When rugby league players sexually harass women in pubs, make obscene phone calls, or have sex with prostitutes, they’re acting just like thousands of other young men around the country. Young women everywhere know that this behaviour is not confined to professional athletes.
Being groped or harassed is a common element of young women’s experience of clubs, pubs, and other public places. One in seven women aged 18 to 24, or thirteen per cent, report unwanted sexual touching in the last 12 months, according to a national survey by the Australian Bureau of Statistics. In the past year alone, one-quarter of young women received an obscene phone call, and over a third received inappropriate comments about their body or sex life by a man.
The infamous phone message left by rugby league player Mark Gasnier betrays a pornographic mindset in which women are good for just one thing. But go to some pubs and clubs on a Saturday night and you’ll find a minority of young men who see things the same way. Some blokes think "Show us your tits" is a good pick-up line, women in tight pants are asking to have their arses pinched, and real men don’t take no for an answer. It is this obnoxious minority who make going out a demeaning, frustrating, or frightening experience for some young women.
One in six males aged 12 to 20 agrees with the statement that “it’s OK for a boy to make a girl have sex with him if she has flirted with him or led him on,” according to a 2001 survey of 5,000 young people in Australia. Significant proportions of young men also agree that “when a guy hits a girl it’s not really a big deal” and “guys who get the most respect are those who will fight when they need to.”
At least one rugby league player is in trouble for visiting a brothel. But one in six Australian men has paid for sex at some point (although only two per cent did so in the last year).
Most men, including most rugby league players, treat women with respect. They see women as human beings rather than as objects for male amusement, and they express their sexual attraction to individual women in ways that aren’t intrusive or harassing. However, far too many men have stood by silently while a minority continue to treat women with contempt.
Some commentators have blamed binge-drinking or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) for rugby players’ obnoxious and anti-social behaviour. This lets players off the hook. Yes, intoxication does play some role. When they have been drinking or taking other drugs, some men become more aggressive, think less clearly, and use their intoxication to evade responsibility for their behaviour. Drunk women may be seen as more sexually available, and alcohol and other drugs are sometimes used deliberately to increase women’s vulnerability to unwanted sex. But being under the influence of alcohol or drugs is not a legal defence against criminal behaviour, nor an excuse for socially unacceptable displays.
We will not find the source of some men’s anti-social behaviour in the properties of alcohol or in such over-diagnosed syndromes as ADHD. Instead, this behaviour is part and parcel of a sexist sub-culture in which a small but significant number of young men live. My own research among men aged 18 to 25 found that there are a minority for whom being "one of the boys" is all-important, mates come first, and women are sexual objects rather than friends and colleagues. These men see sex with women as a source of status among "the lads", boast about their sexual conquests, and believe in traditional gender roles and a predatory male sexuality. They divide women into two types, "nice girls" and "sluts", and sometimes treat the latter with contempt.
Young men with such attitudes clearly can be found in rugby league, but they exist in many other environments too. The research suggests that these views and behaviours are strongest in tightly knit, all-male groups: in groups of mates, male-dominated workplaces, youth gangs, and institutions such as the military. When a professional sports player treats a women like dirt, this reflects sexist attitudes and values evident among a much larger number of young men outside the sport.
The big question, though, is this: is rugby league a place where harassment will be condoned by peers and even reinforced, or is it a place that fosters respect for women and pro-social behaviour? The National Rugby League clearly is working towards the latter. Let us hope that this same commitment is shared by all players and sporting codes.
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