"'This has nothing to do with you."
That was the jarring retort when CityNews reporter Shauna Hunt turned the camera on male soccer fans at a Toronto FC game on Sunday to ask why they were standing around and snickering at her.
Moments earlier, and just before Hunt's live news hit, a man had waltzed into her interview and uttered a vulgar slur into the microphone – "FHRITP," an obscene quip calling for the sexual violation of the female broadcaster. The shouting of the sentence began as an online prank in 2014, and grew into a regular occurrence that female television news reporters have come to dread, as men and even young boys will routinely interrupt them to scream it live on the air.
One of the smirking men explained to Hunt that the prank wasn't personal and that she should probably lighten up. Soccer fans in Britain do a lot worse to female newscasters, another added creepily.
By Tuesday, one of the fans had been fired from his job at Hydro One for violating the company's code of conduct, which includes a zero-tolerance policy on harassment. Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne tweeted her support for the journalists, stressing that the "prank" amounts to verbal assault and sexual harassment, on the job no less. Toronto police are reportedly consulting with the Crown attorney's office on possible charges; police in Kingston tweeted that such hecklers could potentially face a charge of causing disturbance. The men involved also face a minimum one-year ban from all games hosted by the Toronto FC soccer club and the other teams owned by parent company Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment. "We're appalled that this trend of disrespectful behaviour would make its way to our city, let alone anywhere near our stadium," an MLSE statement released Tuesday afternoon read.
The sexual harassment of female television reporters using this "crude trend" has been pervasive in North America since the stunt went viral a year and a half ago. Hunt said she's had obscenities hurled at her up to 10 times a day. Staff at CityNews recalled nine-year-old boys tittering the slur from schoolyards during their live hits (one reporter forced a kid to apologize). Others described men in suits tossing it their way. "It is just so upsetting and we really need it to stop," CityNews reporter Tammie Sutherland said, recounting a "grown man" who came at her twice to shout the sentence during her newscast.
When drivers aren't screaming the slur from the safety of their cars as they zip by (the preferred MO of catcallers), the reporters said men and boys tend to do it when they're in groups – at sporting events and even film premieres. Call it herd misogyny.
Online reaction has been largely appalled but, predictably, the story has also shifted into a polarized gender war, which tends to steamroll over any truly meaningful debate. Male defenders (and a handful of women backing the TFC bros) have downplayed the altercation, arguing that the public crucifixion and punishments do not fit the crime. And as the men face personal and professional fallout, their defenders have taken CityNews to task for wanting to find the men and interview them formally. Some have likened that search to "cyberbullying" and a "witch hunt," the preferred term any time women call men out.
Indeed, it would be dishonest to say that women (and men) aren't relishing the nosedive for these guys, and their Sunshine List-sized paycheques. (Then again, the men were looking for a public spotlight Sunday, even as one seemed strangely stunned that he was being filmed.)
But is it actually bullying to shame bullies? Or is it speaking up and refusing to be a bystander?
"There's an opportunity here to catalyze something and to move forward," said Todd Minerson, executive director of White Ribbon, an organization of men fighting to end violence against women and promote gender equality. On Tuesday morning, White Ribbon and MLSE struck a partnership to start changing sexist behaviour at games.
"In addition to security changes and banning the perpetrators, there's also a bigger conversation around how to change the social norms at sporting events," said Minerson, hoping to harness a zero-tolerance culture around sexism. "MLSE could be so powerful at doing this with all of their athletes and celebrities."
Minerson says change starts with raising awareness that, beyond a "grotesque sexualization of women," slurs such as FHRITP constitute sexual harassment. "It causes harm to the people that experience it," Minerson says. "It sets a terrible set of social norms to the people who witness it."
Large-scale change also means challenging toxic norms: "Instead of three guys standing there waiting to watch it happen and have a laugh, we'd love to see three guys intervening and standing up for the reporter or calling security," he said.
While the question for many women tweeting their indignation about the slur has been, "How is this funny?", the real question should be why is it so widespread, and what does it offer the men who do it?
In public spaces, "it's about putting women back in their 'place.' It's a power thing: it's about bullying and intimidation," said Alicia Versteegh, co-director of Hollaback Toronto, an organization that fights street harassment.
Versteegh said that for women who have suffered sexual trauma in the past, street harassment or being yelled at while you're on the job, can be a triggering experience. Even though the slurs can fill women with rage, many will stay silent for fear of escalation: "They do a mini-risk assessment every time it happens." She says everyday sexism like this has been normalized because it's so regular. Her fix? "You really need to start in the classroom and talk about consent."
As for the idea that FHRITP is "not personal" or has "nothing to do with" the women it's spat at? Minerson says this is a diminishing technique that serves to belittle women and distances perps from personal responsibility.
"If one of these perpetrators was sitting at his own desk on a conference call and a stranger came up and yelled some derogatory male equivalent, would they feel it wasn't personal?"