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Violence against women and sport's culture of women as accessories

By Debbie Hindley and Tara Brabazon - posted Tuesday, 4 May 2004


Enough is enough. Like far too many charges of sexual assault in this country, the recent allegations against the Canterbury Bulldogs players and their group sex/gang bang/team bonding have been dropped by the police because of insufficient evidence. But this is not the end of the case. It is not even the start. This decision does signal that the time has come for sporting clubs in this country to commence organisational and cultural change. These dreadful charges will continue to surface unless we realise that “the problem” is not restricted to a few players – or high-spirited boys being boys. Nor is it confined to a few isolated clubs or codes. We need to unpick the intricate fabric of sport, sex and nationalism that hems Australian life.

In the same month that Canterbury Bulldogs players changed the meaning of a pool party, Prime Minister John Howard demanded bipartisan support to alter the Sex Discrimination Act so as to encourage more men to enter primary-school teaching. The Prime Minister’s aim was to create a special scholarship program for men, and thereby to develop male role models for fatherless families. Although the Sex Discrimination Commission intervened in the Prime Minister’s discourse, the lesson that young men learn from such a scholarship scheme is that if men are not advantaged by a policy or law then the policy or law will be changed. Obviously rugby league is taking up the Prime Minister’s initiative of bucking the system, by mentoring and modelling a particular mode of masculinity and discriminatory sexual behaviour.

Commentators have – rightly – recognised that the Bulldogs’ case is based on the careful selection of language: it involves negotiating the difference between a gang bang and group sex, a distinction depending on the difference between coercion and consent. Early in the controversy, Associate Professor Catharine Lumby not only made this important distinction but went further. In snappy newspaper statements and radio sound bites, she normalised group sexual practices. Whether suburban Australia is rife with swingers, chest wigs and flared 1970s sexuality is not the point. To cite the anthem of gold spandex gropers everywhere, “do what you want to do – be what you want to be – yeah”. But there is a bigger issue at stake than consent and coercion, which is absent from the spruik of both journalists and academic commentators. We need to question how women are discussed and positioned within Australian sport.

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There is a notion that if women are involved in the footballing codes – rugby league, soccer and Australian Rules Football in particular – they must be groupies, consenting to sex with their celebrity sporting heroes. Women’s roles in sport are written for them before they pull out the pom poms or paint their faces: supportive Brownlow wives, soccer mums or sexually available flakes. The lesson we need to learn from the Canterbury Bulldogs is not about the level of pervasiveness of group sex, but that football authorities and players need to realise that women have many roles in sport beyond the sexual. While much of the funded research emerging from the AFL and ARL stresses groin strains or knee injuries, attention must be placed on the complex and intricate role women have played in Australian sport – as players, administrators, researchers, officials, fans and policy makers.

While the English Premier League has also suffered from many similar “sex scandals”, the Football Association has made strategic appointments of females and increased the visibility on their website of women as players, officials, fans and administrators. When viewing the Australian Football League website, there is material on women and football, but it takes the commitment of an overweight fullback to find it. Cultural change in institutions requires strategic policy interventions to summon new realities, rather than perpetuating the patriarchal punctuation.

Mariah Burton-Nelson’s 1995 book The Stronger Women Get, the More Men Love Football discusses the embedded sexism and abuse, including gang rape, in a spectrum of North American sports. Her evidence resonates with recent cases in Australia. Boxing, racing, swimming, all football codes, basketball and cricket have been tainted by cases of sexual misconduct. However, these cases are not assessed as being serious or worthy of wide-ranging social and political discussion beyond the ten second sound bite. The accelerated media culture ensures that the scandals pass into the trash with last week’s copy of Who Weekly. While the Prime Minister is worried about the number of hard -working female teachers in Australia, little parliamentary time is dedicated to the hard-playing sportsmen and the discriminatory consequences of their leisure. In her book The End of Equality, published last year, Anne Summers reported that “Women are being gang raped most weekends in Australia.” The difficult question to ask is whether sport is implicated in normalising such behaviour.

Steve Ortiz of Oregon State University undertook a study of the effects of sport careers on marriage in professional leagues in North America. His study revealed that “there exists a culture of adultery … that managers and coaches usually ignore, that fellow players may often encourage, and with which the wives must contend.” This culture of adultery is fuelled by “boredom, peer group pressure, team loyalty, opportunity, sense of self-importance, and the availability of women who seem to be irresistibly attracted to professional athletes.” While group sex, rape and adultery are three distinct social and sexual formations involving different modes of consent, they are linked in the sporting discourse by displaying the sexual confidence and power held by a group of men unhindered by facing the consequences of their actions.

A non-gang bang controversy of sex and sport was Wayne Carey’s affair with his (then) team member’s wife, Kelli Stevens. Unlike the Bulldogs case, it was men who were outraged here, because having sex with a mate’s wife crossed the line between studly hyper-hetero philanderer and breaker of the code of trust. Outside of sport, many marriages have been broken up by close friends. Why should putting on a team jumper make it any more shocking? Consensual sex between adults may be adultery – but it is not a criminal act.

Women we spoke to were far more philosophical about the Carey-Stevens story than the Bulldogs’ pool party. Without condoning it, they saw the affair as a consenting relationship between two adults. The men’s concern was not the impropriety of the affair; the issue was proprietary – about possession, about ownership. This is the problem that connects men, women and sport. There is a fundamental flaw in attitudes when women are treated as objects or property.

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Burton-Nelson states that “we can conclude that the men in power – coaches, team owners, athletes, editors – have not made the connection between male sports, training and rape. Or that they don’t think it is important.” Governments contribute millions of dollars for sport research. Individual sports also have their own research funding. But with most grants going towards health science and sport science, the diverse roles of women in sport are either downgraded or ignored. The time is right for a change in direction, a focus of managerial attention upon the impact of sport on society for men and women alike.

Eradicating a sporting culture of sexual abuse, fear and denial must be an imperative of the remaining years of the 2000s. While there has been much talk of the Bulldogs’ loss of commercial appeal in the wake of the scandal, we wonder for how much longer football’s female fans will be satisfied being marginalised and ridiculed, only valued for servicing the egos of sportsmen. We consent to ignorance only when we do not know any better.

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Article edited by Stuart Candy.
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About the Authors

Debbie Hindley is at the School of Media, Communication and Culture at Murdoch University.

Tara Brabazon is the Professor of of Education and Head of the School of Teacher Education at Charles Sturt University.

Other articles by these Authors

All articles by Debbie Hindley
All articles by Tara Brabazon
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Murdoch School of Media, Communication and Culture
Tara Brabazon's home page
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