Reddit Removes Nude Photos of Women Athletes. Some Men Are Fuming.

Reddit has taken action after VICE World News revealed a disturbing subreddit dedicated to objectifying women Olympians.
tokyo 2020, olympics, sports, women, athletes, sexualizing, reddit, subreddit
Reddit relies on volunteer moderators to police the content it hosts, including sometimes objectionable photos and comments. Photo: Uwe Anspach/picture alliance via Getty Images

Reddit has moved to take down nipple-slip photos of women athletes and ban a forum after VICE World News reported on a subreddit dedicated to sexualized pictures of Olympians.

The removed forum, called SexyOlympics, was set up on Thursday in response to the removal of screenshots of women athletes’ breasts slipping out during water polo matches from a popular subreddit dubbed Oh-lympics.

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The moderator of Oh-lympics “has become a pussy and is now deleting the sexy posts,” the Reddit user who started SexyOlympics said in a post. “All posts here will be uncensored.” 

Both SexyOlympics, which quickly attracted some 300 subscribers, and its founder have since been banned. A notice said the subreddit was shut down “due to being unmoderated.”

The removal of the compromising photos of athletes and subsequent objection from some Redditors highlights the challenge for social media companies to address questionable content on their platforms.

The debate over content moderation on Reddit goes as far back as 2011, when the site banned “jailbait,” a subreddit for sexualized photos of young-looking women. The next year, in response to public pressure to crack down on objectionable content on the platform, the Reddit CEO at the time said the site stood for free speech and would not “censor things simply because they were distasteful.” 

Reddit has since created a list of content rules, including a ban on “sexual or suggestive content involving minors.”

A Reddit spokesperson last week told VICE World News that it forbids the posting of sexually explicit content of someone without their consent and it would review the content on Oh-lympics, which describes itself as a destination for “anything that makes you go ‘Oh’ or is sexually invigorating from the Olympic games.”

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The community moderator of the subreddit said a Reddit employee contacted him directly. 

“They recommend we have more moderators to make sure the content stays as it is, and doesn’t cross any lines. Besides that, there is no concern,” he said.

Reddit did not respond to further questions or confirm what action it has taken.

But on a platform left largely to self-moderation, setting the rules is one thing and enforcing them is another. 

The moderator of the Oh-lympics subreddit, who requested anonymity, told VICE World News that “involuntary pornography” or images of underage people are removed as soon as they are noticed and reported. Previously, photos of female gymnasts and other athletes under 18 have been posted and often deleted, although some pictures and videos of minor athletes remain accessible on the adult subreddit.

“Reddit is a community-based platform and relies on all users to make sure we have appropriate and good content,” said the moderator, who described himself as a small business owner and investor.

But what’s appropriate and good for the subreddit’s 237,000 members may be objectionable to others.

Started in 2012, the Oh-lympics subreddit is full of photos of women athletes, accompanied by sexualizing comments often focused on their butts and crotches. The images came from a range of sources, including the athletes’ own social media pages, YouTube videos posted by athletic clubs, and television broadcasts.

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“Nice curvy bum, and love that peek at her pussy mound in those tight shorts. Made me want to jerk off!” a user commented on a gif of a female Olympic volleyball player stretching last month.

“I hope they never change the outfits in this sport,” a user said in response to another recent post, an album of 20 photos showing the backsides of female Olympic runners competing in bikini bottoms. 

“Everybody knows you need to wear a thong to run fast!” another user commented. 

Tommy Merkel, a 35-year-old man who works as an admin supervisor and is active on Reddit, said subreddits that overtly sexualize women athletes are “very unnecessary.”

“I get it: Physically fit and toned athletes are great to look at, but they’re not doing anything sexual,” he told VICE World News. 

Merkel also questioned why women athletes were required to wear different uniforms from their male counterparts. 

“I’m not a woman, so I don’t know what is comfortable attire to do something physical in, but what is the difference between a bikini or tight athletic shorts? The shorts seem just fine from a freedom of movement perspective and give no advantage,” he said. 

Women athletes have pushed back against double standards in the clothing requirements for male and female players in certain sports. Last month, a team of Norwegian beach handball players wore shorts to protest the rules that women athletes of the sport must wear bikini bottoms (men can wear shorts that are “not too baggy”). The players were fined for flouting the requirement.

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In response to a list of questions from VICE World News about the sexualization of women athletes, the moderator of Oh-lympics said men, too, are sexualized—a refrain echoed by many subscribers of the subreddit—and argued that the community is being unfairly targeted for scrutiny.

But while both men and women athletes can be subject to uncomfortable sexual objectification, women in sports, as in other fields, have historically been disproportionately sexualized leading to dire consequences. 

In sports, men who are objectified are more often depicted as athletically competent, with little impact on their pay check or safety. Women who are sexualized, on the other hand, can face threats of increased violence both online and offline, suffer pay disparity, and are judged to be less intelligent or competent. Decades of research has also found that sexually objectifying content fuels body dissatisfaction, sexist beliefs, and tolerance of sexual violence toward women.

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“Women have always been at the mercy of the male gaze,” Lisa Carmen Wang, a Hall of Fame gymnast and four-time U.S. national champion, previously said of the double standards in sports. 

Pita Taufatofua himself, the Tongan flag-bearer known for baring his chest in the Olympic opening ceremony whom many have drooled over, understands this nuance. He said that while both men and women athletes are frequently sexualized in the public eye, there is an “imbalance” between their portrayal. Ultimately, he said, it should be up to athletes to decide how they’re seen.

For him, that means knowingly leveraging the attention he gets for his oiled chest to promote what he cares about, such as building free exercise facilities for children in Tonga and the Pacific.

“When I put up a charitable post, I put up a post of inspiration, the engagement rate is always a fraction of the shirtless guy,” Taufatofua told VICE World News. 

“I have a message that needs to get across to the world. And if it means that every so often I put up a shirtless post to get that message, to keep those people there, to get that message across, to help someone… Then I’m willing to do that.”

In contrast, the photos on Oh-lympics are posted without athletes’ consent, including screenshots from broadcasts that show wardrobe mishaps. Despite this, the moderator of Oh-lympics rejected the notion that the subreddit contributes to the objectification of women athletes, claiming the purpose of the community is to appreciate “talented and determined people.”

“Most Olympians have spent their whole life training their bodies and minds to be the best at what they do, and the end result are incredibly fit, both mentally and physically, people. All Oh-lympics does is create a space for people to share and view these impressive people,” he said. 

However, even some of the subreddit’s followers have ridiculed him for “not owning up to liking physical beauty.”

One user said, “Seriously, no one’s here to admire a certain athlete’s incredible willpower and determination. They’re here to see how a girl’s ass looks in a gymnastics suit.”

Follow Hanako Montgomery on Twitter and Instagram.