Roller Derby Has a Sexual Assault Problem, and We Need to Talk About It

Roller Derby Has a Sexual Assault Problem, and We Need to Talk About It Photo credit Sean Hale

Roller derby, sit down for a second. We need to talk.

It’s taken me eight years to write down what I’m about to say. Not because I’ve forgotten what happened to me or because it doesn’t affect me. I’ve waited because I didn’t think my story was worthy of reporting, and lacked the bravery and self worth to say something. I feared the things they’d say.

“That’s just what happens at after parties.”

“It was probably just a misunderstanding.”

“It’s not even that bad. It’s not like you got raped.”

“Get over it.”

“I don’t believe you.”

I’ve held onto this fear for eight years. Until now.

It was early 2010, at a Blood and Thunder boot camp in New Zealand. The New Zealand-based camp organizer rented a big house for her, the coaches and a few skaters to stay at. Gorgeous yard, big living area, and a hot tub, which would soon feature a revolving door of happy kiwis, drinking and having a good time.

On the final night of the camp, I was sitting in the hot tub with people, including my (then-brand new) boyfriend. As a ref/skater couple, we were excited to tell the world we were together, but nervous that our league wouldn’t accept us. So, we’d take any opportunity to sit next to each other; that hot tub included.

We’d only just got in when a few people joined us; camp coach Quadzilla included. I paid him no mind, but in almost no time, Quad pressed all the way up against me, and was soon sliding his hand up my inner thigh.

At first, I froze, and thought, “What the fuck? What the FUCK? WHAT THE FUCK?” But when me freezing up appeared to be taken a sign for him to keep moving his hand up toward my bathing suit, I firmly pushed his hand away from me, and went back to my conversation.

Then he did it again. And again.

It took three tries to get him to stop, and mercifully, he finally did.

At the time, I didn’t process what happened to me as assault. I didn’t recognize that when people in positions of power and influence in the community do these things, they do so because they know they can. I thought that being a Nobody from Nowheresville meant that I shouldn’t bother speaking up, because no one would believe me… or care.

 

Since that day in New Zealand, my situation in derby has changed dramatically. In 2013, I left New Zealand for derbier shores. By 2014, I was skating for the Rose City Rollers Wheels of Justice, where I would compete for the Hydra four times, captain WOJ to its first championship victory, and fall in love with a bunch of sparkly purple idiots in bedazzled jean vests. Things were good.

And then Portland’s MRDA team got an influx of transfers.

At the beginning of the 2017 season, I heard that Quadzilla would be transferring to Bridgetown Menace from Puget Sound. People were thrilled, but I wasn’t. WOJ’s annual game against Menace came almost immediately after the announcement, and I froze up like that night in New Zealand. I told my team—including two of our skaters who coached Menace—that I didn’t want to play him. I was told that he wouldn’t be suiting up for the game; then I saw him warming up. I was mad, but I internalized this choice as a sign that I shouldn’t talk about this stuff.

These fears have sat with me for a long time now, and I’ve struggled to figure out how to say my piece without sounding like someone making a mountain out of a molehill. When I decided to say something last week, I made sure to drown out my own voice of doubt by reminding myself that the first accusations in the #metoo movement were non-violent in nature, too. But, they were delivered by women in positions of power and influence in their communities, who knew they had less to lose by standing up than others do.

So here I am, putting my name and face out there so that others don’t have to feel alone any more. To tell people that breach of consent, harassment, assault and violence happen in roller derby all the time.

Every after party.

Every boot camp.

Every Rollercon.

And for some? Every practice, fundraiser and league meeting.

In the past, you’ve probably called it “after party antics” or passed predatory behavior as “just what that person is like”. Almost all of the derby folks I know have stories where people have harassed, assaulted and scared them. Are all of these abusers men? ABSOLUTELY NOT. All stories sound the same, no matter what gender the abuser is.

“They grabbed my tit at the pool.”

“They wouldn’t let me leave the bathroom stall I was in.”

“They undid my bikini top and exposed my chest to the entire team.”

“They tried to fuck me in a car when I was too drunk to do much about it.”

“I was passed out. I’m not entirely sure I know what happened.”

People have asked me why we haven’t told all of these stories publicly yet; why people don’t come forward at the time these things happen. My responses are simple: the world has changed, and so have I. While I still feel like a Nobody from Nowheresville every day, I know that my status with Rose is part of what gives me a platform to speak up, and help amplify the voices of others.

To quote someone who reached out to me after I first started telling this story:

“It takes strong, powerful, respected women with voices that will be heard across the derby world to make things happen. It gives those with no voice—the quiet, small town skaters who know it’s wrong but can’t stop it from happening—hope.”

It seems to be having some effect already. In the few days since I said my piece online, more and more women are coming to me with their own stories of abuse and mistreatment. A handful of them are talking about Quadzilla specifically; some are not. Every person who has reached out is afraid – they fear repercussions, they worry they’ll lose friends; they’re scared they’ll be kept off rosters as a result. But they’re starting to mobilize and have things to say, and I welcome each of them to go public with their stories so that our community can band together to support them.

On the other side of my equation, Quadzilla has apologized. His public statement—a heady mix of disbelief, denial, the absolution of guilt, and apology—was far from perfect, and I’m having a hard time processing it, but I have acknowledged his apology… to me. Time will tell whether he’ll have to repeat this statement in future, or whether others will have to stand up and be accountable for their actions. Because mine is just one of many thousands of stories left to tell, and it’s time we listened to them, amplified them, and held the accusers accountable.

 

So, if something like what happened to me (or worse) has happened to you, I want to say the following:

I’m sorry this happened to you. I believe you and support you unequivocally. You can get through this. You’re stronger than you think, and if you want to speak up about it, please feel free to do so. (Reach out to Derby Central – they’re listening.) Thousands of folks in your community, like me, want you to feel emboldened by how the world has reacted to the Weinsteins, Cosbys and especially Nassars that inhabit every nook and cranny of society; even the little progressive one we carved out for ourselves with this sport.

You’ve got this.

 

– Hannah Jennings

 

 

EDITOR’S NOTE: 

We’ve put this article out because it’s time to have this discussion. And I stand behind every word here, because I know they’re true. I was there. Hannah and I met at that boot camp, and in the aftermath of it, not only did I get to hear the story of another skater who was also assaulted – her breasts grabbed as both she and her girlfriend said “No” – I myself received a completely unsolicited, unwelcome, and deeply inappropriate inbox message from that same coach.

And I’m not the only one.

Since Hannah started speaking out, we’ve both received innumerable messages from women all over the world who have felt afraid and silenced for too long. And patterns have clearly emerged – those coaches, refs, skaters, volunteers and others in the derby community who’ve so deeply betrayed the trust we’ve placed on them have done so with forethought, intention, and fully aware of the lines they’re crossing. And they’ve done it again and again and again.

So, roller derby, this is the time. Now is the time to think long and hard about what we want our community to look like, who deserves to be a part of it, and what we’re going to do to change it. Now is the time to step forward and talk hard and honestly with our leagues and our fellow skaters, refs and derby lovers about how to make this community a place where people do not have to be afraid. Let’s lay down some clear boundaries, and make them so solid and enforceable that this is a place where people know they cannot hurt others like this. Roller derby, this is a call to action. 

 

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Edited by Danger (ismymiddlename)