Why are women still facing sexualisation and abuse at football’s top level?

Even on the biggest stages, like the Women’s World Cup final, women are still treated as unprofessionally as ever.

Women’s football is currently in the most prominent and promising position it’s ever been in. Yesterday (August 20th), England was roaring with support for the Lionesses during their intense Women’s World Cup final face-off with Spain, which was reflected in the ratings. In overnight data released by ratings organisation Barb, the audience for the bout peaked at an incredible 14.8 million in the game’s closing minutes, which saw England’s side narrowly miss out on the trophy after their 1-0 loss. An average of 13.3m people watched on TV, which is said to be a record in the UK for a women’s football match.

Despite this incredible achievement, one moment made for negative headlines after Spanish football federation president Luis Rubiales was seen kissing Jenni Hermoso on the lips. The incident occurred during the official post-match ceremony, and Hermoso said on Instagram Live that she “didn’t like it,” but a statement released later on her behalf defended Rubiales. Today, Rubiales said: “I was completely wrong, I have to admit it.” He added: “It was without bad intention at a time with a lot of excitement. In the moment, we saw it as natural, but outside a commotion has formed. I have to apologise, learn from this, and understand that when you are president you have to be more careful.” 

The incident is indicative of a broader issue in football. Whilst we may be long gone past the days of tabloid newspapers sexualising women in football, players are still facing intense sexualisation and abuse across social media from fans, journalists, and even top sporting figures – as we’ve just seen with Rubiales.

Rubiales had been criticised by some Spanish government ministers and came under fire on social media. Spain’s equalities minister Irene Montero said: “It’s a form of sexual violence women suffer on a daily basis.” Montero added that up to now, it had been “invisible” and that it is something “we can’t normalise”. 

“We should not assume kissing without consent is something ‘that happens’,” she said.

Spain’s sports minister Miquel Iceta told Spanish public radio it was “unacceptable” for Rubiales to kiss Hermoso, adding: “The first thing he has to do is to give explanations and make apologies, it is the logical and reasonable thing to do.” Video footage also circulated online after the match also showed Rubiales – who sat in the stadium’s VIP area near Fifa president Gianni Infantino and Queen Letizia of Spain – grab his groin as he celebrated the final whistle.

“I think there’s been a few people saying there was nothing sexual about the situation, and that it’s just emotion coming through, but we’re talking about kissing a professional without consent on the world stage,” Lucy Ward, former England women’s footballer and current broadcaster, tells HUNGER. “We wouldn’t be making excuses if this happened to a random girl on the street.”

That wasn’t the only showing of the sexualisation of players at the World Cup, as just a few weeks prior, a BBC journalist probed the Morocco women’s national team about their sexuality. During a press conference before Morocco’s opening game against Germany on July 24th, a reporter from the broadcaster asked captain Ghizlane Chebbak: “In Morocco, it’s illegal to have a gay relationship. Do you have any gay players in your squad, and what’s life like for them in Morocco?” The question – which had the potential to out and endanger players if any on the team were gay – was met with visible disbelief from Chebbak. 

“That situation was a perfect example of something that just wouldn’t happen in the men’s game,” says Ward. “For whatever reason, women still aren’t seen as professionals, and the fact they’re being asked a question like this in 2023 is completely ridiculous. Could you imagine the captain of the men’s Moroccan team being asked a question like that?”

Of course, abuse towards women isn’t just confined to the women’s game – we continue to see a constant disregard for their wellbeing from fans and even the top players in the world. 21-year-old Mason Greenwood had charges dropped against him, including attempted rape and assault, on February 2nd 2023. Today, Manchester United dropped the striker after an internal investigation. However, Greenwood was allowed to train with the club for months, despite harrowing videos and audio recordings of his alleged abuse being available to the public.

Whilst Greenwood now finds himself without a club, it won’t be a surprise to see him given another chance, much like Benjamin Mendy – a former Manchester City player who recently faced rape allegations by six women but was cleared of charges in court. In regards to Mendy, the football world came out with floods of support, with the likes of Atletico Madrid’s Memphis Depay claiming he didn’t “see any evil in the man” after speaking to him once on FaceTime. Considering that in 2021, in England and Wales, the CPS found that only 1.7% of rape cases reported resulted in a suspect being charged, the footballing world’s instant disregard for the alleged victims was shocking.

All of these instances, whether on or off the pitch, are just yet another showing of the disregard women continue to face in football. And while progression has been made, Ward explains that there’s still so much more to be done for women to gain the respect they deserve.

“I think we can all agree that there’s been progress for women in football, but it’s still nowhere near the level we need it to be at. There are more women than ever that want to be footballers, and it’s fantastic, but they’re just shown constant disrespect in this sport. It’s 2023, and things need to start changing a lot quicker.”


WriterChris Saunders
Banner Image CreditITV