Ensuring that co-ed hockey is for everyone: Empathy at the rink

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*Trigger Warning: sexual assault/abuse*

This is a guest post. The writer has chosen to remain anonymous.

After decades of playing women’s hockey, I decided to join a co-ed league a few years ago. It was an opportunity to play on the same team as my husband, and to find a new social circle after returning to British Columbia, Canada. For the most part, it has proven to be a huge amount of fun. I’ve welcomed the physical challenge, the fast pace, and the more structured play. The beers and nachos in the bar afterwards, with team mates who soon became good friends, have been a bonus.

But co-ed hockey is not for everyone and, in fact, many women firmly decline. The reasons I’ve heard most often is the physical risks of playing alongside larger male players, and the reluctance by some men to involve women in their game. As a result, many co-ed teams struggle to recruit and retain female players.

Despite these challenges, until recently, I’ve found it helpful to play both women’s and co-ed hockey in tandem. However, a recent experience has made me feel differently and now I’m not so sure. The reason for this change of heart stems from an off-ice experience, rather than any on-ice incidents. It concerns changing room etiquette. In most situations, when two co-ed teams play, the male and female players of each team change with the same sex of the opposing team. In men’s and women’s hockey, of course, you change as a team so that you can discuss team strategy and bond together as a group. Changing with the opposing team is not done and, indeed, can be uncomfortable if there are tensions on the ice. But in co-ed hockey, the emphasis on fun means that team strategy is given limited thought and the on ice atmosphere is generally less feisty. Male and female players split after the game and dress in their own rooms.

In my rink, however, a few co-ed teams like to change together as a team. They do so to build team spirit by spending time together in the same dressing room, before and after games, in the same way same sex teams do. Team managers ask their players if they feel comfortable doing this and then a decision is made by the team to operate this way. To minimise embarrassment, the protocol is for players to change into their sweat layers privately (i.e. home or washroom), and then put on their remaining equipment in the main room. After game showers are a little trickier but navigated by having male and female players take turns, alongside the discrete aversion of eyes. Given the limited number of dressing rooms available for each game, teams wanting to change together need agreement from the opposing team to do the same. These arrangements can be a positive way for a co-ed team to bond and, by extension, play more like a team.

That is, unless you happen to be a player who doesn’t feel comfortable sharing a co-ed locker room. And this can be for at least two key reasons. The first is culture. There is a degree of sex segregation in most societies, although the specific situations where this is practiced, and the degree of segregation, varies considerably. In some cultures, segregation is extensive, with males and females living almost entirely separate lives. In western societies, the spaces where sex segregation occurs are becoming increasingly fewer. The removal of segregated spaces has been seen as a progressive dismantling of discriminatory practices that exclude females from male bastions (e.g. private men’s clubs). The few places where sex segregation remains acceptable are where privacy is deemed of greater importance (e.g. public washrooms, shop fitting rooms). Hockey changing rooms would seem to fall into this category of private spaces. At the same time, it is also a space where females seek inclusion in a male-dominated sport. Female hockey players from western cultural backgrounds may tend to see the sharing of a single dressing room as a triumph for equity. For females of other cultures, however, the intimacy of changing clothes, in a room of unrelated males, would be highly uncomfortable. If we seek diversity in hockey, some sensitivity and awareness of cultural differences is thus needed.

Screen Shot 2017-04-23 at 10.03.05 AMA second reason why a female player might not wish to share a changing room with their male team mates is a past experience of physical violence and/or sexual assault or abuse. The statistics in Canada are sobering. Half of all women in Canada have experienced at least one incident of physical or sexual violence since the age of 16. One in four women in North America will be sexually assaulted during their lifetime. Over 80% of sex crime victims are women. Most incidences are never reported to the police so these statistics are likely to be underestimates.

This is my story. Abused as a child by a family member, and assaulted as a young woman by acquaintances, I have been left with a deep discomfort of being put in certain social situations. My experiences were decades ago and I have made an agonizing effort to heal from these traumas. Once in a while, however, a situation brings these experiences back to the fore. This is what happened when I arrived as a sub for a co-ed team one night and was told that the entire team changed together. Trying not to look too uncomfortable, I backed out of the room and quietly went to find out if there were any alternatives. After being told that the rink was very busy, and there were no spare changing rooms, I ducked into the women’s washroom. The team later asked where I had gone and I mumbled something about being shy. After the game, I retreated once again to the washroom. It happened again a few weeks later when I turned up for a drop-in session. Having been given the head’s up beforehand about changing arrangements, I contacted the organizer who agreed to ask the rink to set aside a female only changing room (or even broom closet). Upon arrival at the rink, and finding no provision made, I went to speak to the rink manager. I was asked, in what felt like a very loud voice in a public place, why I couldn’t just change with everyone else. To him, I was someone asking for special treatment and, short of shouting back, “Because I’ve been sexually abused”, no amount of hinting could make him understand. Once again, I fled to the women’s washrooms and found myself this time in tears as I changed into my gear.

So, yes, co-ed hockey isn’t for everyone and, increasingly, I wonder if it is for me after all. It is true that most co-ed teams do not change together and the option of playing on one of those teams remains open. My experience of co-ed hockey over several years has also been overwhelmingly positive. I have had a lot of fun, scored a few goals, and made what I hope are lifelong friendships, both male and female. This is also not to suggest that there is somehow any greater risk of violence or sexual assault if teams change together in the same room. Around 80% of sexual assault incidents occur in the home. Male co-ed players pose no more risk to females than males in general society. But what this is really about is sensitivity. If we truly want to make hockey inclusive, and welcome players regardless of sex, gender, age, sexual orientation, ethnicity, culture and any other wonderful variations in identity, understanding of our diversity of experiences is an essential starting point. Females who have experienced violence or sexual assault do not want to be defined by those experiences. But we still need rink managers, team organizers and fellow players, male and female, to understand that we also need to feel safe.

Co-ed hockey leagues have become popular among male and female players who want to have fun and socialize together afterwards. Rink managers like co-ed leagues because there are generally fewer on-ice conflicts and more spending at the bar. It is a lucrative business that rinks across the country are beginning to tap into. There has been no shortage of male players wishing to join co-ed teams. The success of co-ed leagues, however, will depend on attracting and keeping female players. The key to doing so will require further attention to how all female players can be made to feel welcome.

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3 thoughts on “Ensuring that co-ed hockey is for everyone: Empathy at the rink

  1. Thanks for posting this. I play in a growing co-ed rec league during the Spring/Summer, and over the past couple of years it has become common for change rooms to be shared by players regardless of gender. What I appreciate about your post is that it provides a common sense rationale for arranging this: everyone should be asked (discretely) about whether this is OK with them, and then people’s feelings need to be respected.

    I shared this with my league coordinators (who are good friends), and I’ll be chatting with them about circulating this along with orientation materials prior to the season. It’s great feedback that should help make hockey more welcoming to female players, and I value the opportunity to be an ally along these lines. Sharing the ice across gender lines has been a real privilege and a lot of fun, so discovering anything I can do to keep that going and growing the game for everyone is a plus.

    Thanks again!

  2. Pingback: Weekly Links: St. Louis Blues shut down racist commenter; Nunavut girl’s program shut down; how the NHL is dealing with sexual assault and domestic violence; and more | Hockey in Society

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