Sexuality Policy Watch

Female Sexuality at the Rio Olympics: many paradoxes

by Laura Molinari Alonso and Jimena de Garay

The 2016 Olympics have been portrayed as the women’s Games. In fact, 2016 has seen the highest percentage of female competitors in the history of the Games as well as excellent performance of these athletes. Yet,  women’s sexual bodies continued to be a recurring in media Olympic coverage. And, unfortunately, this coverage was not framed in terms that value  women’s autonomy and pleasures but, as usual, was organized around a logic aimed at filling the expectations of male consumers.

bundasAs it is always the case the media focused,  quite obsessively,  on women’s bodies, as when, for example, it geometrically multiplied the photos of the Afro-American tennis player Venus Williams ass. It is also to be noted that the uniforms of female athletes are always much smaller than male outfits, including when they are competing in the same sport modalities  as in volleyball and gymnastics. This differential triggers an interesting reflection. In Rio,  there was hot debate about the covered bodies of Egyptian volley players Doaa Elgobashy e Nada Meawad,  interpreted as a cultural imposition of patriarchal Islam. Yet no one has questioned whether the tiny shorts and tight clothes of our athletes are, in fact, a ‘choice’ or also an effect of cultural norms.

Another complicated angle of this paradoxical scene can be illustrated by a scandal around the sexual relationship the Brazilian diver Ingrid Oliveira had with a male partner at the Olympic Villa. The episode was thrown into the winds with no  respect to her privacy. The international media, in particular, adopted a very moralistic approach to  the  ‘case’, as exemplified by the Portuguese newspaper “A Bola” headline: “Ingrid: sex marathon drove to the Olympic Games.” This type of editorial treatment makes us ask whether the Games were really about sexual liberation, as propagated by the massive flow of images of tiny shorts and lusty female bodies.

Another unfortunate and sexist episode of media coverage was the comment  made by Dan Hicks, from NBC TV,  about the victory of Hungarian swimmer Katinka Hosszu. When commenting Katinka’s gold medal and the record she broke in the 400 meters modality, the journalist declared that the this was to be credited her husband and coach, as if the effort made by Katinka did not deserve any appraisal.

On the other hand,  the 2016 Games were an important milestone in the long road towards the deconstruction of compulsory female heterosexuality. Spontaneously, a number of female athletes revealed their homosexual relationships publicly. For the first time in history, a lesbian couple competed at the Olympics – the hockey players Kate and Helen Richardson-Walsh. And, judoka Rafaela Silva, who won the first Brazilian gold medal, was a real blast. Rafaela who is black and lives in City of God (the Rio slum that became internationally known for the eponymous film of 2002), has publicly assumed that she is a lesbian right after winning the medal. She emphasized how important her partner was in emotional terms, but also as the manager of her career.  Finally the national and global LGBT communities and movements for sexual diversity were delighted when Marjorie Enya, who worked as a volunteer in the Games, asked the Brazilian player of rugby, Isadora Cerullo, to marry her right in front of the cameras.

The presence of trans women is another important angle to be looked at. In the opening ceremony, the Brazilian delegation was led by transsexual model Lea T, who also carried the national flag. Other four trans women led other delegations and this is to be seen as an important step to prevent and curtail discrimination and transphobia in the country in which more trans people are murdered worldwide. However, the Brazilian press did not give much attention to their presence.

Speaking of women’s sexuality it is necessary to look beyond the Olympic zones and examine what happened in the city itself.  Quite evidently,  most of the areas connected with the Games were sanitized and this included measures aimed at “cleaning” the streets of prostitutes. Concurrently, the  Games were seen by many as a ‘free pass’ for Brazilian women to be touched and harassed. The information has circulated, for example, that during an exhibition at the Olympic Museum in Lausanne, potential visitors to Brazil were taught how to pronounce words like “big ass” (bundão) and “delicious” (gostosa).

As in the past,  the mainstream media has predominantly adopted a  conventional sexist approach to resort to women’s bodies as to promote consumption and tourism and to exalt the Brazilian sexual heritage. Yet this is really at odds with a social and political environment where it remains difficult or impossible for us to express our sexuality or exercise our sexual rights without being accused of allegedly immoral behavior, as in the case of Ingrid.

Screen Shot 2016-08-30 at 18.45.47It is perhaps productive, therefore, to draw a parallel between the media treatment of women’s sexuality and the ways in which the indigenous groups, the black population and environment have been depicted during the games. One of the main tourist attractions created for the Olympics is the gigantic graffiti mural painted by the famous Kobra that exalts indigenous identity (apparently this is world’s largest graphite wall). Contrastingly,   in the Southwest regions of the country bloody conflicts involving farmers and indigenous people have been constant and severe for the last few years. In June this year, for example, than 60 armed men in pickup trucks have openly threatened a group of thousand Guarani-Kaiowá indigenous in Dourados, Mato Grosso do Sul.  A long list of similar episodes of violence could be added here.

To conclude it does not seem excessive to say that the main goals of mega-events, such as the Olympics, is to enhance profit and exploitation, in ways that do not leave much space left for the autonomy of both bodies and of knowledge production and circulation.

Laura Molinari Alonso and Jimena de Garay Hernández are autonomous feminist

Skip to content