At least half of all women in Australia have experienced sexual harassment, abuse or violence. That’s 1 in 2 that has been sexually harassed, 1 in 3 that has been physically abused and 1 in 5 that has been sexually abused. Let that sink in. With #FiredUp, Refinery29 Australia makes an ongoing commitment to spotlighting this serious and pervasive issue with the goal of dismantling gendered violence in Australia.
In September 2021, the VICE docuseries Dark Side of the Ring, which exposed professional wrestling’s seedy underbelly, aired an episode about the 2002 “plane ride from hell.” In it, a flight attendant on the World Wrestling Entertainment-chartered European flight alleged that she was sexually assaulted by legendary wrestler Ric Flair. At least one other wrestler defended Flair’s actions and Flair himself has also denied the allegations. In the aftermath of the episode, which aired in Australia on SBS Viceland in November last year, Flair was removed from all WWE promotional material, while Tommy Dreamer, who dismissed the alleged assault as “a joke, a gag”, was reportedly suspended from another wrestling company, Impact, where he works as a producer. As of December 2021, he had reportedly returned to his role there.
The fact that this all took place over a year after #SpeakingOut (professional wrestling’s #MeToo moment during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement) in which many wrestlers were accused of sexual assault, harassment and intimate partner violence, goes to show that, as with #MeToo, repercussions are still being felt now.
“Seeing a few more people coming forward with stories — some of them are older stories, but some of them are recent stories — people need to be prepared that this [speaking out] process is ongoing,” says Erin Dick, Head of Community Management at Melbourne wrestling company Deathmatch Down Under, referring to both local allegations and those across the international professional wrestling scene more broadly.
“Not everyone is going to step forward with their story all at once. People will tell their story when they’re ready. People might never tell their story. But we need to be prepared to protect people regardless of whether they’re going to speak openly on these things.”
Dick tells me that they were spurred on by the #SpeakingOut movement to put her community-building skills that she had honed outside of wrestling by joining the nascent Deathmatch Down Under (DMDU), which had a few shows prior to the COVID-19 lockdowns but relaunched in early 2021 with a whole new ethos.
“I felt like I needed to do something as a fan who’d long been enjoying wrestling and I felt like I’d found a real safe haven for myself and a sense of community in pro wrestling. It wasn’t fair that not everyone was having that same experience,” they said.
Through things such as acknowledgement of country, a whistleblower hotline to report people who violate the company’s code of conduct, and medical personnel at ringside — surprisingly a rarity in independent professional wrestling — DMDU is at the forefront of this change.
Aboriginal Australian wrestler Rochelle Rogue, who shared her #SpeakingOut story on Twitter late last year, agrees.
“They are one of the only companies that actually listen to the victims of abuse in wrestling,” says the 20-year-old from New South Wales who has also wrestled for such companies as Pro Wrestling Australia (PWA), Wrestling Go! and Future Wrestling Australia (FWA). “They were one of the first to actually listen to me. I have turned down bookings and told promoters that I won't work for them until they stop booking the outed ‘talent’.”
But wrestling is a mirror to society and just like many abusers implicated in #MeToo who are now finding their way back into the entertainment industry, allegedly abusive wrestlers have seen minimal repercussions for their abusive behaviour.
In our conversation, Dick repeatedly makes reference to wrestling’s “carny” roots — literally: professional wrestling began as a sideshow attraction at carnivals. Some hundred years later, wrestling still isn’t taken seriously and perhaps this othering is what has allowed some alleged abusers to slip through the cracks and allegations to be dismissed in the court of public opinion. For every Flair (who, again it is claimed, has faced minimal repercussions for his alleged historical misbehaviour), there’s an Austin Theory (who was named in the initial wave of #SpeakingOut stories as allegedly engaging in inappropriate behaviour with a minor; he’s currently embroiled in a storyline with WWE head honcho Vince McMahon, himself investigated for sexual assault) or Matt Riddle (who was sued for sexual assault by wrestler Candy Cartwright in 2020 which was dropped in 2021 and spent much of that year as a WWE tag team champion).
Closer to home, veteran wrestler who’s performed for WWE and AEW, Shazza McKenzie, has shared her experience with late Australian wrestler Mario Milano (McKenzie declined to provide comment for this article), while Rogue has also used her voice to expose her alleged abuser.
But wrestling is a mirror to society and just like many abusers implicated in #MeToo who are now finding their way back into the entertainment industry, allegedly abusive wrestlers have seen minimal repercussions for their abusive behaviour. The lack of a governing body who oversees abuse allegations and has the power to reprimand abusers means that it’s up to promoters — and, indeed, fans — to police this, which historically hasn’t proven to be the best method.
I reached out to many people in the industry for this article, many of whom weren’t comfortable rehashing their trauma. But Dick and Rogue agreed that while some progress during the beginnings of #SpeakingOut was heartening, there’s still a long way to go.
“There’s still a lot of deep work to be done there in terms of attitude change and supporting the victim–survivor over trying to understand how something like that could have happened because we’ve seen that and we know how it could happen,” Dick says. “A lot’s changed, a lot hasn’t.”
DMDU is at the forefront of this change, which is why Rogue emphasised that she’s “so glad I get the chance to work with and for them.” This inclusive language is key: wrestlers and other talent don’t just work for a company, they work with them to enact change.
“The little DMDU cohort that we have is really interested and passionate about advocating for change,” Dick says. “I would like to see it expand outside of DMDU. Putting on [bystander] training [sessions] that are exclusive to DMDU talent; what good does that do outside of our bubble, our one show a month?”
This is happening throughout the local scene: a few new companies have cropped up in the wake of #SpeakingOut professing change, and a governing body, Australian Professional Wrestling Standards Committee (APWSC), has been started by On the Turnbuckle wrestling podcast host and commentator Tony Schibeci, amongst others from the local wrestling scene.
“Are people of minority backgrounds actually going to be represented in this governing body? I’m not sure,” Dick says, expressing concern for ease of access for women, queer people and people of colour, and wrestling’s history of reluctance to unionisation. Anecdotally, it would appear that many who have spoken out about abuse in wrestling have been white women but, as with #MeToo, it might be indicative that people who don’t belong to that group haven’t been as empowered by the movement to tell their stories.
“I can’t understand why [a wrestling promotion] wouldn’t want to be a part of this…” said Schibeci on an episode of On the Turnbuckle discussing APWSC.
“A collective is always going to be better than one-offs.”
However, there’s something to be said for people who are less likely to experience harassment, assault and discrimination within wrestling being a part of the work, too, and not just leaving it up to those who do.
In a statement provided to Refinery29 Australia, Schibeci says, “At the moment the majority of promoters have chosen not to be a part of [APWSC]... Due to the fact that this concept hasn’t gotten off the ground yet there have been no terms of reference agreed upon about who should be involved and what should be covered.
“I can assure you that the safety issues that Speaking Out surfaced will not just be on the agenda, but will be a crucial part of discussion for any committee that is formed.”
Wrestling, like many industries, is experiencing a period of immense change. Some of the most popular wrestlers today are people of colour; young women and people of colour are getting into podcasting and YouTubing about wrestling in droves; and the ICW (Internet Wrestling Community), which has long been dominated by loud white men, is quickly diversifying. A look around the audience at DMDU indicates this, too.
“[DMDU being] a safe space for queer people is really important to me as a queer person,” Dick says. “I’ve had people who’ve come to shows and it’s their first wrestling show ever make comments about how there are so many different people here. You’ve got a quintessential wrestling fan in a staple black t-shirt and you’ve got a young queer person with brightly coloured hair. You’ve got the whole spectrum of society and wrestling fans.”
As wrestling breaks out of its “carny” roots and begins to factor in and cater towards the diverse range of wrestling fans and, indeed, society more broadly, it's becoming a safer and more inclusive space for people to speak out about their stories and, hopefully, eliminate the need for those stories at all.