Tara Moss documentary Cyberhate on internet bullying and trolls.
Tara Moss documentary Cyberhate on internet bullying and trolls.

We must never stop calling out these man-babies

ACCORDING to women's and children's advocacy group, Plan International, who analysed comments on major Australian broadcasters' pages over 12 months, female players received three times the negativity men do.

Furthermore, whereas comments directed at men usually revolve around perceived cheating, drug use or some other foible, women in sport were more likely to receive highly sexualised, explicit, violent, sexist and misogynistic comments with very little to do with the game they're playing.

One has only to look at the furore that erupted over the photo of Tayla Harris kicking a goal. Some comments about the image were so vile, Harris likened them to sexual abuse.

Valdman Cartoon tribute to the pose made famous by AFL player Tayla Harris.
Valdman Cartoon tribute to the pose made famous by AFL player Tayla Harris.

Sadly, as this recent analysis proves, Harris isn't alone when it comes to receiving this kind of spineless, tiresome and now predictable abuse.

But sexism in sport has a long history. Back in 1967, 20-year-old Kathrine Switzer became the first woman registered to run the Boston Marathon. Shockingly, an official, Jock Semple was photographed trying to push her off the course Switzer continued because she knew if she quit "everybody's going to believe women can't do this".

Fast forward to 2019, and there are now more female runners than male.

Professor Jim McKay from the University of Queensland tells a story from 1980 when the first woman qualified for the Acapulco cliff-diving championships. Several Mexican divers said they'd withdraw if she was allowed to progress. One claimed, "this is a death-defying activity - men are taking a great gamble to prove their courage. What would be the point if everyone saw that a woman could do the same?"

The all-male organising committee promptly dropped her.

McKay believes the steadfast resistance to women's involvement in sport occurs to "bolster fragile forms of masculinity, and social media (and the abuse, etc) is just the latest variation".

He's not alone in thinking this. At the recent International Sociology of Sport Conference in Dunedin (which ended last Saturday), there was a paper entitled "Sexualisation, misogyny and social media abuse in women's tennis".

Jock Semple enters the field of runners to try to pull Kathrine Switzer out of the race during the 1967 Boston Maraton.
Jock Semple enters the field of runners to try to pull Kathrine Switzer out of the race during the 1967 Boston Maraton.

Experts often couch verbal attacks aimed at women (not just sportswomen) online as arising from male anxieties and a need to assert power and control.

Lecturer in Criminology, Bianca Fileborn, writing in The Conversation, argues they appear because these (often anonymous) men are "reasserting the dominance of a particular type of masculinity".

In other words, these anachronistic men are desperate to use any tools in their arsenal to keep women in their (subordinate) place and perpetuate "disparate power relations".

But this isn't just occurring in sport. Many women with a social media profile and a public voice are the target of online vitriol, sexual threats and inappropriate remarks about their appearance, ability or sex appeal.

Movements like #MeToo, a report by Amnesty International in 2018 that described Twitter as a "toxic place for women", as well as the TV series, CyberHate by Tara Moss, and Ginger Gorman's book, Troll Hunting, all point to how widespread and damaging online abuse is.

What's worse is there are virtual communities normalising and reinforcing this noxious behaviour.

When asked about the online vitriol directed at sportswomen, basketball legend Lauren Jackson admitted to having had her fair share. Explaining how she dealt with it, she said, "I don't give a shit".

While it's great Jackson can boldly declare these don't affect her, the truth is, as the Plan International report reveals, it's affecting girls and women in the wider community - our daughters, mothers, wives, partners.

Plan International spokeswoman, Hayley Cull, said: "When they (girls and women) see this kind of harassment, abuse and trolling of women athletes, that sends a really strong message to a lot of girls."

What she means is the barrage of online venom is making girls second guess if a career in these fields is worthwhile - if they are.

This is why it's so important we call any kind of abuse out, challenge and thus change these man-babies.

It's why we have to give a shit.

If we don't we run the risk of returning to the days of Switzer and the Mexicans: when males, through their despicable and craven actions, could try to knock a woman out of not just any race, but the human one as well.

Karen Brooks is a Courier-Mail columnist.