I’m Surprised Offensive Behavior To Women In Football Has Been Taken Seriously (For Once)

Photo by Noemi Llamas/Eurasia Sport Images/Getty Images.
Back in the summer, when I saw the photos of then Spanish football federation president Luis Rubiales planting an inappropriate kiss on World Cup winner Jenni Hermoso’s lips, his eyes closed while he held her head in his hands, I was unsurprised. Hermoso, who scored the tournament-winning goal against England, stood there, her arms spread out by her side, wing-like, as if she might fly away had she not been held still. And though the encounter was clearly not reciprocal, and though the power dynamic between a senior male figure in soccer and a younger female player was palpable, it did not shock me.
Soccer has, for decades, been a man’s game and seeing a woman at the top of it being kissed by a man in a position of authority above her when it ought to be her space, her time, made me feel so tired that I needed a lie down. Limbs suddenly heavy, I wanted to get into bed and embark on an Ottessa Moshfegh-style year of rest and relaxation
And, yet, this week I did feel shocked. Shocked by the news Rubiales has been banned from all soccer-related activities for three years for his actions, including the unconsented kiss. He was also seen grabbing his crotch in celebration and carrying Spanish soccer player Athenea del Castillo over his shoulder following Spain’s historic World Cup win in Australia.
Because, for me, growing up in the ’90s, ’00s and 2010s, there was nothing unusual about women from all walks of life — in the media and in regular, mundane everyday life — being grabbed, kissed or groped by men without their consent. 
In fact, so common was it that cries of “frigid”, “have a sense of humour” and “cheer up love” rang around our society in a perverse and gaslighting chorus whenever anyone questioned it. 
No wonder, then, that, eventually, I became numb. Numb, even, to stories of serious sexual assault too. Numb to the point that, years later from 2017 and onwards, when the #MeToo movement broke thousands more of these stories, I was barely even able to muster anger despite having stories of my own to tell — as around one in 30 women do
As the American critic Susan Sontag wrote in On Photography (1977) “the shock” of horrors “wears off with repeated viewings, just as the surprise and bemusement felt the first time one sees a pornographic movie wear off after one sees a few more.”
Sontag was, of course, writing long before the internet exposed us — for better and for worse — to rolling 24-hour coverage of absolutely everything. Today people see so much horror that there is a very real danger that we will become benumbed to it — desensitisation in real life is well-documented as a potential side-effect of exposure to violent imagery online whether in video games or on the Internet according to studies.
Sontag foresaw this. “The vast photographic catalogue of misery and injustice through the world has given everyone a certain familiarity with atrocity,” she wrote. This, she cautioned, makes “the horrible seen more ordinary” by making it seem “familiar”, “inevitable” and easy to dismiss by saying things like “it’s only a photograph”. 
Particularly right now, when there is so much horror to observe all around, how can one person take into it all? It is simply not possible for either journalists or their readers which, perhaps, is why the outcome in Hermoso’s story hasn’t received much attention despite the noise made around it. 
After it happened, Hermoso’s teammates vowed that they would not play until Rubiales was removed.  

Nonetheless, as I read earlier this week that there was fallout for him — that his behavior had been taken seriously, that Hermoso’s feelings had been taken seriously and not undermined — I was shocked. 

In the aftermath, Hermoso herself said in a statement that she felt “vulnerable and the victim of an aggression” while Rubiales gave a speech vowing to remain in his job in which he took aim at “false feminism” and the “social assassination of his character” and implied that he was the victim of a witch hunt. Hermoso has also filed a criminal complaint about the kiss for “alleged sexual assault and coercion”.  
But after a few articles here and there, the story moved on. Hence why I was so shocked.
Rubiales eventually resigned before he could be fired. However, even though he did this, this week  a Fifa disciplinary committee investigation into his conduct at the Women’s World Cup final still decided that he should be banned from all soccer-related activities for three years. Fifa announced that Rubiales had been found to have breached article 13 of the Fifa Disciplinary Code, which relates to “offensive behavior and violations of the principles of fair play”. Rubiales continues to deny the allegations and has said that he will appeal the decision. 
Nonetheless, as I read earlier this week that there was fallout for him — that his behavior had been taken seriously, that Hermoso’s feelings had been taken seriously and not undermined — I was shocked. 
Shocked that something good had happened. Shocked that a woman’s voice was heard instead of silenced. Shocked that an obvious abuse of power was dealt with and not, as happened so often in the 2010s, swept under the rug, dismissed or worse, disappeared from the record entirely. 
I felt awake again. 
Speaking out has not cost Hermoso her career as it once might have done for a woman who stuck her head above the patriarchal parapet like every single woman discredited by former US president Donald Trump and, more recently, during the Ghislaine Maxwell trial. Hermoso has just been called up to play for her country once again in Nations League games against Italy and Switzerland this month. 

But Fifa are clear — what happened was that a man in a position of power assaulted a woman soccer player in her place of work.

Women’s soccer has become an increasingly bright beacon of hope in recent years. Women’s teams are starting to outshine their male peers and encourage women into spaces that so many once not only felt they didn’t belong in but, also, feared for their safety in.
In an interview with Piers Morgan on TalkTV this September before his suspension was announced, Rubiales said his intentions were “noble, enthusiastic, 100% non sexual” and insisted that the kiss was “a mutual act” born out of being “emotional”. 
But Fifa are clear — what happened was that a man in a position of power assaulted a woman soccer player in her place of work. There is no reasonable excuse for that. 
It shouldn’t be shocking that there has been a good outcome for Hermoso here, but it is. We still live in a time where women who speak out about consent and assault are demonised and discredited
This story offers some hope, though: if soccer can take consent seriously and protect women, other parts of society can too. 
This story was originally published on Refinery29 UK.

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