Ryan Harwood: “I loved playing football, but the football world didn’t seem to love me back.”

When I was 13 I joined my first decent side as an outfield player. It was a change going from a team that had a kickabout for training to one where things were taken more seriously. The focus was very much on fitness, particularly in our warm-ups. We’d run around the pitch with different exercises to do at certain points around the pitch.

To begin with they were simple ones like press and sit-ups, but as the season went on our manager started to teach us new ones. Glute bridges are a great exercise for hip, core, glute, and back strength. I remember when our manager first got us to do them, he called them hip thrusts. Of course, they were great for our football strength, our manager had said, but where hip thrusts really help is in the bedroom – with your girlfriend. The discomfort I felt has stuck with me every time I do a glute bridge. For my sins and hip injuries, I have to do them every day.

In big groups I tend to stick to the outer-edges until I feel more comfortable. I loved playing at this side, but I never truly felt integrated. I could perform on the pitch, but couldn’t off it. After my first season, sex became the main topic of conversation outside of football. Before, during, and after every session.

I couldn’t contribute to any of these conversations – I didn’t know how. Even at 14 half the team seemed to have their own story and the other half were on the verge of having their own story. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realised that not everyone would have been telling the truth, but as a teenager with no experience I had no reason to doubt them.

It made me feel so out of place, that there was this major component of our football world that I had no connection too. I knew that not having sex in my early teens wasn’t a big deal, but it sure felt that way when I was at football. Especially because of the homophobia that surrounded a lack of sex. If someone admitted to not having had sex or having a girlfriend, they would be the butt of homophobic jokes. Even not being interested in a specific girl who was deemed to be attractive meant you were gay.

They were the only two options: gay or straight. It’s no wonder that people would exaggerate their own stories when being seen as gay in any way meant you’d be ribbed and abused about it. I knew there wasn’t anything wrong with being gay, but it did seem like there was something wrong with not being straight in football.

Eventually I left that side to play at a higher level. Our training sessions were more serious. We were expected to do fitness in our own time, training was for tactics. For me, this was great. Not only was I improving, but I didn’t feel the need to try and perform off the pitch.

That was until my first home game. I’d never been at a side where we used changing rooms. It was a bit of a culture shock, but I could deal with it after I got comfortable in the corner seat. Before the game was generally okay, we’d get changed from our tracksuits to warm-up, then come back in to have our team-talk.

There wasn’t much socialisation, at least on my part – I would get anxious before games, so my focus was entirely on football. In all honesty, I probably wasn’t capable of any much socialisation. But after the game there was a different set of expectations.

Following the post-match rant from the managers, the football side of the day was over. The team were left to our own devices. And football was no longer on the agenda. Before the managers even left the room, the team were talking about girls. Even being just one year older, the talk was all the more graphic. And all the more constant.

The older we got, the more left behind I felt. I’d never had any romantic relationships and was even further away from having sex. I thought something was wrong with me because I hadn’t had sex and hadn’t really wanted to. Even though I didn’t like this sort of talk, I could cope with it – sink into my corner of the changing room and not have to get involved.

What made my skin crawl was the way some of the team talked about some of the girls. It was as if they were just objects. I remember one of my teammates trying to stick up for his girlfriend when the others were talking about her, but his defence and discomfort only spurred them on to push their ‘jokes’ further and be more extreme.

I felt so guilty, sitting with a bunch of guys and not standing up against their misogyny. I’ve heard what goes on in locker rooms and ‘locker room talk’ is not just harmless.

My first stint at university was at a place in the middle of nowhere, so the uni team I joined was only playing in a local league instead of travelling a few hours for even the closest uni opposition. With the team playing in an adult league and the players ranging from me as the youngest 18-year-old up to our captain who was 24 and doing his PhD. It all felt a lot more mature.

People still spoke about sex, but it was a lot less constant. And when people did talk about it I felt a lot more comfortable. At the time I had a girlfriend and I think people assumed that meant we were sexually active. Even though we weren’t, and our relationship was brief, not being single for while was enough of an answer to satisfy any questions before they were asked.

Though the bravado was still there. The constant one-upmanship about teenage sexual exploits had been replaced by alcohol, and who could drink the most. Every social we had was about drinking… To excess. We even had to have a drink after every game to avoid a forfeit. It was a change that suited me and allowed me to feel integrated into a team.

It naturally took a lot to get me drunk and the social anxiety of teenage parties meant I had more than enough practice when it came to binge drinking. But I still felt an element of discomfort. There was still an oppressive culture that meant you couldn’t opt out, just swapping sex and misogyny for the arguably more dangerous alcohol. Even if you didn’t want to drink, you had to.

I know that some of the team struggled with having to drink so often and having no opportunity to say no. Even though it helped me socially, it still wasn’t good for me. All it did was mask my struggles with social interactions, which made alcohol seem a good way of helping me in other social situations – in no way addressing the actual social issues I was struggling with.

I’m now 21, identify as asexual and will have been sober for a year on November 26th. When I look back, I realise just how toxic many of my footballing environments were.

It’s not that talking about sex is a bad thing. In fact, I think we need to talk about sex and sexuality a lot more – if we did, I might have heard the term asexual before I turned 19. The problem arises when talk of sex is coupled with heteronormativity, toxic masculinity, and misogyny.

It creates such a hostile environment for anyone who doesn’t fit in. Which, in turn, creates a cycle that keeps pushing out anyone who doesn’t conform and reaffirming to those who do that some of these toxic behaviours are okay – making it an even less inviting environment for those who don’t accept how it is.

Having such intense and combative heteronormativity made it all but impossible to accept that we might want to explore our sexuality, especially at such a confusing age. It also reinforced the idea that sex was essential which definitely prevented me from realising my sexuality sooner.

For so long people had been talking about sex that when I did find the term asexual it took me a while to accept that it could apply to me. Football was one of the most important parts of my life growing up but the culture that surrounded it made it all but impossible to find out anything about myself that didn’t conform to their norms.

I loved playing football, but the football world didn’t seem to love me back.

Written by Ryan Harwood, FvH Youth Panel Educations Officer