First and foremost, let me say here what I’ve said elsewhere: sexism isn’t only something men do to women; it’s a cultural condition to which none of us is immune. When sexism is put to a good beat, as in the songs mentioned below, I bob my head right along with it. So, it certainly isn’t a problem unique to Nick Kyrgios. That I’m responding to his now-infamous outburst in the Coupe Rogers match against Stan Wawrinka is a function of two things: its being a conveniently brief and illustrative statement to unpack; and the lack of attention to the sexism that undergirds it. Although ESPN’s Pete Bodo wrote a piece in which he refers to Kyrgios’ sexism, he didn’t explain why he judged the comments to be not only generically “demeaning and disrespectful” but also “misogynistic.” To me, Krygios’ comments are garden-variety casual sexism, made worse by the public setting and the specificity of their target. Having said that, I still think they’re worth analyzing—especially because this sort of thing is so insidious, it can be hard to see.
I’m not going to address the first unsavory comment that Kyrgios made on court in Montreal—“He’s banging an 18-year old”—in detail, except to say that Wawrinka’s sex life is none of our business unless psychological abuse or a criminal act is being committed. Only Kyrgios knows what bothers him about the discrepancy in age between the Swiss player and his current partner—if she is, indeed, that. As far as I’m concerned, it’s not necessary to know their relationship status or even her identity to explore the troubling, and all too common, assumptions behind the Australian’s words. Nor is it necessary for Kyrgios to have intended to convey all of what I discuss below: language is a living, individual thing, but it’s also a social thing with a long history. The words we use both reflect and shape our shared existence. In this case, one of the key features of our existence is patriarchy—and women’s traditional position within it. Even if some of these traditions are things of the past, their legacy lingers on.
Without further ado, the offending statement: “Kokkinakis banged your girlfriend. Sorry to tell you that, mate.” Leaving aside the very public breach of several people’s privacy (a major issue) and the feigned concern of the sarcastic apology (a minor one), what’s the problem here? Well, there are several. In using this bit of information to rile or retaliate against his opponent, Kyrgios clearly intended to insult Wawrinka. But why would this apparent “fact” be insulting unless one believed that the aforementioned girlfriend’s prior sexual activity were both Wawrinka’s business and somehow dishonorable? (For the sake of narrowing the discussion, I’m not going to entertain the possibility that the young Aussie was informing his elder opponent about his partner’s infidelity, though that could certainly be another way to humiliate someone.) Perhaps unwittingly, both the comment and the response play into many age-old, overlapping stereotypes and assumptions about women and sex.
1) Woman as Object
Whether as a trophy to display, a spoil of war or other forms of conquest, an acquisition, or an item of exchange between men (e.g., father and husband in a marriage ceremony), women have long been regarded as men’s property. Kyrgios perpetuates this notion by informing Wawrinka of his girlfriend’s activity and expecting him to be upset about it. Note that Stan the Man obliged, perhaps defending his territory. Like I said, sexism affects us all.
Further, in this instance, a woman is being used to mediate relations between two men. All the stranger, then, that Kyrgios employs his pal Thanasi Kokkinakis as a proxy. Although it wouldn’t be much better if he’d said, “I banged your girlfriend,” it’d be slightly more understandable because more direct. Despite the pseudo-concern or judgment evinced by “He’s banging an 18-year old,” the unnamed but easily identified girlfriend and her feelings—her status as a subject—are irrelevant here. Make no mistake: this is all about men and hetero-masculinity.
2) Woman as Passive
In phrasing things the way he did, Kyrgios taps into the longstanding but misguided belief that sex is something men do to women—in this case, his pal did the “banging.” The sentence hardly connotes a sense of the female partner’s agency, does it?
3) Sex as Shameful
The colorful verb Kyrgios chose, as well as suggesting violence, signals less than respect or support for the woman’s participation in this presumably mutual act. Nor does it imply a reciprocity of feeling—or, indeed, much feeling at all. For a woman to have sex under these circumstances is apparently tantamount to degrading herself: it’s shameful in itself and also devalues her on the relationship market. Were it not for that, this line couldn’t be used as an insult. The girlfriend is being presented as damaged goods: she is, per today’s consumer euphemism, “previously owned.” This is meant to humiliate Wawrinka because he’s getting what another man has already “used.”
By responding how he did, observing that “What was said I wouldn’t say to my worst enemy,” the Swiss unintentionally endorses this set of assumptions—albeit in a benevolent way. Imagine if, instead of defending his girlfriend’s honor, Wawrinka rejected the faulty premise that there is anything to defend. It’s possible, after all, to think Kyrgios crossed both moral and behavioral lines without believing or acting like he revealed something shameful.
4) Virgin-Whore Dichotomy
Both the comment about the girlfriend’s age and the subsequent dig get at the notion that female adults are either innocents or fallen women; alternately, they can be mothers or. . . not. Essentially, a single, sexually active woman is a problem: sex should be for procreation or not at all. This is one reason why Sex and the City was considered ground-breaking television. The “girl you take home to mom” is unlikely to be a Samantha Jones: for those unfamiliar with the character, a woman who’s “been around.” Historically, female virtue has been tied, in a limiting way, to sexual activity—or, to be more precise, a lack thereof. To qualify as “wife material,” women were (and, in some cultures, still are) expected to be abstinent until marriage, while single men are free, as the saying goes, to “sow their wild oats.” Although many believe women’s elevated moral stature is a product of nature, further cultivated by their traditional nurturing and restricted activities within the private sphere, the expectation of purity is historically rooted in property and inheritance: women’s chastity and fidelity ensure any family wealth is passed down to a legitimate heir.
This dichotomy goes back at least as far as the Bible (think of the Virgin Mother’s immaculate conception), was identified as the source of a complex by Freud, and, of course, gave pop star Madonna much of her iconic material. More recently, as the poet
Ludacris suggests, men want both/and: a “lady in the street but a freak in the bed” (a phrase he’s fond enough of to have used in multiple songs ). The Pussycat Dolls’ best-known song also perpetuates contemporary versions of the dichotomy and makes a competition between women for male attention explicit. The “freak” represented by the Dolls is hot, raw, and fun. The girlfriend? All we know about her is that she loves her man. Their lyrics may involve a reversal of the original split, one which instead puts a sexualized woman on a pedestal, but it still traps women in a false dilemma. Are these really the only two options?
5) Double Standard: Stud versus Slut
Although it is likely embarrassing for Kokkinakis to have his sexual activity announced to the world without his permission, it’s pretty clear that he’s not the target of his friend and Davis Cup teammate’s comment. “The Kokk,” unlike the girlfriend involved, didn’t do anything wrong. In fact, it’s safe to say that “banging” an attractive young woman is widely viewed as an accomplishment, a notch on his racquet handle. Not so, of course, for the woman in question, whose reputation is sullied by the making public of this information. Should it be? Of course not. But take a look at a certain young WTA player’s Twitter mentions and you’re likely to see more abuse than support. Whether Kyrgios endorses or even understands all the connotations his comment carries doesn’t matter: his statement was intended and received as a slight because that’s how this stuff works.
To end at the beginning: attitudes like this—and behavior that reinforces them—don’t constitute a problem for Nick Kyrgios alone. He’s a product of a sexist culture: not the ATP and not Australia, but a world still recovering from centuries of patriarchy. If we’re going to fight sexism, we’ll have to do more than point fingers at him.