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A Kiss Is Just a Kiss

The uproar over a fleeting outburst of uninhibited joy is ludicrous.

· 9 min read
A Kiss Is Just a Kiss
Sydney, Australia, August 20th 2023: Jenni Hermoso is kissed by president of the RFEF Luis Rubiales during the FIFA Womens World Cup 2023 Final football match between Spain and England at Stadium Australia in Sydney, Australia. Credit: SPP Sport Press Photo. /Alamy 

Editor’s note: As this essay was going to press, Luis Rubiales resigned as president of the Spanish soccer federation and vice-president of the Union of European Football Associations’ executive committee. The text has now been updated by the author to reflect these developments.

A split-second kiss during a soccer victory celebration last month ignited a political frenzy in Spain and a feeding frenzy in the global media. The target of that frenzy—Luis Rubiales, the president of Spain’s official soccer federation—resigned on Sunday, after weeks of protest against him. And with that decision, the possibility of a human future that still has a place for exuberance and common sense has taken a body blow.

On August 20th, Spain’s female soccer team won the Women’s World Cup in Australia. It was Spain’s first victory in that contest, and elation broke out on the field after the win. A reception line of dignitaries and sports functionaries greeted the players, many hugging and kissing. One player, Jennifer Hermoso, grabbed the president of Spain’s official soccer federation, Luis Rubiales, around the waist and lifted him off his feet as he laughed and shouted. When she let him down, they rocked back and forth in a mutual embrace. In rapid succession, he pecked her on the cheek while she patted him on his back, then he took her head in his hands, and planted an instantaneous kiss on her mouth. He immediately moved her head away from his, and still laughing and shouting, sent her down the receiving line with two loose-wristed thwacks on the back.

After Hermoso left the field, she streamed a live Instagram video of herself celebrating in the team locker room. She swigs from a champagne bottle and stuffs a chocolate cupcake in her mouth, while guffawing and smirking for her smartphone. Off camera someone asks what she thought of the kiss. Still laughing, she replies: “No me ha gustado, eh [I didn’t like it].” Footage also emerged of Hermoso and her teammates laughing about the incident on the team bus in front of Rubiales.

Spain’s feminists were less amused, and they started complaining that Hermoso had been sexually assaulted by Rubiales. For a while, Hermoso brushed off the allegation. In a statement sent to the Spanish news agency EFE, she wrote that the kiss was a “mutual gesture that was totally spontaneous prompted by the huge joy of winning a world cup. The ‘presi’ and I have a great relationship, his behavior with all of us has always been 10 [out of 10] and this was a natural gesture of affection and gratitude.” The feminists continued to flog the sexual assault claim, and Hermoso continued to reject it: “I wish they created [controversy] involving someone else, I’m a world champion and that’s what matters,” she told COPE radio.

Rubiales, a former soccer player himself, issued his own take on the incident. “The moment Jenni showed up, it was she who lifted me from the floor, who held my hips, my legs, I can't remember so clearly. She lifted me up, we almost fell down, and when she put me back on the floor we hugged," he said at a news conference. The kiss with Hermoso? “There are idiots everywhere,” he said, according to Radio Marca. “When two people have a minor show of affection that means nothing more, you can’t listen to idiocy. We are the champions, that’s it.” On Friday, August 25th, Rubiales told an emergency meeting of the Spanish soccer federation that he was the victim of a “witch hunt” by “false feminists.” The federation gave him a standing ovation.

Then Hermoso discovered that, appearances notwithstanding, she had in fact been traumatized by the incident. In a statement posted to Twitter on the same day Rubiales addressed the soccer federation, she wrote:

The situation was a shock for me, in the context of the celebration and with the passing of time and analyzing in more detail those initial feelings, I feel the need to denounce this act as I believe no person in their work, sporting or social environment should be the victim of this kind of nonconsensual behaviour. I felt vulnerable and the victim of assault, an impulsive, macho act which was out of place and with no consent on my behalf. Simply put, I was not respected. I was asked to make a joint statement to reduce the pressure on the president, but at that time my mind was only on enjoying the historic achievement together with my teammates. That's why I told the RFEF [the Spanish soccer federation], as well as the media and people close to me, that I didn't want to make any kind of individual or collective statement on this matter.

On Saturday, August 26th, the federation issued a statement of its own accusing Hermoso of lying and promising to bring as many legal actions as required to defend Rubiales’s honor. But Spain’s government was now in full cry. The kiss was the “kind of sex violence” which all Spanish women suffer daily and which was “until now invisible,” the acting minister of Gender Equality Irene Montero wrote on Twitter. The acting Social Rights Minister Ione Belarra asked: “If they do that with all of Spain watching, what might they do privately?” Labor Minister Yolanda Diaz denounced the “structural machismo of this country,” which she claimed had been on display during the soccer federation’s August 25th emergency assembly.

In response to Gender Equality minister Montero’s accusation of “sexual violence,” Rubiales threatened a defamation suit against her and other politicians. The storm gathered force over that weekend. FIFA, soccer’s international governing body, “provisionally suspended” Rubiales from all “football-related activities” for 90 days. The female team announced a strike unless Rubiales was removed. Several male Spanish soccer players criticized Rubiales, with at least one joining the anti-Rubiales boycott. On Monday, August 28th, Spanish prosecutors announced a criminal investigation of Rubiales for sexual assault and invited Hermoso to file a criminal complaint. (She did so on Tuesday, September 5th.) Obscure Spanish sports bodies initiated removal proceedings in equally obscure sports courts.

Just two days after the soccer federation’s defense of Rubiales, the group apologized for what it now called the “totally unacceptable behavior of its highest representative during the final and in the subsequent moments, which did not in any way reflect the values of the whole of Spanish society, their institutions, their representatives, their athletes and the leaders of Spanish sport.” The international press, including conservative outlets, piled on. Britain’s Daily Mail, for example, called the day of the “forcible” kiss “one of the ugliest” in Spanish football.

American soccer associations naturally deployed the academic rhetoric of “safety.” “No player should ever be subjected to what Jenni Hermoso endured,” announced the US Soccer Federation. “Player safety should be the highest priority, and we call on everyone in the global soccer community to affirm this fundamental right.” US women’s team member Alex Morgan tweeted that “winning a World Cup should be one of the best moments in these players’ lives but instead it’s overshadowed by assault, misogyny, and failures by the Spanish federation.” American soccer players have taken to wearing pro-Hermoso armbands and carrying anti-misogyny banners.

Abandoned by his former allies (except his mother, who staged an abortive hunger strike which she had intended to continue until Hermoso admitted to her “lies”), Rubiales remained defiant. As well he should have. The #MeToo movement and its international offshoots are destroying normal human life, which consists (for now at least) in male-female interactions.

There was nothing sexual about the split-second kiss; it was a spontaneous expression of joy. Rubiales’s lips were closed, and the kiss had no predatory aftermath. As soon as Rubiales greeted the next player coming down the reception line, he lost awareness of Hermoso. Spain’s Social Rights minister had adduced the kiss’s public nature as evidence of the shamelessness of Spain’s anti-female culture. It is precisely that public nature that rendered the idea that this was a sexual assault even more absurd.

Hermoso’s statement that she felt “vulnerable and the victim of assault” was not credible. Her post-victory Instagram video showed no signs of trauma. Loud-mouthed, tattooed, and self-assured, this woman is no shrinking Victorian violet in need of a fainting couch. (To be sure, the US campus-rape bureaucracy holds that female college students can decide long after the fact that a drunken hook-up was in fact a rape. That license for self-serving revisionism is now apparently widespread.)

The media invariably labelled the kiss as “forcible.” They could as well have described Hermoso’s levitating grasp of Rubiales the same way. In fact, Rubiales exercised no force to give her the kiss. Many Europeans kiss acquaintances on a routine basis; only the number and sequence of those kisses differ from one nation to the next. To plant a kiss fleetingly on the lips in such a celebratory context is hardly a significant departure from cultural norms.

And it is the context here that is most important in judging the ensuing fury. Many people on that field were in a state of near delirium. Other photos from the moment show Rubiales carrying a laughing female player over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes and the team’s coach, Jorge Vilda, being hoisted horizontally aloft by a row of female players as he shouts and pumps a fist. Animal spirits were the order of the day. In such an environment, a little flexibility was called for. (Vilda was ousted from his coaching position as a preliminary sacrifice, with observers invoking his alleged controlling behavior towards players and a “culture of sexism.” That sexism is supposedly manifested in the lower pay-scale for female soccer players, which undoubtedly reflects differential gate receipts and sponsorships.)

Hermoso was not “disrespected” by a macho culture; all the supposed male chauvinist pigs on the field were as ecstatic about a female triumph as they would have been about a male win. In only one sense can one attribute a sexual element to the kiss: Rubiales would not have planted a fleeting kiss on a male player’s lips. It was, to that extent, sexually coded. But a latent current of sexual recognition runs through many interactions between males and females. That is the human condition. Any female with any sense of proportion would have brushed off the moment as a never-to-be-repeated outburst of uninhibited joy.

Feminism, however, cannot tolerate toleration. It is a brittle ideology, unforgiving of human foibles. In order to maintain female grievance in a world increasingly dominated by females, it requires rigid enforcement of draconian rules that condemn males as unrepentant aggressors. To convince coddled Western females that they are always and everywhere unsafe, feminist complaint requires the inflation of minor misdeeds into major transgressions. Females are allegedly so tough that they are fit to serve cheek-by-jowl with males in military combat units. Yet they also claim fragility, vulnerability, and weakness. Which is it?

Long after an American or a Brit would have caved, Rubiales stood up for a world that is all but gone. Even he, however, could not hold out. “After my swift suspension by FIFA, and the rest of the cases building against me, it is clear that I cannot return to the post,” he announced on Sunday. In the successor world to the one that Rubiales was defending, spite and vengeance have replaced perspective and understanding. That is not a world in which anyone should want to live.

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