Many people praise the power of sports for their potential to increase a young girl’s sense of self-worth and ability to avoid sexual pitfalls, but there are always outliers.
I was driving the other day thinking about the power of sports to embolden young women to understand their bodies, feel ownership and control over them, reduce the chances of sexual violence, and increase the chances of physical reign as they move through adolescence and into adulthood.
I sat in my car congratulating myself for immersing my 6-year-old daughter in a range of organized sports and informal athletic activity. As a mother, I constantly seek and develop ways to foster a powerful sense of self-worth in my daughter and to protect her from present and future predators, manipulators, and physical abusers. I view sports as a way to build an athletic wall of defense against adolescent promiscuity and sexual subordination. And, I know the research well. I believe in it. I value the correlations drawn between girls who play sports and their self-efficacy. Genetically wired for strength, her muscular definition almost alarming for her age, she’s a natural athlete. So, to basketball, tennis, gymnastics, swimming, and soccer my daughter must go.
Running through the data points in my head, reflecting back on a recent article I read on the many ways in which sports provide girls a connectedness to their bodies, I breathed a sigh of relief. My daughter was good and she would be safe. I was arming her with the knowledge of her body’s capacity, its power and the strength she has over her bodily domain. I was feeling at ease, singing along to the radio in one of those rare, euphoric parenting moments when I am absolutely certain I’m doing something right.
As I slowed down at a stoplight I said to myself, “Unlike me, she is going to have control over her body.” Then, I paused, shocked. “Wait, what did I just say to myself? Unlike me? Why the heck did I say unlike?” And then my whole reductionist, if-she-plays-sports-then-she’ll-be-strong ideal began to buckle under the weight of my memory.
As a young girl, I was a tomboy and a jock. My best friend was a boy. My first bike was a black and yellow dirt bike. The boys in my neighborhood envied that bike and by age 6, I had taught myself how to jump it off ramps and dirt piles. I was the girl who the gym teacher always selected as team captain. I was most comfortable on a court or field, confident and in control. I had a strong, powerful body and it carried heights of self-worth.
In the awkward years of early adolescence, my agility in soccer and volleyball afforded me the self-respect and personal admiration that my looks did not. I dominated the goalie position in soccer. In high school, my serve in volleyball was deadly. I traveled with both sports. In between I swam, I rode my bike, and water-skied.
I was a natural and trained athlete. I felt a deep connection to my body’s power both on the field and off. I celebrated it, honored it. But, somewhere along the way a couple of variables went missing. All my great athleticism and training failed to instill in me a deep understanding that my body was mine and not for a man’s viewing, touching, and tasting pleasure.
At 15, I gave my first blowjob. At 16, I let my boyfriend of four days have sex with me even though I was not ready. The sex was brutal and painful. But, more to the point, I subordinated my body to his demands and of course, myself. After about a month, he finished with me. Who knows how long I would have continued to submit if he hadn’t?
I gave up soccer that year.
At 18, I got involved with a man twice my age, because he desired me.
I then gave up volleyball.
At 22, I fell deeply in love for the very first time. Sports lived in my past. My physicality and athleticism remained a genetically wired mainstay, but my inner jock stayed dormant. The first time we made love was one of the defining moments of my adult life and the defining moment of my sexual identity. I was on top weaving my body gracefully and seductively. Quite abruptly, he stopped me, looked me straight in the eye, held my face between his hands and with a direct, broken-hearted urgency stated, “You are performing. You are not even here with me.”
His words slammed me across the bed and into a corner. I sat up arms wrapped around bent knees enveloped in humiliation, fear, and relief. Humiliated that for the last seven years of my life, I had given up control of my body to others. I feared what that meant for me in my future. I knew no other way of being with men. And then, shining through it all was a sense of relief that I might find a way to leave the performance behind and share my body with a man honestly and authentically. The journey took another three years, as the process of rehabilitation and recovery should. I had my first orgasm at 25.
So, I sat there in traffic and let the memories ransack my sweet thoughts of my athletic daughter and the sense of self-worth and power sports would help her develop. I started running the analytics in my mind. What variables were missing in my own development? How can I ensure that I enter those variables back into my daughter’s development? Where in all those hours on the playing field did I learn that my body served someone else’s pleasure and needs? Where did I learn to discard all the awesome power that I felt in sport for the total lack of power I felt in sex?
I’ve been racking my brain ever since. In the same vein, I rack my brain over how to teach my son to be the man who may recognize if the woman he loves is performing.
As it stands now, I deconstruct the princess myth. I infuse our home with all different notions of physical beauty. I teach my children to have bodily boundaries. I give them the space to explore their talents. I teach them to read, analyze, and interpret media. My children see me submit to no one and they hear in my conversations with my dearest friends the celebration of control, boundaries, candor, and authenticity.
But, that’s all I’ve got…for now. I wish the sports-girl power equation was as linear as I planned. I was banking on it until I recalled the outlier I was.
Femme Firecat is a female storyteller who thrives in the spaces in between where ambiguity reigns, creativity transforms, and authenticity lives.