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How the media cover gang rape, sport, power - and prejudice

By Joseph Wakim - posted Wednesday, 10 March 2004

Does anyone know the ethnicity of the alleged Canterbury Bulldogs rapists or victim? This is not an irreverent joke, but a relevant question about the connection between crime and culture.

Let us compare the publicity surrounding three "gang rape" crimes. With the Canterbury Bulldogs rugby league club, the main reference to culture has been to the "male pin-up" culture characterised by escalating claims of group sex, male bonding, and rites of passage.

Even our Prime Minister has publicly defended the league's reputation, stressing that it is "quite unfair" on the players who have "not been accused of anything" to be subjected to these "generalisations": "I know a lot of people associated with rugby league and they are decent, upright citizens."


However, we saw no equivalent caution from our national leader against generalisations during the hysteria over Sydney's "Lebanese gang" rapes. Where was the "I know a lot of people from the Lebanese community and they are decent, upright citizens"?

If our knee-jerk reaction is to blame the ethnic culture for the crime rather than the criminal subculture, then it is written off as incurable because it is "in the blood".

Let us now compare the rugby league players with the youths from an exclusive Anglican all-boys boarding school in Sydney who were charged in 2001 with committing 75 sexual assaults over a six-month period: 50 on one victim and 25 on another.

It was revealed during the trial that torture, tying up victims with school ties, and violent beatings were part of a regular ritual.

The media coverage included many references to the bullying subculture within the boarding school. But was there any reference to the common religion of the offenders? No. Were they sentenced to imprisonment? No. Instead, their names were suppressed, no conviction was recorded and they were given good-behaviour bonds.

We are expected to believe that these youths were victims of their boarding-school culture - and that their victims should be understanding of this.


Finally, the notorious gang rape in Sydney by "Lebanese Muslims" is again in the news because a court of appeal has granted a retrial for one youth, on the basis that he was denied a fair trial during the sensationalist media coverage surrounding the sentencing to 55 years' jail of the ringleader in August 2002.

Unlike the more affluent elite athletes or private school students, the only culture deemed relevant in media discussion about these youths was their Lebanese ethnicity.

There is a certain irony here, not least because many of Australia's home-grown "Lebanese gangs" are manifestly influenced by the United States hip-hop culture, as shown in their language and dress codes. Their heroes are more likely to be the censored rapper (the late) Tupac Shakur than some Lebanese warlord of the 1970s.

They over-identify with the black ghettos of the Bronx or Harlem, connecting with the cultural resistance of the marginalised. Yet the self-appointed high priests of moral society in Australia had already decided that the ethnicity was as guilty as the perpetrators.

Can you see the double standards here? Group culture, male culture, sportand sport culture - all are expressions that we loosely throw around when trying to explain bad behaviour. But if there is one drop of Lebanese culture imbued in the mix, it clouds all clarity and the ethnicity comes to be seen as the all-encompassing root cause.

We can choose to participate in the social subculture of our peers, but we cannot choose the culture of our ancestors.

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Article edited by Katrina-Jae Stair.
If you'd like to be a volunteer editor too, click here.

This article was first published in The Age on 9 March 2004.

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About the Author

Joseph Wakim founded the Australian Arabic Council and is a former multicultural affairs commissioner.

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