The male sports culture—one of the most influential bastions of patriarchal privilege—must take a bold and unflinching approach to star athletes who have perpetrated sexual violence.
Professional sports leagues find themselves increasingly in a quandary: What to do about star players who face credible and often multiple allegations of sexual misconduct?
The case currently lighting up sports talk radio, podcasts and social media is that of Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson, who signed a huge five-year contract several months ago for $230 million, even though he faces 22 civil lawsuits from women alleging sexual assault and abuse.
Watson is reportedly meeting with NFL officials as their investigation into the allegations continues. Speculation is rampant about whether they will suspend him for a period of time—and if that penalty will be accepted as legitimate in the court of public opinion, or seen as merely a public relations exercise.
This professional football drama comes on the heels of a related dilemma that Major League Baseball (MLB) faced recently amidst several reports of sexual misconduct by star Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Trevor Bauer.
Surprisingly, MLB meted out one of the most severe punishments for sexual misconduct in its history. In April, Bauer was suspended for two full seasons for violating the League’s “Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault and Child Abuse Policy” for multiple allegations of punching, strangling and non-consensual penetration. Though he will not be charged with a crime, Bauer will lose about $60 million. (His case is currently under appeal.)
The Bauer case is about far more than the behavior of one professional athlete. It highlights a much more serious and pervasive cultural problem: the normalization of so-called “consensual rough sex.” Due to the ubiquity of online porn, “rough sex” is widely seen today as hip and edgy, rather than what it often is: violent misogyny.
A search on Pornhub for “rough sex” results in 200,000 videos. The vast majority feature men abusing women. One channel on the website advertises, “If you’re trying to seduce them with flowers and chocolates, you’re only wasting your time.” Indeed, the big lie of pornography is that women actually enjoy body-punishing and violent “sex” that includes verbal abuse, hitting, choking and even strangulation; nothing is too degrading, debasing or violent.
Before his suspension from baseball, Bauer had a reputation for sexist as well as racist, antisemitic and transphobic tweets. But like many bullies, he was not content to confine his misogyny to cyber-space. In June 2021, a woman filed a domestic violence restraining order against him, alleging that on two occasions he assaulted her, including “punching her in the face, vagina and buttocks, sticking his fingers down her throat, and strangling her to the point where she lost consciousness multiple times.” She also said that he “penetrated her anally while she was unconscious and unable to give consent.”
The judge denied the restraining order, ruling, “If she set limits and he exceeded them, this case would’ve been clear. But she set limits without considering all the consequences, and respondent did not exceed limits that the petitioner set.” In other words, she asked for it—the oldest justification for men’s sexual violence against women.
What role does porn culture play in all of this? Studies from around the world show that porn use by teen boys is associated with sexual coercion, dating violence and “a lack of concern regarding certain sex acts being painful for their partners.” For women, porn often functions as a grooming tool to see men’s sexual violence as normative. Studies show that viewing porn is correlated with women feeling compelled to submit to sexually degrading and violent behaviors, in order to be visible and valued by men.
Star singer-songwriter Billie Eilish bravely spoke out about this harm recently. She said after watching porn as a pre-teen, “I was not saying no to things that were not good” during her early sexual experiences. “It was because I thought that’s what I was supposed to be attracted to.” Eilish’s words provide an eloquent account of how porn, rather than empowering women, often instead robs them of their sexual agency, turning them into “compliant victims.”
Part of that robbery is subtle, and in some cases turns on language. Media coverage of sexual violence is often clouded by misuse of the term “choking.” This activity is commonly depicted on major porn websites. Pornhub today features almost 8000 #choking videos, all freely available at the push of a button to anybody, regardless of age. Except it’s not choking by any medical definition. You choke when you chomp too hungrily on food. When someone has his hands around your neck, you are being strangled.
Any pressure on the neck greater than, say, a tender kiss is a recipe for disaster. Oxygenated blood travels up your neck to the brain, and back down to the heart. Inside that plumbing—the carotid and jugular veins—is your airway. Mess with any of this for 10 seconds or more and you may fall unconscious; much longer, and you can die. Safe or consensual strangulation is as nonsensical as “safe drug overdosing” or “safe drinking and driving.”
Strangulation, according to The Journal of Emergency Medicine, can result in such injuries as memory loss, vision problems, nose bleeds, miscarriage and suicidal thoughts. The National Domestic Violence Hotline adds vomiting and seizures. The Training Institute on Strangulation Prevention calls strangulation “an ultimate form of power and control, where the batterer can demonstrate control over the victim’s next breath.” Domestic violence professionals, in fact, increasingly recognize strangulation as a major homicide risk factor for women.
Yet that dangerous, sometimes deadly script is exactly what porn has been teaching kids. On TikTok, which attracts a quarter of a billion teens and tweens monthly, millions of viewers have watched adolescent girls dancing to music at #ChokeMe. Violent sex has become so mainstream that young people who resist “choking” are regularly shamed as uptight “vanilla” prudes.
And what happens when “consensual choking” goes awry? In most cases, the guy with his hands around the woman’s throat pleads the “rough sex defense,” as Bauer did. So many men have escaped justice for murdering girls and women that the U.K. finally banned this type of defense.
The #MeToo movement prompted increased public awareness that many men—including famous men—have engaged in sexual misconduct. But much of the discussion about perpetration and accountability has taken place away from the ears of children. Professional sports, however, attract millions of young fans, many still in elementary school.
Speculation is rampant about whether the NFL will suspend Deshaun Watson for a period of time—and if that penalty will be accepted as legitimate in the court of public opinion, or seen as merely a public relations exercise.
We know children and adolescents often identify strongly with their sports heroes, clinging to their every word on social media, wanting to play like them, dress like them and act like them. In this context, what does it mean when a child can turn on ESPN and hear people talking about a star pitcher who was suspended for strangling women, especially when he defends himself by claiming this is “normal sex”?
For this reason, it is especially important that the male sports culture—one of the most influential bastions of patriarchal privilege—takes a bold and unflinching approach to star athletes who have perpetrated sexual violence. The powerful message this sends to kids and adults is that men’s sexual violence against women is not “normal,” and will not be tolerated.