Have you ever had a sweaty, bleeding man who punches people for a living, high on testosterone and toxic masculinity, unexpectedly grab you and force a kiss on you while you were just trying to do your job? If not, you're luckier than reporter Jenny SuShe, who was trying to interview Bulgarian boxer Kubrat Pulev after a match and was subjected to what looked to me (and a lot of other people) like sexual assault.
The video of the incident makes for uncomfortable viewing. Pulev towers over SuShe, who seems to be trying to lean away from him. She asks a few questions and after answering the final one he grabs her by the head, forces his mouth against hers and walks away, leaving her alone on camera to mask her reaction and laugh nervously. "OK, thank you!" she concludes, clearly flustered.
SuShe has said the incident was "embarrassing" and "strange", which – as a viewer – feels like something of an understatement. Yet despite some backlash, Pulev refuses to apologise, and the reasons he gives for why his actions are acceptable are astonishing. He says she's "a friend", that he was "elated", and that later on that say she joined him for a celebration. It remains unclear how any of these things excuse sexual assault.
It is of course disturbing to see a woman be forced into what appears to be unwanted sexual contact, but there's something particularly despicable about it happening to her at her place of work.
Women continue to struggle across the world to receive equal recognition, pay and treatment to men in the workplace. This becomes especially so in traditionally male-dominated environments, of which sports reporting remains one.
Despite the desire to blame women for this inequality, suggesting we should just "lean in", wear more masculine clothes or ask for more pay rises (none of which have been shown to make a noticeable difference), the real issue is the consistent denigration of work done by women, which in turn stems from their constant objectification.
We have been socialised to judge women first and foremost on their appearance and sexual appeal. This plays out in the constant policing of women's bodies – a barrage of media messaging which judges all high profile women by the "flaunting" of their extremities, the endless discussion about their outfits, the policing of their reproductive rights and their subsequent ability to achieve a "bikini body", "post-baby body" or "red-carpet body" which conforms to arbitrary standards set by men for the male gaze.
What Pulev did to SuShe is the epitome of this kind of sexist messaging: he took a woman who was doing her job and not only asserted his power over her, but completely devalued her as a person in a professional capacity, turning her into nothing but an object for his sexual desire.
It's important to note that SuShe appears to be of Asian descent. The historic and enduring fetishisation of south-east Asian women makes this incident even more problematic. In the west there is a continuing representation of Asian women as a stereotypically demure yet highly sexualised token for male appreciation. We can trace this back to the late 19th century and the hugely popular novel Madame Butterfly, where the main character travels to Japan to find a wife who is a “little, creamy-skinned woman with black hair and cat’s eyes. She must be pretty and not much bigger than a doll.”
This sexist and racist perception of Asian women has endured since, apparent in pop culture ranging from Anna May Wong in the 1930s and 40s to present day, when Asian women are still largely relegated to characters which are exaggeratedly submissive or sexualised – often with a random brightly coloured streak of hair to boot.
In an article on Everyday Feminism, Rachel Kuo writes: “Being fetishised, exoticised, and sexualised as geishas, china dolls, lotus blossoms, and dragon ladies to being perceived as ‘model minorities’ and also ‘perpetual foreigners’. These stereotypes leveraged against East Asian women have been normalised, just like rape culture. These tropes can be found in representations in media, comments that harass us sexually and racially, and ways we’re constructed via laws and policy.”
Actor Constance Wu, who starred in 2018’s Crazy Rich Asians, the first Hollywood film in 25 years to feature an all-Asian cast, called out this pathological fetishisation at last year’s Women’s March. Scores of women of Asian descent have shared their experiences of online dating and being met with racist objectification. There’s even a meme about it.
Against this backdrop of racist and misogynistic objectification, Pulev’s actions appear even more reprehensible, and his explanation even more vacuous. Last year, boxing promotional company Top Rank signed him in a multi-year deal, and he has more fights coming up. Horrifyingly, he may even benefit financially from the coverage his despicable actions have received.
The boxing industry must act to show that his kind of abusive behaviour will not be tolerated, and that it will stand up for women like SuShe, who deserve to exist in this space and feel safe, not be humiliated and degraded on camera, and forced to laugh it off.