A woman has recently (11 May 2005) alleged in an interview on the television program “Four Corners” that in 2002, at the age of 19, she engaged in group sex with something over half of the Cronulla Rugby League team. (Rugby League, for those who don’t know, is the mainstream football code in New South Wales and Queensland, and is generally regarded as the most violent and dangerous of the recognized football codes. I am not sure where Cronulla is, but I assume it’s a suburb of Sydney.)
I should mention that the “Four Corners” report includes the following disclaimer:
SARAH FERGUSON: Four Corners doesn’t say that what took place in room 21 of the Racecourse hotel was sexual assault.
In fact, the report contained no allegation that the sexual activity was anything other than consensual. It seems the woman complained to the New Zealand police, who investigated the incident, even despatching officers to Australia to interview the players, and came to the conclusion that no crime had been committed.
So what’s the big deal? The incident was apparently consensual, and was investigated at the time by the NZ police, who took it seriously enough to fly no fewer than five officers across the Tasman to interview the “suspects”. In other words, a few people got up to some kinky sex in a hotel room seven years ago. There is absolutely no cause for public alarm or for invasive scrutiny of the sordid details of assorted people’s sex lives. Unfortunately, however, the “official” reaction has been quite predictable in its hysteria.
As a result of these allegations, which are apparently not new (the “Four Corners” story refers to “Four minutes of news footage” on the incident, followed by a denial, at the time), one of the players (now retired) involved, Matthew Johns (whom I had previously never heard of), is no longer working either as assistant coach of another team or in his television gig on the Nine Network. Another player, Brett Firman (also unknown to me until a couple of days ago), was also named in the Four Corners report, although little has been heard about him since. As at the time of writing, no other participants have owned up or been fingered explicitly, although a few members of the team at the time have denied being involved.
Quite apart from Mr Johns’s employers—a sporting club and a television network—political leaders of all stripes have weighed in with their pompous populist posturings. A favourite theme has been, quelle surprise, “respect for women”, as in the first three examples below.
- The (Labor Party) prime minister, Kevin Rudd, was quoted as saying:
It’s very plain that it’s very important for sporting organisations across the country to show leadership in demonstrating proper respect towards women
- Similarly, a junior minister and former heavyweight on ABC (a government-subsidized broadcaster) current affairs (which produces the “Four Corners” show), Maxine McKew, apparently also pushed the “respect” barrow, insisting that “Every player has to start thinking about respect for women”.
- Not to be outdone, the federal sports minister, Kate Ellis, is quoted as saying “ This is not respectful behaviour.” She threw in a few other words like degrading, offensive and predatory, according to the report, adding for good measure a call for more women in sporting-club hierarchies.
Now, I don’t really want to bag these political leaders on the basis of quotes attributed to them. After all, it is not infrequent for public figures to be misquoted, or quoted out of context. But the topic of “respect” is pretty prominent in the public discussions too. Well, I have news for all you people: as repugnant as it may seem, the concept of “respect” also includes respecting a person’s right to engage in sexual activity you might not approve of.
Now, to continue with the litany of political leaders falling over themselves to prove how stupid, opportunistically populist or both they can be:
- Senator Sarah Hanson-Young, of the Greens, is quoted as saying “We need to stamp out the sleaziness, the thuggery and the violence.”
- Another former ABC journalist, Prue Goward, now a Liberal (read conservative) state MP in New South Wales, is quoted as describing the other players involved, whose names have so far not been made public, as “cowards”, and calling for them to step forward or be “outed” by their club.
This is about as stupid a comment as any that have been made by public figures, and that really is saying something. After seeing what happened to Mr Johns, what person in his right mind would identify himself voluntarily? At the risk of labouring the obvious, what consenting adults do in the relative privacy of a hotel room is simply not a legitimate matter of public concern. So they are under no moral obligation to identify themselves, and common prudence requires that they refrain.
The response of sporting officialdom has been predictably craven. We have already noted that Mr Johns is at least temporarily out of his coaching job. Rather than rejecting Goward’s demands with the contempt they deserve and telling her to mind her own god-damned business, Cronulla chairman Barry Pierce has apparently pleaded (see here) that:
There is simply not enough information at our disposal to avoid the risk of implicating those whose only involvement was to be on the same tour, in the same hotel or who entered a room unwittingly and walked away without understanding what was going on [...].
It would be incredibly damaging to an ex-player or staff member to be named who had nothing to do with the incident.
It might be pretty damaging to the ones who were involved, too. What we are talking about here is a consensual gang-bang, not the Gunpowder Plot. By making excuses for not naming the players, Pierce is implicitly accepting that that he and his club should do so.
Surreally, Mr Pierce is also said (in the same article) to have called on the other players involved in the incident to apologize. Apologize? For what? “I’m sorry you changed your mind after the event”, maybe?
So both major political parties and at least one minor party, the sporting hierarchy and the media are all in on it. And they have all displayed both intellectual and moral bankruptcy. The simple fact that this incident, sordid though it may have been, was a consensual non-crime committed in the distant past and best forgotten, has not been advanced by any public figure that I am aware of.
I don’t suppose you can expect the “muddied oafs at the goals” (Rudyard Kipling) to give up their addiction to oafish behaviour any time soon, or the greater and more cretinous part of the public to give up their prurient, grubby-minded interest in the sex lives of prominent people, or those who govern us to pass up an opportunity to appeal to the lowest common denominator with a bit of cretinous pseudo-moralistic populist grandstanding, but maybe the media, particularly the publicly-owned media, could show a little voluntary responsibility. In Australia, there seems to be a reasonably well-respected convention not to report on the sex lives of politicians, unless these somehow become relevant (e.g., if a defence minister’s lover were reasonably suspected of being a foreign agent). Maybe that could be extended to others? Well, there is not much hope with the commercial stations, which are, by definition, well, commercial, and can always be relied upon to behave contemptibly, but this “story” was dragged up and rehashed by the ABC, the government-owned network. I for one object to my taxes being spent on such irresponsible sensationalism.
There have also been news stories, which I consider below, prompting questions as to the woman’s character. She is said to have bragged about the incident for several days before reporting it to the police, and also about an earlier incident the previous night involving two rugby players in a public toilet. (For those who don’t know, rugby, also known as Rugby Union, is a different game from Rugby League, and is the mainstream football code in New Zealand and South Africa.)
Of course, this story has been the subject of a lot of discussion on Internet fora, including the “Comments” facility on Yahoo! News. Basically, there seem to be two schools of thought:
- Any woman who voluntarily partakes in this sort of activity is a slut/whore (and little attention is paid to the fundamental difference here) and deserves what she gets.
- Any man, or group of men, taking part in this sort of activity with a woman, consenting or not, is failing to respect her (or women in general), taking advantage of her, and is a rapist (again regardless of consent).
These views are in a sense natural complements of one another, and both of them equally cretinous. As I have already mentioned, respect for a person includes respecting his or her right to self-determination, even if we happen to find their decisions stupid or abhorrent. Neither of the above two views takes that simple concept seriously. In the case of the first one, this is obvious. For the second, if men are to be prevented from indulging in (consensual) gang-bangs, then this also takes away the woman’s right to decide whether or not to consent to the activity. The decision is already made for her.
Another consideration, which has been raised in online fora, concerns the effect on genuine rape victims. To assimilate consensual sexual activity that one happens to consider degrading to rape is to trivialize rape. Rape is one of the most serious crimes, and rightly so. Group sex between consenting adults in private, equally rightly, is not a crime at all. If you equate the two, you are not only exaggerating the seriousness of the latter, but you are making light of the former. Let us not forget that, abhorrent and incongruous as it may seem, there are still states in which rape victims are punished along with the perpetrators. This shows where ignoring the question of consent can lead.
I think that questions about the woman’s character are only relevant to the extent that they reflect on her credibility. However, it seems that there is no doubt that the incident occurred. Mr Johns made what Four Corners described as a “pre-emptive apology” on what used to be his television show (“The Footy Show”). Allegations of non-consent do not appear to have received a public airing; so the exact details are irrelevant (and would in any case, with the best will in the world, be subject to remarkably inconsistent recall by the participants). If the woman were to allege non-consent, of course, her behaviour as reported would put serious doubts over her credibility. And, as a late update, I would add that I found the following quote in the Courier Mail’s site:
Johns and Brett Firman confirmed having sex with the woman; Daniel Ninness said he was in the room but did not see any sexual acts; and Luke Branighan was named by Channel 9 as being rejected by the woman.
Maybe Luke Branighan the one we should be feeling sorry for, or maybe Daniel Ninness, who apparently suffers from night blindness. In any case, picking and choosing is hardly indicative of non-consent, is it?
What really shows that she is beneath contempt is not her alleged bragging about her sexual activities with footballers, but her own stated reasons for going public:
SARAH FERGUSON: Why speak now?
CLARE: I wanted at least their wives or girlfriends to know what they had done at the very least, yeah.
SARAH FERGUSON: Why did you want them to know?
CLARE: Part of me wanted them to know because I was so angry and I wanted their lives destroyed like mine was and part of me wanted them to know so that they could go and meet the better people that wouldn’t treat them like that yep.
SARAH FERGUSON: What do you think about those people now?
CLARE: What, if I had a gun I’d shoot them right now. (Crying) I hate them, they’re disgusting. I want them dead. I hate them so much when I think about them, but I don’t think about them.
So what we have is sheer bloody-minded revenge and literally bloody revenge fantasies, fuelled by liberal doses of self-pity. Self-pity is a very unattractive emotion at the best of times, but is positively loathsome when predicated on a refusal to accept responsibility for one’s own actions.
It hardly bears saying that blaming the incident described or the players involved for her obviously lamentable mental condition is absurd. People have huge differences in sexual mores. There are those who might regard the incident as described as good clean (or not-so-clean) fun. Good for them. There are others who might regard it with total abhorrence and revulsion. Good for them too. But someone who willingly engages in sexual behaviour that they then proceed to spend the next four to five years brooding over, and which they allege “destroyed” their lives, is obviously already a long way down the slippery slope of self-destruction.
The woman is obviously in serious difficulty. Revenge fantasies and “media therapy” à la Ricki Lake are not the answer. She should get a grip on herself, and if that’s too hard, she could try counselling or psychotherapy.
As a final disclaimer, I would add that it is at least conceivable that the report avoided all mention of allegations of non-consent to avoid defamation suits, and that the woman has actually made such claims. If she has made such claims, and there is any substance to them, then it doesn’t reflect very creditably on the conduct of the NZ police investigation. In that, highly speculative and hypothetical, case, the rôle of the police in the (hypothetical) cover-up should have been a major focus of the report, but it was not even discussed. It was mentioned that the police had investigated, but there was no comment on the thoroughness, impartiality or efficiency of their inquiries. If that really was an issue, it should have been addressed; if not, the whole story is a non-event.