President of the Royal Spanish Football Federation Luis Rubiales (Photo by FRANCK FIFE / AFP)

It started with a kiss

Luis Rubiales has no excuse

Artillery Row

Luis Rubiales, president of the Royal Spanish Football Federation, has been accused of sexually assaulting Jenni Hermoso, one of the key players on the winning Spanish World Cup team. In full view of the world’s media, Rubiales grabbed the back of Hermoso’s head with both his hands, drew her swiftly towards him and kissed her on the lips. He then dismissed her with a patronising pat on the back, as he turned her away.

At the zenith of her footballing career, Hermoso should have been treated with extreme respect. Instead, a man, with incredible power and authority over Spanish female football players, chose to subject her to what she says was a non-consensual kiss. In her own words:

I want to make clear that not in any moment did the conversation occur that Mr Luis Rubiales references, and much less that his kiss was consensual. In the same way I want to reiterate how I did in that moment that what happened was not enjoyable.

I felt vulnerable and a victim of aggression, an impulsive act, sexist, out of place and without any type of consent from my part. In short, I wasn’t respected.

Hermoso is crystal clear. She did not consent, and she is certain it was a sexually aggressive, sexist act. She is a brave woman indeed. Rubiales holds her career in his hands just as he did her head. Female players are in the precarious position of being underpaid and under-resourced in every way compared to their male counterparts. Consent is not possible under such an extremely unequal dynamic of power and authority. He is a powerful older man with direct influence over her future success. Nevertheless, she is clear that she did not consent.

Women do not routinely kiss their male boss

Some commentators have focused on the nature of the kiss and suggested it is fairly trivial in comparison to “real” sexual violence. They are keen to say that it is mere “exuberance” and happened “in the heat of the moment”. This is a defence frequently offered to manipulate women who have been sexually assaulted, by the men who assaulted them. Men often claim in these circumstances that they “couldn’t help themselves”, the implication being that the woman is simply too alluring. It is her fault that they cannot keep their hands to themselves. Rubiales’ adamant insistence that he has done nothing wrong — he refuses to resign — is a symptom either of sheer arrogance, or the same view as men who excuse themselves when sexually assaulting women.

The kiss has been minimised as “a peck”, but something fragile and bird-like is not seen when replaying that video. Luis Rubiales holds Hermoso firmly with his hands behind her head. He pulls her powerfully towards him, and it would be difficult for her to shake such a grip and avoid the kiss he finally plants on her lips. Since she cannot turn her head from his, this is not an innocuous act. A kiss on the lips is one of the most intimate acts humans partake in together. It is usually reserved for those who are members of our family, those we are either strongly attracted to or are in a loving relationship with. Women do not routinely kiss their male boss. If a woman is so impoverished that she needs to sell her body for sex, the kiss is the one act some prostituted women consider not for sale. It is the last boundary of intimacy. If she does agree to a kiss, it is with her consent and at her discretion. There is little she can do if she is kissed against her will, of course, and since men rape prostituted women, they will think little of crossing this boundary too. A kiss on the lips is very powerful, with significant sexual connotations. Without consent, it is degrading. Rubiales knows this. It is alleged he subsequently entered the players’ changing room and joked about marrying Hermoso. He had previously grabbed his crotch roughly in an aggressive gesture, in front of the Queen of Spain and her 16-year-old daughter. It is hard to believe that Rubiales has any concept of the boundaries or appropriateness of his sexualised behaviour. He should hold no power over female players until he fully understands and regrets his actions.

The male game of football is riddled with accusations of male violence

Rubiales has been banned by FIFA, the international footballing body, from all football related activities for 90 days, but the Spanish FA, in an astonishingly tone-deaf move, has sought to accuse Jenni Hermoso of lying. Men often request that women “absorb” the male violence committed against them; that they accept a minimisation of it, in order to make the men themselves feel better about committing or condoning it. Women who do not comply are dismissed as poor sports or, in this case, liars. In a bizarre twist, Luis Rubiales’ mother has now locked herself in a church and declared she is on hunger strike in objection to the “witch hunt” of her son. Spanish feminists are in the streets meanwhile, demanding his removal as President of RFEF. Spain’s entire coaching staff attached to the World Cup win (with the exception of manager Jorge Vilda) have resigned to show their support for Hermoso and their condemnation of Rubiales.

The male game of football is riddled with accusations of male violence against entitled young players, who are showered with unfathomable wealth and status. They simply do not consider the appropriate sexual boundaries with women they encounter. The governing bodies have refused to grapple in any substantive way with the issues of male violence over the last few decades, and case after case still hits the courts. If male players cannot self-govern when it comes to their sexual behaviour towards women, and they simultaneously see their leaders committing alleged sexual violence against women players who are their contemporaries and supposed equals, they are unlikely to receive the appropriate message about consent to apply to the women they encounter socially.

Footage has now been presented to the media, which purports to show Jenni Hermoso showing her phone with a screenshot of Rubiales’ kiss to her teammates. As ever, a complete lack of understanding of the varied reactions to male violence against women is evident. A woman does not always act with outrage when a man crosses her boundaries sexually. She may be embarrassed. She may fawn over him, as a way to protect her own feelings or to feel safe. She may go along with his narrative of what he has done, especially if he is in a position of power over her. There is often a level of confusion and disbelief, and this may have happened in this situation. It will have taken time for Hermoso, who was caught up in the euphoria of the celebrations with her teammates, to realise how unacceptable the kiss was. She may have wondered how others would react if she expressed discomfort. After all, she was looking at teammates who seemed to think it was okay in the moment. Women sometimes look for the world to mirror what has happened to them when they have been assaulted. She may have doubted her own feelings and gut reaction until she had time to calm down and reflect. I believe that is what she did, but after the euphoria came the reality. Consider that many women, after being raped, find the only way to cope is to reframe the assault in a way that makes it not feel like rape. It is a survival strategy.

It is crucial, in sending a message throughout the football world about how to treat women over whom you have power and authority, that Luis Rubiales is removed from his post. The act of kissing Hermoso was a despicably patriarchal act — one that humiliated her and overshadowed her triumph. He must leave with his tail firmly between his legs, and he should go collect his mother and beg her forgiveness too.

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