by Erin Gloria Ryan
Lizzy Seeberg, Daisy Coleman, the Steubenville rape victim — all three young women were targeted by young men who had two things in common: they felt entitled to the bodies of women regardless of whether the women consented to sexual contact, and all were athletes. But a similar attitude about having a sexual “right” to the bodies of men isn’t nurtured on all-female teams.
Over the weekend, The Nation’s Dave Zirin wrote a column wherein he argued what he calls an uncomfortable truth: organized sports, he says, contribute to widespread attitudes of aggressive sexual entitlement to women’s bodies and a disregard for their agency and consent. In other words, “rape culture.”
The jock culture/rape culture dynamic should be obvious to anyone with any connection to organized sports. I saw it on the teams on which I played and I saw it on the team’s I’ve covered. I’ve heard the stories from athletes I’ve interviewed and from women with detailed descriptions of rape that go unpunished if someone with sports-related status is accused. I have seen it in the story of Lizzie Seeberg and the ways people still pretend that Notre Dame football is a bastion of morality.
The fact is that too many young male athletes are taught to see women as the spoils of being a jock. These young men are treated like gods by the adults who are supposed to be mentoring them—like cash cows by administrators who use their on-field exploits to extract money from politicians and alums.
Zirin goes on to argue that, duh, of course not every man who plays aggressive team sports becomes an insatiable rape-bot. But an attitude of tolerance and even encouragement of sexually aggressive and exploitative behavior (or turning a willful blind eye to such behavior) is so woven into “jock culture” that a serious intervention is needed to fix it.
I appreciate Zirin’s take on sex assault, young men, and sports, and I don’t disagree with his assertion that people at all levels of the athletic-industrial complex — coaches, other non-rapey sports playing dudes, athletic directors, etc — need to drive home the point that women are, in fact, people and not prizes. I’m on board with Zirin’s observation that young men who happen to be gifted athletes are enabled and lionized by coaches and treated like fancy show ponies by colleges who massively profit from their on-field exploits. No one intervenes. Kid gloves are donned. And, we end up with Steubenville. Seeberg. Vanderbilt.
I’ve witnessed anecdotal athlete entitlement gone awry, too. I’ve written before that I graduated from Notre Dame, and while I was there I witnessed some mildly shitty sexual entitlement from male athletes (like the one time a Prominent At The Time Varsity Athlete called me a tease and stopped being my friend because I wouldn’t give him a dry handie on the dance floor of an off campus party). I personally know a handful of women who attended ND at or around the same time as I did who confessed to me that they’d been date raped (or non-penetratively assaulted while wayyy too incapacitated to consent) by athletes, but didn’t move forward with filing a formal complaint because they feared it would be more personal trouble than it was worth. And to be perfectly honest, they were probably right. When it comes to big time college athletics, too many people have too much money at stake to risk it all on a what a drunk girl says happened.
Actually, behavior problems with athletes seem to be the near-exclusive domain of… men. Depressing database Arrest Nation, which chronicles the arrests of athletes of all levels, has only 2 female athlete arrests on record since August of this year, in contrast with dozens and dozens of male athletes who found themselves inside of handcuffs. I get that more men play sports than women, but the disparity isn’t in a proportion so exponentially huge that it’s reflected in arrest numbers.
In fact, whatever toxicity Zirin noticed is flourishing among all-male sports teams seems to be absent among all-female teams; research shows that all-female sports tend to reap huge benefits for the women who play without the unpleasant antisocial side effects. Here’s the American Association of University Women discussing research from 2010,
Betsey Stevenson, an economist at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, conducted a state-by-state analysis that showed that girls’ increased participation in sports since the passage of Title IX has had a direct effect on women’s education and employment. Stevenson found that, for 25- to 34-year-old women, Title IX and the ability to participate in sports accounted for about 20 percent of the increase in education attainment and about 40 percent of the rise in employment. “It’s not just that the people who are going to do well in life play sports, but that sports help people do better in life,” Stevenson said.
Stevenson also found evidence to corroborate other data gathered on women who play sports — in addition to the career benefits they enjoy, girls who play sports have lower teen pregnancy rates and better long term health prospects than their non-sporting peers.
And, if we’re going to appeal to anecdata, I played team sports all through middle in high school, and I can’t think of a single time we were all in the locker room talking about which boys we were totally gonna bone after the game. There was no sexual conquest element to being a basketball team captain. No gleeful shaming of slutty, trick-able man candy we duped into touching our boobs in some second hand Buick’s backseat. No turning our backs at parties while stumbling men were led to a side bedroom. Female soccer players aren’t getting 14-year-old boys drunk and raping them and then making celebratory tee shirts when a crooked prosecutor won’t see the case through. Female athletes I knew in college didn’t expect the male team trainers to bone them in gratitude after key victories; in fact, even though the women’s basketball team at Notre Dame was always nationally competitive when I was there, I can’t think of a single shitty thing any of them did (and it was a small, gossippy campus). My roommate was on the national championship varsity fencing team and the most antisocial thing I ever saw her do was play guitar in the common room*.
So why is it seemingly so easy for all-male teams, guided by unscrupulous hands, to devolve into a Lord Of The Flies-y rape fest and so unheard of to see similar behavior from female teams? What is it about the “jock culture” Zirin cites that’s present in male sports and absent from all-women’s sports? Is it money? Institutional enabling in pursuit of that money? Something else?
Whatever’s at the root of the problem, Zirin’s absolutely right that it must be addressed and combatted from within, or we’ll keep hearing heartbreaking stories like Daisy Coleman’s with the regularity of the changing of the varsity sports season.
*she was actually really good at guitar so this didn’t bug me.
Image via Getty.