Lia Thomas’ recent win at the NCAA swim meet has sparked another round of debate about the rights of transgender athletes to participate in sports.
Here is what Sarah Sardinia wrote on Twitter: To all those pushing this false narrative that Trans People have an advantage in sports, and are using Lia Thomas as “proof”, let me lay down some stats here …
1650 yard distance Lia pre-transition: 14:54.765 Lia post-transition: 15:59.71 (lost 65 seconds) Male record: 14:12.08 (Kieran Smith) Female record: 15:03:31 (Katie Ledecky) She was 40 seconds behind the male record, now she is 56 behind the female
500 yard distance Lia’s best pre-transition, 4:18:72 Lia’s current, 4:34:06 Female record (Katie Ledecky), 4:24:06 Male record (Kieran Smith), 4:06:32
200 yard distance Prior to transition 1:39.31 Male record, 1:29.15 After transition 1:41.93 Female record of 1:39.10
See a pattern here? Not advantage, consistency
There’s a reason that with all the Trans Women competing in sports for years, she is one of the only top ranking ones, because she’s always been one of the top ranking. You can read more here about the data.
To put it another way:
And those images really need to be juxtaposed with the next one, which includes a photo of Olympic champion Katie Ledecky. Katie is 6 feet tall, which makes her one inch shorter than Lia, and two inches shorter than Missy Franklin, who set that NCAA 200 yard record in 2015. There is a lot of talk about how height, and size, and arm span give men natural advantages over women. Swimmers like Michael Phelps have natural advantages, including height, huge feet and flexibility, arm reach, long torsos and relatively short legs. That’s true both among men and women.
The reality is that the vast majority of youth athletes of any gender don’t compete at the elite level. However, even as amateur athletes they face discrimination, so few participate, especially trans girls. A recent Reuters article noted that “The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated in 2019 that just 1.8% of high school students in the country are transgender, and the Human Rights Campaign has said that, according to surveys, only about 12% play on girls’ sports teams.”.
Some do do compete as boys or men without too much attention, such as Schuyler Bailar, the first openly trans swimmer in the NCAA men’s first division, and Chris Mosier, the first openly trans athlete to qualify for Team USA and who competed in the Olympic Trials in January 2020. Others, such as Mack Beggs, the Texas high school wrestler forced to compete against girls even after starting to take testosterone, are forced into the same unwelcome spotlight as Lia Thomas. By focusing so much on biology and physiology, the impact is the dehumanization of those kids.
Lots more research is needed on the impact of hormones on performance, and there are legitimate concerns about putting competitors of significantly different sizes/abilities in the same categories when there is a risk of injury. The Christian Science Monitor has done a decent job of trying to summarize the latest research and how it is interpreted. But the bottom line for me and most of the people I know can be summarized like this:
The past few weeks had me thinking about athletes with disabilities. They have been in the news a lot lately. My thoughts are rather jumbled because this is a group of athletes I rarely think about. It’s a shame; there are some great athletes doing amazing things, and as a good feminist I should be considering all kinds of diversity, not just the people who identify as women. In approximate chronological order:
Terry Fox – this Canadian icon was in the spotlight in late January when protesters in Ottawa decorated/desecrated (depending on your perspective) the statue of him right across from Parliament Hill. Fox famously ran the equivalent of a marathon a day all the way from Newfoundland to Thunder Bay in in 1980, to raise money for cancer research. That was 143 marathons, before the cancer that cost him a leg returned and killed him a few months later, at the age of 22.
Steve Fonyo, another young man who lost a leg to cancer and finished Terry Fox’s cross-country run to raise funds for cancer research, died a couple of weeks ago. He struggled with addiction and had several criminal convictions, which have tainted his legacy. He reminds me that a person is much more than their disability, or how they respond to it.
Both those young men achieved something I never dreamed of doing. Both were inducted into the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame. But from the 1985, when Fonyo completed his run, until 2004, I don’t recall hearing of a single athlete with a disability. 2004 was the year Chantal Peticlerc had an astounding Paralympic Games in Barcelona, winning five gold medals plus an exhibition event. It was her fourth Paralympics, and she had won multiple medals at all of them.
The next big news story is the Paralympics going on in Beijing right now. Remember that? I am sad to say I don’t know the names of the flag bearers, or any of the other athletes. I confess I haven’t been tracking the results anywhere nearly as closely as I did for the earlier winter games. Paralympic sports are complicated, with various classifications depending on the level of disability. There are no pro teams, or even big endorsement deals, so these athletes are virtually unknown to most of us.
Two Paralympics stories I have been following relate to representation. The first is the fate of the Russian and Belarusian Paralympic teams, which were banned from participating even as neutral athletes with no identifying flags or colours, following the invasion of Ukraine, Regardless of the reasons, I can’t underestimate the crushing disappointment this must have been to athletes who rarely get an opportunity to be on the world stage. They cynic in me notes that the invasion didn’t happen until just after the Beijing Winter Olympics, so those athletes did not face the same sanctions.
The other story of representation is the number of female Paralympics. Overall, they make up just under 25% of all athletes at the games. In comparison, 45% of athletes at the Beijing Winter Olympics were women. This gender gap is even more pronounced among coaches, technicians and guides.
Among the Canadian women, at least, there is determination to make change by inspiring girls with their podium finishes, and then becoming coaches themselves after they retire from competition. Big wins alone won’t make the difference, as Mollie Jepsen, gold medallist in the standing downhill ski event said this week “The more representation in sport, the better. The more people that younger athletes can look up and see like, ‘Whoa, that’s a girl, and she’s out there doing that’ — I think just no matter what, the more females we have in sport, the better”.
Concluding thoughts: this is an area where I really see my biases. I want to be more attentive to the achievement of these athletes, but I find it hard to connect outside my natural tribe of women athletes. Is it okay not to love them? I feel guilty, even though I refuse to feel guilty about many other biases in the sporting world (I also don’t love professional tennis, golf, baseball or football, but still like the Toronto Maple Leafs).
Can I make more of an effort to learn more about these sports? I could probably do that. Now is a good time to try, while there are clips of great performances readily available on-line, along with profiles of many athletes. Hopefully others will do the same. To take Mollie’s words a step further, the more people we have saying “whoa, she’s out there doing that” and the more fans we have following the sport, the better.
Last week, FIFA, the international soccer federation, recognized Christine Sinclair as the greatest goal scorer ever. Period. Male or Female.
Astonishingly, although she has been shortlisted as FIFA player of the year seven times, she has never won that recognition, despite playing in five World Cups and four Olympics (bringing home two bronze medals and a gold). This year, she didn’t even make the final cut.
It was almost two years after she broke the record. She scored her 185th goal in international play back in January 2020. She now has 308, along with 53 assists. She scored her first goal in her second game as a member of the Canadian national team, when she was just sixteen.
Over twenty years later, she is still going strong, playing with both her Portland professional team and the Canadian team. And she is not done. In addition to plans to play at the next Women’s World Cup in 2023, and committing to another two years with Portland, she is pushing for a professional women’s soccer league in Canada. Canada is the only FIFA top 10 ranked country without a professional women’s soccer league.
A pro league wouldn’t solve all the disparities between the men’s and women’s games. But as Sinclair explained just after that gold medal win “We’re hoping that this platform will give us the opportunity to start that change and plead to Canadians that have the ability to make the difference to invest in women. The young little kids, they deserve to be able to go watch their heroes on a week-to-week basis and not [just] every four years.”
Starting a league, or even a team, takes a lot of resources. I get that. But I also note that soccer is the most popular team sport in Canada, with over 750,000 participants in organized programs. It ranks among the most popular sports for girls, and as long ago as 2012, more than 360,000 females played the game (41% of all players).
Approximately 4.4 million Canadians tuned in to watch that gold medal game in Tokyo, making it the most watched event of the Games. It seems to me that there is an audience. I, for one, would love to follow teams regularly, instead of a World Cup of Olympics tournament every few years.
Diane Harper lives in Ottawa. She is an enthusiastic watcher of World Cup and Olympic soccer, and looks forward to catching a live game when the Men’s World Cup comes to Canada in 2026. She still regrets missing the Women’s World Cup sole Ottawa game in 2015.
Is there not just something incredible about watching elite women athletes blow everyone’s mind with their incredible athleticism? In case you missed it, the latest almost unbelievable achievement in sport goes to US gymnast Simone Biles, who completed (though not to her own satisfaction) a move that is reported to have revolutionized gymnastics. The move is called “the triple double: a double back somersault with three twists spread out over the two flips.”
According to Slate, it is “the single most spectacular skill that any female gymnast has ever attempted, on any apparatus, in the history of the sport. It’s got an “astronomical difficulty rating” and looks almost impossible (but for the fact that she is doing it!):
From the same competition, the US Gymnastics Championships in Kansas City, Biles completed a stunning and unprecedented dismount after a gripping routine on the balance beam. According to the article in Slate, Biles “destroyed a new balance beam dismount, the most difficult and daring in the history of the sport: a double-double, or a double somersault with a full twist in each flip. This is a skill that is usually reserved for the floor exercise—an apparatus that is 40 feet wide and outfitted with 11 centimeters of springs. Biles did it off the end of a lightly padded plank 4 inches wide and 4 feet off the ground, and she made it look easy.” And landed it perfectly:
This is really just an “in case you missed it post.” Simone Biles is not to be missed. Keep in mind too that she purportedly had an off-weekend, by her own lights it was not her best. She expressed disappointment over her floor routine because she didn’t complete the triple double to her own high standards. And it was all still enough to secure her first place.
She’s making me fall in love with gymnastics all over again. I really don’t even have a question to end on today, other than the rhetorical: “doesn’t watching Simone Biles do gymnastics make you want to watch more of Simone Biles doing gymnastics?”
Sometimes terrible things happen, and we have no idea how to comprehend them, much less respond to them, much much less combat them.
Something terrible happened in Paris Friday night—as of this blog writing, at least 125 (reports vary right now) people were killed in armed attacks while at a concert, a sports stadium, a restaurant and other popular spots in the city. The story is still unfolding, and will likely take some time to become clear.
I don’t know what to say here on this blog about the awful massacre. I don’t know what to say here on this blog about the violent world we live in. One thing I do know—when terrible things happen, it’s good to keep movement an important part of our lives. It helps center and calm us, and it is often done in the company of friends or family.
So let’s do some movement today.
To keep us company, here are some pictures of some female athletes, engrossed in the joy and concentration of sports or activity.
Alize’ Cornet—professional tennis player, beat Serena Williams 3 times in 2014, including at Wimbledon.
I haven’t really run since I became disabled at twenty-five. Not that I have missed it. But when I was a teenager, I was a star softball player.
I started playing league softball when I was nine. By the time I was twelve, I was a better batter than the seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds in the league. But it was my role at first base that really stood out.
I’m left-handed, so I caught with my right hand and had a terrific stretch off the bag. I never missed a throw, not even one way over my head.
I had one glove for all the years that I played. I loved that glove. That glove was my summer. Softball was my summer.
I can still remember how, when I first got my glove, I greased it and tied a ball in it for a couple of days to “work it in.” I remember the colour of my glove, how it looked on my hand, the subdued shine of the leather. I remember how it felt, especially how it felt when the ball snapped in it.
We had the strongest infield. Me and Cathy and Sue. We won the league championship a few years in a row. We were first-draft picks for our team. All three of us were on the all-star team for our league. I won best batter in the city-wide tournament one year.
Then Bill, our coach, started standing close to me and putting his arm around me, saying things to me. I didn’t want to play first base for him anymore. I asked to be traded to another team and then asked my new coach to put me in the outfield. I stopped playing after a couple more years.
I don’t know what became of my glove.
Shelley Tremain is a disabled feminist philosopher of disability and publishes on a variety of topics, including disability and philosophy, ableism in feminist philosophy, disability and bioethics, and Foucault. Shelley is the editor of Foucault and the Government of Disability (University of Michigan Press, 2005, 2015) and is completing a monograph entitled Foucault and (A) Feminist Philosophy of Disability (University of Michigan Press, forthcoming). She derives pleasure from writing, long walks, and doodling and blogs regularly at the Discrimination and Disadvantage blog: http://philosophycommons.typepad.com/disability_and_disadvanta/
Dan arrived the morning of the fight, which was a very good thing, as I wasn’t allowed to do any working out other than stretching that day and I was far too nervous and uncomfortable from dehydration to do anything else. We spent a few hours hanging out and catching up and trying to help me unwind. Finally, that afternoon, we headed over to Gleason’s for the big event.
I knew, vaguely, that the event was a benefit for something that had sounded benefit-worthy, and also – very unusually – that all the boxers that night would be women. I did not understand that it would be a gala, with piles of fancy food and pass-around amuse-bouches and free foofy drinks. The event was a benefit for Save a Sato, which rescues street dogs in Puerto Rico. This was a group I was very happy to be supporting, but it was heavily gendered as well, as animal rescue organizations tend to be. So the gendering of the space was complex: there were a few of us boxers roaming around nearly-naked, getting ready to be as violent as we were able; there were ever-growing crowds of high-society women in evening gowns and expensive jewelry; there were a handful of fully-clothed down-to-earth dog-type women from the foundation itself; and finally there were a small minority of men, most of whom worked for the gym or were trainers or partners.
I felt acutely self-conscious as well as overwhelmed by the noise and the party atmosphere, not to mention very hungry and thirsty. I was desperate for the weigh-in and the medical exam to be over with so that I could eat and drink (though I’d be on Powerade and energy bars, not champagne and shrimp-and-coconut toasts with sprigs of fennel). Dan and I claimed a small corner of the back of the gym with a well-worn little ring and a single chair, where I tried to hide and wait for my trainer, Delvin Tyler, to arrive from DC. I needed his advice, his reassurance, his help warming up, and his paperwork, without which I could not fight.
We claimed the space successfully, but hiding was impossible. Every time I started to warm up, photographers swarmed me and popped flashes in my face, intensifying my self-consciousness and my impostor syndrome. At one point I was pulled over for a photo session with my opponent in front of a sign reading ‘No Ordinary Girls’ – the official name of the event. Debbie proved to be a fast-talking firecracker with a heavy New York accent who weighed in at 97.5 pounds and was completely adorable. Another thing I hadn’t realized was that Debbie was fighting for the ‘home team,’ representing the charity and wearing its shirt. She was also at her home gym. This was not good as far as crowd and judge sympathy went. I was desperate for Delvin to show up.
But when he did, the whole thing became a comedy of errors. Debbie had been presented to us as having one fight behind her, a loss, but we found out last-minute that her actual record was 2-2; this was not a fight that Delvin would even have let me accept if he had known. I had the wrong boxer’s passbook – I need a masters’ book (since I am over 35), not a regular one. One of the glitches I can’t even put in this blog post as it was patched up under a seal of secrecy. Delvin’s coaching papers were nowhere to be found and the computer listed his status as expired even though he had renewed it in person just for this purpose. I had non-regulation body jewelry that I had to remove, including one gauged tragus piercing that no one could get off: not the doctor, trying a variety of tools, not Delvin or Dan, neither of Delvin’s two other boxers who had showed up to watch and support us, and not even any of the random pierced partygoers who I approached for help. Each of these roadblocks seemed like it was about to keep me out of the ring altogether, and I was near tears. The staff was infuriated with me for all the glitches. A passbook for me was jammed together with a bunch of sticking tape last minute, as was my ear.
In a dramatic development, we found out that Delvin would not be allowed to officially coach me because of the paperwork snafu; instead I would be coached by Sonya ‘The Scholar’ Lamonakis, the 5’7”, 220-pound Harlem public school teacher who was the reigning Women’s Heavyweight Champion of the World. I shit you not. The new plan was for Delvin to sit behind her and pass messages to her that she could convey to me during the fight, but I wasn’t allowed to turn around and look at him or anyone else who wasn’t officially in my corner (who knew?). I thought that Sonya was just going to coach me as a mere formality, but as soon this arrangement was settled, she jumped in full-throttle. She grabbed the mitts and finished my warm-up with me, grudgingly telling Delvin through her irritation that I was ‘well trained’ (ha! score one Delvin and score one me). She also proved to be a dead-serious and deeply skilled advocate for me once I got in the ring. I am a little bit in love with her.
In yet another narrative twist, I found out just before getting into the ring that I could not use the 10-ounce gloves I had picked and trained with. As a geriatric fighter, I had to use the gym’s giant 16-ounce gloves that were basically pillows the size of my head. I was not used to them at all, they slowed me down, and I had no ability to judge what counted as an opening with them on. This also did not bode well.
The evening wore on and fell increasingly behind schedule. Strange events I could hardly process occurred, such as a flaming jump rope demonstration, an auction, and some sort of synchronized boxing show involving women in matching outfits. I hid in my corner. At long last I was weighed, examined, wrapped, head-geared, mouth-guarded, giant-gloved, and it was time to fight. Mine was the first bout.
Frankly, during the fight I was in an altered state of consciousness and I hardly remember it. It was a three-round bout. Almost everyone was screaming for Debbie, though I could hear my little team calling my name. I came out slower than I would have liked, overwhelmed by the giant gloves and the noise, but by the end of the round I felt like I was controlling the ring and had Debbie on the run. She punched more than I did, but her punches glanced off me, and mine felt more precise. Looking at the video now I realize it was an aggressive round but I couldn’t tell that at the time. I also couldn’t tell at all whether I was leading or losing. During the break, Sonya told me to be more aggressive, that I was more powerful and shouldn’t let her out or back off. I heard Delvin and Dan and my boxing friend Shannon shouting the same from behind me, though I couldn’t look at them. I obliged and gave it all I had in round two, and I dominated the round, chasing Debbie to the ropes repeatedly and plunging through her punches and going for her body. When I made it back to my corner, Sonya told me I had won round two, that round one was up for grabs, and that I needed round three to win. Unfortunately by round three I was mentally exhausted and somehow tied myself in knots over the double knowledge that a win was both within reach and by no means a given. I started thinking too hard and slowed down just when I shouldn’t have. The round was still close, but Debbie definitely had the edge.
In the end they called the fight for Debbie, although it was as close to a tie as could be. I strode across the ring to congratulate her, and apparently I looked so intense that her coach thought I was coming over to beat someone up and rushed out to stop me. But honestly, I was (and am) delighted to have nearly tied and won one round solidly against a fighter with so much more ring experience, and given the crowd an enjoyable fight. And I certainly did that! I have to say, tiny and middle-aged and intensely aggressive, Debbie and I were big crowd-pleasers.
A lot of people from both sides seemed surprised that they had called the fight for Debbie; their sense was that I had won the first two rounds and lost the third. I am not sure if this is right. To me, the fight looks like a dead tie, and I really do understand that if it was a tie or even quite close, it made sense to call it for the person who represented the charity and the gym. Or maybe she won fair and square by a narrow margin. I am not sure and don’t care much; I held my own against a five-time fighter in a disorienting crowd after a chaotic day. I am intensely proud and happy with how I did. And she’s already asked for a rematch in November, and I intend to beat her unequivocally then!
I honestly don’t remember getting out of the ring or back to my corner, or who removed my gear. My son (who also boxes) called from Florida, where he’s spending his school vacation with his dad, to congratulate me and tell me what I’d done wrong – he’d watched on the live webcam. I felt fine and energized until about ten minutes after the fight ended, when I suddenly realized I was about to throw up and pass out. I lay down on the floor trying not to submit. Just then Debbie came over and we had a fantastic bond over how much fun we’d had and how close the match had been, and that pulled me back to consciousness.
My little team lingered at the gym until everything was shutting down, and then headed out for (more) celebratory drinks. Over the course of the evening, as we had more alcohol, Delvin’s take on the fight progressed from “I think it was close to a tie, but you maybe should have won,” to “WE GOT ROBBED!!!” shouted loudly and repeatedly in a bar under the Brooklyn Bridge. I don’t think anyone got robbed. But I am so grateful for Delvin’s enthusiastic and generous support, not to mention his incredibly skillful training, which got me within ten months to the point where I could get in the ring against a fighter with a decade of experience and make it through with pride.
On the train home the next morning at dawn, I noticed I had a small but dark bruise over my left eye. I don’t remember when I got it; I didn’t feel any of the punches that landed on me at all. I heal fast, and I was sad to notice that the bruise was gone three days later. It’s almost like none of it really happened.
Serena Williams, one of the greatest tennis players of all time, just won the women’s singles title at Wimbledon.
For the sixth time, actually.
That’s like, five times. And then again. For a total of six times.
Serena Williams is one of the great athletes of our time, and one of the greatest tennis players ever. But alongside the story of her win, what else does the New York Times– the paper of record—see fit to print? This story.
In this story ,“Tennis’s Top Women Balance Body Image with Ambition”, many of the world’s top women players interviewed said, in effect, that having the muscular world-class athletic bodies they have makes them feel “unfeminine”, as 14th-ranked Andrea Petkovic said.
“People say, ‘Oh, you’re so skinny, I always thought you were huge,’ ” she said. “And then I feel like there are 80 million people in Germany who think I’m a bodybuilder. Then, when they see me in person, they think I’m O.K.”
Okay, let’s deconstruct this statement to see what’s going on here. Here are some assumptions I found:
Being skinny is OK (read minimally acceptable).
Being “huge” is bad.
Being perceived as a bodybuilder is bad.
Let us remind ourselves that this is coming from a woman whose tennis acumen is ranked 14th ON PLANET EARTH. Despite my intense racket-sports envy of her accomplishment, I feel both sympathy and frustration at what such comments likely accurately reflect about the culture that she navigates. And this is the culture that we navigate, too.
Serena herself is affected by such assumptions. How can this be? I mean, glorious kick-ass-take-no-prisoners-forget-wearing-all-white-I-look-fabulous-in-orange-and-pink-on-center-court Serena? The woman who wore this at the French Open while firing a bullet serve?
Serena Williams is now in position to be the 4th woman in history to win the Grand Slam of tennis in singles this year (The Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon, and the U.S. Open). By the way, there have only been three Grand Slam winners in men’s singles (two actually, as Rod Laver did it twice; also, my first tennis racket was a Rod Laver, but I digress…)
But this is what others are saying about her the very day she won Wimbledon:
Not all players have achieved Williams’s self-acceptance.
“That is really an important acceptance for some female athletes, that their best body type, their best performance build, is one that is not thin; it’s one of power,” said Pam Shriver, a former player and current tennis analyst.
Shriver, who cited Angelique Kerber and Sabine Lisicki as similarly powerfully built, believes Williams’s physique and confidence should serve as an example to others.
“The way Serena wears her body type I think is perfect,” Shriver said. “I think it’s wonderful, her pride.”
(taking deep breath)
Okay, let’s look at this more carefully– what assumptions lie beneath these statements?
Serena Williams’ body is one that requires a conscious attitude of self-acceptance, which suggests that it would otherwise be reasonable to expect her to be unaccepting of it.
Power in a woman’s build is in opposition to thinness– if you’re powerful, you’re not thin, and vice versa.
In most contexts, thin is better than powerful for women.
Even in professional sports, women with powerful bodies must acknowledge, justify, and defend those bodies, as well as deal with lack of acceptance by others.
Serena’s body type requires cultivating pride in a way that’s out of the ordinary, not automatic, but praiseworthy (albeit in a grudging and condescending way).
Note that these claims are made about a woman who wore this dress to the Oscars this year:
I included this picture because this discourse about Serena’s body as being deviant, as
1) a woman’s body;
2) a professional athlete’s body;
3) an attractive woman’s body
is one of the many reasons why I’m glad this blog and this community exist. We can celebrate Serena’s accomplishments and beauty in power and motion. We can also celebrate ourselves in our own glorious athletic beauty, like this bunch of Kincardine tri- and duathletes. Congratulations, and I look forward to reading all about it!
A recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education talked of a new peer initiative springing up on campuses. True, you can’t stop university students from drinking and you can’t stop them from having sex. But maybe, just maybe, it’s possible to make some inroads to protect intoxicated young women (who are most at risk) from sexual assault.
According to the article:
Hanging out, drinking, and hooking up are for many students just a part of life in college. They’re also a common backdrop for sexual assault. As many as four in five campus assaults involve drinking, studies have found. Plenty of those cases hinge on whether a woman was drunk or incapacitated, and therefore unable to give consent.
Messages about preventing sexual assault now come at students from many directions: campus and federal officials, the news media, their peers. And what students are hearing has started to influence their behavior. They’re paying more attention, and they’re looking out for one another.
The initiative is a response to Obama’s “It’s on us” campaign, asking people to look out for people in risky situations. It’s taken an interesting form on campuses, and one reason it’s so interesting to me is that fraternities and athletes on school teams are two of the groups who are most active.
What are they doing to make a difference? At Union College, a campus initiative is training team members about how to intervene:
“I knew we had an opportunity with our hockey team,” says Jim McLaughlin, the athletic director. The team attended a half-day workshop in September on bystander intervention. Next in line are the women’s hockey team and the men’s and women’s basketball and swim teams.
“We are tough, bold women, and we would have the confidence to step into a bad situation,” says Christine Valente, captain of the women’s hockey team.
What’s great about this is that it’s opened up an important conversation about consent and also about masculinity:
Organizers are holding workshops with sports teams, fraternities, and sororities. But they don’t preach or try to give students all the answers. On a recent Thursday evening, the men’s lacrosse team packed into a dorm’s common area, where the group’s presenters, all women, tried to draw the athletes out. What does consent mean? How does sexual assault affect men? How do stereotypes of masculinity play into the problem?
“You should have consent before you go out and party and get drunk, instead of waking up the next day and regretting it,” one player said. “As a team, I want to win a national championship,” offered another. “I don’t want another player going out and touching a woman who doesn’t want to be touched and undermining our success.” Every time someone spoke up, the women tossed out packets of Sweet Tarts or Reese’s Pieces.
After such presentations, students sometimes approach members of the consent group, says Ms. Han, to say they’ve been applying its lessons. “I was having sex,” a student might report, “and I asked for consent!”
We’ve had our own conversation about consent here in Canada recently. I alluded to it briefly in my Mine all Mine post where I talked about how getting active gave me a new sense of being in my body. There, I called it confident ownership.
That’s another reason why I think athletes are in a good position to have some influence in this area. At Union, they’re involving not just the men’s teams, but also the women’s teams. As the captain of the women’s hockey team said, they’re “tough, bold women” with confidence.
As Caitlin from Fit and Feminist said earlier this week in her post on confidence, her athletic achievements (her awesomeness really does know no bounds — she’s unstoppable!) has translated into something she never had before: she believes in herself.
So women who are athletes can play an important role in changing the culture of risk. It’s a fine line, of course, between giving women tools that empower them, on the one hand, and blaming them when those tools fail them, on the other. It’s realistic, of course, to want to protect ourselves. At Union, the women
they do two things to keep themselves and their friends safe from sexual assault. They never walk alone after dark, and they go to parties in groups. Some also bring their own alcohol—keeping their drinks covered and close at hand. Campus safety officers taught three self-defense classes this fall, and the Theta Delta Chi fraternity offered to buy women a new kind of nail polish that is supposed to change colors to detect the presence of common date-rape drugs.
It’s fantastic that these campus initiatives don’t stop there. There’s a great “tipsheet” for preventing sexual assault that made the rounds a few years ago. It turns our usual suggestions about what women can do to keep themselves safe into suggestions for perpetrators instead. For example:
1. Don’t put drugs in people’s drinks in order to control their behavior.
2. When you see someone walking by themselves, leave them alone!
3. If you pull over to help someone with car problems, remember not to assault them!
4. NEVER open an unlocked door or window uninvited.
5. If you are in an elevator and someone else gets in, DON’T ASSAULT THEM!
What these campus initiatives are getting right is that they are involving everyone. That’s what’s required for a culture change. Traditionally, sport (particularly men’s varsity sports) has been (and is) a sexist domain with a bad track record for treating women respectfully. It’s encouraging to see an initiative the takes advantage of the leadership potential of athletes on campuses and redefines the values we have come to associate with sports teams.
I hope to see more of this, including on my own campus where issues of date rape and sexual assault among the students need to be high on our list of priorities, and conversations about consent and respect need to stay on our radar even though our radio host scandal has fallen out of the news.