Photo by Seb Daly
Artillery Row

Old-fashioned sexism

The case of Bryony Frost reminds us what women faced before transgender athletes upset sports equality

This year the world of National Hunt racing has been “rocked” by a case of sexism. In December, male jockey Robbie Dunne was suspended for the bullying and harassment of female jockey Bryony Frost. The verdict of the British Horseracing Authority has created heated opinions on both sides. I say both sides, but in reality there seem to be few people on the side of Bryony Frost, despite her complaints being exonerated by the verdict of the BHA.

The Professional Jockeys Association for example, refers in its press statement to the fact that Bryony “felt” bullied rather than what the verdict affirmed, which was that Bryony “was” bullied. Many male jockeys have, fairly understandably, objected to the case’s describing the weighing room culture as “rancid”, but have largely failed to condemn any bullying which did take place. Even the other female jockeys have been keen to distance themselves from the accusations, saying in a press statement that they are “really disappointed with the way us and our male colleagues have all been portrayed by the BHA and subsequently reported in the media”. Emotions are running high over the besmirching of weighing room culture, not so much over the individual case of one woman who was bullied and then ostracised for speaking up.

Sometimes there is such insistence, I wonder what they are running from

Before this case, the sport of horseracing had seemed like an increasingly welcoming environment for women. Over the last decade or so there have been rising numbers of female jockeys, followed by growing examples of success and, seemingly, the respect that comes with it. It is noticeable however that when female jockeys are interviewed by the TV pundits about being female jockeys, there is often a rush to distance themselves from the notion of sex differences in the sport. There is a desire to be seen as a jockey rather than a female jockey, and sometimes there is such insistence that I wonder what exactly is being run away from: do they protest too much?

In male dominated environments it can be counterproductive to draw attention to your sex, let alone make a big deal of it. To be “one of the lads” can be a survival strategy. I suspect that this is what makes the other female jockeys less than enthusiastic in their support of Frost: She has broken the unwritten code by speaking up, and the risk is that her notoriety will contaminate the rest of them.

Racing is late to the party when it comes to female inclusion, but football has been doing it better, at least since the early 70s when the FA’s fifty year ban was lifted. It’s been slow progress, however: women have had to fight to play football in the first place, then to be allowed to referee matches, then to be accepted as TV pundits, and more recently, to be accepted as commentators (the sexism unleashed by the inclusion of women as commentators in the men’s Euro 2016 competition was stunningly old-fashioned). There is still nothing like equality with the men’s game, but the last decade has seen more money, resources and public interest in the game, as evidenced by the recent televised women’s FA Cup Final between Arsenal and Chelsea. As a contrast to the modern state of women’s football on display during the match, the BBC ran a short film at half time, detailing the story of the women’s game, and the historic prejudice against it.

An early 80s clip of Frank Bough sitting on the breakfast TV sofa shows him saying, “I can’t live with the idea of girls playing football or taking part in any of the physical contact sports. Am I just so out of date?” Bough’s opinion was mainstream, even if the response from Arsenal goalkeeper Bob Wilson was, “I think so, Frank!” Frank Bough was the ubiquitous voice of TV sport in the seventies and early eighties, and his view was representative and respected. It’s difficult to imagine, if you weren’t there, the utter public shock at subsequent tabloid revelations of his coke-fuelled orgies with prostitutes, and the fact that he dressed in women’s lingerie to indulge in them. The shock was based on the huge contrast with his avuncular public image: he was a national treasure before we’d even heard of national treasures. That was the end of his career with the BBC.

Frank Bough’s casual sexism would not now be tolerated on TV

Public attitudes have changed since the 80s, and the casual sexism of a Frank Bough would not now be tolerated on national TV. Gary Lineker would never say that a woman shouldn’t play football. This doesn’t change the fact that it is still difficult to be a woman in a world which has historically been dominated by men, and that sexism still exists. One of the insults Robbie Dunne threw at Bryony Frost was “You f*cking whore”, which is an abusive reminder that it is her sex which is not welcome, and that his objections to her go beyond any normal spats with fellow jockeys who are his equals. He also exposed himself to her, a very male act of aggression towards a woman. The other female jockeys by all accounts did not witness any of the bullying, but their unwillingness to give evidence could be seen as self-preservation. One would not want to attract the same treatment.

A fear of speaking up characterises another issue in women’s sport which has come to the fore this year: the inclusion of men who “identify” as women into female sports categories. The inclusion of transgender athletes in the Tokyo Olympics brought the subject to a wider audience, but the International Olympic Committee failed to grasp the nettle and defend the integrity of female categories, producing new guidance which placed responsibility on individual sports federations instead. Nobody at any level was prepared to speak up for female athletes. The elite female athletes who had already been speaking up, including Martina Navratilova and Sharron Davies, were doing so from a position of retirement from competition. It was impossible for current competitors to protest. The subsequent report into transgender inclusion by the Sports Council Equality Group stated:

“Several current female athletes suggested that although all or most athletes considered transgender athletes have an advantage if they compete in women’s sport, almost no-one would be brave enough to discuss this in public. One athlete said that the potential for a social media ‘pile on’ would be too great, so it is easier to keep quiet and acquiesce. Athletes were relieved that UK Sport was finally addressing this issue and was at last interested in what athletes had to say. Other athletes said that they had been warned not to discuss this topic by their NGB and had been threatened with sanctions such as non-selection if they disobeyed.”

The threat of sanctions can include social ostracisation of course, and/or a withdrawal of camaraderie or support, which can have dangerous consequences in some sports. Robbie Dunne for example threatened to “murder” Bryony Frost, which in racing terms means to cut up another rider in a race. The threat of a fellow jockey being casual about your safety must be intimidating in a physically risky sport like jump racing.

Nobody seems to have any problem telling what sex a horse is

Racing is unique of course in not having male and female categories, at least not for the humans involved. In that sense it remains unaffected by the transgender inclusion issues that are dominating other sports. Ironically the horses themselves are treated differently according to sex: mares have their own dedicated races and when running in a mainstream race are given a weight allowance. Horses have a sex, but not a gender identity, so it’s not an issue. Nobody seems to have any problem telling what sex a horse is.

Things have changed for women in sport since the 1980s, as evidenced by the BBC coverage of the women’s FA Cup final and the juxtaposition of the half time mini documentary. The Bryony Frost story was shocking because of the unreconstructed sexism of it a reminder of how things used to be. In their statement, the other female jockeys took their chance to make further complaints about the BHA:

“We have spent years trying to call on the BHA to take notice of us and they have failed us. We believe they have used the rest of the weighing room as scapegoats to conceal the fact they have let female riders down despite ours and the PJA’s complaints. They failed to act when we pushed them on the substandard facilities and have only started to do so since this case went public.”

Women making a fuss are often not taken seriously, but almost everyone expects so much more now, that this example from horseracing seems very old-fashioned. Female footballers have seen more progress in their sport than female jockeys, at least on the face of it. The major difference is that women in football have had to fight to have their own game, whereas women in racing have had to fight to be included with the men. This possibly explains the difference in the style of sexism: the transgender issue has no impact in racing because it is the horse which wins or loses the race, not directly the jockey, who can therefore identify however they like. In contact sports or athletics, it is very definitely the human body being tested and, however good your training or changing facilities, you cannot fairly compete against someone of the opposite sex. This is the new progressive sexism: women are now accepted in most sports, but women can no longer expect female-only categories.

Equality between men and women in sport has been fatally compromised

The notion of equality between men and women in sport has been fatally compromised in this new progressive way, and nobody from sports management or TV sports punditry or sports journalism (with the notable example of Sean Ingle at the Guardian) will risk their reputation by speaking out on behalf of fairness and safety for women. In 2021 Gary Lineker would never “do a Frank Bough” and say that women shouldn’t play football but Gary Lineker has also never once spoken up about male inclusion in women’s sport.

In 2021, a crossdresser like Frank Bough would now come under the Stonewall trans umbrella, and he could claim a female identity if he chose to do so. Nobody in the sporting world would dare to contradict him. It would be a bonus, if he were working today, that he happened to be a sports “personality” rather than a sportsman.

The new sexism is different to the old sexism, and it’s not always even called sexism anymore, but it’s still sexism, and the evidence is sobering.

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