The latest NRL scandal has brought some ugly, ignorant and misogynistic views to the surface in the media and among the general public. Many people have sprung to Matthew Johns’ defence since Four Corners’ revelations about an incident in New Zealand in 2002 in which Johns and numerous teammates had sex with Clare, a 19-year-old girl who subsequently went to the police, feeling degraded and violated: http://www.abc.net.au/4corners/content/2009/20090511_footy/interviews.htm.
I am particularly alarmed that a number of women are pointing the finger at the victim, branding her as immoral. On Facebook, for instance, by today’s count there are 20 “Leave Matty Johns alone” pages, including this one created by a young woman: “Leave Matty Johns alone . . . she’s guilty – guilty of being a slut!!!”
In answer to those who blame the victim, in this post I offer alternative viewpoints that may hopefully dispel some of the myths about sexual assault.
Myth No. 1: The girl was “asking for it” by going back to a hotel with footballers.
This blame-the-victim mentality is one of the main reasons many women do not report sexual assault: they feel their morality may later be called into question. In NSW alone, an estimated 35,000 rapes each year go unreported. My colleague Leanne Cunningham, a clinical psychologist, tells me that she sees dozens of young women traumatised by incidents similar to the latest NRL scandal:
It is an absolute myth that women make up stories of abuse as they are liars and somehow just regretful after a sexual encounter they had enjoyed at the time. I can assure you the reporting process is so traumatic and requires such bravery that women would not put themselves through this if they did not feel they had been genuinely assaulted.”
In recent days, many people have implied that the then-19-year-old woman involved was not a true victim of sexual assault, because the police could find no evidence that physical force was used against her. Though the players involved were not charged with rape or any other crime, I believe that the words of Dr Patricia Weiser Easteal, of the Australian Institute of Criminology, in Rape Prevention: Combatting the Myths are relevant:
Studies have shown that in the majority of rapes, the perpetrator does not use force which results in physical injuries (Green 1987; Weekley 1986). The threat of force and death and the intimidation inherent . . . are sufficient. In reality, many forms of covert coercion and force may be used in rape. It is the victim’s fear of the assault and its outcome that render her passive. Almost three-quarters of the victims in a Victorian sexual assault phone-in reported that ‘they felt an overwhelming sense of powerlessness’ (Corbett 1993, p. 136)”
Another myth that flows on from this is that unless the victim physically resists, her allegation of rape is not credible. ‘The reality is far different,’ Dr Easteal writes. In fact, ‘women have often been advised not to resist in order to minimise the likelihood of severe injury or death.’
Andrew Bolt, in an opinion piece in the Herald Sun, argued that the issue of Clare’s consent is in fact ultimately immaterial, because: ‘consent does not trump morality’.
The problem is that trusting to consent means – for a start – trusting that people are smart enough and strong enough to work out all by their uncertain selves what’s good for them. In the Johns case, it’s now clear that the 19-year-old woman was neither that smart nor that strong. Five days after the sex, she went to New Zealand police to complain of assault, bitterly regretting what had happened. I don’t doubt that she did feel powerless, or at least intimidated and on show, and if she was indeed smart enough to work out at the time that the sex was wrong, she was not strong enough to insist…Yet even though she consented to the sex – or didn’t object – the woman was still left feeling so “useless”, so “worthless” and so “really small” that her life collapsed.”
And it’s not just that consent may be due to bad judgment. The other reason these men should have based their actions on morality, rather than the woman’s consent alone, is that: “Consent also means it’s every man for himself. That you can do whatever you can force some silly or intimidated woman to agree to, however much it will hurt them.”
Final word on this point goes to the Four Corners reporter Sarah Ferguson: “A woman involved in degrading group sex can still be traumatised whether she consents or not.”
Myth No. 2: It happened so long ago, it shouldn’t matter now.
There is no statute of limitations on the harm we cause or experience. Certainly, time has not healed Clare’s wounds. Women who have lived through similar experiences report that they feel the pain long after the event. The woman at the centre of a sex scandal involving three Broncos players in a nightclub toilet last year told The Courier-Mail:
I’m still functioning and my life is not over by any means, but I will never ever forget this. Whenever I think (about it), I just want to spit, it’s just disgusting, absolute(ly) disgusting . . . (I have) trouble looking in the mirror because (I) feel dirty.”
And if we let this incident and others like it slide because of the amount of time that has passed, we will fail to acknowledge the appalling pattern of sexual assaults across the football codes. Some of these are:
2004 Bulldogs players accused of gang rape
2008 Broncos players accused of rape
2009 Sam Newman’s disgraceful treatment of Caroline Wilson on the footy show
2009 NRL’s Greg Bird’s glassing of his girlfriend’s face during an argument
2009 Reports a soccer player committed a sexual act with a 13-year-old girl
2009 A stripper being used to “stir up” an AFL Amateur Football team
Myth No. 3: There’s no point in speaking out in support of the victim.
Mia Freedman tackled this issue eloquently in her blog post last week. When a journalist asked her to comment on the scandal, her reflex was to go the “no comment” route, because once before, when she had criticised the misogynistic culture of the NRL on the Today Show, she had met with aggressive abuse from football fans.
But then, I thought about it. And I thought about the brave women who came forward on Four Corners to tell their stories. I thought about female sports journalists like Rebecca Wilson and Carolyn Wilson who have repeatedly written passionately and courageously about the issue. And I thought about Tracey Grimshaw who, on ACA the night before her interview with Matty Johns, spoke out stridently condemning him and the culture that could allow such a thing to take place, as well as the off-hand way it was handled by her colleagues at The Footy Show during Matty Johns’ public apology last week.
And I thought to myself, THIS [her fear of speaking out] is why nothing ever changes. THIS is why no NRL player has ever been convicted. THIS is why this disgusting behaviour has been allowed to continue behind closed doors for so many years . . . And I thought about how much I admire all those women for standing up and making their voices heard. And I was ashamed that I was thinking of staying silent.”
I encourage every one of us to also pick our words carefully when discussing this topic. The semantics really do matter. Jill Singer, in her Sun Herald opinion piece Disgraceful League of Their Own, writes:
Group sex. Despite the fallout from the NRL sex scandal, this expression is still invariably being used to describe the behaviour of the disgraced Matthew Johns and accomplices. How could any reasonable person use such a relatively benign term regarding the degradation and trauma caused to a teenage girl by a conga line of hulking, rutting men? The calculatedly mild language being used in discussion about the behaviour of these sportsmen helps explain a culture that allows the sexual assault of women to thrive.”
Myth No. 4: Misogyny is simply a part of male sports, there’s nothing we can do about it.
Dr Easteal acknowledges that there is indeed a culture of misogyny inherent in many Australian male dominated sports:
Misogyny is …derived from the emphasis upon aggression in the enculturation of males which is manifested in the type of sports which are popular. Males are more comfortable with males, they tend to socialise and communicate at a non-intimate level with other men, and they are apt to have a low regard for females. The latter is evidenced by both the type of verbal comments directed at women and the high frequency of physical violence toward female partners that has been well-documented (Mugford 1989).”
The NRL admits too there are massive problems within the code and have invested over a million dollars in an attempt to re-educate players. Many would argue that this is too little too late and that a firmer hand needs to be taken with players who behave in a manner that is clearly unbecoming of the sport. Brisbane chief executive Bruno Cullen publicly acknowledged that it is time to get serious: “I don’t want him (Matthew Johns) to be victimised or ostracised – I don’t want to cost him his job – but from a rugby league perspective, and a result of the stories that have come out, Matthew Johns is the wrong person to be any sort of face of rugby league whether that be on the Footy Show, Channel Nine or the NRL, whoever.”
There are plenty of things we can all do too to help bring about change.
For starters, NSW Government Primary schools have put the NRL on notice: they will no longer host visits for players until the league takes decisive action to curb the problems that are plaguing the sport. Dr Dan White, The Executive Director of Catholic Education, Sydney Diocese, has taken a particularly firm, and admirable, stand: “People responsible for rugby league have to realise that organisations like ourselves are concerned that if this sort of behaviour goes on in the future we have to review our association with the code or club concerned…Any sport not in keeping with the ethos and values of our school system over the long term runs the risk of being discontinued as the preferred sport in our schools.”
It is vital to emphasise that the onus of preventing assault should not lie with young women. It is never the victim’s fault. That being said, there are some useful personal safety guidelines worth sharing with young women:
• Be assertive. A friend of mine who was once a cheerleader for a first-grade rugby league team described the types of girls the more predatory players were often attracted to: “The group of dancers I worked with were all really confident, bright young women . . . They stayed well away from us. It seems to me that the type of girls they go for are always the starry-eyed young, quieter and often naive fans.”
• Learn self defence, so that you are better able to detect danger, fight back and be assertive.
• Know your sexual rights, as an individual and as a partner.
• Understand that rape does not have to involve physical force. If a man insists on having sex with you without your free and willing consent, he is committing a criminal act.
I’d also like to see football’s decent players step up and do more to set the tone within their clubs. What about making a public statement by wearing armbands that proclaim something like “Real men don’t harm women”? A male friend of mine made the following poignant comment: “While I believe the female voice is important in the issue of misogynistic attitudes in these types of sportsmen, the MALE voice is the linchpin. What we need are more blokes willing to have the guts to tell other blokes what’s right and what’s wrong.”
PS You may find the Four Corners backgrounder on the NRL sex scandals helpful. It includes an archive of news reports and resources such as hotlines and support groups relating to rape: http://www.abc.net.au/4corners/content/2009/s2567051.htm
P.S.S Four Corners posted an Update on the story Code of Silence on the 19/5- it is vital reading: http://www.abc.net.au/4corners/content/2009/s2575275.htm