Football scandal: sexual abuse and society

May 17, 2009

On May 11, ABC's Four Corners screened an interview with a young woman from New Zealand. She recounted an alleged 2002 sexual assault in a Christchurch hotel room by at least 12 players and staff from the Cronulla Sharks.

The program has triggered a new wave of discussion about attitudes towards women in sport, particularly rugby league. Much of this discussion, however, has missed the essential point — women are still far from achieving full equality.

The vast majority of rape cases go unreported. Speaking out can be a deeply traumatic experience for victims. It goes unreported because for a woman to come forward can mean shame, trauma and scrutiny.

In 2004 — the year a group of Canterbury Bulldogs players were accused of raping a 20-year-old woman at a Coffs Harbour resort — Karen Willis from the NSW Rape Crisis Centre asked viewers of Stateline to put themselves in shoes of a victim of sexual assault.

"I ask your viewers to consider for themselves", she said. "If they were in a room with half a dozen strangers and they were asked to … give absolute blow-by-blow, minute-by-minute detail of their last sexual encounter and then add to that fear, absolute loss of power and control, no say over what's happened, why or when, fear of their life … tell me you would happily go through that."

Yet rather than focussing on the disturbing nature of the sexual assaults by rugby league players examined in the Four Corners report, the media discussion has largely revolved around denouncing group sex.

This actually undermines the serious nature of the crimes committed. Sexual assault is not about sex. Its about abuse that violates a woman's sense of safety and control over her life.

The aggressive and violent nature of the game is being decried in the mainstream media, as is its supposedly alcohol-fuelled culture.

It's this culture, we're told, that means women are treated as lesser objects to be possessed, used and abused. It's an "attitude" of a macho profession that comes with money, celebrity and a throng of adoring fans.

It's true that the sensationalised status and perceived privilege of footy stars, as well as a general culture that values the brutish image of extreme masculinity, means that sexism is dangerously pervasive in rugby league.

While macho behaviour in sport, and elsewhere, must be challenged, its crucial to recognise that this culture is only a heightened version of the sexism and violence women face across all of society.

Former Australian rules football player and campaigner against violence against women, Phil Cleary, told Green Left Weekly: "Only the very naive would conclude that the event that engulfed Matthew Johns and the Cronulla Rugby League Club is a tale exclusively about football culture or that it is confined to rugby. Nor is this simply a tale about sexual morality. It's about power and the underbelly of misogyny that afflicts our society."

The excuses for the players have run plentiful. Not only is the game soaked in an "elite fraternity" of physical power and grandiose invincibility, it's about the "pressure" of the game. For players who carry out sexual violence, it's "a few too many drinks" to release said pressure.

Steve Burraston, CEO of the Newcastle Knights told Four Corners rugby league "attract[s] an aggressive, young, risk taking male". Newcastle coach Brian Smith backed up this view. He said how "hard" it was to expect rugby league players to not "go out there and get on the drink and take risks".

But these comments reveal part of the problem. Abusing women is not risk-taking. For victims of rape it's demeaning, disempowering and hugely damaging.

It also supports the false idea that rape and other forms of sexual violence happen because men "lose control" of themselves under the influence of alcohol or other drugs.

Actually, rape is a calculated act of control over another human being. Its perpetrators know they are doing the wrong thing. Most rapists plan their crimes well in advance.

Meanwhile, any woman who comes forward has her motivations questioned. Whether she did it for publicity, or whether she in fact "asked for it", is considered above the violent nature of what actually occurred.

It's the same kind of justification that allows ex-Sharks player and media personality Matthew Johns to believe that claiming a 19-year-old woman "consented" is a justification for what the woman alleged happened to her, as he did on Nine's Today Tonight on May 12.

Since the 2004 Bulldogs case, the National Rugby League has been forced into some action. These include curfews, security personnel travelling with players, early return from away matches, curbing binge drinking, leadership and personal development courses and a new player code of conduct.

Despite these changes the violence continues.

Sexual assault is a horrific symptom of women's oppression in capitalist society. It shows that building a struggle for women's liberation, a struggle that seeks to build a society where everyone has the same life choices regardless of race, class or sex, is still as essential as ever.

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