport, so they’re more likely to be taken seriously and listened to, and this puts them in a privileged position to drive meaningful change. Men have the opportunity – and I’d say responsibility – to think about this stuff and try to counter it.
But many men don’t take this opportunity. Some remain quiet because they don’t care, and the ‘natural’ order of things suits them down to the ground; others are pushed to shut up and play along for the sake of the team (this is the kind of behaviour that, at its worst, leads to sexual assault going unchallenged in group situations); and others don’t act for the same reason that women don’t – it’s seen as a backwards or, at the very least, a sideways career move. The bottom line is that when men stay silent, it’s women who often bear the consequences of that silence.
Unfortunately, there’s no magic wand to wave and no spell to break. The only way forward is for all of us to speak out. And we all know how tough that can be. If I had my time again, I wish I could say that I’d speak up after every sexist or demeaning comment, after every unasked-for grope, kiss and drunken lunge – but honestly, I’d probably keep my mouth shut again. What I can do now, with the benefit of a stronger voice, is make the case for why it’s important for women in sport to speak out and how we should do it. The first step is to cast our eyes further. We’re not lone voices. As women in sport, we’re part of something much bigger: we’re connected to a worldwide movement to improve the lives of girls and women, and we should draw strength from that.