Losing Our Innocence

Dedicated to my niece Rosie, a badass baller and my feminism coach

I will admit that it took a few viewings of the 5-second clip to understand what the uproar was all about. In the far-right corner of the screen, Luis Rubiales, president of the Spanish soccer federation, hugs forward Jennifer Hermoso, and with one hand on each side of her face, plants a kiss fully on her mouth during last month’s awards ceremony for the Women’s World Cup.

Having had the pleasure of knowing a few Spaniards in my life, I recall fondly how demonstratively affectionate they are. Truthfully, the first thought I had when I’d finally registered what I was seeing was, I bet he’s done that exact thing a hundred times before, to male players as well. Then I thought, I bet that’s exactly what Rubiales said in his own defense. 

I’ve done it a thousand times before and no one objected.

I was just playing around. I was excited.

I didn’t mean anything by it.

It’s a story of innocence. It’s the story offered by so many who are caught in the crosshairs of social change; the #MeToo movement is rife with them. And here I was, perpetuating that exact narrative with my own thoughts, indoctrinated – like everyone – into the language and habits of patriarchy. 

But it is the innocence which constitutes the crime.

I recently attended a retreat centered on race, and this quote from James Baldwin’s 1963 book The Fire Next Time came up. “It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.” A collective and persistent unwillingness to see a thing amounts to its erasure. Baldwin challenged us to see the collective weight of all our “innocent” acts of participation in systems of oppression. He was speaking of the crimes of racial segregation and injustice, but I think it applies to any struggle for equality.

In the same way, I think Jennifer Hermoso is challenging us to look squarely at the problem of sexism. She filed a claim of criminal sexual harassment against Rubiales, and in doing so, declares her narrative – that she did not want the kiss, she did not signal the desire for a kiss, and felt violated by Rubiales’ entitlement to the kiss. She challenges us to remove our blinders of innocence and really look at her reality.

Many supported Rubiales and rose to his defense. His mother went on hunger strike. I can see how they would object that it’s their boy, their friend, their colleague, their boss that is being singled out for behavior is that culturally common. I can see how they would see it as persecution, as unfair. And perhaps it is, but no more so than the unwanted touch suffered by Hermoso, or by the millions of women before her who hadn’t the courage or the microphone to declare a different narrative. 

As the needle of acceptable behavior moves, many ideas that were once widely held are now being examined. It’s a process in which a lot of us – most, if not all, of us – will stumble, will get caught up in our old ideas. We can choose to defend those old goal posts, or we can recognize the humanity of our situation: things change, and we all must learn to adapt.

Because these critical moments do not happen in a vacuum: they are always symptoms of a larger problem. In this case, the Spanish football program has been beleaguered by accusations of sexual harassment and systemic sexism that long predate the kiss. The previous head coach of the Spanish women’s national team was ousted in 2015 amid accusations of sexism. His successor – who was just fired – has also faced complaints. Last year, more than a dozen players refused to play on the women’s national team amid complaints of unequal pay (women players earn less than one-tenth what male players earn) and a general culture of sexism. In the wake of Hermoso’s complaint, Spanish female soccer players are going on strike in response to halted pay negotiations with their clubs.

Women’s soccer has been leading the feminist movement for a minute now. Last year, the U.S. women’s soccer team – in a literal, historical first – secured equal pay to their male counterparts. No group of female professionals has ever before, to my knowledge, secured equal pay. (I’m happy – nay, thrilled – to be proven wrong on this point if you have other information.) This prompted Congress to pass The Equal Pay for Team USA Act, which mandates that all athletes representing the United States in global competition receive equal pay and benefits in their sport, regardless of gender.

I don’t know what gives these women such courage, such resolve and sure-mindedness. Certainly, they are less “innocent” than me, and thank goodness that the needle is moving past me. I hope only that we will see more of it, across the professions and across the world.

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