Speaking out against sexual violence

Sunday, September 28, 2008

On September 17, the Uber Bar in Brisbane announced a new policy of refusing entry to high-profile sports players. According to the owner, Jim Davies, the ban was imposed following numerous "incidents" widely reported in the media.

One incident, on September 13, involved three National Rugby League (NRL) players with the Brisbane Broncos allegedly raping a 24-year-old woman in the men's toilets of the Alhambra Lounge, a "boutique nightclub" in Fortitude Valley.

The woman reported the assault to the police that night — while the footballers continued their pub crawl — and was taken to hospital. She made a formal statement the next day.

When questioned by police, the Broncos players claimed that she had consented to the act. The team promptly closed ranks.

According to ABC Online, mobile phone video footage belonging to one of the players that is being held by the police shows drug use and other evidence linking the players to the sexual assault.

While the allegations are still being investigated, the club has taken no precautionary measures against the three players named by the woman — Karmichael Hunt, Darius Boyd and Sam Thaiday.

To add insult to injury, Queensland police minister Judy Spence (who is also the sports minister) announced that people should "keep supporting the Brisbane Broncos" as it faced Melbourne Storm in a semi-final match the weekend after the incident. All three of the accused were selected by the club to play that match.

Broncos CEO Bruno Cullen, referring to team captain Darren Lockyer's assault on the manager at the Casablanca bar in Brisbane on September 6, declared his players the victims of a media "witch-hunt" and "feeding frenzy", according to Brisbane's Courier Mail newspaper.

The official reactions to the very serious claims of rape are bitterly unsurprising. Cronulla captain Greg Bird, who recently assaulted his girlfriend, fracturing her eye socket, has not yet faced charges. Six Canterbury Bulldogs players accused of gang raping a woman at a Coffs Harbour resort in 2004 have never faced justice. Two Melbourne Storm players accused of rape in 2004 also never faced charges. The list goes on.

There exists a sickening culture of misogynist, violent behaviour in most codes of football. Machismo is applauded and brutality valued.

Perhaps more appalling is the startling level of public tolerance of this culture. After Penrith Panthers captain Craig Gower was detained by police for groping a teenage girl and drunkenly vomiting on a young boy, his football career continued unaffected by any fuss about his atrocious behaviour.

While the media sometimes take note of such activities — it sells lots of newspapers — the football clubs, their corporate sponsors and the police frequently turn a blind eye to the shocking truth.

However, the culture of "star violence" is not isolated and the incident at Uber Bar is not exceptional. Many nightclubs, including the Jade Buddha and Union Jack's, encourage professional sports players to their premises with free food and drinks, because it "gets punters in the door", says Michael Jeh from the Griffith Sports College.

Women, too, are dragged into this sick world, their bodies (or parts of their bodies) offered up with the free booze. In Melbourne, for example, a bar in St Kilda attempted to introduce a deal offering free drinks to women who "flashed" the bar staff. The management also offered to hand over $50 drink cards to women who took off their underwear.

As Carolyn Worth from the Centre Against Sexual Assault told Melbourne's Herald Sun, that marketing stunt was "almost an invitation to sexual assault". Fortunately, the promotion was rejected under licensing laws.

In a social system that is intrinsically sexist, including a legal system historically hedged against victims of sexual assault, the treatment of women as sex objects for men's — especially high-status men's — entertainment is going to be pervasive. But for the sake of all women's well-being, it cannot be tolerated.

The consenting silence must be broken: we must keep asserting, loudly and through every avenue available, women's unqualified right to be free of sexual violence.

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