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AucklandJuly 5, 2017

When rugby brings out the worst


In the hours before the first Lions test in Auckland, a group of girls aged between 13 and 16 took to the Kingsland streets to entertain fans with their circus skills. In return, they were met with a barrage of lewd comments, writes the troupe’s co-artistic director Carlene Newall de Jesus.

With glittered face paint matching her bright eyes, hair woven into two plaits, she heads out to the street from the church hall, ready to entertain the crowds travelling to the first test match of the 2017 Lions tour. It’s 5pm on a Saturday and the streets are filling with a sea of red and white Lions supporter shirts and All Blacks jerseys.

She is 13, with a light-up smile and twinkling laugh. She likes eating hashbrowns, listening to Twenty One Pilots and watching Stranger Things. She’s not allowed a Facebook account but doesn’t mind because she knows she’s too young. Here with her circus troupe HighJinx, a youth company specialising in aerial and acrobatic circus, they have been invited to perform as part of the entertainment around Eden Park. The group of seven are aged between 13 and 16 and it’s their first time performing an installation performance – a type of durational performance designed to activate the space as a moving piece of art. They’ve been prepped for what happens if it rains, what happens if the music stops, if they get through their choreography too fast, if they get tired or cold, or if the ground is too uneven for them to perform a certain trick.

“How much for a handjob?”

They haven’t been prepped for this.

Or for the question about whether they give lap dances, or the request for them to lift their legs a little higher, spread their knees a little wider. Or the comments about that nice-looking camel toe, that their ass looks great, or whether someone could sit on the chair and have the girls dance on top of him. By the end of the 90-minute performance the girls have been subjected to a barrage of crude, sexualised and objectifying comments from male spectators.

The youth company is there to entertain with their art, to use the skills they have spent hours, weeks and years training to perfect. To make all the thousands of crunches and push-ups and late-night trainings worth it to perform what they love. As circus acrobats, their bodies are their tools. Circus is spectacle and it entertains by demonstrating the possibilities of the human body. These girls can hang 10 metres in the air from one hand, they can balance comfortably upside-down on two hands, they can move themselves through space with confidence, strength, grace and bravery. They are there to be watched; it’s a performance after all. But their bodies, their tools, are not there to be mocked or sexualised. They are children and it is early evening, they are in a public space performing before a family-friendly event. Their glittered young faces and brightly coloured costumes clearly present them to be the age they are.

“I’d like to get in your box!” … “Dude she’s like 12.”

The level of inappropriateness was shocking. These were not catcalls, these were the sounds of lions preying on the vulnerable. Literally. Ninety percent of the harassment came from men wearing the recognisable red and white Lions supporter gear. They travelled in packs with their alcohol-fuelled bravado worn as loud and proud as their face paint and waving flags. The unmistakable sound of drunk raucousness played in the background throughout the girls’ performance. A young boy in a shirt shyly offered a $5 note to the busking hat, saying his sister was a dancer too; a middle-aged couple made themselves comfortable on nearby seats, commenting on the physical braveness of the girls and the beauty of seeing young people demonstrate such talents. Unfortunately, the positive feedback and driving beat of the music echoing through the space did not shield the girls from hearing what they shouldn’t have had to.

“Sexual comments like those made me more self-conscious when performing, because I didn’t want to be seen in that sort of way and, although I knew I wasn’t doing anything wrong, it is hard to ignore comments like those without feeling dirty or guilty about what you are doing.” (Connie, 14 years old)

“Hearing all of the comments made me feel uncomfortable and in a way vulnerable, because when people are saying those kinds of things to you, it makes you feel smaller than them.” (Ella, 13 years old)

Small, uncomfortable, dirty, vulnerable, guilty, worried, nervous, objectified, self-conscious, sad, angry. Such are the impacts of these passing comments. They are hurtful and harmful and present a world where young women’s bodies are there to be judged and commented on, to be treated as sexual objects.

On the Fan Trail to Eden Park. Photo: Dave Simpson/Getty Images

As a professional performer myself I’ve heard everything under the sun. Performing at big-budget corporate Christmas parties and high-end exclusive parties gives you a great insight into what people will say to impress, with enough alcohol in their system and a perceived sense of entitlement over performers’ bodies. The so called ‘fourth wall’ – an invisible, imagined divider separating performers from the audience – is not soundproof. However, as I found myself trying to give advice to the girls afterwards I struggled to come up with anything better than this: just ignore them.

As I heard myself saying it, the injustice of the situation hit hard. Why is it our young people’s job to ignore those comments? Why should the gift of performing to an audience be repaid with such offensiveness? I would never tell any of these girls in any other situation to simply ignore that type of comment. If these girls were walking home from school and were spoken to like that it would be considered sexual harassment.

Harassment in a public space is unfortunately something young women are used to. The 2015 Cornell International Study on Street Harassment surveyed 16,607 women from around the globe. Seventy-one percent of respondents reported their first street harassment happened between the ages of 11 and 17, with 13 percent experiencing this at age 10 or under. The study found in New Zealand 65 percent of the women surveyed first experienced street harassment between 11 and 17 years old, and 15 percent at 10 or younger.

In all countries women reported that street harassment evoked strong feelings of anger, fear and anxiety. The effects are not something that can be ignored or brushed off. The study reported serious long-term effects of depression and low self-esteem. These types of comments have real impacts on the people hearing them. For a young person, it establishes norms of how they can expect other people to view their body and sexuality, and influences the thoughts and feelings they have towards their own body.

As we prepare ourselves for a second performance ahead of this Saturday’s test match I ask myself what I can do to protect the young performers.* Our national treasure is not rugby, it is our young people. Will it help if their hair is in pigtails to make them look younger? If their costumes are baggier to hide their bodies? Do we need a big sign with their ages on it?

But the problem is not what the girls look like or that they might have been mistaken for being older than they are. The problem is much larger and a sum of many parts – the culture of alcohol consumption around sports matches, the valuing of sporting prowess over the arts, societal attitudes about gender and sexuality, rape culture, objectification of women and sexualisation of young people.

As 15-year-old Jess explains, the way forward is by “raising awareness of how we as young people feel, to convince your friends or random others how they would feel if someone tried to say these things to you while you were doing something you love.”

The All Blacks’ call for support of ‘Tūtira mai ngā iwi’ has never been more fitting. It means stand together as one. All of us. We desperately need to understand that it really does mean all of us.

Read more:

‘When did we become this?’ The NZ Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner responds to this story

* The Kingsland Business Association, which organised the pre-match entertainment, cancelled High Jinx’s scheduled performance this Saturday, citing health and safety regulations, after being contacted for comment by the Spinoff.

If any rugby or Lions’ fan organisation wish to respond to the story, please email

Feature image: Left, fans at the first test match between the Lions and the All Blacks at Eden Park, Auckland, 26 June 2017 (Photo by Fiona Goodall/Getty Images for NZR). Right, the High Jinx acrobatics troupe perform in Auckland, 26 June 2017 (Photo by Carlene Newall de Jesus).

The Spinoff Auckland is sponsored by Heart of the City, the business association dedicated to the growth of downtown Auckland as a vibrant centre for entertainment, retail, hospitality and business.

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