A Look at Cyberbullying and Sexual Misconduct in the Pro Wrestling Community

The Doctor Chris Mueller@@BR_DoctorFeatured ColumnistJuly 11, 2020

Hana Kimura.
Hana Kimura.Etsuo Hara/Getty Images

Hana Kimura, a 22-year-old pro wrestler for Japanese women's promotion Stardom and a cast member on Netflix's Terrace House, died May 23. Her death, attributed to suicide, came after she was the target of online bullying following an incident with another cast member on the popular reality show.

Kimura's death shocked the wrestling community not only in her native Japan but around the world as well. Many of her friends in the business posted tributes on social media, while those who did not personally know her nevertheless mourned losing a beloved rising star.

Less than four weeks after Kimura's death, another series of events forced the wrestling industry into a sort of self-reflection it had never before experienced. On June 17, an ex-girlfriend of prominent independent wrestler David Starr named Tori tweeted that he sexually assaulted her and used other forms of abuse in their relationship. Following this, many others shared their own experiences of sexual assault, harassment and abuse in the business, birthing what is now known as the #SpeakingOut movement.

Professional wrestling has long been a boys' club, with systemic issues with sexism and misogyny on television, at shows and behind the scenes. There are a lot of good people in the community, but there is also a lot of toxicity. The pro wrestling community has been a great source of joy for many, but it also has serious problems that must be dealt with and not forgotten.

                               

Hana Kimura and Cyberbullying in Wrestling

Harassment can come in many forms. It can be physical or verbal, and it can come from a friend, acquaintance, co-worker, family member or even a complete stranger.

Many people have been harassed, abused or bullied at some point in their lives, for reasons such as racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, political beliefs and jealousy.

The term "cyberbullying" may bring to mind kids' texting and tweeting mean things about each other, but the problem is also prevalent among adults.

Celebrities and influencers are under even more scrutiny than people without hundreds of thousands of followers (or more), and the problem is worse if that celeb is a woman, person of color, LGTBQ+ or a member of another marginalized or underrepresented community.

Facing a constant barrage of hateful comments takes a toll and can exacerbate existing mental health issues and lead to depression or worse.

Kimura's story is only one in a long line involving celebrities' being bullied online. In 2018, actress Kelly Marie Tran left Instagram after receiving racist and sexist abuse following her appearance in Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Daisy Ridley, another actress in the latest Star Wars trilogy, also experienced online harassment in 2016 before deleting her Instagram account.

Kyoko Kimura, Hana's mother, said in an interview with magazine Shukan Bunshun (h/t Yahoo Lifestylethat the conflict with roommate Kai Kobayashi on Terrace House was staged, including the moment Hana knocked his hat off, and it led her daughter to become distrustful of the show's producers. Fuji TV, the show's production company, says it is investigating the situation. 

WWE's Paige was the subject of targeted harassment after her personal photos and videos were leaked in 2018. Speaking to Fox News in September, Paige said she suffered from depression and developed anorexia after the leaks. AJ Mendez, whose ring name in WWE was AJ Lee, discussed her struggles with bipolar disorder in interviews and in her 2017 memoir. Nia Jax has spoken about being bullied, and her real-life treatment even became part of an in-character storyline with Alexa Bliss last year.

Some may think it's easy to just brush off random insults made by faceless strangers, but when they become an everyday occurrence in a person's life, it can be hard to ignore.

Fans and members of the wrestling community should support the talent, and governments and private businesses must also do more. Following Kimura's death, the Japanese government is considering new laws to combat cyberbullying, according to Jessie Yeung and Yoko Wakatsuki of CNN.com.

While companies like Twitter and Facebook have implemented filters and other tools to limit how many toxic comments are visible to a user, wrestlers can't stop all harassment without setting their profiles to private, which defeats one purpose of having a Twitter account for many public figures.

Bliss recently locked her profile after receiving numerous hateful messages on Twitter. She has since unlocked it again so anyone can see her tweets, but vile comments persist.

                                             

Testimonies: Rob Schamberger and Kristen Ashly

One need not be an on-screen talent or work for WWE to be targeted by toxic fans in the pro wrestling community. WWE's artist in residence, Rob Schamberger, and wrestling journalist Kristen Ashly both shared their stories of online harassment with Bleacher Report.

Schamberger recounted his experience with online harassment and doxxing in 2019:

"Last year, I was commissioned to do some art for a video game. I'd been playing the game to see how to best integrate my art, and I had asked the company to comp me what my art was being used on as I do with other projects. I didn't know that it would make me and my team unbeatable in the game. Quickly, a segment of their players discovered this and organized an online harassment campaign against me.

"I'd been through that before. It unfortunately goes with operating publicly online. But this one lasted and escalated. I was doxxed and got threats of harm in addition to the thousands of people sending me hate messages across social media. I had to buy pepper spray for my wife to carry and protection for our home. Luckily, nothing was acted on, but I didn't know that at the time. Within a month, I started therapy because it was just too big to process, and over time, that helped me out tremendously.

"I also see that the people doing this to me were projecting their own personal issues and lashing out to give them a feeling of control in their lives. Seeing how much therapy helped me out, I hope that at some point they explore it for themselves as well."

Schamberger found a solution that worked for him and has continued to produce paintings of wrestling stars. Despite what happened to him, he remains a beacon of positivity on Twitter.

Ashly started BelltoBelles.com, a website devoted primarily to women's wrestling. It recently featured an article penned by WWE Hall of Famer Mick Foley about how important women's wrestler Susan Sexton was to his career. Ashly is also the mastermind behind the Hope Project and the Association of Women in Wrestling.

Harassment almost drove Ashly to leave the industry. When I heard she was thinking of leaving journalism, I reached out to her, and she was kind enough to share her story:

"I've been a journalist in some field or another for the better part of a decade. I've written horror, the local education beat, was a food critic, covered fantasy sports, football, baseball, basketball and now professional wrestling. 

"During my time as a female journalist, I've encountered my fair share of sexist behaviors and attitudes, but really nothing quite as harsh and defeating as how I felt during my time as a wrestling journalist. A year and a half ago, a friendship with a man in wrestling media turned sour, and for the last year and a half, I've felt emotionally abused, gaslighted and codependent on a friendship that was never really a friendship.

"It felt like nothing I did was supported or met his 'requirements,' and that no matter how hard I tried to please him and make him proud, he wasn't impressed with anything I did. When I tried to confront him on his abusive behaviors, he made me feel crazy, like none of my feelings were valid. He was well protected in the community; I'm sure that to this day if I had spread his name through the community, it would have turned out ugly for me.

"And I'm not the only one. I get messages from women who are faced with the same sort of abuse from men in this industry, weekly. I wish I was exaggerating. Some of the men in this industry hand out advice they never take themselves. They move goalposts, expect women staff members to do things their male counterparts are not expected to do and are met with laughing cynicism when they try to voice their opinion. The women in the wrestling ring are treated with disdain, but so are the women on the other side of the coverage.

"Luckily, I've made some friends along the way. Friends like EVE Pro Wrestling, who has graciously hired me to help them with their YouTube channel. Friends who have turned into a safe place, for me. I want every woman in sports broadcasting and journalism to know that they're not alone, and I plan to use my platform to continue to fight for their voice in any way I can."

Ashly's story is all too common. Women in journalism have been fighting systemic sexism and misogyny forever, and some people seem intent on making their careers harder by causing an avalanche of abuse. Thankfully, Ashly will continue being a positive presence in the pro wrestling community.

                            

#SpeakingOut

Kimura's death and the treatment of women in wrestling played substantial roles in the emergence of the #SpeakingOut movement. Recently, fans and pro wrestlers have been sharing their stories of sexual harassment, sexual assault and other forms of abuse using the hashtag #SpeakingOut. Over 100 accounts involving performers from major wrestling promotions around the world have been posted since June 17.

A woman named Hannah Francesca alleged in June that former NXT cruiserweight champion Jordan Devlin physically abused her. In response, WWE released a statement that said, "We take any allegation of this nature very seriously and are looking into the matter."

Retired independent wrestler Sierra Loxton posted on Twitter that she had to block NXT UK's Joe Coffey on all social media because he wouldn't leave her alone, and she shared accounts from other women of sexual assault and harassment by Coffey. Coffey and two referees have since been suspended by WWE.

The number of accusations is staggering, including verbal and online harassment, physical assault, sexual assault and statutory rape. The scale of #SpeakingOut is so great that the movement now has a Wikipedia entry with links to many of the accusations.

Much like the #MeToo movement put a spotlight on the issues of sexism and misogyny in Hollywood and created a call for action, the wrestling industry needs to listen and learn from the victims and figure out a way to make the business safe for everyone in and out of the ring.

Several important steps are clear. Many #SpeakingOut stories involve wrestling trainers who used their positions of power over students to sexually assault or harass them. Many of these students were minors at the time the abuse took place. Professional wrestling schools are largely unregulated, and more oversight needs to occur to ensure they provide students with a safe and supportive place to train. Deciding what this regulation will entail and who will oversee it will be contentious.

Another glaring issue is how women have been booked on television. While their portrayal has improved in recent years, promotions still sexualize them far more often than men. Impact's Gail Kim recently expressed how uncomfortable she was doing pillow fights and bra-and-panties matches years ago as a member of the WWE roster. WWE has distanced itself from that kind of gimmickry, and the popularity of women's wrestling has surged as the performers are judged by their skill, not their figures.

This will need to continue.

More women also need to be in creative positions in pro wrestling. It helps that Stephanie McMahon and Brandi Rhodes are in positions of power in WWE and AEW, respectively, but unless women have more creative control on a day-to-day basis, female wrestlers will continue to be booked from a masculine perspective and for a masculine gaze.

By adding more women in management and creative roles, it will help create a safer environment for the entire division. It will lead to a better work environment for everyone and give women more of a voice in every aspect of the business. It will also give women more confidence to speak out if they are being harassed in any way. 

At the same time, sexuality itself shouldn't be problematic. In fact, it can be a useful storytelling device—for male or female performers—when treated with care. When wrestlers play characters who use sexuality to tell stories, it should be because it was their choice, not because they were forced to.

Mandy Rose used her physical appearance to get heat as a heel because that was the gimmick she came up with herself during the character competition episode of Tough Enough. A great example of using sex appeal (and of a role reversal) is AEW's Penelope Ford and Kip Sabian. While both stars act superior because of their appearance, Sabian plays the supportive manager-boyfriend role while Ford pursues the women's title.

These characters can be done right as long as the women playing them have input on the portrayal.

                         

Moving Forward

Cyberbullying, sexual abuse and harassment are not issues that will just go away over time. Being supportive of those who have been mistreated is one of many ways to combat the issue.

Several promotions have released statements vowing to do a better job when it comes to protecting their talents and fans. We have to hope these efforts lead to positive changes for everyone. What's needed is a system to hold people accountable and keep both fans and wrestlers safe from predatory behavior.

There is no governing body for all of wrestling, so implementing industry-wide changes will be difficult. That most positions of power are occupied by men who are used to the status quo and, knowingly or otherwise, have benefited from it will be another hurdle.

A union is one possible solution, but attempts to unionize pro wrestling have historically met resistance from companies and passivity from top stars. It's a slow and costly process to form a new union for an entire industry, especially if those who oppose it have more financial resources and want to keep the status quo that has kept them in power for so long.

The pro wrestling community can be a place of happiness and inspiration, but it is not perfect. These problems should be a concern to everyone. We can be better together.


The United States has laws in every state related to cyberbullying, but they have done little to stop the spread of hateful messages online. You can visit Cyberbullying.org to see which laws apply in your state. 

If you have experienced cyberbullying yourself, there are resources available to help you whether it is through therapy or other means. RAINN and other organizations provide services for victims of sexual abuse. 

If you are suffering from depression because of harassment, cyberbullying or any other reason, please take care of yourself and seek help. It may not always seem like it, but there will always be somebody who is willing to listen and offer you support. 

If you know somebody who is suffering, do what you can to support them. Sometimes, all it takes is for one person to show they care to make a difference in somebody else's life. 

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