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16th Feb 2022

Women share their harrowing experiences of sexual harassment at football games

Reuben Pinder

CW: Rape, sexual assault

“Before the game, a group of England fans were pointing at us, telling us to get our tits out.”

Amber* will never go to an England match again.

Previously an avid follower of the men’s team, attending every home match and as many away trips as possible, her experiences in the summer of 2021 mean she will never return to Wembley.

The carnage of Euro 2020 final day was well-documented at the time, as ticketless fans, fuelled by alcohol and cocaine stormed the gates for a once in a lifetime chance to see England’s men win a tournament.

In the aftermath, English football faced numerous existential questions about how to combat the mob mentality on display, but ignored an inextricably linked problem that a number of recent high profile cases has brought back to the fore: misogyny.

“It wasn’t until the final when the vibe changed”

From cat calling to sexist chants, sexual harassment on public transport to outright sexual violence, misogyny manifests in a way that pervades the match-going experience for many women who just want to enjoy a game of football.

Amid the chaos on Wembley Way, Amber was sexually assaulted.

“At no point at any of the games other than the final did I feel unsafe, at all. It wasn’t until the final when the vibe changed,” she tells JOE.

“The minute you got off the train, the atmosphere was palpably different.”

As fans bounced around Wembley Way singing ‘Three Lions’, letting off flares, the atmosphere was initially unthreatening.

“It was quite fun actually, to begin with, because I didn’t know what was going on further along Wembley Way, so I was swept up in that atmosphere.

“At the gates, there was bundling, fists were flying. It was more physical danger.

“Then, in the tussle, someone put their hand up my skirt.

“They had their hand on my bum for a period of time in the kerfuffle.”

“At that point I was like, ‘hang on a f***ing minute.’ I got thumped in the back and that was one thing. But to have someone put their hand up my skirt was a different tone, which I had experienced before but never physically. It was usually verbal.”

This is just one example of sexual violence towards women at football matches. And it’s not the only time it has happened to Amber.

“It isn’t just the Euros where I’ve had problems travelling with England,” she explains.

“We went to Porto to watch them in the Nations League final [in 2019]. Before the game, we were in a bar. There was this group of men that were around my dad’s age, so in their 60s. And one of them was chatting to my friend.

“Something in them just switched. One of them was bragging about how he had been in jail for hooliganism. Then one of them pointed at me and said, ‘She wants it in the mouth, this c**t’.”

Away supporters of the England men’s team are vocal and loyal to the team, but behavioural issues around the travelling party are well-known, from the disrespect shown to host towns to the misogyny that pervades the fan culture.

For Amber, incidents like this occur more often in the pre-game build up, when boozing fans adopt a mob mentality.

“The night before the game, we were walking through town and there was a group of England fans. And they were just pointing at us, telling us to get our tits out. It’s like, ‘Guys…’.

“I probably saw nine women on that entire trip and there were 20,000 England fans. So we knew we were in the minority, but that sort of thing doesn’t exactly make you feel like you’ll keep going away and watching England.

“You don’t [feel part of a community]. You feel like you’re separate, and unusual, and that they’re the community and you’re sort of hanging on.”

Being assaulted at Wembley in the summer was the final straw for Amber, and even made her consider stopping going to watch her beloved Brighton and Hove Albion.

“I haven’t been to an England game since. I have no interest in being part of that community or that environment, even though I’ve met some of my best friends through England.”

Misogyny is of course not a problem specific to the England men’s team, nor just football, but in Amber’s words: “There is something about a large group of men coming together, with alcohol, and that concept of tribalism, that I think is significantly worse than any other type of large gathering in society.”

The sexual violence epidemic

Amber’s experience will ring true for thousands of women across the UK and beyond.

Latest estimates from the Crime Survey for England and Wales show that more than 1 in 5 (22.9 per cent) women have experienced rape, assault by penetration, sexual assault or indecent exposure (or attempts) since the age of 16.

Data from Rape Crisis also shows that 618,000 women experienced rape or sexual assault in the year 2019-2020, equating to more than 70 women in England and Wales experiencing at least one of these offences every hour.

The proportion of these assaults that occur at football matches is not yet clear, but a report from November last year by the Football Supporters’ Association, entitled Women at the Match reveals 34 per cent of respondents had heard sexist comments at a game, up from 23 per cent in 2014.

24 per cent had heard sexist chants, while 44 per cent had been told they ‘know a lot for a girl/woman.’

The report details a decrease in tolerance to sexist behaviour among female fans watching the men’s game, with just 12 per cent saying they would ‘laugh it off’, compared to 24 per cent in 2014.

However, half (49 per cent) of fans of the men’s game who responded to the survey “don’t believe that stewards at their club understand sexism and would be capable of dealing with a complaint about it, as opposed to the one in three (32 per cent) who do.”

The problem is not just confined to the match-going experience either, with a Lancaster University study in 2014 – which looked at reports of abuse to a police force in the north-west of England during three separate World Cups – finding that reports of domestic violence increased by 26 per cent when England won or drew, and by almost 40 per cent when England lost.

“A bunch of drunk guys followed me to my house”

Em, who lives in London and enjoys going to watch her native Denmark when possible, had a similar experience at the Euro 2020 semi-final against England.

Generally, she says, she has “not had too many bad experiences in football stadiums – not ones that have made me feel super unsafe, anyway.”

But her trip to Wembley was different. As Gareth Southgate’s team edged closer to the final and the stakes became greater, the atmosphere both in and around the stadium grew more toxic and threatening.

“You can definitely tell when the atmosphere changes and when you feel targeted,” she says.

“I went to Denmark vs England and prior to the game, the main chant was, ‘you’re shit but your birds are fit,’ which one man shouted directly into my face at one point.”

Just as it was for Amber, the match itself – despite the disappointing result – was almost an escape from the harassment outside the ground.

“After the game on my way back, a group of drunk guys followed me along the Tube station and down the road to my house, making wailing and crying sounds.”

Perhaps the most telling part of Em’s story is that her parents rightly felt the need to warn her of this danger prior to the Euro 2020 semi-final.

“I’ve been to football games since I was about seven, so I do take everything with a grain of salt. But it can be overwhelming to be in a crowd of very excited men who are also drunk and/or high because the whole atmosphere can change really, really quickly.

“It’s something that both of my parents felt the need to reach out about prior to the Euros game I went to; more so than any other game I’ve been to as an adult.”

“Don’t talk to us then you miserable bitch.”

This is, of course, not a new problem. Debbie has supported Crystal Palace since the early 1990s, and – like Amber at the Amex – “has never had any issue inside Selhurst Park.” Again, it is the booze-fuelled atmosphere of an away trip that flicks a switch inside some fans.

“Around four years ago, I went to watch Palace play at Leicester and was travelling home on the train,” she says.

“We had won so the atmosphere was rather merry and once I had found a seat on the train a large group of Palace fans came and sat near me.

“They kept asking me if I wanted a drink, asking me why I was so quiet as we had won, asking if I wanted to join them, I said no and then proceeded to ignore them.

“They then started to talk about me while I was sitting there and calling me names – from my recollection it was the normal, ‘why such a sad face, we won!’, and ‘Oh don’t talk to us then, you miserable bitch.’

“When they weren’t looking I got up and moved to another carriage as far away from them as possible. Surely I should be able to travel to a game of football without being harassed?”

The other memory that has stayed with Debbie over her 30 years of following the Eagles goes back to 1994. It is not an example of harassment, but of an institutional bias and disregard for the female fan on an away trip in the Midlands.

“When I was about 17, I went to watch Palace play away and remember trying to find the ladies’ toilets at half-time,” she recalls.

“It was literally a chemical cupboard and was full of cleaning materials with a toilet shoved in the corner, like they had run out of space and forgotten they had to provide a ladies’ loo.

“I think that tells you what they thought of women in football at that time.”

“If it were a normal chant I’d be singing along.”

Facilities have vastly improved since then. But many aspects of the match-going experience remain uncomfortable for women.

Lauren* is a Tottenham Hotspur season ticket holder and, like many others, feels more welcome at home matches than in away ends.

“I have been in away ends with lads making audible complaints about the number of women in there so it makes you quite self conscious after that,” she says.

“A few weeks ago, I had a a similar experience of being on the Tube on the way to a game with a group of Chelsea fans shouting about women going to football–not at me personally but among themselves.”

That complete lack of consideration for the consequences of one’s words have lasting impact on women who want to enjoy attending football matches without being made to feel like an outsider.

This spreads from the trains to the terraces. While there has been a crackdown on homophobic chanting in recent years – though more still needs to be done – casual sexism remains rife in almost every fanbase’s songbook.

“I also feel uncomfortable with any chants that use misogynistic language, or that are crude about women. I just end up standing there awkwardly, whereas if it were a normal chant I’d be singing along,” Lauren explains.

Then there is of course the issues that stray from football into wider society.

“There are other elements of going to football as a woman that even if you’re not being harassed, make it a more difficult experience, like knowing you’ll have to walk home late from a midweek game in the dark and weird men in the pubs before and after the game when you’re one of only a few women in there.”

“One went as far as touching my bottom. I felt violated.”

A consistent theme in speaking to victims of sexual harassment at football matches is the stark contrast between the experience of watching their club at home and going to away matches or watching the England men’s team.

Chy, like Amber, has never had any trouble while watching Arsenal at the Emirates. But a rare trip to Wembley will likely turn out to be her last after a traumatic experience on her way home.

“I went to support the national team at Wembley in a World Cup qualifier, and this is where I was made to feel the most uncomfortable post-game,” she says.

“I had a group of men with young children make inappropriate comments about me on the Tube.

“They spoke about my figure and what they would like to do with it.

“One even went as far as touching my bottom.

“He tried to play it off like an accident as he could see I was upset with him.

“I felt violated and I couldn’t wait to get off the tube to go home. I haven’t gone to an England game since and not sure if I feel comfortable to attend another one anytime soon.”

Alcohol is a significant contributing factor to these assaults taking place, Chy believes.

“Drinking is a huge problem that fuels men to act the way they do around women at football matches,” she explains.

“I urge them to learn self control and I hope that they understand us women just want to enjoy the game as much as they do.

“We don’t want to go to football games feeling uneasy or worrying for our safety. We want to enjoy the moment, join in the atmosphere and create memories from attending games.”

Is sexism as prevalent online?

In short, yes.

The Liverpool Echo recently published a story of a fan who ‘felt sick’ after she was offered ’30 minutes of fun’ in exchange for Carabao Cup final tickets.

Such comments can be a daily occurrence for women online, especially in football spaces.

Football consultant Jasmine Baba explains: “It says a lot that although I’m working in a male dominated industry of football that I face more discrimination on Twitter.

“The level of mansplaining and either utter disbelief or the usual awful comments that include just being a woman online; including abuse, harassment and sometimes threats.

“Then of course we also have the harassment from staff and/or players too. Unsolicited sexual messages and sometimes pictures from football players and other football club staff.

“It’s happened to me, someone who, I can admit, is more privileged than others to take it up with someone. Meaning it must happen to loads of others.”

Chy concurs, describing her online experience as “10 times worse than real life.”

“Social media platforms allow trolling and harassment without any severe punishment, troll accounts are freely allowed to abuse you without any accountability,” she explains.

“Time and time again I’ve seen a woman share her thoughts and be slaughtered for it, but a man can share those same opinions and be championed for it.

“In real life, especially at the Emirates, it’s easier to have a constructive conversation with a stranger, even if you have opposing views, whereas online people think it’s cool to mock others for simply sharing their thoughts.”

What more can be done to tackle misogyny in football stadiums?

Chy calls on the authorities to do more, issuing bans to perpetrators, if this issue is going to be truly tackled.

“I think football needs to clamp down on this hard,” she says.

“Anyone reported for harassment should receive bans and should be encouraged to educate themselves on respecting women’s boundaries.

“This sport cannot be marketed as a sport for everyone if people are made to feel uncomfortable.”

A recently launched campaign from Transport for London to stamp out sexual assault is a start, but football must also endeavour to create a culture that seeks to reduce and ultimately eradicate sexual harassment completely.

Lauren suggests starting with education coming directly from the clubs.

“I suppose one answer would be more club messaging and communications to fans,” she explains.

“Similar to clubs contacting fans this season explaining why the “rent boy” chant is offensive, I suppose reminders and discussions about how it feels to be a woman at football and how certain songs and behaviour might make women feel uncomfortable [could make a difference].”

New legislation would also help to hold offenders to account – with misogyny still not recognised legally as a hate crime.

Amber, however, does not see how something such a ‘fundamental’ part of fan culture can be changed quickly.

“I don’t know… It’s such an ingrained cultural thing over decades, probably even before the 1980s. I sort of feel at a loss,” she says.

“I think the authorities take it seriously, whether that is racism, sexual abuse, assault. I’m sure if I’d spoken to someone about it, they would’ve taken it ‘seriously’.”

Though some might argue that is an optimistic view of how the police would react, given recent findings of institutional sexism within the Met Police.

“I don’t think anything would have happened about the guy who put his hand up my skirt, nor did I really care, I just didn’t want to go back.

“I have no idea how to change something that is the fundamental culture of the game.”

*Some of the names in this article have been changed to protect the interviewee’s anonymity.

If you have been affected by any of the issues discussed in this article, contact Rape Crisis on 0808 802 9999