Hold up

Rampant sexual harassment and institutional sexism are still stopping wrestling from appealing to women

9th November 2017

Wrestling is having something of a cultural moment. Not the sweaty freestyle you saw in Foxcatcher, but the OTT world of professional wrestling, that exhilarating mix of sport, soap and showmanship.

With GLOW prepping a second season on Netflix and WWE exec Stephanie McMahon popping up on Lorraine to talk up the size of her company’s female audience, it’s clear that women are a key part of wrestling’s new leap at the mainstream.

sexual harassment in wrestling
Emma; Image: WWE

But the regressive sexism of the GLOW era is far from a thing of the past. At a recent independent show in the Midlands, one man started yelling “get your tits out” at a young female wrestler. It wasn’t an isolated incident.

And it’s not just the wrestlers who face this sort of abuse. Kara Noblett, from London, has been a wrestling fan since she was a child, and went to her first independent shows almost two decades ago.

“Back then it was a lot worse,” she says. “Being 15 didn’t stop ugly comments about whether I was there to blow the wrestlers, or if I was there with a boyfriend, and it generally created a nasty atmosphere.”

It’s not unusual for female fans to have their wrestling fandom or knowledge challenged by men. “They act like gatekeepers, they refuse to believe that there are women have been fans of wrestling since they were children, and they act like it’s a club we have to know enough to gain access to.”

Christy from the Netherlands runs Wrestling Sexism, a project addressing misogyny in the business. She too has faced sexism from male fans, ranging from crass assumptions about why she loves wrestling to rape threats and death threats.

“I come across guys all the time who are surprised to find women in wrestling,” she says. “If they truly believe there are few women in wrestling, then they exist in spaces – be it online or in real life – that are toxic and unsafe for women. I know so many amazing female fans and I see them everywhere. If they’re not in your section of the community then there’s a reason for it.”

sexual harassment in wrestling
Becky Lynch and Alexa Bliss; Image: WWE

Cass Briscoe is another London-based wrestling fan, and she thinks the rampant sexism of the WWE’s heyday is why many are surprised that a “proud feminist” like her is a fan. During the so-called Attitude Era of the late ’90s, there were countless striptease segments and “bra and panties” matches, where the winner was the first to strip her opponent to their underwear.

Commentator Jerry Lawler’s “puppies” chant (yes, referring to the wrestlers’ breasts)became a mantra. Storylines had a top talent like Trish Stratus forced by boss Vince McMahon to get on her knees and bark like a dog, before being ordered to strip for the live and TV audience.

“I usually just tell people that things have come on a long way since the ’90s, but also that it’s far from perfect and that there’s still a lot of work to be done,” Briscoe says. “I think a lot of the issues with the sexist reactions are due to older wrestling fans who recall the bygone days of bra and panties matches.”

The Attitude Era coincided with the industry’s most profitable period, in terms of commercial success and mainstream visibility, so it’s no surprise that promoters and fans both hark back to it.

“Wrestling is scared to move away from the format that brought so much success and a lot of fans are similarly scared of things changing the thing they love into something that they no longer enjoy,” says Christy.

“Nostalgia also makes for a very distorted idea of what the Attitude Era was really like. You remember the good way more easily than the bad… and when you mention things like sexism or racism, there is pushback.”

Noblett adds that the business has never been particularly up-to-date with social change. “There are things from the Attitude Era that even back then were pushing boundaries in a bad way. I think anyone who wants that time back is in the same vein of Trump voters and Leave voters wishing for a time when their voices were the only voices that mattered.”

Internet mouthbreathers; Image: Christy

Sexism in wrestling goes much deeper than catcalling and sexist storylines. The number of women known to have been harassed or assaulted by Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein grows every day as more women bravely speak up. The same abuse has happened in countless other industries, and wrestling is sadly no exception.

After taking a break from independent shows for a few years, Noblett returned to a scene that had improved on the surface, but was just as problematic underneath. “I had times where I was felt up by wrestlers and had to tell them to stop. I’d keep one eye on an escape route if I was talking to a wrestler I didn’t know, I’d make sure I knew where my friends were.”

More internet mouthbreathers; Image: Christy

For female wrestlers, it was perhaps even worse. Emily Read is a former wrestler and industry veteran who runs the all-woman feminist Pro-Wrestling:EVE promotion with her husband Dann. GLOW star Kate Nash is among its famous fans.

You know that you’re pressuring a woman into a sexual act she didn’t want, or you’re groping a woman without permission?

“If you look back on interviews you hear guys openly bragging and laughing about sexually harassing fans or pressuring women into sex,” Emily says. “You’re thinking, ‘you know that’s illegal, right? You know that you’re pressuring a woman into a sexual act she didn’t want, or you’re groping a woman without permission?’ But no, it’s seen as a funny story on the road.”

As a teenage trainee wrestler herself, she was told that the wrestlers had dibs over who had the right to sleep with her. And the hands-on physicality of wrestling can be easily exploited by those wanting to grope and abuse.

“The girls would look out for each other,” Emily says. “We didn’t talk about it, you didn’t make a fuss because you didn’t want to be that girl who made a big deal about something. So you’d just avoid people. You’d try to shimmy round and make sure you weren’t teamed up with the guy who groped you and grabbed your crotch.”

You know when you’re being groped and you know when it’s an accident

When she publicly spoke about the assaults years later, a former trainer who had been oblivious to what was going on in his ring got in touch to ask if Emily had been misquoted, or perhaps misunderstood a genuine accident. “I was like,  ‘no. It’s very different having your underwear shoved inside of you – with fingers – to hands slipping. It’s different. You know when you’re being groped and you know when it’s an accident’.”

The trainer then spoke to his other past trainees and the same stories kept being told. “We didn’t mention it because we were told that’s just the way it was. If you wanted to be a wrestler you didn’t mention it and you didn’t make a fuss that a guy groped you.”

As in Hollywood, the theatre and media, the first thing that needs to happen is to acknowledge the problem and show solidarity. The “tits out” incident in England wasn’t just called out by other fans in the audience, but also the show’s promoters and wrestling talent around the world. Stars including Jimmy Havoc, Aleister Black and Zack Sabre Jr all spoke up.

“I absolutely think male wrestlers have a duty to step in,” says Noblett. “While I’m always going to say that what needs to happen is that people listen to women when we say this is a problem, male wrestlers using their position to speak out or amplify female voices speaking about this is always appreciated.”

Christy admits that sexist wrestling fans are more likely to listen to their male heroes than female stars. “When wrestlers like Jimmy Havoc and Zack Sabre Jr stand up and make their voices heard, that’s amazing, because they know they’ll be a backlash yet they do so anyway. When people in a comfortable position risk that to stand up for us, then we’re getting somewhere.

We need men to help build up women’s voices

“We need men to help build up women’s voices. Don’t talk over them. Show them solidarity. Don’t go for the easy way out. Don’t default to using men for everything. Make an effort to involve women in things and to listen to them.”

Briscoe also wants the top talent to use their “huge platform” to address the issue, but believes that most WWE stars are dissuaded from speaking out. EVE’s co-promoter Dann says he can understand why a major corporation may try to duck the whole issue.

He says addressing the problem head on will inevitably lead to claims that sexism is a problem with wrestling alone and the WWE in particular. Even a promotion like EVE has faced negative publicity for publicising its inclusive policy.

“I think there’s a way that it can be marketed,” he says. “You don’t talk about it solely as a wrestling thing, you bring it up as a society-based issue that you are doing something about and you encourage people in other forms of live entertainment to do something, too.”

It’s also essential to boost the number of women in the industry, both in and out of the ring. “There was a time when there were no women on TV,” says Dann. “The situation isn’t as bad now as it was because there are more women in the business.”

Becky Lynch is a former indie darling who became the first ever SmackDown Women’s Champion in the WWE last year. She’s seen a lot of changes in the industry she joined half a lifetime ago.

“I remember when I started at 15, I was the only girl in the class,” she says. “I’m sure if you went into a wrestling school nowadays you’re looking at a lot more women. I think that’s great and I feel a great sense of pride that we’re able to help with that.”

Beyond just numbers, how women are portrayed is crucial. The way fans feel about the talent is inevitably bound up in how they are presented, says Christy. The WWE’s much publicised Women’s Revolution has improved things but there’s definitely a feeling that it’s as much marketing as it is real progress.

WWE women are still featured in sexy photoshoots and have storylines centred around their relationships. They’re still bundled into throwaway multi-woman matches while the men have more attention and focus.

“Writing and presenting and booking women this way paints a picture for the fans,” Christy adds. “That attitude transfers. If the product you’re watching doesn’t consider the women as important, why should you?”

sexual harassment in wrestling
Becky Lynch and James Ellworth; Image: WWE

Briscoe has welcomed the progress in the WWE in recent years, such as the female “Divas” being rebranded “Superstars” like their male counterparts. The changes culminated in a match between wrestlers Sasha Banks and Charlotte in Hell in a Cell last year. It was the first time female wrestlers were allowed to compete in that type of match in the WWE, and the first time they were given the honour of headlining a pay-per-view event.

“It was a huge deal for me,” Briscoe says. “They’ve come a long way since the ‘toilet break’ Divas matches of years back, when the women’s matches were often nothing more than a bit of titillating downtime in between the ‘proper’ wrestling. The WWE has made great strides with the quality of their female roster as well and giving more time to better female wrestlers, some of whom can easily match the men in terms of ability.”

Noblett agrees that there have been improvements, but thinks the industry has to do more than just dodge obvious sexism. It has to present women with as much depth as it does men. “At the very base level, sexism comes from not seeing women as fully realised human beings, so the more the product can reflect the fact that we’re as complicated and messy and tough as the men, and also not treat that as a problem, the better.”

The nuclear option for removing sexism from wrestling is to remove men from the equation. While no-one is insisting that every single man hang up his boots, that an all-female, unashamedly feminist promotion like EVE continues to grow proves how powerful and popular women’s wrestling can be as a standalone product. It can also act as a beacon to the wider mixed industry – including the WWE.

EVE’s female-friendly locker room, its inclusive crowds and strict rules against hate speech at live shows – abusive fans can and have been barred for life – also offer a safe space for women, as well as LGBT people and other minorities. “My theory was that we could move the problem,” says Emily. “I may not be able to remove the problem from wrestling, but I can remove the problem from my little haven.”

9th November 2017