Words by Simon Edwards, Comment Online Editor
TW Sexual Assault, Violence
It’s an odd time to be a fan of content creators. The ubiquity of access to their private lives makes it all the easier to form tighter and tighter emotional bonds with them – Instagram, TikTok and Twitter blur the social barriers so effectively that we, simple meat creatures responding to stimuli, can’t help but forget that these people aren’t as close to us as they seem.
That closeness of connection isn’t all bad, and fan culture is hardly new – trust me, I’ve seen my mum watching Sparks and Barry Manilow, stans have nothing on her. But the closeness we feel with celebrities these days has very damaging emotional consequences, especially when content creators let you down. It might just be a badly worded statement warranting an apology, or a deep-seated belief that you grimace at but ultimately push through because hey, opinions are opinions. But in a post-MeToo world that is increasingly resolute in supporting victims and exposing abusers to the harsh light of the public eye, there is the ultimate betrayal of discovering that someone whose work you love has perpetrated truly repulsive acts. It’s an emotional gut-punch with which I am increasingly familiar.
It’s an odd but fundamentally true statement that I would not be writing this article today if it wasn’t for the British independent wrestling scene. If I hadn’t started watching WWE during college, fallen in love with the pomp, theatrics and hard knocks of its beautifully weird art and subsequently discovered a vibrant, underground wrestling scene hidden across the UK, I would not be the man I am today. Through wrestling I travelled the length of the country and beyond, met incredible people, bought eye-wateringly ugly merch that I wore without irony, found my confidence and grew from a sheltered teenager into something akin to a man. The camaraderie and joy of wrestling and the friends who I made through it gave me a new lease on life which I cherished more than anything. You can appreciate therefore how much it hurt, and hurts, when it all fell apart.
The Speaking Out movement, as it came to be known, was wrestling’s MeToo moment, and it excoriated the entire scene without mercy. Beginning with one of independent wrestling’s biggest names, testimony from countless brave women and men highlighted a deep-rooted culture of sexual abuse and assault that implicated wrestlers and promoters from WWE all the way down to Riptide, the local Brighton promotion which I had been a fan of from its very first show. The scale of the implications was staggering, and as the number of perpetrators swelled, and a great many talents who were believed to be ‘the good ones’ were implicated, the bitter pill became increasingly hard to swallow.
Speaking Out happened during COVID, when independent wrestling promotions were already struggling to maintain interest and solvency until lockdowns ended – the two in tandem were blows too great for many to bear, and the scene just about collapsed. Fans demanded change, promoters tried to salvage what they could or, like Riptide, closed their doors indefinitely in disgust or horror at what had been happening behind-the-scenes, and which they had failed to prevent. Promises of improvements and welfare advances were made, even Parliament got involved, but for many it was too late.
I was quite fortunate in a way that Speaking Out fell during a period when, thanks to my year abroad, I was quite detached from British wrestling already: my interest had waned with the distance and other than missing my friends (and Riptide), I was essentially disconnected from the scene, and COVID didn’t help matters either. In spite of this distance, Speaking Out was one of the most painful, numbing periods of my life. Many of my friends were among the brave ones who pointed fingers at their abusers, and others silently added to the affirming masses. Finding out that a wrestler whose hand you’ve shaken, merch you’ve bought and triumphs you’ve cheered has raped one of your friends is, to put it mildly, a hammer blow; finding out more than once doesn’t make it any easier.
It’s hard to talk about the feelings that these events generated because frankly, my feelings aren’t what matter in the grand scheme – it’s about the victims, not the bystanders. With that said, it was a horrendous series of revelations that continue to affect me deeply, and maybe by talking about them it will help others who have to go through similar events.
The closeness of niche communities and scenes are among the most emotionally confusing to unpack. They are hotbeds of micro-power dynamics and hierarchies that mean nothing outside a few thousand people, but everything to those few. The wrestlers who I supported weren’t as distant as movie stars or musicians I love, they were right there, shaking hands and having beers after the show with fans. I cared about their careers and hoped they achieved great things, forming emotional bonds that bordered on the personal. That’s the world we live in now – creators can feel close enough to us that we form parasocial bonds, and it hurts badly when they break.
I feel tremendous guilt for not helping friends who suffered, as if I could’ve somehow stopped events I had no knowledge of, by talking to wrestlers who had no idea who I was as if I were talking down a close personal friend. I am disgusted with myself for supporting financially scores of performers who abused their positions of power in a community packed with vulnerable people for their own perverse pleasures. I am, ultimately, bereft of a space and a pastime that helped mould the person I am today, but which I have essentially burnt from my memories like a Soviet editor with a cigarette lighter. I am grateful and proud of the people who came forward and broke the cycle, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss the ignorant bliss – that might be the most shameful part of the whole thing.
And sadly, it continues. In the last month two content creators who I drew on heavily to get through the pandemic were outed as sex tourists with rape convictions or emotionally neglectful scumbag boyfriends. Means of comfort and safety are constantly scraped away, and it gets that much harder to trust as my skin grows a little thicker. I hope that your favourite creators don’t have dark sides, especially the ones you feel close to, but I think at this point it is somewhat inevitable that at least one will let you down. When they do, acknowledge the hurt you feel, it’s to be expected, but please don’t let the pain fuel denial.
British wrestling carries on, incidentally, but I will never go back. The final lesson it taught me, I suppose, is how to let things go.