The Scallywag video may not have been offensive, but the storm it provoked could still be damaging. The lads banter culture will have to change

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Was the infamous Scallywag ‘breakfast show’ video offensive? To my mind, no. I watched it the day it was published, cringed slightly, then clicked onto the next.

My personal offence barometer has been calibrated by seasons spent racing with all-male sailing teams when I was younger, where some crews’ humour would make Witty and Hayles’ breakfast show look as innocent as Blue Peter.

Does that mean I’ve been conditioned to accept inappropriate comments? Not at all. There are plenty of things that rile me as unacceptable and I would call out, it’s just that I don’t happen to find a puerile joke about rubbing ointment on genitals offensive. And that is where most people’s interest in the ‘breakfast show’ would normally have ended. Willy gags: funny or not funny? Laugh, eye roll or ignore, then move on.

But the Scallywag video was published just as every news headline ran stories of sexual harassment, from the Houses of Parliament to Hollywood to sports. The #metoo campaign prompted everyone to reconsider just what they personally found acceptable.

The Scallywag Volvo Ocean Race crew, in their mid-Atlantic bubble, released a video that apparently showed a woman being questioned on how to rub cream onto her boss’s crotch. In that context, it looked like a glaring example of sexual harassment, and it was rightly challenged.

Some viewers felt that Annemieke Bes was the butt of the joke as the only woman onboard, and that is what rendered it unacceptable. Actually, on re-watching the video carefully, I’m not convinced gender comes into it.

There’s a mildly xenophobic joke about Bes as ‘Dr Cloggs’ being Dutch, but none of the humour is directed at her being female. She is scripted as a beard-wearing doctor, not a Carry On-style nurse. And it is the male ‘chin lords’, as skipper David Witt calls Tom Clout and Alex Gough, who are tasked with applying the imaginary ointment – Bes just has to tell them how. Except she can’t, because she is either too shocked, or laughing too hard, to speak – depending on your interpretation.

I’ve interviewed Witt a couple of times during this Volvo Ocean Race, and he’s made me laugh each time. Humour is a big part of his communication. He is also disarmingly direct, and you get the sense you would have to be a strong character to feel comfortable challenging him on anything important.

I don’t know Annemieke Bes, but I have heard Witt rate her highly as a professional sailor, a particularly fast driver, and as a good fit in the crew dynamic. I suspect she, like all the female sailors in the Volvo Ocean Race, is pretty badass and completely aware of what she was getting herself into.

Annemieke Bes on board Sun Hung Kai/Scallywag. Photo by Konrad Frost/Volvo Ocean Race

And it’s hearing that many of the female sailors in the race are upset about the ramifications of this that shows the damage this kind of incident does. I’m not offended somebody made a video with a scrotum quip in it, but am fed up that after just two legs of watching truly mixed crews competing in one of sailing’s grand prix events we seem to have gone right back to the beginning in the debate about whether women can fit in with male-dominated teams.

If one skipper or team boss or potential sponsor decides they can’t risk the reputational damage of a story like this, and they choose to remove that risk by sailing with an all-male rather than mixed crew, then both the video and what was clearly a ‘test case’ protest will have done damage to professional women’s sailing prospects.

These were unintended consequences. There was no precedent to suggest publishing this video would lead to a protest questioning whether two men on a boat in the middle of an ocean were bringing an entire sport into disrepute through a minute and a half of not very funny jokes.

There were no clues that this would escalate to a situation that ultimately saw a highly experienced professional stepping off a boat mid-campaign, tens of thousands of dollars spent on legal fees, and the possibility that an entire Volvo team might have to withdraw from the race if their skipper was banned from competing.

But that is why the lads banter culture has to change; people’s livelihoods are at stake. For years female sailors haven’t known what happens to their slot on the boat, or their next career move, if they put their hands up and say, ‘Hang on, I’m not comfortable with this.’ Now all sailors will have to consider whether their actions or comments might offend, and what the impact on them might be if they do.