Sports swearing survey shows suspicious sex-separation

We are told by the Studies™ That Show that swearing when you stub your toe or bang your knee on a coffee table actually helps ease the pain. Per BBC, “swearing helps us downplay being hurt in favour of a more pain-tolerant machismo.” (BBC News, “Swearing ‘helps to reduce pain,’” 07.13.2009).

We also know that competitive sports are stressful. Committing an error or a turnover in a situation in which you’ve poured many hours practicing not making errors, in a situation where other people have invested time and money to ensure you don’t screw up, is, well, painful. Conversely, hitting a clutch shot, making a game-saving defensive play or putting a defender on skates feels like sitting triumphantly on a very high mountain. Both pain and joy merit vocal reactions; the more sensational the experience, the more extreme the expression. Swearing helps with pain, and sports sometimes = pain. What, then, is the relationship between swearing and sports? I surveyed 134 athletes from 13 of Vassar’s varsity teams to see how they expressed themselves on the field, court or diamond.

I was interested in the use of swearing in games, but also the discipline players had faced as a result of their language, and how they felt about referees’ power to censor expression in the heat of the moment. The three relevant questions were, in order: Do you swear on the field/court (out of frustration, excitement, pain, etc.)? Has a referee ever disciplined you or given you a warning for what you said on the court/ field? Do you think referees should be able to discipline players for swearing?

The responses were illuminating, particularly across gender and sport lines. Overall, 75 percent of the athletes surveyed said they swear in games. 71 percent, though, said they have never been disciplined for anything they said in a game. 59 percent said that referees should be able to discipline players for swearing. (It bears mentioning that the answer choices were limited to yes/no despite the appearance of “depends on the situation” in the question itself.)

Taking a closer look at the responses highlights more interesting trends. Of the 134 respondents, 54 percent play for a men’s team, 46 percent for a women’s team. Of the male respondents, 89 percent said they swear in games. Only 58 percent of the women said they do the same.

The response to disciplinary history also displayed a striking gender contrast: 35 percent of the men’s players have been disciplined for their verbal expression; just 19 percent of women said they have been flagged.

Given the gender-based discrepancies in players’ experiences with swearing, the response to the question of whether referees should be able to discipline players for swearing is perhaps not surprising: 46 percent of men said yes, compared to 75 percent of women. Men in the survey swear over 50 percent more often than women, and are disciplined nearly twice as often. That women are over 60 percent more likely than men to endorse referees penalizing a player for swearing is correlated to their respective experiences with swearing in games.

Other interesting nuances emerged across sport lines as well as gender divides. The team with the most common disciplinary history was men’s basketball, with a notable 90 percent of respondents saying they had been disciplined. This is notable, though it may speak more to the nature of the sport than the respondents: With only 10 players on the court, all of whom are in close proximity to at least one referee, it’s essentially impossible to say something explicit without an official overhearing.

Not one member of women’s lacrosse or field hockey responded that they had been disciplined, which may speak to the fact that play stops less often than in basketball, where ample opportunity is provided to flex on, taunt or otherwise address an opponent (or teammate or official). Also relevant is the fact that just 28 percent of respondents from the aforementioned women’s teams swear in games, compared to 100 percent of men’s basketball players.

So, what do these numbers mean? The players’ responses are rooted in personal experience. Men swear a lot more than women, get disciplined for it more often and are less supportive of referees’ ability to levy that discipline. A simple question emerges, then: Why do women swear so much less in competition?

Answering this question is a job that, if done correctly and sensitively, would take a lot more than the 300-odd words I have left for this article. Maybe an article that highlights the difference in boundaries for men and women is redundant at Vassar. That said, the most obvious explanation, in broad terms, is about the difference in societal expectations across gender. Swearing is understood to be assertive and expressive of frustration and anger, emotions and qualities associated with masculinity. On the other hand, I expect that a survey about crying in sports would probably find women to be the more common practitioners; the connection would not be hard to find from those results to gender roles as they have been defined in this time and place.

The more interesting question, then, is whether this matters. If male and female athletes swore just as often as each other, would that point to a more equitable society? If women swore as often as men, would it mean that the strain of gender-based expectations was relaxed? And if equalizing matters, should it go down or up? Should men be taught to swear less in competition, or should women be encouraged to express themselves more fully? Why not both?

The issue of swearing in games is a vanilla proxy for the very real, foundational question of how we dismantle the gender-based expectations that have constricted humanity since its inception. This article is not supposed to or trying to answer that question. What is undeniable, though, is that gender matters when it comes to self-expression in Vassar athletics.


  1. I agree that this swearing phenomenon is in part due to social expectations for gender, but I think that an equally important factor, that progressive society tends to reject, is the underlying biological differences between males and females. These physical differences lead to behavioral differences. For example, when women are pregnant, they’re body releases a hormone that makes them have strong motherly feelings. Now of course this has nothing to do with cursing, but my point is that it is very possible for these behavioral differences to be caused by, at least in part, the biological differences between men and women. You may say well, of course it’s possible, that doesn’t mean it’s likely. However, I could say the same about social expectations causing this behavioral difference. In other words there’s no clear evidence for either explanation so we shouldn’t be favoring one or the other. That said, it’s possible that this evidence exists I’m just unaware of it. Do you know of any studies showing social expectations for gender causing behavioral differences like swearing?

    • Is it possible that velociraptors are actually the controlling force of America, controlling us all from an underground bunker in the LaBrea tar pits? You may say well, of course it’s possible, that doesn’t mean it’s likely. However, I could say the same about expecting studies that disprove all things that I don’t agree with to appear out of thin air. The field of sociology in its entirety can possibly help you find the evidence you’re looking for.

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