Anna Krien has achieved something quite remarkable with her terrible new book, Night Games: Sex, Power and Sport.
She set out to write a “balanced and fearless look at the dark side of footy culture”, according to the book’s jacket. Instead she has produced an apology for rape and sexual assault by elite Australian Rules Football (AFL) and the National Rugby League (NRL) players.
Not one Australian professional footballer has been convicted of sexual assault in almost 30 years, despite, in the words of journalist Jacqueline Magnay, that accusations of rape and sexual assault by footballers have “become about as annual as the footy season itself.”
In the shameless tradition of Helen Garner, author of The First Stone and Joe Cinque’s Consolation (who is, unsurprisingly, thanked in the acknowledgements), Krien dresses up tired old sexist arguments in a phoney intellectual examination of complexity and pages of mock awkward, self-reflective anguish.
Women on trial
The book follows the rape trial of an aspiring Victorian AFL player, Frances David Pope, referred to as Justin Dyer in the book.
Yet despite the fact the trial itself is riven with sexism, Krien reserves most of her sympathies for the defendant. It is really his personal saga that is subject of the book.
The complaintant, Sarah, alleges she was gang raped by three other footballers, and then by Pope.
But aside from suggesting this might have been a legal manoeuvre to make Pope the fall guy, Krien doesn’t question the sexist assumptions of police and the judicial system that saw only Pope, and none of the others, charged.
The sexist system was bias against Sarah from the start.
A 2007 Australian Institute of Criminology report, Juror attitudes and biases in sexual assault cases, concluded that the sexist attitudes brought into the courtroom influence the low conviction rate and that “stereotypical beliefs about rape and victims of it still exist in the community.”
Defendants’ lawyers can no longer make a victim’s sexual history part of their case in Victoria, but otherwise its a free-for-all of sexist questioning about what a victim was wearing or insinuations that she asked for it.
Unsurprisingly, many women do not report rape or assault to the police, either out of a sense that it is useless or a sense of shame and confusion because of ideas that women are somehow to blame when they are attacked.
There is limited research in the area, but a 1996 Bureau of Statistics study found that only 15 per cent of women who had experienced sexual assault reported it to the police.
On top of that, only a small proportion of rape and assault complaints actually lead to charges. Yet Krien argues that the 12 per cent conviction rate of rape is Victoria not evidence of sexism, but evidence for what she calls “the grey zone between rape and consent”. Effectively, she is saying that rape is often not really rape.
For Krien, it’s the “grey zone” that results in women being prone to exaggerate; to claim rape when none has occurred. In other words, she dresses up an old sexist tripe about lying, manipulative women to justify the disgraceful actions of the footballers.
She said on a writers’ festival panel, “I think it’s very difficult for someone to reflect on a disturbing sexual encounter without feeling pressured to conclude that there was a victim and a perpetrator, that it was rape… And, ultimately, this is what Night Games is about—that strange place between consent and rape, one that the slogan ‘No means No’ doesn’t allow for.” So what does ‘no’ mean?
Krien ends up giving credence to the argument that women bring it upon themselves—by wanting sex with some footballers, or by dressing in a revealing fashion, women invite assault.
She wonders for a whole chapter if “groupies” willingness to have sex with footballers “confuses” the issue of consent. Apparently that some women do consent to sex with a footballer, or several footballers, is the reason why players cannot tell the different between consensual sex and rape.
“How else do these guys get it into their heads that this is okay?” she asks.
It all amounts to a conclusion that excuses Pope: “Whatever he did that night he thought it was OK. The herd said as much”. Sarah, on the other hand, “had no language to explain the grey zone, to explain what was lost in translation between the sexes.”
At one point Krien asks, “Why did he [Pope] not see her [Sarah] as fully human?” There is one answer to this question Krien ignores completely—sexism.
There is absolutely nothing in the book that tries to put the problem of sexism in football in the context of sexism in society, or to seriously examine the roots of sexual violence. The attitudes towards women inside elite football and its commercial culture are an extreme case of a wider sexist society that regards women as inferior.
Women are still paid less than men, still expected to perform the majority of domestic labour in the home, as well as child care, and are still often stuck in low-paid, part-time “caring” jobs.
The front cover of Krien’s own book (a mannequin with no head provocatively holding an AFL football between her legs) is an example of how sex is used to sell just about anything. Women are judged on their appearance and told that an impossibly thin, hairless, heterosexual, cellulite-free feminine ideal somehow represents our sexual liberation.
Women’s sport is universally regarded as inferior. In the big business world of commercial football, getting rewards, fame and fortune for grunting, sweating and crash-tackling is the domain of men. For the women, well, there’s cheerleading and being “groupies”.
A society that treats women’s bodies and sex itself as commodities, and socialises everybody to believe women are inferior, is a society that inevitably produces rape and sexual assault.
Krien recycles ideas about the “stereotypical rapist” hiding in the bushes implying there is some fact associated with this myth, and that rape is to blame on deranged individuals outside of society: “The public idea of a rapist is, it seems, that of a twisted loner, most likely a male with an underlying mental illness, who seeks out his victims with the full intention of raping them. Popular footballers most certainly do not fit this category … and that is a good thing.”
But popular footballers abusing women does fit a very common pattern of institutionalised sexism. The revelations of the abuse of women in the Australian Defence Force provide yet another example of a culture of sexist impunity.
On top of that, the sexism is defended and covered up by the media and the legal system.
Krien seems to want to argue that it’s footballers who are oppressed by the stereotype of people seeing them as rapists.
She doesn’t mention that Matthew Johns, who was at the centre of the Cronulla Sharks rape scandal exposed by Four Corners in 2009, was given his very own television show the following year.
Other footballers have been forgiven, or even publicly celebrated, for their sexism—take the entire cast of The Footy Show, in particular the disgraceful misogynist Sam Newman, as a case in point.
Krien reports on police head honchos who covered up for footballers, notoriously for AFL player Stephen Milne, and also for NRL player Bryan Fletcher.
The tradition of “paying off” women who come forward with complaints is summarised in this jaw-dropping quote from John Elliott, former president of Carlton and a former Liberal Party President, “I think we had people who claimed to be raped by our players—women they were—not men—on four or five occasions.
“Not once did any of those stories get into the press because in those days we probably had only twenty people writing in the press and they weren’t interested in all that sort of nonsense. We’d pay the sheilas off and wouldn’t hear another word.”
Like Eddie McGuire responding to the furore over his racist attack on Aboriginal player Adam Goodes, the lesson learned from reports of sexual assault is “the mike was on”, in other words, don’t get caught.
But Krien doesn’t draw any useful conclusions from any of what she reports.
Even when admitting there is a problem she has no solution—just a paragraph that says: “Players, however, who tread the grey zone of rape and treat women badly, can be made accountable … they can be changed, if their codes make it so, if their clubs quit covering up and if the world of football stops being a sanctuary for tired old sentiments such as ‘boys will be boys’.”
This amounts to saying it will stop when it stops.
The kind of sexist culture that exists in the AFL and NRL however, is a stark manifestation of the sexism reinforced by wider society—advertising, the media, the legal system, politicians and sexist policies. That is what must be confronted if we want to see a world without violence against women.
Unfortunately, this book only confuses that aim and lets the perpetrators of sexism off the hook completely.