Cheek to Cheek: The Sexual Politics of Rugby

My family has always been a sporty one. Other families may lean more towards music, craft or art as a hobby that brings them together but not ours. The guitar that I bought in a futile attempt to teach myself which has been slowly passed through my siblings as each tried and failed to learn it, can attest to the fact there is not a musical bone in my family. No, my family has always had a love for sport. This was somewhat inevitable, given that my mum is a PE teacher. Often recalled by my mum were fond memories of serving strawberries and cream at Wimbledon as a summer job, just to be able to see some of her favourite players for free. Although it must be said I have not been as ‘active’ since leaving for university as my parents would likely have hoped, it is fair to say this love of sport was passed on. When I did judo, my parents would shuttle me up and down the country and even across borders, at ungodly hours, without a word of complaint. At school my parents would encourage me to take part in as many of the extracurricular sports offered each term. I’ve swam, hit things with rackets and bats, kicked and thrown things, ran and grappled in many different contexts and I’ll always be grateful for the opportunities available to me and the support of my parents.


One of the sports I’ve had one of the longest and most complicated relationships with is rugby. I joined my local rugby club at the age of 5 and continued to play there, alongside rugby with my school team, up until I was 18. I say it’s one of my most complicated relationships with sport as I always found it difficult to navigate rugby as a space whilst growing up playing it. Rugby has long been considered one of the last ‘male preserves’ which continue to reify a more orthodox, conservative form of masculinity (Sheard and Dunning, 1973). Its only now with some distance from my past experiences and better knowledge of myself as a bisexual man that I’ve begun to understand better my difficulty in navigating rugby’s sexual politics. This Juncture Review represents part of that process. Here I aim to explore my experiences of rugby with the conceptual lens of hegemonic masculinity as developed by Raewyn Connell. I will show how some of the core functions of rugby as a sport and a type of social relation perpetuates hegemonic masculinity and makes rugby a space where queer or non-conforming players may not have felt welcome. For the sake of clarity, this is not a denunciation of the sport as a whole. Modern rugby has come a long way from the type of rugby that is depicted in this article (Muir, Parry and Anderson, 2020). Instead this article attempts to explore my own relationship with the sport based upon my time involved in it.


Hegemonic Masculinity and Rugby


Before exploring rugby’s association with hegemonic masculinity, it is first important to outline Connell’s theory. Connell (1987) holds that multiple ways of performing masculinity (masculinities) exist in a hierarchical structure with hegemonic masculinity as the most legitimised and exalted form. What is central to hegemonic masculinity is the subordination and marginalisation of other masculinities as well as other genders (Connell, 2005). This subordination ensures that hegemonic masculinity remains as the most celebrated form of being a man. The exact traits of hegemonic masculinity may vary between cultures but taken broadly, hegemonic masculinity is strongly associated with heterosexuality, stoicism, domination, aggression, competition, ability and control (Cheng, 1999, p. 298). Until recent social developments, this also included more prevalent homophobia and misogyny. Queer and effeminate men remained marginalised under this form of masculinity with homophobia being utilised as a homosocial tool to police non-conforming masculinities. In reality, very few men actually perform hegemonic masculinity with different men having different relationships to the ideal type.


Sport in general has long played a role in the reconstruction of hegemonic masculinity. The male athletic ethos of competition, aggression and often violence embodies the traditional values of masculinity (Muir and Seitz, 2004, p. 305). Since gender and sexuality are always constructed relationally, sport also socially constructs women and queer people as inferior bodies (Schacht, 1996, p. 551). This is seen in the emphasis on competition which naturalises the dominance of, often heterosexual, able bodied men by focusing on superior athletic ability (Ibid., p. 562). The following section will explore through references to personal experience and wider literature, the ways in which rugby has constructed masculinity in relation to hegemonic masculinity.


Rugby on the pitch


More than most sports, rugby has a strong relationship to hegemonic masculinity; historically being a leading maker of men in the image of orthodox masculinity (Anderson and McGuire, 2010, p. 249). For many men, rugby offers the chance to prove their heterosexuality and masculinity via its separation from femininity and homosexuality. Femininity and homosexuality often being conflated (White and Anderson, 2016). Through participation in a sport which promotes violence, toughness and sometimes homophobia and misogyny, men can effectively separate themselves from femininity.


On the pitch, rugby is of course an aggressive sport. Anyone who’s even seen glimpses of rugby on tv or in person can attest to this. The ontology of rugby, ‘rucks’, ‘malls’, ‘tackles’ and ‘scrums’, is full of violence and aggression. For the woefully uninitiated, each of these terms are essentially a varied number of players crashing into each other in an attempt to dominate the other or secure the ball. Violence in sport is not uncommon nor does it necessarily mean it conforms to hegemonic masculinity. Taking and inflicting pain are further important tenets of hegemonic masculinity (Schacht, 1996, pp. 555-557) which cannot be avoided in rugby. What separates rugby from other sports though is a much heavier emphasis on taking pain.


Beyond the humble gum shield which ensures a misplaced tackle won’t end up costing a player hundreds in dentist bills, the rugby player appears woefully under-protected for a sport with such frequent violent contact. Unsurprisingly, rugby is a sport where injuries are common. I have memories of witnessing numerous concussions, sprains, nose bleeds, broken fingers and even the occasional more severe injury such as a broken collar bone or limb.


A piece of common knowledge, and for many players a point of pride, is that unlike those ‘pansie’ footballers, us rugby players would play through the pain rather than roll around on the floor. An injury taken without complaint or ‘winging’ is a medal of masculinity (Ibid.). Bruises and bumps would be borne with pride and these players would be deserving of exaltation from coaches and players alike. Conversely, a player who receives an injury but complains is not so well received, often being accosted with feminised insults as research shows (Ibid.). It would be uncommon and even shameful in some instances to request to be subbed off due to an injury unless it is so obviously severe. Even then, I recall teammates unable to count the number of fingers on the referee’s hands still insisting that they are able to continue playing. This valorisation of injury and pain is a celebration of hegemonic masculinity with brave, masculine players successfully taking injury whilst players who fail to are feminised and condemned.


Rugby off the pitch


Importantly, behaviour that occurs off the pitch in the wider social relations of rugby still constitute part of the sporting relations according to Kenneth Muir and Trina Seitz (2004, p. 304-305). Whilst the feminised and homophobic insults of poorly performing players and opponents were fairly common in matches in the past (Ibid., p. 317), it is outside the game where we see more of the homophobic and misogynistic side of rugby (Ibid., p. 316). Here we once again see men engaging in behaviours associated with hegemonic masculinity through instances such as rugby tours and rugby socials.


In the past, rugby tours were almost an entirely male affair. We would begin with all the boys from the club, the dads and coaches meeting at the clubhouse to taste the first pint in what would be a weekend of binge drinking. After a brief tour introduction meeting, players would board the tour bus to take us to whatever unfortunate small town that would be witness to the deviancy that was inevitably about to ensue.


Despite the name ‘rugby tour’, we would usually only allot a single afternoon to play one or two games against a local team. The rest of the tour was made up of the aforementioned binge drinking as well as a variety of stereotypically masculine activities such as paintballing, Go-Ape-type activity courses and driving quad bikes.


Each year there were the ‘tour virgins’, those who haven’t been on a tour with the club before. These ‘tour virgins’ would be given a variety of feminising costume pieces such as tutus and tiaras as punishment. The feminisation of inexperienced players was common in rugby often serving to reinforce the hierarchical nature of the rugby team with those at top (captain coaches and experienced players) often being the most hegemonically masculine (Schacht, 1996, pp. 553-555). As already mentioned, feminine traits would often be conflated with homosexuality. The humiliation of new players also helped to reinforce the hegemonic masculinity of the best players by distancing themselves from the perceived feminine traits applied to those beneath them in the social hierarchy, inflicting perceptions of shame on the gendered construction of such traits. Players would be required to wear these costume pieces either for a significant portion of the tour, if not at all times.


Another key part of every tour were ‘tour fines’ which were punishments for infringements of an unwritten, ever changing and inconsistently applied code of conduct handed out by the coaches. Not waking up early enough for breakfast, that’s a fine. Calling a girlfriend whilst on tour, that’s a fine. Throwing up from drinking, that’s definitely a fine. Elucidating some sort of consistent criteria for how fines were issued would be a futile effort. Fines could be issued for trivial matters, breaches of a hegemonic masculinity or for reasons that truly escape logic entirely. Punishments for fines changed with age although it always took the form of a ritual of public humiliation. We would gather the team with the coaches and dads at the front in an almost court like arrangement. Names would be read out imploring the offending player to come forward and receive judgement. When we went on tour at younger ages, your punishment would be a shot of some bizarre concoction such as baked beans and whipped cream. As we got older we transitioned to a shot of this revolting garlic scotch. Finally there would also be a “Dickhead of the day” chosen at the same time, reserved for the most severe infringement of the day. The chosen ‘dickhead’ would be required to wear similar attire to the ‘tour virgins’ for the next day until the next ‘dickhead’ was selected.


Rugby tour would operate as a space that allowed for the continued reconstruction of hierarchies which is an important aspect of hegemonic masculinity. Experienced players and the coaches on tour could utilise punishments as a regulatory tool for masculine identities. This furthered homophobic and misogynistic attitudes as feminine traits were often conflated with homosexuality and seen as deserving of ridicule. Furthermore, it allowed for ‘laddish’ behaviour such as excessive drinking, disruptive activities, objectification and displays of heterosexuality (Nichols, 2016, p. 75). According to Kitty Nichols (2016, p. 74), Laddism acts as a “regulatory or policing tool” for masculinity. There exists significant overlap between laddish traits and hegemonic masculinity in sport.


Rugby socials were another space where excessive drinking was encouraged and respected. This space also allowed for the violence of rugby to continue off the pitch, further reinforcing hegemonic masculinity. This is perhaps best exemplified by an eventful night-out we had for the 1st team’s end of season meal.


The evening began pleasantly in a local Thai restaurant. I say pleasant, but I imagine the evening may have not been pleasant for the other patrons of the restaurant who had to endure an evening of raucous rugby players shouting across the room. Obviously, everyone involved had arrived already drunk or with booze stowed in their pockets. We all managed to collect our food from the buffet in an orderly fashion without issue. I believe I had a Thai green curry. The evening truly began with the first piece of property damage as our captain (who this story is based mostly around) somehow snapped in half a pair of antlers that hung upon the wall. After attempts to conceal the damage, we swiftly left the venue. It is worth noting here that the restaurant was contacted the next day and the damages were paid for. The team’s captain, now in a more delirious state, would continue through the town, resulting in a cracked shop window, a broken giant candy cane (it was the Christmas fair in the park), multiple smashed or broken wing mirrors and a broken caravan door. Efforts to restrain or persuade our captain to stop and go home were fruitless which wasn’t helped by the complicity of many involved who seemed to see the ‘funny’ side of the evening. The evening would come to a close outside our school with a pool of vomit beside a bench and our captain being ushered into an Uber to be taken home.


Conclusion


The image of rugby painted here draws from my own experiences of the sport as well as wider writing on rugby from the last 20 years or so. Rugby has been shown to embody hegemonic masculinity in its promotion of toughness, heterosexuality and violence. Where rugby as a sport is now though is somewhat different. Growing acceptance of homosexuality has allowed for softer, more inclusive forms of masculinity to grow both in wider society as well as in rugby (Ralph and Roberts, 2020, pp. 26-31). Teams now have been shown to be far more accepting of homosexual teammates (Ibid.). My portrayal of rugby should not be taken as a depiction of the sport as a whole as it is mostly specific to my experiences at a certain point in time.


Whilst at the time I was playing I was not ‘out’, it is also fair to say I did not fit into the culture that my club promoted. At the time I was not sure how to explain this feeling of misplacement but through writing this Juncture Review and reflecting upon my past experiences, I feel I have a better understanding. Not only is rugby now a more inclusive game, there are also a significant number of gay inclusive rugby clubs at university and league level (Muir, Parry and Anderson, 2020). Players today demonstrate greater homosocial intimacy, openness in terms of personal issues and acceptance of differing masculinities (Ibid.). Overall, It does make me happy to know that younger players now are more likely to feel like they belong in the sport.

Bibliography


Anderson, E. & McGuire, R. (2010). “Inclusive masculinity theory and the gendered politics of men's rugby”, Journal of Gender Studies, 19 (3), pp. 249-261.


Cheng, C. (1999). “Marginalized masculinities and hegemonic masculinity: An introduction”, The Journal of Men’s Studies, 7 (3), pp. 295–315.


Connell, R. (2005). Masculinities, (Oakland: University of California Press).


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Muir, K. B., Parry, K. D. & Anderson, E. (2020). “Masculinity and Inclusive Rugby in the United Kingdom”, In R. Magrath, J. Cleland & E. Anderson (eds), The Palgrave Handbook of Masculinity and Sport, (Cham: Palgrave Macmillan), pp. 323-340.


Muir, K. B. & Seitz, T. (2004). “Machismo, misogyny, and homophobia in a male athletic subculture: a participant-observation study of deviant rituals in collegiate rugby”, Deviant Behavior, 25 (4), pp. 303-327.


Nichols, K. (2018). “Moving beyond ideas of laddism: conceptualising ‘mischievous masculinities’ as a new way of understanding everyday sexism and gender relations”, Journal of Gender Studies, 27 (1), pp. 73-85.


Ralph, B. & Roberts, S. (2020). “Theories of Men and Masculinity, and Their Ability to Account for Positive Change”, In R. Magrath, J. Cleland & E. Anderson (eds), The Palgrave Handbook of Masculinity and Sport, (Cham: Palgrave Macmillan), pp. 19-39


Sheard, K. G. & Dunning, E. G. (1973). “The Rugby Football Club as a Type of “Male Preserve”: Some Sociological Notes”, International Review of Sport Sociology, 8 (3), pp. 5-24.


Schacht, S. P. (1996). “Misogyny On and Off the “Pitch”: The Gendered World of Male Rugby Players”, Gender & Society, 10 (5), pp. 550-565.


White, A. & Anderson, E. (2016). “Making Men in the 21st Century: Metrosexuality and Bromance in Contemporary Rugby”, In J. Nauright & T. Collins (eds), The Rugby World in the Professional Era, (London: Routledge), pp. 121-131.

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