Endometriosis, sexual harassment and the Olympics – what’s the connection?

Women with endometriosis go through a lot of physical pain, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Medical gaslighting, body-shaming, infertility and sexism are just a few of the additional stresses that endometriosis sufferers have to endure – and that’s on top of the extra pressures that women have to put up with, when they work in a competitive environment. 

When a woman with endometriosis finally puts her foot down and says she’s not prepared to take it anymore, whether “it” is general sexism, being dismissed or belittled by the medical profession or harassment, it’s because she’s able to trust her own experiences, even though the world loves to tell her that she can’t. Sadly though, these moments of truth can also be written off as an overreaction.

Sexism in sport and everyday life

Double Olympic medalist swimmer Maddie Groves, who has endometriosis and adenomyosis, made headlines around the world recently, when she pulled out of the Tokyo Olympic games days before the event. Her withdrawal appeared to be a sensational protest against sexism in the sport. Citing “all misogynistic perverts in sport” and “medical gaslighting” in her statement on Instagram, she said:

“You can no longer exploit young women and girls, body shame or medically gaslight them and then expect them to represent you so you can earn your annual bonus. Time’s up.”


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A post shared by Maddie Groves (@mad_groves)

Speaking of gaslighting – several newspapers have focused on the “misogynistic perverts” part of her statement, connecting it with a single incident she mentioned on Twitter in 2020, rather than alluding the overall culture of sexism, and abuses of power in sport that are increasingly coming to light. There are many high-profile cases for the press to refer to, such as the UK’s football coach scandal concerning the abuse of boys, and involved over 80 coaches, or world-famous gymnast Simone Biles personal statements about being abused, along with hundreds of other athletes, by a high-profile doctor. There is little mention of these incidents to give context to Maddie’s Instagram post, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that Maddie’s “outburst” could be directly traced back to November 2020, when she Tweeted about a person she worked with behaving inappropriately towards her while she was in her swimming costume. However, the phrase “all misogynistic perverts in sport and their bootlickers” in the context of allegations, investigations and prosecutions of professionals, is clearly a reference to the culture of protecting abusers in sport. 

The Larry Nassar case, where a high-profile doctor was convicted for abusing female athletes for many years, is only the most well-known example. US swimming for example, is full of incidents of sexual abuse and misconduct towards minors. In 2018 the Orange County Register published a damning article about USA Swimming’s unwillingness to deal with this issue of abuse of young swimmers.

“USA Swimming repeatedly missed opportunities to overhaul a culture within American swimming where the sexual abuse of underage swimmers by their coaches and others in positions of power within the sport was commonplace and even accepted by top officials and coaches, according to the documents and interviews with sexual abuse survivors, former Olympians, USA Swimming officials, safe sport advocates and some of USA Swimming’s leading financial benefactors.”

The child sexual abuse, and the assault and bullying of young athletes that has long been rife in professsional sport, and the culture that protects such behavior is not a secret. So far swimming has not had a Larry Nassar moment, but could Maddie Groves tip the balance in favour of the victims this time? It’s unclear which individuals she is referring to in her Instagram post, but thanks to her sensational protest – sacrificing an opportunity she has both trained and undergone surgery for, we might be able to learn those names in the future, and prevent this type of situation from happening again in swimming.

What has this got to do with endometriosis?

Maddie Groves has made the connection between medical gaslighting and denying the experience of abuse victims very clear. In making this link, she has shown that women’s truth in sport can be too easily dismissed, and that women in sport can be intimidated and harassed because of their gender in many ways – including weaponising illnesses that exclusively affect people with womb tissue, in order to belittle or bully an athlete. Sufferers of endometriosis and adenomyosis have to battle against ignorance and dismissive opinions, and are routinely believed to be exaggerating or imagining their symptoms.

Victims of abuse can face a similar process of minimisation and gaslighting. A culture that routinely accepts a coach’s or doctor’s opinion and denial over an athletes lived experience and reality, puts young people in danger every day. This is why it’s important to support Maddie Groves- on her Instagram, in the comments on articles about her, and in real-life conversations with friends, family and colleagues. We’re leaving a supportive comment today, adding to the conversation and following her social media – are you?