I want to start by saying this is a reflection written by a man. I mainly wrote this one month ago, and sat on this because I didn’t know if I was saying the right thing. As a man, this topic is not easy for me to talk about, as I think of my own actions and how I too have contributed to a sexist culture which objectifies women. But I think the worst thing I can do is stay silent. My writing will be imperfect, and my points will not be 100% what’s needed. But I want to continue this conversation. Just because we aren’t talking about it now, doesn’t mean sexual assault in wrestling is solved.
On the Darkside of the Ring series, they highlighted one of the most famous women to ever step in a squared circle, the Fabulous Moolah! As the title entailed, this wasn’t going to be a rosy portrayal. It did get very dark, as many people talked about the sexual abuse by promoters that they suffered, and even allegations of abuse by Moolah herself. What’s also important to note is Moolah was not the first wrestling manager for women’s wrestling, before her was Billy Wolfe. Wolfe had created the genre of women’s wrestling as he failed breaking into the men’s business. Overtime, Wolfe had developed a reputation of being a huge womanizer and sexually exploited his talent. Sadly, the start of women’s wrestling set the stage for what would be happening over the years.
The Wild West
Once Moolah’s career started to wrap up and she sold her business to Vince McMahon, reports of abuse in wrestling did not just disappear. There have been many claims against wrestlers, different staff members, bookers; allegations of abuse have hit every level of wrestling over the years. To hear wrestlers talk about the 80’s and 90’s, it is surprising more claims haven’t come forward. A wild west atmosphere created a culture which was unsafe for many to participate in. As Vince McMahon’s tenue in the WWF went from the 80’s to the 90’s, WWF saw less and less women on the road. Women’s wrestling did continue throughout the country, but the conditions were less than ideal.
Stories have come out of trainers who wouldn’t train a woman unless they received sexual favors or pushes in exchange for sleeping with a promoter. Even now, many, many allegations seem to happen in smaller territories. This is not to bash the indies, as the Independent circuit is the place where wrestlers are truly independent contractors. But the culture of wrestling has always been toxic, and now we as fans must call it out. The Wild West culture is unacceptable, it should have always been unacceptable, and if it continues then it is because we as fans enable it. We give wrestlers popularity, power, we boost their ego. In many ways, we enable it.
Listen, it would be irresponsible of me to look at this movement and say I believe this case, or I don’t believe that case. The fact of the matter, none of us know. What I do know is that in wrestling, this is a pattern. Throughout the decades, reports of abuse seem to surface every so often. You may watch a Jake Roberts documentary and hear about what happened to his mother. You eventually realize other promoters and wrestlers knew about it, but still did business with Grizzly Smith. This raises red flags about the culture. While we can talk about the culture of the past, that culture still influences the culture of the present.
The wrestling business seems to have a very high tolerance of sexual abuse by the men. Every now and then, you hear of cases resulting in someone going to jail. When this happens, everyone acts like the sexual assault problem in wrestling has been solved. But the culture is still there. If you follow these stories, the Speak Out movement is not surprising in the least bit.. We don’t know what 1940’s wrestling Twitter would have looked like, or 70’s, or even 90’s had women from those eras spoke out. But now we have been made aware in 2020 Twitter, and as fans we must hold the industry accountable.
We Can’t Glorify the Old Days
I saw a video from ECW in the past that really made me question my fandom for a wrestler. I don’t mention names because the woman in the video stated on Twitter that she does not want this video shared. You can tell it was embarrassing to her. She expressed that the male wrestler took it too far on camera in front of a sold-out ECW arena. The fans chanted ECW, as they were unaware that this was not planned. Initial reaction aside, the comments below the video made me embarrassed to call myself a wrestling fan.
Fans in the comments claimed that we need to go back to the days when people were okay with this type of action. That we are too soft today because we wouldn’t let things like this happen. And when told the woman in the video did not approve, their defense intensified. They want women to be okay with men taking things too far. And this mentality feeds the toxic environment of wrestling. Now if this woman had consented ahead of time to the acts in that video, fine. What consenting adults do is none of my business, and if they do it for a show, I just hope the paycheck is good. But we cannot allow an environment where things get taken too far anymore.
Check Your Ego
I mention this story, because she made her story into an open book. In a shoot interview, Sunny mentioned the start of her and Shawn Michaels relationship. The genesis of their relationship started when Shawn rubbed himself onto Sunny and Sunny realized he was very excited to see her. Now, obviously this was a welcomed advancement because this started a long fling between the two which is wrestling infamy. We might also assume that before this event, Shawn had signs of Sunny’s interest. But if the average man hears this story, they may think they are in a position like Shawn Michaels to pull this move off. Well, this at best would be very inappropriate and at worst, your career could be ruined. What happened between two consenting adults does not mean it can work for you.
In an environment which almost every guy in this business is the most attract man in any room they walk into, egos can get very large. I’m not even talking famous wrestlers. I talk to young men all the time about “hook up” culture, and the danger of one incident following you your whole life. When your ego becomes too big, you start to think that every girl wants you. This is when you start to treat every young woman as an object rather than a person. You start to develop patterns which seem to work, but they don’t work with everyone. Some men have their egos injured when they face rejection. Ego can destroy a person quickly in life. I’ve seen men become aggressive when rejected by women. This is when you get yourself is truly deep $#!+.
I want to focus a part to really showing my admiration to the women and men who have spoken out. You all are truly brave. Wrestling has not taken kindly to those that do speak out. Behind the curtain is a protected veil of mystery. But these brave people, mainly women, are exposing the veil and pushing the industry to do better.
Hearing old stories, it always seemed as if the ones doing the most harm were the ones in power. So to speak out and confront the issue at hand, I not only applaud you, but am inspired. I do have children, but I know I can’t always protect them. I would pray that first nothing will happen to them. But if something does happen, I pray they would have the strength shown by those in the Speak Out Movement. We also cannot forget about the men as well speaking out. I know I talk to my sons all the time and I have drilled it in their heads about touch and private parts. These conversations are ongoing, and I draw on many of your stories to remind myself that as a father of boys, I need to be talking to them about this too.
What to Do Now
Women’s Wrestling is built on a foundation of sand. But now is the time to truly reform the business so that women feel safe in the industry. The first step is to believe the people who have come forward. Due process and the legal system is one thing, but it is not everything. I know first hand working in Title IX, so many incidents are situations where the man is in the wrong, but it wouldn’t fall under a “crime.” We cannot take the legal system as the only measure of truth or not. To create a safe environment for women, people in charge must believe them.
Secondly, I would like to see each promotion sit and talk to each women and find out their experience. In many cases, it seems like this abuse is outside the “arena,” or within wrestlers personal lives. But each promotion can do their part to make the working environment safe for the workers. Employers are responsible for fostering healthy work environments, and this can take many forms.
Finally, Promotions must speak to the men about their actions. When working in higher ed, I saw my best results when talking directly with young men about what is a sexual misconduct violation. They did not realize the thin line they walked on each weekend. I think promoters should be talking to all their talents after the pandemic.
The larger companies like WWE, Impact, and AEW need to realize that they should invest in stopping sexual assault on all levels of the business. Wrestlers are currently under investigation for their actions pre-WWE. If this continues, it is only a matter of time before allegations in the future reach a star being pushed. I personally hope this doesn’t happen. Major promotions due put a lot of time and money into performers. Each second of TV should be going to advancing a wrestler’s profile. This is the investment though could all go down the drain if we find out about their past. This problem needs to be solved on all levels, by all levels. It’s the only way to fully fix almost 100 years of exploitation.
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