Before the 2018 Men’s World Cup in Russia, USA Today ran the following headline:
“Sex at the World Cup: Some countries only let their players score *on* the field.”
The headline likens sex to a game, a way for men to gain points via another person’s body. The way male-dominated sports journalism covers a male-dominated tournament run by a male-dominated governing body advances the normalization of rape culture, and hardly anyone blinks an eye.
Every Men’s World Cup, coaches are asked to comment on the team’s policy surrounding player’s sexual activity; is it allowed or not?
In the buildup to each Women’s World Cup, coaches are never asked about what sexual activity their female players are allowed to partake in. Nor are female players’ significant others questioned about how much sex the players are allowed to have, like Rebekah Vardy (married to England forward Jamie Vardy) was during the 2018 Men’s World Cup.
The USA Today article, along with many other media outlets, listed 20 national teams and their alleged policies. The reporting focuses mainly on whether prohibiting sex is an effective way to win games, but as the saying goes, there’s a lot to unpack here.
From an employment perspective, leadership is clearly overstepping boundaries and setting a poor example of a work/life balance by making demands on a player’s sexual activity. In a world where JR Smith is told he must cover up a tattoo (because the NBA apparently believes they own a player’s skin), there’s also a point to be made about an athletes’ right to bodily autonomy and privacy.
Understandably, there are usually curfew restrictions put into place during such a high-pressure tournament; however, if you take a closer look at the team policies, you’ll find that the language used banning sex really has more to do with shaming, vilifying, and excluding all women from a male-dominated space.
Safet Sušić, former coach of Bosnia and Herzegovina, was quoted during the 2014 Men’s World Cup as saying:
“There will be no sex in Brazil. They can find another solution, they can even masturbate if they want. I am not interested what the other coaches do, this is not a holiday trip, we are there to play football at the World Cup.”
To explain how this creates a hostile environment for women, consider Kate Manne’s examination of misogyny in her book, Down Girl. According to Manne, sexism consists of beliefs about why women are inferior, whereas misogyny is the “social practices and institutions, as well as agents’ actions and attitudes, toward women. . . . In some cases of misogyny, women are blamed and punished for wronging a second party.” Through this lens, sexism is the belief that men are naturally superior at football and only they should be allowed to watch, play, coach, and comment about the World Cup, while misogyny is the “anxieties, fears, and desires to maintain a patriarchal order” at the tournament. Misogyny involves “invasive forms of policing” and functions as a kind of “warning label” which serves to keep women down by slut-shaming and blame, which leads to exclusion.
Research shows sexual activity does not negatively affect athletic performance; however, science hasn’t stopped many teams from banning it during World Cups. During the 2014 Men’s World Cup, Bosnia, Chile, Mexico, and Russia all banned their players from having sex; none made it past the Round of 16. The rationale is often based on the incorrect belief that sex with women (and in this heteronormative environment, we are talking about sex with women) deprives male athletes of energy and power.*
The elite level of men’s football features an abundance of performance measurements and analysis, so it’s very telling that a slut-shaming myth with absolutely zero empirical evidence still guides decision-making.
Since there is no real evidence that abstaining helps performance, it suggests the coaches are making decisions based on age-old beliefs about women “breaking” men, an idea that, in the Western world, often stems from the Biblical story of Adam and Eve, which blames Eve for tempting Adam into eating the forbidden fruit.
In online debates about whether or not men should have sex with women before an athletic performance, there are several responses like this: “A lot of women destroy a man’s career regardless of the profession.”
Khloe Kardashian supposedly ruined boyfriend James Harden for a season and Olivia Munn somehow stopped her boyfriend, Aaron Rodgers, from getting the Packers into the Super Bowl without even playing a single game.
Boxing is another sport that encourages men to avoid women before matches. “Women weaken legs,” Rocky Balboa’s trainer warned him before his fight in the 1976 film Rocky. On forums, it is still common to see men detailing the ways that they believe women can destroy a man’s motivation and aggression levels, guided by thoughts—perpetuated by rape culture—that men are mainly driven to conquer women.
But how does the actual weakening of men work? Do women have the ability to literally shatter them into a million little pieces? Is there video evidence of men evaporating into a mist when coming into contact with a woman? Evidence or it doesn’t exist!
It’s nearly impossible to find an instance of female athletes claiming that sex with men negatively affect their athletic ability in any way. Ronda Rousey once said she believes it is beneficial for women to have sex before a bout because orgasm increases testosterone for women. Such ideas suggest men make women more powerful, while women drain men of their power. Yet statistically speaking, heterosexual sex is riskier for women than for men, due to a higher risk of violence, STDs, and the chance of becoming pregnant.
The policies also serve to police women based on a value system of their “goodness” by determining which ones are allowed and/or worthy enough to be around players, which sets a very chilly atmosphere for women before each tournament.
In 2018, Nigeria’s coach (who is German) said of his players, “I won’t allow them to have Russian girls, no, no, no.” Meanwhile, Argentina gave out a guide to players that included a section entitled, “What to do to have a chance with a Russian girl.” It read:
“Because Russian women are beautiful many men only want to sleep with them … the advice is to treat the woman in front of you as if she is someone of value.
Normally Russian women pay attention to important things, but of course you will find girls who only pay attention to material things, to money, if you are handsome, whatever. Do not worry, there are many beautiful women in Russia and not all are good for you. Be selective.”
Some men’s teams use the banning of women to punish, and the inclusion of them as a reward. In 2014, Costa Rica and South Korea were reportedly only allowed to engage in sexual activities after they advanced to certain stages in the tournament.
When women’s bodies are offered as trophies by federations, it promotes an environment that celebrates men for dominating women and treating them like objects, ultimately enabling sexual violence. The #MeToo movement has only slowly begun to reach football, as evidenced in the ongoing Cristiano Ronaldo rape case. An environment steeped in rape culture is able to suggest him by suggesting that a successful male athlete is to be rewarded by admiring women.
Ronaldo’s accuser, Kathryn Mayorga, couldn’t believe his entitlement when he kept demanding that she sexually serve him, despite her multiple refusals:
Basically he . . . he begged me to touch his penis for 30 seconds. When I wouldn’t touch it, he begged me to suck it. Like, what an idiot! . . . I was laughing at him because I thought, ‘Is this a joke?’ This guy that is so famous and so hot . . . he’s a frickin’ loser and a creep.
The reaction to Mayorga’s accusations, combined with the fact that she was discouraged from coming forward years ago, supports the idea that survivors of abuse perpetrated by male footballers are often treated as “nuts and sluts,” a term lawyers use to describe a common defense of male rapists. Sady Doyle writes in her book, Trainwreck:
“When women report men’s sexual misconduct, the standard tactic of a defense attorney is to discredit those women by painting them as either sexually promiscuous, afflicted by an excess of desire, or “unstable” and vindictive, driven to hurt men because they can’t control their emotions.”
When football leaders make decisions based on sexist views of women, those labels often come as polar opposites: as either wives or whores, sluts or nuts, distractions or trophies and when the media doesn’t question these gender implications, well, that tells us a lot about how they think about women.
There were only two women on the sidelines during the 2018 World Cup, Iva Olivari (team manager for Croatia) and Silvia Dorschnerova (team delegate for Spain). Both were regarded positively by their squads in a maternal way, with some players calling Olivari “aunt,” while Dorscherova was considered “like the mother of the players.”
With very little inclusion of women in men’s football, a culture that shames and vilifies women continues to persist. “We’re not women, we’re playing football,” Emre Can said only a few months after the 2018 Men’s World Cup, in response to Juventus teammate Ronaldo’s “soft” red card. Man = footballer. Woman = Not a footballer.
The imaginary problem of how women can harm men’s performance serves as one way to sustain a hostile environment for women in a male-dominated space. Consider how successful other imaginary “problems” were at excluding women from running in marathons. There was a widely held belief, even among experts, that strenuous activity would physically harm a woman, and could potentially cause the uterus to fall out. Scare tactics, not medical studies, have kept women out of sport, forcing them to fight (sometimes literally) for decades to be included. Women were finally allowed to enter the Boston Marathon in 1972… three-quarters of a century after the race was established.
FIFA leadership is known to be “old, stale and male” as Megan Rapinoe calls it. “Women should play football “in tighter shorts,” Sepp Blatter said in 1957. No wait, it was 2004. He continued to serve as FIFA president for 11 more years, even admitting to one Effortista that “football is macho” in 2014
Even without Blatter as President, the global football governing body has not improved. FIFA promised to decrease the gender pay gap for upcoming World Cup winnings and instead, in 2018, they’ve actually increased it, all while marketing it as progress.
Clubs and federations should take on the responsibility of teaching their academy players about consent, as athletes often find themselves in positions of power amidst a culture that teaches them to abuse it. If the football world was more welcoming to women, it could lead to diminishing the rape culture surrounding it. There would be more women in leadership roles, allowing them to design better systems that could help protect against abuse. Only by allowing space for others inside this male-dominated world will these outdated beliefs about gender become a thing of the past.
* Note: while statistics indicate it is exceedingly likely that there are a number of closeted male footballers, statements from club officials only mention women; the environment is not conducive to the acknowledgment of homosexual activity, at least not in public.