Brave women in wrestling spark change by speaking out on sexual abuse

Wrestling stars including WWE and AEW performers have been accused of sexual and physical abuse in a wave of online allegations.

The #MeToo movement has helped shine a light on the prevalence of abusive behaviour and misconduct in many different walks of life.

Now an equivalent focused on the wrestling industry, #SpeakingOut, has emerged, sparking what is hoped will be the start of real change.

In an industry focused on physical strength and athletic prowess, you might think all women wrestlers, like their male counterparts, would feel empowered, valued and appreciated, as they are, by fans across the globe. But many clearly have not.

Despite what has been dubbed the 'Women's Revolution/Evolution' in sports entertainment – with female performers gaining more respect and finally being afforded a status on a par with their male peers – the business has been blighted by allegations of sexual abuse similar to those which rocked Hollywood and Westminster in 2017 and 2018, relating to both women and children.

Multiple women have come forward, some of whom decided to name their alleged abusers, while others, such as former Ring of Honor star Kelly Klein who said she was raped, have chosen not to.

Some performers, including independent talent David Starr and Impact Wrestling's Joey Ryan, issued conciliatory statements in response to a wave of allegations of sexual misconduct and then disappeared from social media. Impact has fired Ryan.

Others such as WWE's Matt Riddle and El Ligero denied allegations of sexual abuse levied against them, and Jordan Devlin refuted an accusation of physical abuse.

WWE confirmed it had released 205 Live and NXT star Jack Gallagher after he was accused of a sexual assault dating back to 2014. The British grappler is yet to respond to the allegation.

In a statement about the allegations against members of the WWE roster, the company said: "Individuals are responsible for their own personal actions. WWE has zero tolerance for matters involving domestic violence, child abuse and sexual assault.

"Upon arrest for such misconduct, a WWE talent will be immediately suspended. Upon conviction for such misconduct, a WWE talent will be immediately terminated."

"WWE's ability to fine, suspend or terminate a WWE talent will not be, however, limited or compromised in any manner in the event incontrovertible evidence of such illegal misconduct is presented to WWE."

Meanwhile, AEW wrestler Sammy Guevara has been indefinitely suspended by AEW, after he joked that he would rape WWE star Sasha Banks, and the promotion has announced it will be reviewing the position of British wrestler Jimmy Havoc, following numerous reports, after he completes rehabilitation and counselling.

Comments shared as part of the #SpeakingOut movement have included:

"We all knew it was happening."

"It was the unspoken rule."

"People would boast about their exploits, but it was a calculated risk to speak up because you knew you might not work with a company again if you did."

"It wasn't like it was WWE, you needed to keep on good terms with everyone to succeed."

These remarks were made by women who had been trying to make their way in the independent wrestling scene, through which young wrestlers earn their experience, before hopefully joining one of the big companies to achieve their dreams.

Over the past decade or so, British wrestling has experienced an inspiring renaissance. Independent companies like Progress Wrestling, Insane Championship Wrestling (ICW), Revolution Pro Wrestling, Pro-Wrestling: Eve and many more have brought fans back to the sport they once loved.

So big had the UK scene become that Progress held an event at Wembley Arena, ICW sold out Glasgow's SSE Hydro, and Eve hosted the biggest ever women's wrestling event at York Hall.

Yet co-owner of the all-female Eve, Emily Read, has spoken elsewhere about the culture of sexism she faced when a teenage trainee, including male wrestlers boasting about having "dibs over who had the right to sleep with her".

These comments were often treated with suspicion, with talents angry that she might endanger their own prospects. Thankfully, Eve is starting to reverse the misogynist trend, with a female ring announcer, commentary teams, all female matches and a zero tolerance policy for abuse during its shows. The company has opened a wrestling training school for women too.

This avowed feminist pride is a more recent development on the wrestling scene. Much like in other spheres, wrestling had until now positioned men as the gatekeepers, in positions of power. When women have been abused, they have been belittled, ignored or accused of lying. Many have, like in film and politics, been fearful of speaking out for the potential effect on their careers and numerous other reasons.

Over many years, stories of misogyny and occasionally of sexual misconduct made the papers only when the biggest fish in the pond, WWE, was named. However, despite rumours and whispers it wasn't until 2018 that stories of sexual abuse and misconduct began to surface in Britain, and while some performers appeared to have been blacklisted from various promotions, there was no wholesale change.

In the past week, the ugly underbelly of UK wrestling has been fully exposed. Horrific allegations of rape, mental and physical abuse and inappropriate relations with child wrestling trainees have surfaced, as have many more stories of sexual misconduct and predation.

Some reports suggest more than 70 wrestlers, promoters and trainers have been called into question and more than 100 cases of abuse, harassment and sexual assault have surfaced.

The scale and content of many of the stories is disturbing, with brave women reporting incidents of degradation, manipulation and systemic sexual abuse.

However, unlike in 2018, greater action is being taken in response. The #SpeakingOut movement is gaining momentum and at the heart of this is the network of kinship and understanding it is creating, helping people to confront their fears.

Champions have been stripped of their titles, talent and promoters told they are no longer welcome at events, and very serious Direct Messages that were made public are now the subject of police investigations.

Meanwhile, London's WWE affiliated Progress has announced a change in management, following severe criticism from fans.

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In an industry which suffers a shameful lack of regulation, there are now calls for more measures. Some are saying DBS checks, like those teachers must have to ensure they can work with children, should be standard in the industry, and mandatory for trainers. Others are taking up the call for better healthcare protection and treatment of workers, and women assuming safeguarding roles. 

It is imperative that promotions address these systemic problems. There is certainly interest in the application of a Private Members Bill, currently working its way through the House of Commons and led by former Sports Minister Tracey Crouch MP, which would close a loophole which exists, and make sports coaches designated a position of trust, as regards sexual offences.

In order to change wrestling, something must be done. Speaking out is a start, though obviously not easy or even possible for some. Those women coming forward deserve all the support and advice that can be provided. The industry must do more to promote this.

When the MeToo movement started, it prompted Hollywood's Producer's Guild of America to issue new guidelines on sexual harassment with reporting systems in place and a new expectation of the tone on-set for films.

So too, wrestling training schools and promotions must change. There should be zero tolerance for sexual predators, abuse and misconduct. There should be clear and transparent, independent and confidential reporting systems, appropriate supervision at training classes, and support for the victims of abuse.

There is the potential to create banned lists for shows, to halt events at which sexist insults are shouted at female talent, and much more besides. Like the Macpherson report on handling racism in the UK outlined, there should be due sensitivity for those reporting misconduct and sensitive handling of the allegations.

More widely, perhaps the House of Commons has a role to play in looking at sexual abuse and misconduct in sport. MMA, boxing and other sports entertainment might all benefit.

What happens should be for those brave women that have spoken out and their male allies in the industry to dictate. Women in wrestling have broken the glass ceiling. It's now time that the industry provides a safety net.

You can report a sexual offence or pass on information about sexual abuse, by calling police on 101 and asking to speak to a specially trained officer.

You can also pass information to Crimestoppers, anonymously, on 0800 555 111.

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