Sexual misconduct on the roller derby track — We can stop it.
This is an opinion piece. All views are my own and do not necessarily reflect the stance of any organisation or body to which I am affiliated.
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Toxic masculinity within the sport of roller derby was met with a powerful challenge last year, when a wave of community members affected by sexual misconduct came forward via social media to share testimony of their experiences and to call-out their aggressors as well as the broader culture of complacency that has protected those individuals from facing repercussions.
Most notable recently within the UK scene is the swathe of complaints against members past and present of Southern Discomfort Roller Derby. Currently ranked number 3 in the MRDA world rankings, SDRD are a high-profile league with enormous reach and influence, and so the exposure of an apparent deep-seated culture of ignorance of and indifference to sexual misconduct within the London league has been deeply disappointing and concerning.
On January 15th, SDRD posted an update on their Facebook page, describing the outcomes of the numerous investigations undertaken in response to the complaints:
The statement goes on to apologise for the collective actions of SDRD league members that contributed to the creation of an “unacceptable culture”, and makes an emphatic pledge to put the work in to do better. It is genuinely heartening to see that the allegations have been taken seriously and that the league is committing to increased awareness, vigilance, and accountability. Yet some commenters expressed a concern that certain allegations seem to be being treated more leniently than others.
Though off-track violations such as stalking, groping, and unsolicited sexual messaging are subject to the all-too-common derailment campaigns of the “but can you prove it?” and “did you report it?” arguments, it is pretty much universally accepted that the alleged actions themselves are unacceptable. However, with the reported incidences of on-track groping, inappropriate touching, sexualised language, and spanking there is a further layer of debate bubbling up in the social media conversations surrounding the issue. It should go without saying that actions that constitute a violation of basic human rights, and would in many places be in breach of assault and harassment legislation, are not acceptable ways to touch another skater on a roller derby track. Yet somehow a culture has developed in which incidents that occur during active gameplay are held to a different standard in terms of acceptability and severity. Not only are those affected being met with the same pressures to evidence their experiences or pursue legal action, they are also facing dismissal and backlash from those who say it’s “just a bit of banter” and not that big a deal, as well as from some who genuinely seem to be under the impression that it’s a valid strategy to disarm their opponent by sexually assaulting them.
No one came here to be violated.
Perhaps it’s because with hip checks and shoulder charges and all the other ways forceful contact that wouldn’t be acceptable down the pub or in the street are held by the framework of a full-contact environment, there’s an impression that normal boundaries simply don’t apply. But it’s so dangerously flawed to fail to separate those forceful hits that are clearly delineated within the rules of the sport as expected characteristics of normal gameplay from actions that are just straight up not okay. If the things you’re doing with your body to another skater’s body are more about messing with the head of your opponent than about being a skilled athlete — you’re not playing roller derby, you’re being a bully.
For newer officials it can sometimes be tough to feel confident in penalising an action if we can’t see it explicitly detailed as illegal in the rulebook, but I would emphasise to any official struggling with this perceived ambiguity that such violations fall one hundred percent under the banner of Misconduct. It’s all about consent. If in doubt on an action, ask yourself this: When these skaters showed up today to play roller derby, what did they sign up for? If a skater can’t reasonably anticipate being legally contacted in a certain way within the parameters laid out in the ruleset, it’s a penalty at the very least. Intentional groping and sexualised touching absolutely do not need to meet impact metrics for contact penalties in order to be expulsion-worthy. That’s because they’re not contact penalties, they’re conduct penalties. If an action would constitute assault off the derby track, I can guarantee you that it’s unsporting conduct of the highest degree. There should be no hesitation in swiftly pursuing expulsion from the game in progress, and following up the incident with a formal report to the associated leagues and governing bodies.
Further, and I can’t believe I’m having to type this but, sexual assault within a game of roller derby is actually still a crime. Nothing about the context negates that fact. We don’t exist in a mythical world that operates outside the jurisdiction of conventional justice, and no matter whether you consider that to be a good or bad thing, it is absolutely true that the objectively abhorrent act of sexual violence is punishable by law — a contact sport context is not a free pass to assault someone. Full stop.
We can do better than this
We cannot stop at in-game sanctions and paperwork. As officials, those are our responsibilities and often our limits at the time of an incident, but as members of the roller derby community and as human beings we have a greater responsibility to affect change. We owe it to ourselves and to each other to actively craft a sporting culture in which every participant considers such actions unthinkably deplorable.
To weaponise fundamentally unacceptable modes of contact in the name of winning a game is one of the most empirically unsporting practices imaginable, and, as a sporting culture that prides itself on on its progressiveness and inclusivity, it is absolutely vital that we collectively work to eradicate these behaviours from our community.
We call ourselves revolutionary, but a revolutionary structure does not magically self-generate revolutionary results. It takes work. Without committed effort our radical pocket culture is easily overwhelmed by the influences of mainstream society. So many of the oppressive structures that permeate our world are held aloft by ignorance, inaction, and the comfort privileged populations find in stasis. We cannot stand still. Without constant work to build and maintain something safer, something kinder, something better, our sport will only grow to further and further reflect the toxicities of the bigger cultures that hold it.
Let’s do better.
Commit yourself to change
My name is Theminist Killjoy, I’m a roller derby referee, and I’m making the commitment, right now, to stand up against sexual misconduct in roller derby.
I will challenge it directly if I see it.
I will follow it up, and never consider an incident too minor to be worth reporting.
I will call out “stepping stone” behaviours and actions — ones that normalise boundary violation and make light of consent, or that bolster cultures of toxic masculinity.
I will listen to, believe, and amplify the voices speaking out.