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Peddling outrage and disgust

By Michael Visontay - posted Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Does the public really find group sex unacceptable? Does the community genuinely feel offended at the consensual interaction between one adult woman and a group of adult men? Do ordinary people care?

Despite mass hand-wringing, the answer is probably no. Beneath the outrage, accusations and expressions of disgust, the Four Corners report really only confirmed one, already-known truth: the public is a sucker for big shows of emotion. The inconvenient truth is that this is a story about the power of the media rather than footballers’ sex lives.

The key lies not in the Johns-Sharks affair but the incident, in September last year, involving a young woman and three Brisbane Broncos players.


Broncos players Karmichael Hunt, Darius Boyd (now with St George) and Sam Thaiday were named by a 24-year-old woman in a sexual assault complaint. The woman told police she was sexually assaulted in a toilet cubicle in a Fortitude Valley nightclub.

The three were allegedly engaged in sexual acts with the woman in the toilet and she complained to police after one of the players allegedly began filming with a mobile phone. The players co-operated with police and the three were cleared of the allegations in November.

Following the revelations about what happened in Christchurch, the woman involved in the Brisbane incident told The Daily Telegraph newspaper that she had a few drinks with Hunt, went into a toilet cubicle, and "after a few kisses, things went drastically wrong" and that in a "blink of an eye" Boyd and Thaiday were also in the cubicle.

Prompted to speak out by the outrage over the Christchurch incident, she said in the article she felt degraded by the incident and worked with a psychologist to get her life back on track.

The two incidents have lots of similarities: both were group sex, in both cases the woman claims it started consensually with one man and then others became involved, both involved big name players, both had extensive police investigation, ending with no charges laid, and both received extensive coverage in the media.

Yet one faded away without much fanfare, provoking little outrage, and no substantial disciplinary action (the Broncos players received a feathery $20,000 fine each for bringing the game into disrepute) while the other has ruined one man’s career, threatens to bring down an entire club and has put a cloud over the whole code, with huge commercial ramifications.


So why the difference in response? It appears to be the reaction of the woman in involved. In the Broncos incident, the public did not see the woman involved, on national TV, displaying profound trauma and grief over the incident.

There were numerous reports about her distress, to the extent that the police were called in to investigate. But that was the extent of her public reaction at the time.

This key distinction sends some important and uncomfortable messages about moral outrage: it’s not group sex, per se, that caused the public outcry about Mathew Johns and the other Sharks’ behaviour. It wasn’t the perverted justification of “consent”. Neither was it the inherent grubbiness of the whole incident. The tipping point was the mass witnessing, on national television, of the distress it caused to the woman involved in it.

It has taken a situation which thrusts the full impact of the experience right in front of our faces, so it’s unavoidable, to finally provoke the public empathy, emotional engagement and commercial consequence that has been muted up till now.

Ultimately, the Johns-Sharks affair is a story about the power of broadcast media, rather than about the morality of footballer culture. This scandal takes its moral power from the footage of “Clare” pouring out her heart on national TV. Without it, I suspect the Four Corners report would have met the same limp responses that greeted previous reports into footballers behaving badly.

That’s not to say that what the footballers did in Christchurch was acceptable. It wasn’t and still isn’t. Rather, it’s that we won’t respond to it unless we are forced to witness and digest the consequences of what they did. That is the great service that has been done by Four Corners. It has made us take their behaviour seriously.

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About the Author

Michael Visontay is a former Senior Editor of the Sydney Morning Herald. He teaches a course on Sport and Media at the University of NSW. He can be contaced at,au.

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