Elise Hamersley looks at the barriers of perception still faced by female athletes, after a series of offensive posts about EUWRFC
Exeter University Women’s Rugby Club has previously secured BUCS Championship Gold in 2013 and 2018, enjoyed an undefeated 2019 season with a Gold clean sweep in both 15s and 7s and produced multiple Premiership players each year. The club boasts two BUCS teams, the ability to turn rugby beginners into High Performance players and an inclusive environment for girls of all ability, size, shape, race and sexuality. And yet, despite these successes on and off the pitch, women’s rugby players still seem to come up against regressive comments and stereotypes within the student community and beyond.
The above images were taken from just a few posts on the anonymous Facebook page ‘Exefess’ earlier this year. Yes, they are upsetting and aggravating for a woman who plays rugby at this university. They undermine the serious dedication of female rugby players at Exeter and minimise the years of progression, back to back BUCS championship medals and talent the club has produced. But the reality is that the comments in these posts are something we have all heard before. Every female in EUWRFC has a story of people offering sexist assumptions about women’s involvement in the sport. “Do you play on a full-sized pitch?”, “you mean you actually have, like, proper scrums?”, “aren’t you all lesbians?” My personal favourite was when a group of boys in my first year asked myself and a fellow club member what the point of watching women’s sport was, particularly women’s rugby, considering its “low quality”.
While I don’t lack a sense of humour, these ‘jokes’ posted on Facebook are symptomatic of wider issues at the university and in society, regarding attitudes towards women’s sport. I don’t think people realise the impact comments like that can have on women who play rugby and sport in general. The Women’s Sports Foundation lists social stigma as one of the main reasons why the participation of young girls in sport drops dramatically from the age of 16. What made me angry about the posts wasn’t the fact that some random person equates watching our squads to a ‘circus’. It was the fact that there were hundreds of women who follow that page, some of whom could be interested in the sport, who are now put off because they don’t want to be made fun of. It’s comments like those posted on Exefess that perpetuate the low female participation rate in sport into university and push girls into more socially acceptable, traditionally female forms of exercise. Women should be allowed to pick up sport at any age and any ability level without the fear of ridicule.
Every female who has played rugby has experienced negative stereotypes, sexism and homophobia from strangers, peers, even friends and family. One friend told me she was called a dyke in a sports night club queue by a well-known man in the Exeter sporting community because she was holding hands with her girlfriend. I have regularly been ‘accused’ of being gay because of my participation in the sport. This sort of thing is usually veiled as a joke, which is a seriously poor advertisement for the comedy scene at Exeter.
Negative stereotypes towards women’s rugby give the green light for it to be held in lower esteem, and this goes beyond university level. As the women’s game progresses we can see these issues becoming more and more apparent in modern rugby. Earlier this year the prize money pot for the men’s Six Nations rose to £16 million while the women’s tournament still receive nothing, women’s premiership clubs have a £60,000 cap per squad equating to £83 per player, per game and most recently Canterbury were seen to release the men’s and women’s version of the Irish kit with models replacing the senior female players, despite using several members of the men’s team as part of the launch. The company have since apologised for this decision, however it still highlights the problems women’s rugby as a sport faces.
As these issues persist, supporters of the game and students at Exeter must decide which side to be on. The women’s game isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, continuing to grow enormously and go from strength to strength despite these issues.
I can comfortably say that any girl who is put off playing by these stereotypes will be missing out enormously. To women who are tempted by rugby: EUWRFC caters for all abilities, from girls who never picked up a rugby ball before university to Premiership players. Before I came to Exeter I was a very anxious, awkward teenager who had lost a love for sport during school due to self-inflicted pressure and other external factors. I had always wanted to try rugby but had only played some tag at school. Two years later I can say that joining EUWRFC has made me a better person; I have more confidence, I have a healthier relationship with my body, and I feel a sense of belonging in a group of some of the strongest women I’ve ever met (in all senses of the word). I think many girls will understand what I mean when I say that the world in which we’ve grown up does not foster a culture of women supporting women.
EUWRFC is the opposite of everything I’ve experienced before: they are an incredibly supportive group of women who genuinely care about your progression through rugby, the gym and your personal life. Every kind of person has a place in the club and everyone who comes into contact with us comments on what a positive environment it is. I think that the outpouring of support and love for the game from members following the Exefess posts proves the character of the club. If you’re looking to join a sports society this year that embraces everyone, then women’s rugby isn’t a bad place to start.
If you’re interested in finding out what the club is all about, make sure to check out their social media pages by searching @EURWRFC