Into the Lion’s Den: Early Forays into Feminist Thinking
Emily Moreland

When TV Azteca sports reporter Ines Sainz walked into the New York Jets’ locker room to conduct an interview with one of the team’s players in September of 2010, she did her best to ignore the sexual comments made by the players at her expense. It was only the next day when the owner of the Jets, Woody Johnson, called to apologize for the team’s behavior that she began to recognize that the behavior of the players had, in fact, been harassment (Hanna and Squadron). When asked about the incident in an interview with the New York Post, Sainz related the following:

One colleague – one female colleague – came with me and [told] me, ‘I’m so sorry. It mustn’t happen. It’s not OK,’ Sainz said. So I tried to calm her. … I really know that she [heard] something that I didn’t hear, and the rest of the media … heard things that I didn’t really hear. So I really appreciate the concern about it. (qtd. in Hanna and Squadron)

Though locker room interviews are very common in sports reporting, female reporters were banned from this male-dominated space until 1977 when a federal court case granted them equal access (Druzin). Since then, the players, the media, and the public have been at odds about the wisdom of allowing women behind the scenes of professional male sports.

Sainz is not the first reporter to find herself embroiled in the debate over the propriety of locker room interviews. According to Randi Druzin, writer for the Women in Sport’s Foundation, “The lot of the female sports reporter is much better today than it was two decades ago, when women took their first steps into the locker room, tiptoeing through a minefield of jockstraps and naked men. Nonetheless, the female sports reporter is still not competing on a level playing field. She still encounters obstacles and frustrations her male colleagues do not.” These “obstacles and frustrations” female reporters face have included everything from jocks straps thrown at reporters to death threats made by those in the public who disagreed with the presence of females in a traditionally male zone (Druzin). It seems then that while women may have gained access to the locker room, it has come at a steep price.

I stumbled across the article on Ines Sainz shortly after it was posted on CNN in the fall of 2010. Knowing that the conversation surrounding sexual harassment claims can be quite contentious in our society, I wasn’t surprised to see many readers commenting on the question of “was she or wasn’t she.” I was, however, shocked to see how many readers resorted to blaming the victim for the harassment. Growing up, I had often heard that it was wrong to blame the victim in any crime, and I thus (quite naively) expected this rhetorical tactic to be outdated and little used in today’s society. From reading the comments on this and other articles about the Sainz/Jets incident I was quickly reminded that while women have made strides toward equal access in society, patriarchy continues to strangle these efforts. In our patriarchal society, the public’s blaming of women in instances of violence or harassment against them hurts both the victim and the victimizer. Furthermore, by overestimating the culpability of the victim and underestimating the role played by the victimizer, the public continues to perpetuate the very sexism that led to the incident in the first place.

What does it mean to assign blame in a patriarchal society? As Jessica Valenti, author of Full Frontal Feminism, explains, “after years of legislation, awareness-raising, and activism, women are still being blamed for being victims of violent crimes” (65). She goes on to cite four common victim-blaming arguments used against women when they are raped: the victim was dressed provocatively and invited the rape, the victim was inebriated and therefore an easy target for the rapist, the victim has slept with others and is therefore impure, and the victim should have recognized the warning signs and taken steps to avoid the rape (pp. 65-69). Valenti refers to the first argument as “wearing a skirt equals open for business.” She goes on to explain that in a patriarchal society if a woman is dressed provocatively in any situation, she is interested or even asking for sex (65). This argument can be used to defend the rapist and discredit the victim because, after all, “if you don’t aim to please, don’t dress to tease” (abstinence literature qtd. in Valenti 24).

Valenti calls the second argument used to discredit victims of rape the “girls just want to have fun” argument. In this line of reasoning, women who consume alcohol or drugs “are not to be trusted”(67). Valenti cites an anti-drug commercial that features a teen girl passed out at a party who is then sexually assaulted. Commentary at the end of the ad warns that “Marijuana lowers your inhibitions” and is directed at female viewers (67). This logic—that drinking and drug use by women invites rape—places blame on victims by punishing them for their “reckless” behavior. Another aspect to this argument is that by placing themselves in dangerous situations, women should not be surprised if the result is rape. Often these “dangerous situations” involve spaces traditionally dominated or populated by large groups of men (ex: a bar or a party)(67).

The third argument used to place blame on the victim of rape is that of “no hymen, no fun.” This argument involves discrediting the victim based on her prior (or presumed) sexual experience. For a victim of rape, the more sexually experienced she is, the easier it is to believe that “if [she’s] slept with one guy, [she] want[s] to sleep with them all” (68). This argument is especially damaging to women in the sex industries who have been raped or sexually assaulted. Says Valenti: “If you’re a stripper, prepare to be disbelieved. If you’re a prostitute, forget it” (69).

The final victim-blaming argument as cited by Valenti is that “women should know better” (69). In this argument, victims of rape “should have seen it coming” and taken the proper precautions to avoid risky situations where they might be seen as easy targets (i.e., walking home alone or drinking at a bar by oneself) (69). Similar to the “girls just want to have fun” argument, “should have seen it coming” places the blame squarely on the victim and lets the rapist completely “off the hook” (69). Furthermore, this argument puts the responsibility of rape prevention on the victim alone, making it her fault if she falls prey to a rapist.

A blaming culture is problematic for reasons that go beyond the dehumanization of women and the delegitimization of violent acts against them. It perpetuates an image of men as “big, dumb animals unable to control themselves within one hundred yards of a miniskirt” (Valenti 66). bell hooks places the blame game under the all-encompassing umbrella of patriarchy and further explains the detrimental effects of blaming the victim to both men and women in her book The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love:

Patriarchy is a political-social system that insists males are inherently dominating, superior to everything and everyone deemed weak, especially females, and endowed with the right to dominate and rule over the weak and to maintain that dominance through various forms of psychological terrorism and violence (18).

For hooks, the portrayal of men as dominators and women as figures to be dominated has serious psychological effects on men and can ruin relationships and lives. Says hooks, “Patriarchy is destroying the well-being of men, taking their lives daily” (118). These “lives lost” are both literal (men falling prey to violence by other men) and figurative (men falling prey to alcoholism, “workaholism,” and emotional death) in a patriarchal society (158). By denying men the right to feel any emotion other than anger, we, as a patriarchal society, are perpetuating a system that breeds violence among men (hooks 184). Similarly, by blaming the targets of male violence and by refusing to name the system that encourages it, the public is sentencing men and women to a relationship where “women wholeheartedly stand by men when they are doing the work of destruction” (187).

Armed with this knowledge of the damage that can be done to both men and women when society blames the victim of a crime, it was personally discouraging to see how eager readers were to blame Sainz (and women in general) for the abuses she endured. Though Sainz was not sexually assaulted or raped, most reader responses to her claims of sexual harassment fell in line with the four arguments used to discredit rape victims as cited by Valenti. One common argument that parallels Valenti’s claim that “wearing a skirt equals open for business” is that because Sainz generally wears tight clothing on the job, she was “asking for it.” As one reader wrote, “Look at how she is dressed! She dresses like a street walker and she doesn’t want anybody to say anything to her?” Another reader commented that the harassment from players “Sounds like a compliment………get over it” (“Sound Off”). Much of the commentary that focused on Sainz’s appearance revolved around a picture that was included in the article. The picture, taken at the 2007 Super Bowl, shows Sainz wearing a white tank top with slim straps and tight, low-slung jeans. Interestingly, many readers misread (or did not read) the caption that cited when and where the photo was taken and assumed that it was taken the day that Sainz interviewed players from the Jets. As one reader put it:

First of all did you see the outfit that she was wearing into a male locker room. [sic] Sorry but if she doesn’t want to be looked at they have full body robes that she can wear or she can wear clothes that are not so flattering. Second she is walking into a locker room full of dozens of testosterone filled men and she doesn’t think she is going to be looked at. That’s like thinking you can drink yourself into a coma and you have no chance of dieing [sic]. This is a display of over political correctness. (“Sound Off”)

This reader comment displays two of the arguments used to discredit rape victims: “wearing a skirt equals open for business,” and “women should know better.” It also clearly illustrates Valenti and hook’s belief that if men in our patriarchal society are treated as if they are driven solely by their hormones, that they will have very few choices but to fulfill these stereotypes. Says hooks, “this is the logic that produces what feminist thinkers call ‘a rape culture’” (78).

“Girls just want to have fun” was also widely utilized in the commentary to the article about Sainz. In their comments, many readers shared the belief that women, in general, should not be allowed in certain “male” spaces like a locker room. One poster wrote, ”Another woman going where she does not belong – when are these idiots going to understand that they dont deserve to cover mens professional sports.” Another stated that, “She walked into the MENS Locker room. Where the Men are trying to take showers and get dress after a hard practice. What do you think will happen when 30 to 40 men are 90% nude and walking around. [sic] You walk into the LIONS den what do you think is going to happen” (“Sound Off”). The message from these comments is as clear as it is in the anti-drug commercial cited by Valenti: there are certain spaces for men and certain spaces for women. For the woman who dares to cross these boundaries, she deserves what she gets (this is the “LIONS den” after all). An “overload” of testosterone amongst the football players was also widely cited as an excuse for the behavior towards Sainz. One reader shared her belief that, “ . . . a woman has to be aware that she is entering a locker room full of hormonal men who are just being macho” (“Sound Off”). Again, in this line of argumentation, men are reduced to slobbering Neanderthals who would be acting against nature and instinct if they refused to comment on Sainz’s physical appearance. This portrayal is damaging to both men and women and does little to advance the conversation surrounding gender roles in our society.

Valenti’s argument of “No hymen, no rape” was used by readers to discredit the victim’s claims in the article. Though this article focused on an incident of sexual harassment and not rape, readers repeatedly used explicit language and slurs to describe (and then discredit) Sainz. “Ho,” “whore,” “tramp,” “bimbo,” “Barbie,” “Victoria Secret model,” “trollop,” and “street walker” were all used to describe Sainz in reader postings. Most comments also expressed sentiments along the lines of “dress like a tramp…you’re gonna’ be treated like a tramp!” This overtly sexual language creates a disturbing situation where a woman who has formerly “dressed like a ho” (as is “evidenced” by a photo taken at the Super Bowl three years prior) can expect to be treated like a “ho”—i.e., for sex. In fact, several posters made a direct link between prostitution and female sports reporting in their comments. As one reader explained, “This [article] is funny considering the coaches probably order out for blondes and redheads when a game is won” (“Sound Off”). Another commentator “chide[d]” his fellow posters by stating that “hey you pigs [sic] mark sanchez should apologize for the whole team and take her out to dinner, then give her what she wants” (“Sound Off”).

Valenti explains the danger of this attitude by stating that rape and sexual harassment are “both intrusions into your personal space, your right to just be. Both harassment and rape are the results of a culture that teaches men that women exist solely for them, their desires” (76). The thin line between the two can be seen in comments such as, “If she is such a ‘reporter’ then why is she bubbly posing for the camera in the pic on this page? Also, CNN left out the pic she posted of herself from this event, showing her rear with pants that could be argued to be painted on. In conclusion, I’d hit it” (“Sound Off”). It seems, then, that in a ‘rape culture’ a woman’s sexual past (even if it is just the way she has dressed on prior occasions) can and will be used against her if she complains about unwanted sexual advances. But, as one reader puts it, “meatheads are meatheads, [sic] what the hell do you expect” (“Sound Off”).

This think piece was written for an assignment in Dr. Cindy Griffin’s graduate course on Feminist Theory. At that point in my adult life, I had only a basic understanding of feminism and feminist theory. Throughout the semester, the topics and readings covered in Dr. Griffin’s class pushed me to explore my feelings about certain issues, and the feelings that I uncovered often conflicted with one another. On the one hand, I was thrilled to be a part of a course filled with smart, thoughtful, and like-minded people discussing issues that, to me, have immense social consequence. However, if bell hooks is right—that “ours is still a patriarchal culture where sexism rules the day,” it seemed (and still seems) at times to be nearly impossible for meaningful change to ever come to our society (102). These feelings of hopelessness and helplessness were and are generally amplified within me when I encounter instances of unfathomable hatred and sexism like those displayed in the commentary to the article about Ines Sainz. It is in these moments that I feel like throwing in the towel.

Of course, this is a defeatist attitude and one that will not serve to increase my emotional wellbeing, let alone bring about any real change. Taking Dr. Cindy Griffin’s course in Feminist Theory, for better or for worse, was my “click” into feminist thinking as is described by Baumgardner and Richards in their book Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future:

Feminist consciousness—understanding that women can and should be whole human beings, not measured in relationship to male supremacy—is, was, and will always be the soul of feminism. In the seventies, Jane O’Reilly called this experience the ‘click,’ as in women ‘clicking-things-into-place-angry.’ (italics in original; 11)

To close this think piece, I was and still am “clicked-into-place-angry.” I am angry that women like Ines Sainz are blamed when they come forward with stories of abuse. I am angry that men are being let off the hook in these situations or are being excused for their bad behavior because they “can’t help it.” I am angry that when men DO choose a path of integrity (in this case apologizing to Sainz and requiring that the victimizers be educated about the issues surrounding sexual harassment in the workplace), that they are told that they are being “too PC” or “too sensitive” or even denying men the freedom to be men. But being angry is only one piece of my feminist journey and not the end result. As Dale Spender asserts in her book Women of Ideas – And What Men Have Done To Them, “When women become visible, when they assert the validity of that experience and refuse to be intimidated, patriarchal values are under threat” (11). Though my light is small, when combined with the light of others, it can work to shine through the darkness.

Works Cited

Baumgardner, Jennifer, and Amy Richards. Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, And the Future. Array, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000.

Druzin, Randi. “Women Reporters in the Men’s Locker Room.” Women’s Sports Foundation. Women’s Sports Foundation, 2008. Web. 27 Sep 2010. < Publicity/W/Women-Reporters-in-the-Mens-Locker-Room.aspx>.

Hanna, Jason, and Michael Squadron. “Reporter Says She Accepts Jets Owner’s Apology.” CNN 15 Sep. 2010: n. pag. Web. 27 Sep 2010. < york-jets-kicks-off-season-facing-harassment-claim/?hpt=C2>.

hooks, bell. The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love. New York: Atria Books, 2004.

“Sound Off.” Online Posting to Reporter Says She Accepts Jets Owner’s Apology. Web. 28 Sep 2010.

Spender, Dale. Women of Ideas – And What Men Have Done To Them. London: Pandora Press, 1982.

Valenti, Jessica. Full Frontal Feminism: a Young Women’s Guide to Why Feminism Matters. Emeryville, CA: Seal Press, 2007.

Emily Moreland is a recent graduate of the MA program in Communication Studies at Colorado State University. Originally from Grand Junction, Colorado, Emily attended CSU as an undergraduate, earning a BA in English Education. In her professional life, Emily has worked as a teacher, instructing students at nearly every grade level. Her most adventurous teaching pursuit took her to Busan, South Korea where she taught English to elementary and middle school Korean students. Since graduating with her MA, Emily has found work as a secretary by day/public speaking instructor by night. She plans to teach abroad again after wedding her longtime partner Jordan Englehart in the summer of 2012.