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After decades of toxic masculinity, professional wrestling is finally facing a reckoning

Cyberbullying has long been a problem for women in professional wrestling, but the issue has been highlighted by two recent events. In May, Japanese wrestler and Terrace House: Tokyo star Hana Kimura died in what has widely been reported as a suicide. Then, in June, sexual harassment and abuse survivors took to social media to break the silence about their treatment in the industry with the hashtag #SpeakingOut.

Kimura was a target of vicious online trolls stemming from a scene on the show in which she slapped a co-star. Kimura’s mother, fellow wrestler Kyoko Kimura, said that Terrace House producers staged that scene, and a broad discussion was sparked about the toxicity and dangers of cyberbullying.

Hana Kimura. Etsuo Hara/Getty Images Sport/Getty Images

Unfortunately, for many female wrestlers around the world, online harassment has been a hazard of the job for years. The #SpeakingOut movement brought to light harrowing accounts from the survivors of alleged sexual harassment and assault by indie wrestling darlings David Starr, Joey Ryan and former WWE star Travis Banks, as well as the appalling treatment people of marginalized genders — but also some cis men, such as WWE star Keith Lee — suffer in order to pursue what they love.

One wrestler who’s long been speaking out about online harassment is Jordynne Grace. Grace has been wrestling for about a decade and receiving offensive messages for almost as long. A few years ago she started to screenshot the notes and put them into a multi-volume zine called DMs of an Indy Female Wrestler, now in its third edition.

“I bet your boobs taste like skittles,” reads one entry. “I wanna respect the f*ck out of you until we feel comfortable around each other. Oh god I just wanna support the sh*t out of you. I wanna slap you in the face with my rock hard encouragement…” reads another.

By screengrabbing the messages she receives from so-called “fans,” Grace’s zines shed light on the online harassment women in professional wrestling face on a regular basis. Last year, she turned off her DMs, even though private messages had been an easy way for promoters to book her for shows. Still, with a pre-COVID-19 weekly spot on Impact Wrestling on ASX TV and Twitch, her career seems to be going well, despite the trolls who continue to spew vitriol in her mentions.

The issue of online harassment for women in wrestling extends to even the sport’s biggest names. Two high profile cases that have occurred in recent years are that of World Wrestling Entertainment contractors Toni Storm and Paige.

In January 2019, Storm was hacked. Nude images of the wrestling star were released online, forcing her to temporarily abandon social media. Several weeks later, after winning the women’s championship for NXT UK (the United Kingdom offshoot of the WWE), she was met with enthusiastic cheers from the supportive crowd. She returned to the internet later that month with an Instagram post captioned “reborn” below an image of her holding the championship belt.

I met Storm last year at a fan convention called WrestleMania Axxess in New York. Tellingly, as I waited in line for my photo op, I noticed a sign that instructed men not to touch one of the women wrestlers. The sentiment was reinforced by an usher repeating the request verbally as fans inched closer to Storm.

Paige. Marc Pfitzenreuter/Getty Images Sport/Getty Images

In 2017, two years before Storm’s images were stolen, Paige was hacked. Private photos and footage of her was posted online, sending her into a spiral of addiction and an allegedly abusive relationship.

“Unfortunately, people don’t see it that way when they are behind a keyboard. They don’t think that we have feelings or that we don’t suffer. Not only was I a victim of viral humiliation but a victim of cyberbullying. I had days where I wanted to physically harm myself,” she tweeted at the time. (WWE did not respond to Mic's request for comment.)

Paige retired from the ring in 2018, just months after rebuilding her life and career after the incident, due to a career-ending neck injury. The fact that she can no longer do what she loves might seem harder to deal with than trolls in her mentions (who are still there to this day). But as Paige’s tweet attests, the harassment women wrestlers face online can be just as damaging as being injured in a match.

“Feeling at your lowest and having to deal with people worldwide fetishizing your feet is a really hard battle." - Ang Whitehead

Retired New Zealand independent wrestler Ang Whitehead, who wrestled under the name Scarlett, broke her ankle early in her career and experienced this firsthand. “When I fractured my ankle, I didn’t even hesitate to take pics in the hospital and add them to my social media — it’s great content for engaging with fans, right?” she tells Mic. “Except as soon as those foot pics went online, a new breed of creeper messages started coming through. And suddenly I was on foot fetish websites.

“When you’re stuck at home, immobile for a few weeks while bones heal, mental health suffers even for the strongest people — there’s lots of articles online about broken bone depression,” she continues. “Feeling at your lowest and having to deal with people worldwide fetishizing your feet is a really hard battle.

“Even after retiring, my foot photos continued to be posted online. Being reduced to a single body part for people to masturbate to really lowers your self-esteem … [I’ve] definitely had times feeling suicidal from wrestling.”

Fellow New Zealand wrestler Candy Lee not only faces misogyny in her mentions but, as a trans woman, a plethora of transphobia.

“The harassment I receive is the same as cis women but in cases it gets quite disgusting, as not only can I get creepy male fans but also men who fetishize trans women,” she tells Mic. “I feel it's worse as they seem to dehumanize us and see us as some exotic fantasy.”

Lee employs a healthy use of the block button to combat negative thoughts stemming from the harassment. “I do have my days and have to fight my anxiety a lot,” she says. “[A]t times when guys get real aggressive and abusive it can be quite upsetting.”

Piper Niven, Mercedes Martinez, Candice LaRae, and Toni Storm. Bryan Steffy/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

These examples encapsulate the crossroads at which women’s wrestling now finds itself: For decades, female performers were presented as eye candy, rarely permitted to wrestle. When they were, it was often in bra-and-panties matches where the loser was the first one stripped to her underwear. This subjugation, along with systemic problems like unequal pay, less time and opportunity to wrestle, and sexual harassment behind the scenes, likely encouraged fans to catcall women wrestlers and, once social media took off, to transfer their harassment there.

In recent years, though, women’s wrestling has undergone an “evolution,” with many companies positioning it as a legitimate sport rather than bathroom break entertainment. WWE closed out last years’ WrestleMania with a women’s championship match, and the independent women’s wrestling scene is thriving, but there’s still a long way to go. Simply announcing that women wrestlers are equal without putting in the work such as equal pay doesn’t necessarily bring misogynist fans who have undergone years of sexist indoctrination around to the cause.

Some wrestling companies, such as Pro Wrestling EVE, a U.K. feminist outfit, have a code of conduct to protect their performers and attendees against abuse. Other wrestling federations have employed similar tactics, such as Underworld in Melbourne, Australia, while All Elite Wrestling (AEW), the fledgling upstart backed by billionaire Tony Khan, has sensory rooms with dim lighting and less noise for neuro-diverse fans who find the raucous atmosphere of most wrestling events overwhelming. When AEW responded to a past incident of transphobic harassment toward one of its wrestlers, Nyla Rose, it stated that the organization is “safe, inclusive, respectful and [a] very cool environment,” though this has yet to manifest in any code of conduct or any public gender, sexuality, or racial inclusivity policies. Last month AEW indefinitely suspended one of its wrestlers, Sammy Guevara, after audio from 2016 resurfaced in which he talked about wanting to sexually assault the professional wrestler Sasha Banks. The organization said in a statement Guevara would undergo sensitivity training before his position was reevaluated. (AEW did not respond to Mic’s request for comment.)

For some, it seems wrestlers’ willingness to perform acts of violence within the ring leads people to discount real-life experiences of harassment and violence. NXT star Mia Yim (then going by the ring name Jade) alluded to this in a 2016 interview with HuffPost about her experiences in an abusive relationship and her domestic violence activism. “I just wish that, as wrestlers, when we claim that this is going on, that we’re not second-guessed, that we’re believed,” she said.

If there is a glimmer of hope in this landscape, it’s that the #SpeakingOut movement has led to survivors of abuse and harassment in wrestling finding camaraderie and solidarity.

“A lot of women have said they’re glad that I’m bringing these kinds of messages to people’s attention because a lot of people don’t realize the stuff that female wrestlers go through,” Grace told Sports Illustrated in 2018. “I’ve gotten less of these creepy messages and I’ve gotten more positive uplifting messages.”

Scarlett Harris is an Australian culture critic. Her book about women’s wrestling, A Diva Was a Female Version of a Wrestler, will be out in March from Fayetteville Mafia Press.

This article has been updated to note Sammy Guevara's suspension from AEW.