Circus News

Flying Trapeze Won’t Make Women Infertile: How Victorian-era Infertility Myths Are Still Plaguing Modern Day Athletes

The first time I was told that my career as a female flying trapeze catcher would make me infertile my response was, “That is the stupidest fucking thing I have ever heard.” It was said to me by a fellow female catcher in Los Angeles. As her face fell I realised that she was not regurgitating a sexist and absurd myth for us to both mock but was in fact genuinely concerned about the impact catching would have on her future fertility. 

Before continuing with this piece I want to stress that I am addressing this myth not because it has a scientific leg to stand on but because it comes from a long history of medical pseudoscience being weaponised to cull the physical potentiality of women, both in and out of circus and sport. Myths like this one, and the culture that has supported them to the point of other women buying into them as gospel, are as ludicrous as they are harmful. They have deep-seated roots in misogyny, utilising a culturally learned feminine helplessness as a tool of keeping women in a subordinate societal role. They rely on fear, poor understanding of the reproductive system, and outdated views on the biological differences between the sexes, and they have no place in modern-day circus.

The exact origins of this particular myth are unknown; the furthest back I have been able to track it is twenty years prior on the Club Med scene. Flying trapeze catcher Jessica Niven told me about her experience hearing about this myth during her time working on the circuit: “It always came from my circus managers (who all happened to be men), who didn’t want me tonot catch – in fact the opposite; they seemed genuinely concerned for my well-being. It was just something they’d heard from those who came before them and they didn’t have the audacity or common sense to question it.” Niven, who gave birth to her first child in June 2021 after continuing to train throughout her pregnancy, is a shining example that embracing and even excelling in traditional ‘male’ roles in circus threaten only the status quo. 

Infertility myths are not rare in sport; in fact, they appear often whenever women have tried to push boundaries in their physicality.

It has been three years since I was first told about this myth, and while I have brought it up numerous times to colleagues, I have yet to hear solid reasoning for why anyone would believe it as fact. I am not alone in being a female catcher to whom no one can explain this to. “Every time I asked for proof I was met with a blank shrug,” says Niven. And yet, the myth lives on. 

Infertility myths are not rare in sport; in fact, they appear often whenever women have tried to push boundaries in their physicality. In the 1800s, sport was a determiner of supposed superior status; and available mostly to those who were white, wealthy, male. Women on the whole were considered too weak to participate in any form of physical education. It wasn’t just societal barriers at play; medicine at the time backed up these myths, medically barring women from physical expression for their own reproductive protection. Physician Thomas Emmet advised in his 1879 medical textbook that girls “spend the year before and two years after puberty at rest.” This was due to the onslaught of menstruation, which Victorian physicians believed weakened the female body to a point of disrepair. Vassar College went so far as to forbid female pupils from participating in any sort of physical activity during menstruation, including walking up and down flights of stairs. Parents of girls at this time were advised to only send their pubescent students to schools with no more than two storeys to avoid excessive physical strain reaching the classroom. Some Victorian-era physicians believed that the overly-active woman put herself at risk of “dislodging” the uterus, thus rendering her infertile. As outdated as this belief may sound, upon discussing the catching infertility myth a man responded in earnest that perhaps the dynamic load of the flyer could “upset the suspension of the womb.” This man has neither a medical or circus background, yet seemed very confident that he could explain supposed health risks to me with ease. 

Two women doing flying trapeze together
Morgan Barbour and partner catching at High Fly Trapeze in Oxfordshire

The cult of invalidism arose within the Victorian era, with women being actively encouraged to shrink themselves through corsetry and a ‘feminine’ (weakened) sedentary lifestyle. While it is easy to try to divorce our contemporary industry from images of swooning ladies in tight-laced dresses, it is important to remember that flying trapeze (invented in 1859) was coming onto the scene at the same time that doctors were prescribing the rest cure (mandatory bed rest for women without any sort of physical or intellectual stimulation) and diagnosing hysteria with ease. While we have made great strides from the days of fearing that the ‘weight of a sexually active performer’s sins would pull her to the ground’ (a particularly popular myth in 1800s France that was combated by promoting female circus artists as virginal and pure), a dislodged uterus from the vigorous activity of ascending a flight of stairs has heavy influence on contemporary ‘well intentioned’ warnings of catch lock infertility.  

If you keep a woman weak and afraid she will inevitably go on to be physically weaker, not because of her biological inferiority but because of her societal castigation. 

Sexual health was greatly tied to women’s learned frailty, landing women in a vicious cycle: if medicine claims that physical prowess will cause infertility, and women are socially expected to first and foremost bring about the next generation (with some white female athletes called race traitors by white supremacists who believed that women’s participation in sport would cull the growth of the white race at the turn of the twentieth century), women are almost certainly going to bow to society’s expectations and refrain from sport. This enters women into a world of learned helplessness and weakness; athleticism is a learned skill that requires practice and teaching. If you keep a woman weak and afraid she will inevitably go on to be physically weaker, not because of her biological inferiority but because of her societal castigation. 

Ironically, a 1996 study by the US Department of Health and Human Services found that adolescent girls who are active in sport are more likely to postpone their first sexual experience until later in life and were 33% less likely to experience teenage pregnancy. Active participation in sport has shown to help regulate menstruation and lessen psychological and physical distress associated with it. This stands in direct contrast with Victorian-era medicinal theories that exercise would exacerbate menstruation and damage a woman’s fertility.

Oestrogen and testosterone went on to replace Victorian-era gender myths.

Women found themselves more actively participating in sport and circus in the twentieth century, but not without strife, and certainly not without continuing to combat infertility myths backed up by since-disproven medicine. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (ACOG) drew up guidelines in 1985 for acceptable physical exercise during pregnancy. They stated that a woman’s resting heart rate should not exceed 140 bpm, her maternal core temperature should not exceed 38C, and all exercises performed in the supine position should be avoided after four months of gestation. These guidelines, published as fact with no supporting empirical data, were viewed as indisputable until 1994 when the ACOG issued a technical bulletin dismissing the claims. This was a turning point in how exercise was approached medically in relation to pregnancy and fertility, as doctors then began to suggest maintaining a healthy level of physical activity during full gestation to help combat insulin resistance, impaired glucose tolerance, lower back pain, and lower levels of anxiety and depression during pregnancy. Two years later, Uta Pippig won the Boston Marathon for the third time in a row, arriving across the finish line victorious and blood stained. Her period had begun mid-race and she had pushed on, despite ‘looking a mess,’ as one reporter described her. She ran to set a record (at the time no one had won the marathon three times in a row) but her refusal to be demure and quit despite overtly and publicly showing her menses was ultimately political. She could run while bleeding, something doctors a century before would have claimed impossible, and she could win, all without the ‘suspension of her womb’ being disturbed. 

Woman catching a partner on flying trapeze
Mogan Barbour catching her partner on flying trapeze at High Fly Trapeze in Oxfordshire

Oestrogen and testosterone went on to replace Victorian-era gender myths, with testosterone being lauded as indisputable proof that men were stronger and more physically adept than women. These simplistic views of gender capabilities ignore that oestrogen helps to prevent microtears in muscle, limiting soreness after a workout and allowing for more endurance in athletes with higher levels of the hormone. These views also ignore that there are some (short term) fertility impacts on men due to sport; sperm count is temporarily lowered in men following long-distance running, for example. Yet there are no ‘well-meaning’ sports directors advising that men who wish to be fathers abstain from running marathons, just as there’s a deafening silence from critics expressing concern over any other organs in the body taking alleged damage. There’s just concern for the womb, which boils down to a poor understanding of reproductive science and biomechanics, a perspective which is sugar-coated in misogyny. 

The day I was told that catching would render me infertile was a week after I had undergone surgery to remove an IUD that migrated and gone on a spelunking adventure in my uterus. I was grounded until my medical team gave me the green light to return to work. Upon initially hearing this myth, I went on the defensive, overtly protective of my womb, ready to deflect any further unwanted intrusions. It felt like the height of insensitivity, having just endured a medical emergency that could very well have an impact on my own reproductive future that had absolutely nothing to do with my physical vocation. At the time, I didn’t understand how anyone could believe it, let alone continue to regurgitate it in a field where women are still being told we aren’t strong enough to compete with men, or that if we are we will both look like men and be rendered barren (and thus be considered unfeminine and undesirable). Knowledge is power, and being able to trace back the roots of such myths in medical misogyny can help dismantle harmful myths from being perpetuated and impacting future generations. A good friend of mine recently told me I did not have to feel like I had anything to prove as a catcher, that my skill spoke for itself. That is a kind notion, but as long as people in our industry (and in the greater world of sport and medicine) are willing to pass on nonsensical infertility myths that limit women’s progress in our field, I feel very obliged to speak up. Unless you’re going to also fret over the reproductive futures of my male colleagues, please stop reducing myself and the other women in my field to our uteruses. We can get you back to the bar safely, as virgins, as deviants, as mothers. Judge us on our skill sets and our technique; leave our ovaries out of it. 

Resources 

1. The Frailty Myth, redefining the physical potential of women and girls by Colette Dowling 
2. Eat, Sweat, Play; how sport can change our lives by Anna Kessell 
3. Little girls in Pretty Boxes, the making and  breaking of elite gymnasts and figure skaters by Joan Ryan 
4. Expecting Better: why the conventional pregnancy wisdom is wrong and what you really need to know by Emily Oster 
5. Stronger: changing everything I knew about women’s strength by Poorna Bell 
6. Fertility, Class and Gender in Britain 1860-1940 by Simon Szreter 
7. Victorian Women and Menstruation by Elaine and English Showalter  
8. The Victorian Period: menstrual madness in the nineteenth century by Kate Lister 
9. Boston Marathon by Tom Derderian
Feature photo collage design by Emily Holt.
Morgan Barbour
Model, Writer. Movement Director, Circus Artist - United States
Morgan Barbour is a model, writer, movement director, and circus artist. Her work has been featured in publications such as Insider, GenderIT, Al Jazeera English, The Journal.ie, Circus Talk, and HuffPost. She has been a vocal advocate for victims of sexual and domestic abuse and has publicly criticized the legal system's handling of such cases in the United States, United Kingdom, and the Republic of Ireland. Her European debut play, By the Bi, was recognized by Amnesty International UK as a production inspiring audiences to think about human rights. She is a former professor at University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a visiting special lecturer at Central St Martins.

Morgan Barbour

Morgan Barbour is a model, writer, movement director, and circus artist. Her work has been featured in publications such as Insider, GenderIT, Al Jazeera English, The Journal.ie, Circus Talk, and HuffPost. She has been a vocal advocate for victims of sexual and domestic abuse and has publicly criticized the legal system's handling of such cases in the United States, United Kingdom, and the Republic of Ireland. Her European debut play, By the Bi, was recognized by Amnesty International UK as a production inspiring audiences to think about human rights. She is a former professor at University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a visiting special lecturer at Central St Martins.