‘Violated and scared’ – why women should feel safer at football matches

Manchester City host Manchester United in the Women's Super League
Women’s football has shown how matches can be a safe space for female fans

Sarah Aitchison has watched football for more than 20 years and recalls moments when she felt “violated, intimidated and scared”.

There was the time, 15 years ago, when she was working as a hostess at a club where one man “put his hand on my back” and another said “isn’t she great, do you want to take her home with you?”

There are more recent examples where she has been objectified by a “group of men shouting what they want to do to your body” or “belittled” when she tried to support a female flight attendant who was verbally abused and received no support from her male colleagues.

And then there are the general “sexist comments” like he doesn’t know anything about football or doesn’t have an equal place in the games.

None of this will come as a surprise to women who watch football matches. Historically, stories like this have not always been reported or perhaps even taken seriously.

This is slowly changing, however, and many will say, long overdue.

In August, Everton issued a “Big Stadium Ban” to a fan for sexually assaulting a female fan during a match at Goodison Park. It was a rare occasion where a club took public action.

Roopa Vyas, who sits on the board of women’s fan group Her Game Too – which was set up last year to tackle sexism in sport – says Everton set a “good example” and is one of 62 professional clubs working with the organization.

“A lot of clubs will look at things but then they might not respond or take the action that people expect, like ban a fan,” he tells BBC Sport. “I think it’s moving in the right direction, Everton’s approach was great, but I want to see that consistently.”

How common is sexist behavior in football?

Premier League 16
Championship 15
League One 28
League Two 9
Non-league 12
Incident types include offensive chanting and sexual harassment

In the last year, Her Game Too has received more than 80 reports of sexual harassment or abuse at football games.

There is no publicly available data specifically for sexual assault or sexual harassment in the Home Office’s official figures for the 2,198 football related arrests by police at matches in England and Wales last season. There were 798 arrests for public disorder and 19 arrests for racist or obscene chanting.

Anti-discrimination campaign group Kick it Out received eight reports of gender-based incidents in the professional game for the 2021-22 season. This compares with 183 for incidents related to race and 108 based on sexual orientation.

Roopa, who is Her Game Too ambassador for Liverpool, says the numbers will be higher but cites several reasons why women don’t turn up, including poor reporting systems and sexism not always being recognized alongside other types distinctions.

Sarah also highlights how difficult it is to deal with a football culture that “has deep-rooted misogyny”.

“There’s a particular chant where he talks about how wonderful the town or city is because it’s filled with female body parts,” he says. “To many men, this would just seem like harmless banter.

“But actually, when you’re a woman and you hear a lot of men chanting something that basically reduces you to a list of sexualized body parts, it’s pretty intimidating.”

Roopa Vyas at the World Cup
Roopa Vyas attended the World Cup in Qatar, where some women said they felt safer than at matches in England

Roopa says it is “difficult” to know whether sexual abuse in football is on the rise or because women are becoming more comfortable reporting it. But it says Her Game Too, which is to undergo a transformexternal link the following year, a “huge range” of incidents has been reported.

“Derogatory comments are the main ones that come up,” he says. “Fans feel uncomfortable or they’re just in a stadium listening to the song. Women are often told they shouldn’t be at football, especially away games, and then we get extreme sexual assaults.

“I know I’ve been in situations where a few years ago, I wouldn’t have even thought about telling anyone. But now I guess with organizations like ours and with clubs taking it more seriously and banning people or doing educational programs , indicates that this behavior is not acceptable.”

Sarah, who is also an ambassador for Her Game Too, believes the incident where she was sexually assaulted wouldn’t happen now. “At the time, I was told ‘well, boys will be boys, you have to take care of the sponsors,'” he says. “But now the club is good at fostering a culture of equality.”

She’s not sure if that repeats itself across the game, especially with fans, and says, “I feel like there’s more sexism in recent years than there was five years ago.” The incident where she and the flight attendant were verbally abused was just last season.

What else needs to be done?

There has been much criticism of Qatar hosting the World Cup, with reports thousands of migrant worker deaths during the construction of stadiums and infrastructure, while the safety of LGBTQ+ people due applicable laws in the country was also asked.

But, anecdotally, mentioned some female fans how they felt safer during the tournament than when watching football matches in England. However, these reports are mostly from visitors to Qatar, rather than those staying there, who may have a different experience.

It shows that, similar to the experience of watching women’s football matches, equality is not an unrealistic ideal and improvements can be made in men’s football.

One of them is the definition of the reference cycle. Clubs told Roopa that there is often nothing they can do if there is no report. Therefore, ensuring that women are offered the right support and discretion is key.

Another is the male alliance and fans who take responsibility by “calling out” bad behavior.

“I think a lot of women don’t bring it up because they feel they won’t be heard,” Sarah says.

“You almost have to act like one of the lads to be accepted as an equal,” he adds. “And I think a lot of women will feel, like they used to, that if you talk about things like that, they won’t accept you anymore.

“So that’s where we need male allies to be ready to speak up and say ‘actually, no, that’s not OK.’

The good news is that clubs and leagues are participating. Her Game Too is already working with the English Football League on a range of measures, including a Women’s Action Plan, with a conference planned for the end of the season.

The Premier League said it was speaking to a wide range of teams about their matchday experiences as it develops its Gender Equality Strategy.

A spokesman said: “We do not tolerate abuse of any kind. We and our clubs encourage supporters to report any abuse and we continue to look at how we can improve our reporting processes.”

Roopa adds: “People really need to think about what they’re saying. We’re still a long way from some accepting the fact that women like football.”

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