3. WOMEN IN THE ‘GREY ZONE’: ‘RAPE CULTURE’ AND AUSTRALIAN FOOTBALL

[9] When the issue of footballers and sexual assault was first debated in the Australian media in 2004, football insiders from both Australian rules and rugby league told the media of a culture of group sex and sexual behaviour that is degrading to women, even when consensual (Khadem & Nancarrow 2004; Smith 2004; Weidler 2004). Common practices include the ‘spit roast’, in which a woman performs fellatio on one player while another has sex with her from behind. Further, the sexual ‘culture’ is marked by a discourse of abuse and objectification, in which women are cast as ‘meat’ or a ‘bun’ (Waterhouse-Watson 2009). Group sex is also increasingly referred to as ‘chop up’, which codes the practice itself as an act of violence. The first author has argued previously that footballers treating women as sexual objects is effectively condoned, even in the wider media (Waterhouse-Watson 2007). The Four Corners program ‘Code of Silence’, which reignited the debate in 2009, was even more explicit in portraying footballers’ sexual practices as abusive, presenting rape testimony from three women, including ‘Clare’, who remains traumatised following a ‘group sex’ incident with rugby league players in 2002. Clare testifies that she went to a hotel room with prominent players Matthew Johns and Brett Firman. She says that she had sex with Johns and Firman, although the experience was unpleasant and they treated her ‘like a piece of meat’. Subsequently, a dozen players and staff members from the team then entered the room, uninvited, some through the bathroom window, expecting sex with Clare. Neither Johns nor Firman has denied that this was the case. Clare went to the police five days later, saying that elite rugby players had raped her, although no charges were ever laid. The program further includes psychiatrists’ reports, and statements from the police officer in charge of the case, detailing the severe trauma that Clare suffered as a result of what the footballers called ‘sex’. If, as ‘Code of Silence’ suggests, footballers’ practices of group sex are abusive, whether the woman consents or not, then it follows that such a ‘gang-bang culture’ may in turn foster a ‘rape culture’, in which rape is more likely than in other contexts. And yet, many women insist that they enjoy group sex with footballers (‘Code of Silence’ 2009; Drill 2009). How, then, should these women, who voluntarily participate in a ‘rape culture’, and (in some cases) even actively promote it, be perceived and represented?

[10] Even within the sports scholarship, it has been proposed that women should be held culpable, at least in part; however, this approach both diminishes the responsibility of the perpetrators and perpetuates victim-blame. One of the premises of Jeff Benedict’s Public Heroes, Private Felons (1997, 42), the most in-depth investigation of the issue of elite athletes and sexual assault to date, is that women who sleep with athletes on a casual basis must ‘start participating in some of the blame’ for the high rate of sexual assault they commit. However, one of the key problems faced by victims of rape is the presumption that somehow they are responsible for their own victimisation. Feminist rape scholarship documents the repetitive way in which complainants are deemed to have ‘invited’ or ‘caused’ the rape through their behaviour towards the accused or the way they were dressed: defence lawyers, judges (Larcombe 2005; Lees 1997; Young 1998), and even talk show hosts ostensibly aiming to expose the problem of rape (Alcoff and Gray 1993) employ these tactics to undermine a victim’s credibility and excuse the accused perpetrator. Nevertheless, although no woman can be in any way held responsible for any footballer committing sexual assault, or other abuse, it must be acknowledged that women who participate in a ‘rape culture’ also assist in maintaining that culture. This constitutes a ‘grey zone’ of moral ambiguity, in which, as Card suggests, ‘there is real danger of becoming complicit in evildoing’ (2001, 511).

[11] Charmayne Palavi, who not only participates in casual sex with footballers herself but sets up other women and footballers for sex through her Facebook webpage, is a prime example of such a ‘grey zone’ figure. However, Four Corners’ representation of Palavi is permeated with implicit and simplistic moral judgements, implying that she is partly responsible for her own rape, as well as acts of what can be termed, at the very least, sexual abuse of other women. The introduction to Palavi occurs following the story of ‘Caroline’, who states that first-grade rugby player Dane Tilse broke into her university dormitory room and sexually assaulted her while she slept. Caroline indicates that Tilse left when he ‘picked up that [she] was really stressed’. Following this story, reporter Sarah Ferguson introduces Palavi with, ‘If some young footballers mistakenly think all women want to have sex with them, Charmayne Palavi is one who doesn’t necessarily discourage the idea’. This implies that Palavi is partly responsible for players holding this mistaken view, which, by implication, encouraged Tilse to assume that Caroline would want to have sex with him. Footage is then shown of Palavi and her friends ‘applying the finishing touches’ – bronzing their legs – before going to meet footballers at a local hotel. The lighting is dim, and the hand-held camera work rough. These techniques, employed in a remarkably similar fashion in the documentary Footy Chicks (Barry 2006), which follows three women who seek out sex with footballers, essentially portrays the women as artificial and ‘cheap’. In response to Ferguson’s question, ‘What’s the appeal of those boys though?’ Charmayne repeats several times that she likes footballers mainly because of their bodies. This, along with the program’s focus on the women as instigators of sex, positions Palavi as something of a predator. Thus Palavi is represented as a ‘cheap’ sexual aggressor, whose behaviour is judged as blameworthy, a familiar trope within the footballer sexual assault debate which effectively exonerates players from blame (Waterhouse-Watson 2010). The problematic representation of Palavi raises the complex question of how her ‘grey zone’ behaviour should be depicted without passing judgements that trivialise the complex questions at hand. This issue is particularly fraught when Four Corners follow the representation of Palavi’s ‘nightlife’ with her accounts of footballers’ acts of sexual assault and abuse, including testimony that a well-known player raped Palavi herself.

[12] While Ferguson does not explicitly question the veracity of Palavi’s claim of rape, her portrayal is nevertheless largely unsympathetic, and the construction of the narrative sequence appears to imply that she is blameworthy. Ferguson recounts that Palavi ‘says she was able to put [being raped] out of her mind, and it certainly didn’t stop her pursuing other football players’. This might be interpreted a positive acclamation of Palavi’s ability to move on from a rape; however, the tone of Ferguson’s authoritative voiceover is disapproving, which instead implies negative judgement. As the program makes clear, Palavi continues to organise sexual encounters between women and players, despite her knowledge of the ‘dangers’, both to herself and other women. Palavi’s controversial participation in the ‘rape culture’, despite her awareness of the prevalence of incidents of sexual assault or abuse, makes her position a problematic one. However, Four Corners’ representation of Palavi constructs her as more of a perpetrator of abuse than a victim – not even a victim who is morally compromised. Although we argue that careful consideration must be given to the issue of whether moral judgements should be applied to ‘grey zone’ figures like Palavi, the ‘solution’ is far from simple. No language (or image) is neutral or value-free, and as the second author has argued elsewhere, judgements are inevitable in any act of representation.

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    • Rachael Briggs
    • April 14th, 2010

    On paragraphs 11 and 12, and the worry about disentangling blame from slut-shaming: It might help to say a little more about which of Palavi’s actions are supposed to be culpable, and why. One line of argument relies on the premise that if a woman likes casual sex with football players, or bronzes her legs, then she is thereby representing all women as liking casual sex with football players, or being inclined to bronze their legs, and this is wrong because it is a misrepresentation. That looks like the line Ferguson is taking in the first quote in paragraph 11. I don’t think that premise is very plausible; I don’t think the authors would either. (But correct me if I’m wrong!)

    Here’s a thought about what she is doing wrong: she’s continuing to lend aid and support to people she knows have committed rape and other forms of sexual assault. Remaining friends with a rapist, and refusing to hold them responsible for what they’ve done, enables them to hurt other people. (Especially if you’re setting them up with the other people!) That issue is independent of whether the enabler looks conventionally feminine, or what kind of sex they like to have.

    • Deb Waterhouse-Watson
    • April 15th, 2010

    Thanks for your post, Rachael. There are a few points to consider here. _Four Corners’_ position does suggest that women who enjoy casual sex with footballers give footballers impression that all women want to do the same, which is, of course, contrary to our position.

    To clarify, the question of Palavi’s responsibility is not one of what sort of sex she likes to have, or whether she should be criticised for her taste in men. However, she is participating in a rape culture, which would still be the case even if she did not know of any specific incidences of rape. By all accounts, footballers’ ‘culture’ of group sex does have the humiliation, degradation (and abuse) of women at its core. Studies indicate that the incidence of sexual assault is much higher in contexts where women are viewed in these ways (see for example Peggy Sanday’s _Fraternity Gang Rape_). While Palavi, and others like her, cannot be held accountable for footballers’ attitudes and behaviour towards women, nor can they be considered to be ‘outside’ the culture of abuse.

    Our paper is not attempting to provide definitive answers to the problems of judgement, as we have indicated, but to point out just how fraught the issue is. We propose that both the common response of decrying ‘footy chicks’ as sluts who deserve what they get, as well as the perfectly understandable impulse to consider these women as separate from the culture of abuse, need to be reconsidered. Palavi’s simultaneous positioning as a victim of rape further complicates the issue, as implicating her in the abusive culture might be seen as implicating her in her own rape. This is not our intention – no matter what choices a person makes, they are not responsible for the actions of another.

    However, it can be argued that Palavi is partly responsible for maintaining a ‘rape culture’. A further problem arises in attempting to provide ‘solutions’, as, of course, attempting to dictate when and with whom anyone should have sex is contrary to (most) feminist principles. It implies that women should be responsible for regulating men’s sexuality, and hopefully the academic world, at least, has moved on from this type of thinking. My view is that the heart of these problems lie in the power imbalance between footballers and the women they have sex with, and broader constructions of gender within the football world. However, it remains impossible to consider some women as completely separate from a sexual culture in which they participate.

    • Rachael Briggs
    • April 15th, 2010

    Deb, thank you for your reply.

    However, she is participating in a rape culture, which would still be the case even if she did not know of any specific incidences of rape… While Palavi, and others like her, cannot be held accountable for footballers’ attitudes and behaviour towards women, nor can they be considered to be ‘outside’ the culture of abuse.

    This really helped clarify things for me. I think I’m still hazy on what counts as “participating” in rape culture, though. (This might clear up as I do more of my homework.) Not complaining when people say disrespectful things about women definitely seems to count (even if the woman being disrespected is you). Having sex with people who display these problematic attitudes? I’m not sure: is that what you meant? I can see both how you’d want to count that as “participating in a rape culture” (probably having sex with footballers requires putting up with a lot of dreadful sexist nonsense) and why you’d be worried about criticizing women for their sexual behavior in a culture that heaps so much needless shame on female sexuality already.

    • Deb Waterhouse-Watson
    • April 16th, 2010

    I think you’re spot on with what the problems are. If footballers are displaying misogynist attitudes during sex with a woman, this would imply that they are, to some degree, abusing her (verbally and/or emotionally). I’m thinking particularly of group sex (as described on _Four Corners_) and acts like the ‘spit roast’, which a former rugby player described as one ‘the players liked because they could look at each other and get a laugh’. Even if a woman enjoys these acts, the players are still treating her as an object of ridicule, and not repsecting her as a person. And, in the eyes of some, it doesn’t really matter whether a non-person wants to engage in a particular act or not.

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