Masculinity Unmasked

Masculinity is defined as the possession of the qualities traditionally associated with men. But, what type of men?

In the documentary The Mask You Live In, director Jennifer Siebel Newsom explores the masculine qualities found in the United States today, asking the viewer to question the harm they are causing to boys. (The film is available online; click here to watch.)  This is Newsom’s second film as part of The Representation Project, following the documentary Miss Representation, looking at depictions of women in the media. Although the discussion and research for The Mask You Live In is focused on the U.S., the film’s message is important to millions of boys and men around the world.

mask_poster_wlaurel-021915_500x745Newsom’s inspiration for making the film came from falling pregnant with her son. In an interview she said,

“It was really important to me that I could nurture a son who could be true to his authentic self, who wouldn’t always feel like he had to prove his masculinity. There’s so much loneliness, pain, and suffering when one is pretending to be someone that they’re not.”

The Mask You Live In resonated with me and my childhood. Each area discussed – sport, relationships, work, etc. – provides opportunities for growth…but also provides opportunities for perpetuating harm. The harm in question is that of patriarchy.

There are three lies about masculinity that every boy learns in America:

  1. We associate masculinity with athletic ability
  2. We associate masculinity with economic success
  3. We associate sexual conquest with masculinity

These three lies pave the foundation for a life of men feeling inadequate.Boys who don’t achieve a fictional level of manliness and are unsupported in alternative achievements live without the self-esteem needed to be happy. As one interviewee notes, “Comparison is the thief of all happiness.” As the film shows, boys and ultimately men struggle to stay true to themselves while negotiating America’s narrow definition of masculinity.

This all starts at a very young age, when boys enter school.

  • 1 in 4 boys report being bullied at school
  • Only 30% of those who are bullied notify adults

(All stats come from the film.)

One of the main reasons for bullying is societies binary view of gender: Men are masculine; Women are feminine. This outdated view of a person’s range of self-identification is framed around femininity being about emotion, relationships, and empathy. Men and masculinity are everything that isn’t these attributes, and any boy who exerts emotion or empathy will be bullied for not adhering to it.

The conservative view of masculinity – one that doesn’t leave room for emotion and relationships between boys – also breeds homophobia. Boys learn very early that if they do anything remotely seen as feminine or loving towards fellow boys that they will be labeled a “sissy” or other sexist language than harms all genders. Society has taught boys that girls are the only one who are free to care about boys.

This inevitably leads to loneliness among boys and men. One way to combat these feelings is to self-medicate, which young men do by taking drugs and alcohol.

  • By age 12, 34% of boys have started drinking
  • The average boy tries drugs at age 13
  • 1 in 4 boys binge drink (consume 5 or more drinks in a row)

These social problems are made worse by society’s inability to let boys talk about their feelings, whether good or bad. In the film, a male teach gets a group of young male students to do an exercise. Each takes a mask. On the front they write what image of masculinity they present to society. On the back they write what they are hiding. This simple exercise gets to the root of so many problems, yet is still difficult to build into a reformed education system.

Until everyone understands the root problems of masculinity, boys and men will continue to experience inadequacy, loneliness and the mental health problems these feelings produce. Ultimately, many will turn to suicide if these problems go untreated.

  • Every day 3 or more boys commit suicide
  • For boys, suicide is the third leading cause of death
  • Fewer than 50% of boys and men with mental health challenges seek help

Even in the small village I grew up, we had a fellow student commit suicide. Many students and adults could not understand why it happened. It’s a shame that the teachers and staff in that school were not better trained to understand the root problems discussed in The Mask I Live In. It may have prevented this needless death and other, unseen pain.


Rates of suicide in the United States, The Mask You Live In

In the last century, thanks to the fight of the women’s rights movement, girls and women now have greater equality in attaining educational success. Unfortunately, during that same period of time, men in power did little to change the way boys learn. Schools were punishing boys through humiliation, such as by making them write on the board. Rarely did they ask why is this kid acting out. This has meant that boys are under-performing in school, as compared to their female counterparts.

  • Compared to girls, boys are more likely to flunk or drop out of school
  • Compared to girls, boys are: 2 times more likely to be in special education, 3 times more likely to be diagnosed with ADHD, 2 times more likely to be suspended, and 4 times more likely to be expelled

In a world that limits boys’ ability to talk about themselves, most turn inwards and spend their time in solitary activities – many of which spur harmful notions of masculinity.

  • In a week, the average boy spends: 40 hours watching TV, sports, movies; 15 hours playing video games; 2 hours watching porn
  • 31% of males feel addicted to video games
  • 99% of boys play video games
  • 90% of games rated appropriate for children over 10 contain violence
  • 50% of parents don’t monitor ratings
  • The average 18 year old has seen 200,000 acts of violence on screen including 40,000 murders

Even when boys are outside, playing sports and interacting with other boys, they can be prone to the same negative examples of masculinity. Sports encourage play that is violent and competitive. Coaches often act as father figures, which can do an awful lot of good and an awful lot of bad. A coach can instill the same type of homophobic, anti-girl language that recycles through generations of unchanged language.

In the film, when asked “how would you feel if your coach called you a ‘sissy’?” a boy responded that it would “devastate” him. What does this mean for how we teach boys about being a girl.

Sports has the wrong mix of power, dominance, control, moral clarity. A ‘Win at all cost’ culture in sports means winning at the expense of character development. The myth that sports builds character can only become true if coaches teach and model it.

The Mask You Live In documents four male archetypes in media:

  1. Strong silent guy, who is always in control
  2. Superhero character engaging in violence to maintain that control or in order to achieve whatever goal is in front of him
  3. Thug, man of colour, who are pigeon holed into violent roles
  4. Man-child, who is in perpetual adolescence, whose body doesn’t have lots of muscle. He purports masculinity in another way – through degradation of women, engaging in high-risk activities

Media has a definite effect on people’s behavior. If it didn’t, advertising would collapse.

Violence on TV, movies and video games adds to the culture of boys being made to think that ‘real’ men must fight to be respected. There’s a reason the US army trains people using video games. It’s because it gets them used to some of the experiences.

A report on youth violence by the US Surgeon General found that violence in media has the following three effects:

  1. Children may become less sensitive to pain and suffering of others.
  2. Children may be more fearful of the world around them.
  3. Children may be more likely to behave in aggressive or harmful ways toward others.

These same forms of entertainment, combined with pornography, push an agenda of dominate men and submissive women – a fundamental lie of masculinity.

  • 34% of youth online receive unwanted pornographic exposure
  • 93% of boys are exposed to internet porn
  • 68% young men use pornography weekly and 21% of young men use pornography daily

Image from The Mask You Live In

These harmful portrayals of both men and women can be overcome through reasoned sex education. Unfortunately, many parent in the United States are opposed to this, due largely to conservative views about talking openly about one’s sexuality and alternatives of sexual identity.

  • Only 22 states require public schools teach sex education

Because of shame around sexuality, porn is sex education for most people. Without sex education in the school and with silent parents at home, many boys turn to their computers for guidance, with terrible consequences. The internet provides “excess in social isolation”.

  • 83% of boys have seen group sex online
  • 39% of boys have seen bondage online
  • 18% of boys have seen rape online
  • Exposure to pornography increases sexual aggression by 22% and increases the acceptance of rape myths (that women desire sexual violence) by 31%

Boys are being conditioned towards violence.

By the time boys reach puberty, society has implanted the worst forms of masculinity, through school systems that allow bullying and punish expression; through media and sports that promote violence. Porn then teaches boys “what women want and how men are supposed to perform”. Both of those are wrong. It’s difficult to think, but “rapists are being produced by our culture”.

Researcher in the film call this the Great Set-Up: “We raise boys to become men whose very identity is based on rejecting the feminine and then we are surprised when they don’t see women as being fully human”. So we set boys up to grow into men who disrespect women at a fundamental level and then we wonder why we have the culture that we have.

Boys enter their teenage years being told that “A man is always supposed to be on the prowl” or “I’d like to hit that” or “I’d like a piece of that” or “I’d like to tear that shit up”. In all of these cases the woman (or sometimes man) is an object, an “it” or “that”. And violence – “hit”, “tear” – is the means to the sexual end. This teaches boys not to see the humanity in girls and leads to a culture of sexual violence against women. Young men are then sent to universities with toxic ideas of sex and sexual expression.

  • Every 9 seconds a woman is beaten or assaulted
  • 35% of male college students indicated some likelihood of raping if they knew they could get away with it
  • 1 in 5 female college students is the victim of an attempted or completed sexual assault

Young men on university campuses represent a recipe for failure: 18 year-olds desperate to prove their masculinity to 19 year-olds. Campus environments provide two things for young men: horizontal solidarity by bonding with your ‘bros’ (hooking up, initiations, hazing); and the feeling that girls can’t do these things (hierarchy – men are superior to women).

The Mask You Live In notes a unique ‘code of silence’ found in American society. This is the conflict between the heart that wants to the right things, and the head that has been conditioned to do the opposite. This is the fear that many men have that prevent them from acting ethically and continues the ‘male peer culture’.

“Choice is rooted in our privilege.”

Not only is sexual violence perpetuated by men, mostly, it attacks both women and men, girls and boys. The culture of silence that our society has instilled into boys prevents them from seeking the medical and mental health services to overcome these violent crimes.

  • Over half of all boys are physically abused
  • 1 in 6 boys is sexually abused
  • Abused and neglected children are 9 times more likely to be involved in crime

America is unique for its culture of guns. These guns are the weapons of choice for many boys and men who seek suicide as an end to their pain – an end with immediate resolve. The films summarizes this as: “Whether its homicidal violence or suicidal violence, people resort to such desperate behavior only when feeling overwhelmed by shame and humiliation.”

“While we as good men don’t perpetrate the violence, we are part of the collective socialization.” Men and the culture that works against progress are the fertile ground that’s required for the violence to exist.

  • Every hour more than 3 people are killed by a gun. That’s over 30,000 lives annually
  • 90% of homicide perpetrators are male. Almost 50% are under 25

The male role belief system is a recipe for violence: Men are defined as superior, women are defined as inferior. And to be a real man, you also dominate other men. Respect is linked to violence. These notions and all that was explored above collectively explain the level of violence that remains in society, as well as the phenomenon of ‘mass killings’ in America.

  • Mass homicides (where 4 or more people are killed) occur on average every 2 weeks
  • 94% of mass homicides are committed by males
  • The youngest mass shooter was 11
  • The rate of mass shooting has tripled since 2011
  • And there has been almost 1 school shooting per week since Sandy Hook

Mass killings across the United States, The Mask You Live In


At its core, The Mask You Live In creates a dialogue between healthy and unhealthy ways to define manhood. These dialogues have for far too long been absent from education institutions and the wider society but are slowly being openly discussed. Debates among men are addressing many long-standing problems, such as ‘aggrieved entitlement,’ where men in positions of power feeling entitled to power and that they’re not getting that power anymore.

The Men’s Rights Movements sees the end result of patriarchy – suicide violence, depression, rape against men – and feels that its the result of women’s liberation without understanding where the struggle really lies. Until men understand that the system that produces inequality between genders (as well as racism, homophobia and other discrimination) is harmful to others as much as it is to themselves, men will never be free.

The liberation of men and boys is inextricably linked to the fight by women and girls against patriarchy. The language and actions of men towards boys must start with peace and respect. Violence can not be condoned in any form; language that assists violence must be countered in every instance. Homophobia must be challenges alongside recognition that all males have the right to be feminine, irrespective of their sexual orientation.

The coming revolution in mental health will help boys open up and discuss their needs with other boys, who were also sitting silent with the same concerns. Parents should take the opportunity to encourage their children to challenge the harmful masculine and feminine stereotypes in society through their words and actions. Individual action is not enough; a new society needs to be created.

Everyone deserves to feel whole. Starting the process of talking about these issues, as early as possible, for both boys and girls, is essential for future improvements to solving society’s problems. Talking across gender line is needed at all ages.

Each of us can do our part in expanding what it means to be a man for ourselves and the boys in our lives.

Watching The Mask You Live In is a good place to start and should be required viewing in all classrooms.


Bringing Hell to Syria

More than 400,000 deaths.

Four million refugees plus 7.6 million Syrians displaced within their country.

Widespread bombardment of cultural heritage sites and urban centers.

Syria Burning: A Short History of a Catastrophe by Charles Glass Verso 177 pp.

Syria Burning: A Short History of a Catastrophe
by Charles Glass
Verso 173 pp.

These are some of the costs of the war in Syria. A war that has now waged for over five years and doesn’t appear to be stopping. The human cost is tremendous. And the causes are many. In the book Syria Burning: A Short History of a Catastrophe, Charles Glass looks at how this war came about. The current conflict traces its roots to over 100 years of external influence, such as the Sykes-Picot Agreement which saw French and British powers drawing the borders of present-day Syria. Glass summarizes this history succinctly as evidenced below.

Just as “Aleppo has been destroyed…The country is being destroyed” (pp. 125), activist and professor Zaidoun al-Zoabi laments. In the chapter, “The Revolution Died in Aleppo,” Glass encapsulates the elements of class, geography, religion, politics which fostered the war and the destruction of Aleppo:

“Syria’s war is anything it’s fighters want it to be. It is a class war of the suburban proletariat against a state army financed by the bourgeoisie. It is a sectarian war in which the Sunni Arab majority is fighting to displace an Alawi ruling class. It is a holy war of Sunni Muslims against all manifestations of Shiism, especially the Alawite variety. The social understanding on which Allepo prided itself are unravelling Muslim fundamentalists have targeted Christian churches and Shiite mosques. Arabs have fought Kurds. Iraqi Shiites and Sunnis have crossed the border to fight each other in Syria.” (pp.122)

The violent suppression of the 2011 revolution by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad quickly lead many to take up arms. These fighters formed different groups and began a civil war. Outside interests and military powers attached themselves to either government or rebel forces. All sides killed civilians and helped destroy the country. The Arab Spring turned to the Syrian Winter.

Cold War thinking lives on today with proxy wars – instigated by a major power which does not itself become involved – being fought in Syria as well as Iraq and Yemen. The war in Syria is no longer about Syrian needs. Powerful nations have exasperated these wars to serve their own interests, as Glass writes:

“Syria has become the venue of what [Mokhtar Lamani] called “a proxy war” or wars: the United States versus Russia; the Sunni theocracies of Saudi Arabia and Qatar against the Shiite theocrats of Iran; and Turkey versus Arab nationalist over the attempted restoration of Turkey’s pre-World War I dominance. The original demands for reform and justice of the peaceful protesters at the start of the uprising in 2011 are as forgotten as, two years and millions of deaths into the Great War, was Austria-Hungary’s July 23, 1914, ultimatum to Serbia.” (pp. 54)

Rebel groups received training in Jordan and Turkey thanks to covert help from the United States, Britain and France. Arms are paid by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, flowing through the porous borders of Turkey. These open borders help the Islamic State (ISIS) fund its operations by selling stolen oil and antiquities.

On the other side, the Syrian Army receives the help of the Russian air force, as well as strategic and financial assistance from Iran, as well as Shiites in Bahrain, Yemen and Lebanon.

What is clear is that the Syrian people are losing. Various nations are playing a chess game with real lives at stake and no side is willing to cooperate to end this mess. The rise of competing violent ideologies in the region will have untold consequences going forward:

“The growth of Iranian influence on the Syrian government pits two theocratic ideologies, the late Ayatollah Khomeini’s ‘wali al faqih’, or “rule of (Islamic) jurists,” versus the Saudi-inspired Wahhabi fundamentalism of ISIS as well as the Turkish-backed, al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra. This has led many Syrians who don’t subscribe to Sunni or Shiite fundamentalist ideology to welcome Russian military engagement. In recent weeks, Russia has pledged to continue military support for Assad’s forces. Many Syrians welcome this less to confront ISIS and its like-minded jihadi rivals than to offset the Iranians and their clients from Hezbollah, the Iraqi militias, and Afghanistan’s Shiite Hazaras.” (pp. 141)

In the epilogue, Glass calls for a strategy. Not a strategy of revenge, but one of diplomacy. The world powers – USA and Russia, Saudi Arabia and Iran – are largely to blame for fighting this proxy war at the expense of the Syrian people. They need to look for peace to end this war.

A Critique of Sport

“Sport is war minus the shooting,” wrote George Orwell.

For a long time, I have been thinking about sport and its role in society. It can be like simulated warfare, as Orwell notes, with teams commonly attacking each other, injuries abounding. It can also seem like a religious experience, with fans idolizing players and dogmatically watching every game available.

Foul Play: What's WRONG with Sport by Joe Humphreys Icon Books, 271 pp

Foul Play: What’s Wrong with Sport
by Joe Humphreys
Icon Books, 271 pp.

It seems to be a mixed bag of the best and worst in society. Sports are found nearly everywhere and played by nearly everyone at some point in their life.

These are some of the intersections that Joe Humphreys explores in his book Foul Play: What’s Wrong With Sport. Largely based on his football fandom, Humphreys describes in six chapters the virtue and vice of sport. I found the book to be a timeless expose of a world unable to face criticism. Recent news from the world of sport, like fighting between football fans at Euro 2016 or doping at the Rio Olympics, point to the continued challenges found in competitions around the world. I will explore some of the book’s topics below.

Humphreys starts his book with the effects of sport on the youngest of its participants: children. The first chapter, “Sport and Stupidity,” discusses anti-intellectualism within sport. Each sport has its own set of hazards. Hazards that organisations do not like to discuss openly.

Unlike informal play, Humphreys shows that professional sports encourage amateurs to take unnecessary risks when attempting to live up to sports superstars. In the case of American football, the NFL waged a twenty-year battle to hide the dangers of repeat concussions. These dangers are now being seen in high school athletes as well as professionals. For teenage girls in the United States, cheerleading is one of the more dangerous sports and can lead to paralysis. Dangers are exacerbated by several states unwilling to classify it as a “sport” and thereby regulate its safety.

Beyond the potential injury it glorifies, sports incentive people to make dumb decisions that may not benefit them. Take golf, for example. Unlike routine exercise, gold requires specialized equipment and course fees that cost many times more than a gym membership. And all those green, lush golf courses which are resulting in droughts when constructed in water-limited environments. As a society, we need to think long and hard on whether sports like these are beneficial.

In the second chapter, “Sport, Character and Morals”, Humphreys details the Christian roots of both the Olympics Games – re-established in 1896 by Baron Pierre de Coubertin – and the Fifa World Cup – founded by Jules Rimet. Rimet believed that “sport – and above all football – would be the means to teach the world’s masses to appreciate the Christian virtues of hard work, honesty, obedience to rules, comradeship and fair play” (pp. 48). These grand competitions on the world stage followed the trend of “Muscular Christianity” which was established in Britain during the era of Queen Victoria. From its beginnings, Humphreys describes Muscular Christianity, which transformed into modern sport through the establishment of its rules and record-keeping, as a moral experiment. A moral experiment that has gone badly wrong.

Humphreys continues the chapter by discussing the negative psycho-social behavior caused by sport. Psychologists Bredemeier and Shields found that “participation in competitive sports created ‘lower level moral reasoning in both sport and life'” (pp. 53). Team sports dilute personal responsibility and lead to pack behaviors, where no single individual feels responsibility for his actions – they were merely following orders. These negative attributes carry into family and social life.

The more serious players and fans take their given sport the more harmful it can be for their family and friends. Families are forced to move when an athlete gets traded, or worse, separated from their partner and children. Die-hard fans will do anything to not miss a game, sitting for hours watching a game remembering every single minuscule piece of data, while forgetting about the world around them. As Humphreys notes, watching sports in this way, without talking about anything except the game at hand, does not provide the bonding that children need from parents. Nor does the drinking that typically comes with it.

Bullying within sport in another common phenomenon that damages the confidence of lesser-abled children. Think about how jocks and geeks have co-existed. Sport, unlike play, is a test of the fittest, whereby difference, even if only perceived, must be eliminated. These lessons in cruelty, rather than compassion, to one another carry into adulthood and continue as long as sport is thought as “moral.”

Chapter three looks at the aspects of cheating by athletes and the judgement of fans. Fans tend to see cheating by athletes as an anomaly – bad guys who get caught and should be punished. However, as Humphreys shows, cheating is a key part of sport. The good guys who don’t cheat are the real anomaly.

Every sport has cheaters. Sprinters, baseball players and bicyclists use prohibited substances. Footballers and hockey players dive. A tennis player declines to call a ball “out”. Cheating can’t be eliminated. Worse, the honest and fair athletes are commonly chastised by teammates and fans if they hurt their own score; this incentivises dishonesty.

Just as the church claims to judge sinner from saint, sports fans sit as judges on matters of right and wrong in sport. Humphreys comments: “That sport should be associated with heightened judgementalism is hardly surprising. Sport is a theatre of exaggerated emotions, and these can be expressed in a positive or negative sense: in hero-worshipping athletes, or alternatively demonising them” (pp. 104). With instances of lavish spending, assaulting people or crude statements, it’s hard to claim that athletes should be seen as role models.

Two stadiums of worship

Two stadiums of worship

“Sports fandom is often compared to religious belief. But it would be more accurate to compare it to the wrong kind of religious belief,” (pp. 125) writes Humphreys in chapter four. Fans tend to be self-righteous about their particular team or sport, which has a tendency to lead to hatred and violence. This are the same elements found in religious belief.

One similarity, highlighted by Humphreys, between sport and religion in how both are influenced by one’s birthplace. A baby born in a predominantly Christian country by Christian parents tends to ascribe to Christianity, while a Muslim country tends to raise Muslim children. Furthermore, Christians and Muslims will each speak to the dominance of their particular belief while demeaning the others as untrue or not complete. The same follows for many sports teams. Some might worry about the Catholic Church’s move to become more involved in organised sport.

When I was growing up, the local teams found in Edmonton (Oilers for hockey and Eskimos for Canadian football) were seen by everyone as the best, while the neighbouring teams found in Calgary (Flames and Stampeders) were ridiculed at every possible opportunity. No one questioned the fact that this rivalry was little more than a difference in jersey colours, as both teams were made up of professional athletes with equal skills. Almost all team sports have this “us versus them” animosity because it is supported by the sport system to keep fans engaged. Unfortunately, this division often leads to violence as often seen in football hooliganism.

In the final two chapters, Humphreys discusses the politics of sport. As sports journalist Tom Humphries put it: “Politics and sport always mix. In grants, in swimming inquiries, in civic receptions, in anthems, on days of sheer flagwaving nationalism. They mix. Always” (pp.215).

Sport is rarely open to criticism. Across the world, from Manchester, England, to Toronto, Canada, sports teams are taking every precaution to protect their brand. They do this by controlling the media, even becoming the media by creating their own media networks.

Sports brands sell themselves as competitive, entertaining, atmospheric, sentimental, a source of happiness, and a win-win pursuit. Unfortunately, these are all lies. “World” Cups that are heavily Anglocentric and not true competitions. Examples, like Major League Baseball going to court to block fans from operating fantasy leagues because they used copyrighted statistics, highlight the fact that governing bodies in sport are not “servants of the people.” Rather than finding happiness in sport, research shows that fans experience higher-than-normal levels of stress, anxiety and hopelessness due to their strict attachment to competitive sport. We need to stop buying the delusions that sport keeps selling.

The most insidious aspect of modern sport is its use as a distraction. In Manufacturing Consent, Noam Chomsky claims that sport “offers people something to pay attention to that’s of no importance … [and] keeps them from worrying about things that matter to their lives that they might have some idea of doing something about. And, in fact, it’s striking to see the intelligence that’s used by ordinary people in [discussions of] sports. I mean, you listen to radio stations where people call in – they have the most exotic information and understanding about kind of arcane issues” (pp.176). Fans use enormous energy and brainpower collecting statistics on sports, but rarely apply these analytical skills to the outside world. The world might be a better place if they did.

In the final chapter of the book, “Sport, Conflict and Prejudice,” Humphreys delves into the many hypocrisies within sport, as well as its entrenched class differences, racism and sexism. Despite what the International Olympic Committee (IOC) may claim, the 1936 Olympic Games in Nazi Germany did not break down barriers of race. The 1995 Rugby World Cup did not end apartheid and bring peace to South Africa. And large-scale sports tournaments are not good for a host city’s economy. Instead, these examples show how sport institutions tend to re-write history in a more favorable light, even if it’s not true. Sport doesn’t end racism or end poverty. Most of the time, as author Simon Kuper writes, “it makes no difference whatsoever” (pp. 209).

Sport is largely about keeping the status quo. Media is controlled. Regulations are discouraged. Alcohol and tobacco are campaigned for while disregarding public health.

This is the politics of sports. As sports journalist Tom Humphries put it: “Politics and sport always mix. In grants, in swimming inquiries, in civic receptions, in anthems, on days of sheer flagwaving nationalism. They mix. Always” (pp. 215).

To me, this is Big Sport. Just as Big Tobacco and other “Big” corporate interests, sport prioritizes profits over people. This is best seen in the case of sports club owners threatening to move. In my home city, the owner of the Edmonton Oilers, Daryl Katz, threatened to move the hockey team to Seattle if he didn’t get a deal worth hundreds of millions of dollars for a new arena. In the end, he got everything he wanted from the city and provincial government, at the expense of taxpayers and to the relief of his own pocketbook. Big Sport for the win!

In recent weeks, NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick has become famous not just for his athleticism but also for his political protests. By sitting down, rather than standing up, for the American flag and national anthem during games, Kaepernick and others have continued the debate of widespread racism in the country, including the racism found within the sports America watches. As the AJ+ video below shows, you don’t change a racist structure simply by adding athletes of colour and stir. Sports teams have a long history of stereotyping Native Americans.

Seen as microcosms of American life, many sports leagues benefit from the labour of minority groups while being run mostly by wealthy, older, white men. Sports teams are first and foremost tools for making money, from selling TV rights to memorabilia, and not about promoting social justice. Widespread homophobia in sports also attests to this, as modern sport is based on heteronormative teaching, rooted in religious ideology.

In the era of modern sport, women have largely been excluded. In recent years, women have been able to play in female offshoots of male sports leagues. See the Ladies Professional Golf Association or the Women’s National Basketball Association. These sports leagues may be a positive space for female athletes to compete, although they will also need to address many of the issues described above. In the worst scenarios, women play Lingerie Football – the sexist creation of injury-prone competition in uniforms from a Victoria’s Secret catalogue, garters included.

Any progress gained in “ladies” sports has to be measured against the colossal weight of structural sexism with sport. From American football to boxing and racing, women are seen and used as little more than sexual objects in the world of male-dominated sports world. Objects to accent a game or celebration, whether on the sideline or behind the podium. Objects wearing revealing outfits to advertise products. What worse example than the annual Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. Essentially a reason to sell advertisements between photos of topless fashion models, the magazine went over 40 years without a single female athlete on its cover!

After delving into the psychology, politics and culture of sports, Joe Humphreys remains optimistic at the end of Foul Play. Like the worst forms of religion, sport has embraced fanaticism, judgementalism and irrationality, as well as a lack of self-criticism. And like religion, sport needs to change. Channeling two religious leaders – Martin Luther, who initiated the Protestant Reformation, and Martin Luther King Jr., who led the American civil rights movement – Humphreys sees a future where sport is taken little less seriously than it is today. A future where athletes don’t value winning above all else. A future where spectator are obsessed. A future where the innocent of play of children isn’t lost in later years. Sport needs its own reformation!

I think anyone who is open to looking at sport, for better or for worse, would appreciate reading Foul Play.

Cultures of Sexual Violence

Violence against women and girls is a global pandemic. Between 15 and 76 percent of women are targeted for physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetime, according to the available country data. Most of this violence takes place within intimate relationships, with many women (ranging from 9 to 70 percent) reporting their husbands or partners as the perpetrator. Across the 28 States of the European Union, a little over one in five women has experienced physical and/or sexual violence from a partner (European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, 2014).

I have never experienced such violence, however I have witnessed both sexism and violence in separate instances and know how traumatizing both can be. This lead me to take a longer look at the subject.


Human Rights Watch defines sexual violence as “an act of a sexual nature by force, or by threat of force or coercion,” and rape as “a form of sexual violence during which the body of a person is invaded, resulting in penetration, however slight, of any part of the body of the victim, with a sexual organ, or of the anal or genital opening of the victim with any object or other part of the body.” Sexual violence is a global problem, found in all societies, as UN Women statistics show:

  • Worldwide, up to 50 percent of sexual assaults are committed against girls under 16.
  • The first sexual experience of some 30 percent of women was forced. The percentage is even higher among those who were under 15 at the time of their sexual initiation, with up to 45 percent reporting that the experience was forced.
  • Over 60 million girls worldwide are child brides, married before the age of 18, primarily in South Asia (31.3 million) and sub-Saharan Africa (14.1 million). Violence and abuse characterize married life for many of these girls. Women who marry early are more likely to be beaten or threatened, and more likely to believe that a husband might sometimes be justified in beating his wife.
  • In the majority of countries with available data, less than 40 per cent of the women who experience violence seek help of any sort. Among women who do, most look to family and friends and very few look to formal institutions and mechanisms, such as police and health services. Less than 10 per cent of those women seeking help for experience of violence sought help by appealing to the police.
  • Between 40 and 50 percent of women in European Union countries experience unwanted sexual advances, physical contact or other forms of sexual harassment at work.
  • In the UK, according to the 2009 British Crime Survey, approximately 80,000 women are raped per year. Approximately one in ten rapes is reported, and only 6.5 percent of these result in a conviction.
  • In eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), at least 200,000 cases of sexual violence, mostly involving women and girls, have been documented since 1996: the actual numbers are believed to be far higher.
  • Between 15 percent of women in Japan and 71 percent of women in Ethiopia reported physical and/or sexual violence by an intimate partner in their lifetime.
  • In 2012, a study conducted in New Delhi found that 92 per cent of women reported having experienced some form of sexual violence in public spaces in their lifetime, and 88 per cent of women reported having experienced some form of verbal sexual harassment (including unwelcome comments of a sexual nature, whistling, leering or making obscene gestures) in their lifetime.
  • Every two minutes, someone is sexually assaulted in the United States.

These statistics reveal many truths. Age is a major factor in this violence, as girls face a large share of the instances. Disability is another contributor: 34 per cent of women with a health problem or disability reported having experienced any physical or sexual violence by a partner in their lifetime, compared to 19 per cent of women without a health problem or disability, based on data from the European Union.

Delving deeper, we can assess the cultures within a given country. Unlike the DRC, which has been at war for decades, the United States has seen relative peace for more over 150 years. The U.S. also has a stable economy and strong government functions. Yet, the U.S. still has an extremely high rate of sexual violence. Clearly, peace, wealth and democracy are not enough to solve this epidemic. There are deeper social, economic and political barriers to ending this violence.


Screenshot from The Hunting Ground showing sexual assault instances in universities across the United States.

Behind all of these statistics are the survivors – women (and men) who have faced unspeakable violence and pain at the hands of (almost always) men. Their stories are difficult to hear but even harder to acknowledge and do nothing about. The following documentaries, using the case of the United States, capture these stories and the reasons why rape and sexual violence remains part of cultures around the world.


Disbelief on Campus

Rape culture pervades universities across the U.S. This culture has been ignored by university officials for far to long, leading to terrible consequences:

  • 1 in 5 female college students is the victim of an attempted or completed sexual assault.
  • 35 percent of male college students indicated some livelihood of raping if they knew they could get away with it.

On university campuses, as in other areas of society, survivors of sexual violence face a culture of disbelief. Victims are blamed for the crime, including chastising their dress or alcohol consumption. Routinely, survivors are met with doubt as to whether the crime actually occurred.

In The Hunting Ground, the issue of rape and sexual violence on university campuses across the United States is examined in painstaking detail. Directed by Kirby Dick and released in 2014, this documentary focuses on Annie E. Clark and Andrea Pino, two former University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill students who filed a Title IX complaint against UNC in response to their rapes while enrolled. The use of Title IX in campus sexual assault cases became a model for universities across the country.


The film touches on many troubling issues related to sexual violence against women, especially those young of age. Education is a central component of tackling this epidemic. Unfortunately, universities are often behind the times in recognizing this system of violence. In addition to the violent tradition of hazing, university fraternities–“male only” social organisations at colleges and universities–have been found perpetuating messages of violence against their female colleagues.

After a fraternity was suspended for their “Dads, We’ll Take it From Here” banner, an Ohio State University senior responded that their “motive is just to have fun, it is college.” For over 20 years, Bowling Green State University has seen similar banners including “We’ll trade beers for girls” and “Freshman girl training center” that advocate sexual violence against young female students. These are just two examples for one of America’s 50 states.

Routinely, survivors do not receive adequate attention and the crimes they report are seen as fictitious lies. This is a result of poor understanding and training by police officials, most of whom are men. In a 2005 survey for Amnesty International, over 1 in 4 respondents from the UK thought a women was partially or totally responsible for being raped if she was wearing sexy or revealing clothing, and more than 1 in 5 held the same view if a woman had had many sexual partners. Similarly, more than 1 in 4 respondents said that a woman was partially or totally responsible for being raped if she was drunk, and more than 1 in 3 held the same view if the woman had failed to clearly say so to the man. In a 2010 UK survey, more than half of women questioned thought rape victims should in some cases bear responsibility for their attack. These findings are known as ‘blame culture‘.

A lack of policing to report and support services after the crime exacerbate the problem. The U.S. has shown a reluctance to act on sexual violence and rape. An investigation earlier this year found more than 70,000 rape kits have gone untested by police departments across the country. This is a public safety disaster. After Detroit processed a backlog of 11,000 rape kits, police identified more than 100 serial rape suspects. Because the survivors of rape are women and not men, it has been ignored for far too long. Money to test this backlog of kits won’t be enough to protect women. Police and the rest of our society need to stop treating rape survivors with suspicion and scorn and need to admit that rape and violence against women remains a part of our culture.


Pressure to Work

“You do it out of desperation. Not because you want to.”

Several women’s movements have fought and continue fighting for the right to access employment on an equal level as men. However, when women enter the workforce, they are again met with the issue of sexual violence.

In the two documentaries Rape in the Fields, released in 2013, and Rape on the Night Shift, released in 2015, as well as accompanying investigations, the joint effort between PBS Frontline partnered with Univision, the Center for Investigative Reporting and others to shine a spotlight on the nation-wide issue of sexual violence against migrant women in the United States.


Both films examine the issues of sexual violence and rape through the economic lens of low-wage work and the political lens of migration. Undocumented women have limited employment opportunities, which leads to the constant threat of termination or deportation by their supervisors–men with both physical and psychological power over migrant women–and, as documented, sexual violence and rape.

“Sexual violence doesn’t happen unless there’s an imbalance of power,” says William R. Tamayo, a regional attorney for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. “And in the agricultural industry, the imbalance of power between perpetrator, company and the worker is probably at its greatest.”


Rape in the Fields (Violación de un Sueño) tells the story of the hidden price many migrant women working in America’s fields and packing plants pay to stay employed and provide for their families. Farm labour is the most common form of work for migrants who come from south of border. It is also essential to America’s food supply and economy. It is estimated that at least 6 out of 10 of the country’s farm workers are undocumented (Southern Poverty Law Center).

The combination of financial desperation and tenuous immigration status make agricultural workers vulnerable to workplace violence and less inclined to report crimes. The federal government estimates that 65 percent of all sexual assault and rape victims never report the crime. Immigrants, especially those who entered the country without authorization, are even less likely to complain, according to academic studies.

Although the exact scope of sexual violence and harassment against agricultural workers is impossible to pinpoint, an investigation by The Center for Investigative Reporting and the Investigative Reporting Program at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism reveals persistent peril for women working in the food industry. An estimated 560,000 women work on U.S. farms.

At work, undocumented status makes workers especially vulnerable to abuse, as some employers and supervisors constantly hold the “deportation card”. For instance, if an employer is treating a worker unfairly, a worker who speaks up to their boss can be threatened with deportation. This significantly takes away their rights to stand up for themselves and advocate for their working conditions. Threats of detention and deportation add to the psychological stress of a job that is already unstable by its very nature, varying by season and location (almost half of all farm workers are “migrant” workers who travel to different locations to find work).

Hundreds of female agricultural workers have complained to the federal government about being raped and assaulted, verbally and physically harassed on the job, while law enforcement has done almost nothing to prosecute potential crimes.

In virtually all of the cases reviewed, the alleged perpetrators held positions of power over the women. Despite the accusations, these supervisors have remained on the job for years without fear of arrest.

Meat packing is another side of the food industry. Already dangerous to all workers, the processing of meat is another sector where migrant women face sexual violence. The legal research and advocacy group ASISTA surveyed more than 100 women working at Iowa meatpacking plants in 2009. An analysis of these surveys shows that 41 percent said they’d experienced unwanted touching, and about 30 percent reported receiving sexual propositions.


Rape on the Night Shift uncovers the sexual abuse of immigrant women who clean the malls where Americans shop, the banks where they do business, and the offices where they work. Another major employer of migrants is this type of low-wage service work.

But the way the problem has played out in the workplace largely has escaped public attention. About 50 people a day are sexually assaulted or raped while they’re on the clock, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Any statistic about sexual violence, though, is a farce–only a fraction of victims ever come forward to report the crime.

When they do, companies can hide complaints from the public by settling them secretly before a lawsuit is filed. The results of cases that do make it to court often are cloaked by confidentiality agreements.


The night shift janitor is an easy target for abuse. She clocks in after the last worker has flipped off the lights and locked the door. It’s tough work done for little pay in the anonymity of night, among mazes of empty cubicles and conference rooms. She’s even less likely to speak up if she’s afraid of being deported or fired.

Across the country, janitors at companies large and small say their employers have compounded the problem by turning a blind eye to complaints and attacking their credibility when they report abuse at the hands of their supervisors or co-workers.

In the janitorial world, ABM is the largest. It employs the most cleaners in the country and has a history of facing charges that it failed to prevent sexual violence. It’s among a rare group of 15 American corporations to have been targeted multiple times by the federal government for sexual harassment.


The janitorial sector is fundamentally broken. Before the 1980s, most businesses had their own janitorial staff. Then building owners and stores began outsourcing the work to cut costs. This created an explosion in contract cleaning companies. It has caused other abuses against workers, in addition to sexual violence.

To stay competitive, cleaning companies of all sizes have to keep prices low. According to what’s reported to the federal government, janitors earn about $25,500 a year. The primary expense is labor, so wages are the first place where they cut corners.

“The way you make money in this industry is to cheat because the profit margin is so thin,” said Stephen Lerner, who led the first national effort to organize janitors for the Service Employees International Union in the 1980s.

Janitors have claimed that they were forced to clock in using two different names to avoid racking up overtime, Lerner said. They say unscrupulous contractors call them independent contractors so they don’t have to follow labor laws. Segments of the workforce aren’t authorized to work in the U.S., a scenario that makes workers vulnerable to abuses and puts companies at risk for legal problems.

A recent study of 826 low-wage employees working illegally in San Diego County found that 64 percent of the janitors surveyed had been cheated out of pay or suffered some other labor violation. About one-third said they’d been forced to work against their will, and 17 percent of that group said they’d experienced some kind of physical threat, including sexual violence, according to the study from Cornell University and San Diego State University professors.

Corporations are benefiting from a capitalist system where the most vulnerable people (migrant women) are left to fend for themselves against managers who use their power to abuse and sexual assault with impunity. It is a hidden epidemic in the United States and all countries were a handful of human beings are seen as “illegal” and therefore without the right to access protection from and criminal prosecution against these perpetrators.

The issue of sexual violence goes far beyond the personal. Political and economic decisions determine whether the culture of sexual violence is given attention and whether survivors are empowered to come forward to demand their basic human rights. The economics and politics need to shift to encourage all people to have adequate, safe employment and protection under the law.


Alone on the Front Line

Many Americans are told that their military exists to “protect their freedom”. But what happens when the military doesn’t protect the freedoms of soldiers?

In another film by Kirby Dick, 2012’s The Invisible War, the issue of sexual violence inside the U.S. Military is brought to light. In 2010, 108,121 veterans screened positive for military sexual trauma, and 68,379 had at least one Veterans Health Administration outpatient visit for related conditions. Also in 2010, The Department of Defense processed reports of 3,198 new assaults but estimated the actual number of assaults to be closer to 19,000. However, these reports only resulted in convictions against 244 perpetrators.


The Invisible War features interviews with veterans from multiple branches of the United States Armed Forces who recount the events surrounding their assaults. Their stories show many common themes, such as the lack of recourse to an impartial justice system, reprisals against survivors instead of against perpetrators, the absence of adequate emotional and physical care for survivors, the unhindered advancement of perpetrators’ careers, and the forced expulsion of survivors from service.

Interspersed with these first person testimonies are interviews with advocates, journalists, mental health professionals, active duty and retired generals, Department of Defense officials, and members of the military justice system. The film also includes footage, often shot by the veterans themselves, which documents their lives and continuing struggles in the aftermath of their assaults.

Other past incidents of sexual abuse recounted in the film include the 1991 Navy Tailhook scandal, the 1996 Army Aberdeen scandal, and the 2003 Air Force Academy scandal. The Invisible War uses these examples to argue that the military has consistently made empty promises to address its high rate of sexual assault. These stories culminate with an examination of the previously unreported culture of sexual harassment and sexual assault at the prestigious Marine Barracks Washington.

In a 2015 report, Embattled, most victims of military sexual assault told HRW the aftermath was worse than the rape.  After reporting their assaults, they explained they were subjected to physical and emotional abuse by peers and supervisors, poor performance reviews, bad work assignments, loss of medals, disciplinary action – even courts martial and ultimately involuntary discharge. Many told us that they had seen what happened to other survivors and were reluctant to come forward to report their assaults. In fact, fear of retaliation is one of the major reasons rape in the military is still grossly under-reported.

When members of the US military report a sexual assault up their chain of command, they often experience terrible retaliation from other military personnel. Department of Defense surveys find 38 to 62 percent of sexual assault survivors who reported sexual assault described illegal retaliatory behavior.

2016 Human Rights Watch report illuminates the impact of “bad discharges” on military personnel who left or were forced out of the military after reporting a sexual assault. In response to public pressure the military has taken some steps in recent years to improve how it handles sexual assault cases. But almost nothing has been done to reverse the harm to veterans who reported sexual assault in the past. Like Liz, many lost much more than their military careers, and have no effective recourse to correct their records.

The survivors and advocates featured in The Invisible War call for changes to the way the military handles sexual assault, such as shifting prosecution away from unit commanders, who often are either friends with assailants or are assailants themselves.


Positive Change

Documentary films have power. Power to make change.

On February 26, 2015, one day before the theatrical release of The Hunting Ground, a bipartisan group of twelve U.S. Senators, accompanied by the film’s lead subjects, Annie Clark and Andrea Pino, reintroduced the Campus Accountability and Safety Act. The act, originally introduced in July 2014, would require universities to adopt standard practices for weighing sexual charges, and to survey students on the prevalence of assault. Signs that the U.S. government is starting to take action following two decades of inaction after passing the Violence Against Women Act in 1994.

Actions are also happening at the grassroots level. Students are demanding universities become safe spaces, to become rape-free. A notable student action was Emma Sulkowicz’s Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight), which involved her carrying a 50-lb mattress to bring attention to her sexual assault at Columbia University in New York City after the perpetrator was found “not responsible”.

student protest

Thanks to watching Kirby’s film The Invisible War, some U.S. officials decided to take action.

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta viewed the film on April 14, 2012. On April 16, 2012, Secretary Panetta issued a directive ordering all sexual assault cases to be handled by senior officers at the rank of colonel or higher, which effectively ended the practice of commanders adjudicating these cases from within their own units. In his 2014 memoir Worthy Fights, Panetta states that watching The Invisible War was one of the main factors that influenced him to take action on the issue of sexual assault in the military.

According to The New York Times, the film “has been credited with both persuading more women to come forward to report abuse and with forcing the military to deal more openly with the problem.” The Times also notes that the film helped spur the House Armed Services Committee to hold a January 23, 2013 hearing on sexual assault in the military. During the hearing, Rep. Mike Turner acknowledged the film for illustrating the hostility faced by many survivors who speak up or seek help. The Invisible War was again discussed during a Senate subcommittee hearing on March 13, 2013 in which lawmakers and military officials described the film’s impact on military training programs dealing with sexual assault.

Stories of sexual violence, although difficult for survivors to share, are helping raise the consciousness of societies all over the world and beginning to push citizens, businesses and politicians to make change. Men need to listen to these stories and do everything within their power to change the culture around sexual violence and rape. It can not be allowed and can not be tolerated. Primary schools and the media need to play a part in changing the narrative between boys and girls, men and women.

Universities need to be safe spaces for learning.

Migrants deserve equal protection, regardless of whether they have proper documents.

All workplaces, including within the military, need to have proper reporting mechanisms and support after an assault.

Sexual violence, in all forms, needs to end.