TW: discussion of media coverage of rape, retraumatisation, rape culture, discussion of social media discussion of rape, police handling of rape
It’s the start of March. While the boys have been back training for some months now, some even since October, and the last few weeks have been filled with pre-season matches and promotional events, this is when footy season starts for real. We now get six months where there’s no break from it, as opposed to the off-season, where there might be one day a week where the news doesn’t cross to some oval somewhere, or a player hasn’t done something.
It’s no secret that Australia’s biggest sports harbour some of the biggest and most-protected criminals in the country. We usually don’t find out at all, or we hear rumours if we’re close enough to our club to know someone who knows something. And then something happens, some stressor makes for an incident that can’t be kept quiet, and it’s all over the news. People act betrayed, because their favourite was such a nice person who would never, he gets a few weeks suspension, gets trotted out to press conferences to apologise, promises to undergo counselling, and then gets back to making his millions for himself and his club (if he’s lucky enough to get that, because honestly, most of the top-tier sportspeople don’t – the base wage for a first-year AFL player is around $75k, and the reason they try to get back to playing asap is that they get paid playing fees and appearance fees).
Like many people in America (for example), when these incidents hit the media, the victims of these people, and people who have likewise been victims, need to avoid the news/the internet/talking to people, to avoid being retraumatised or triggered by the coverage and attention it gets. You can’t avoid hearing about it. People assume you already know, almost, and it being a headline somehow implies you want to talk about it. Ben Cousins, of course. He was a golden boy. Now he’s whatever he is. I have a news blackout, filter my Facebook feed pretty tightly, and I still got the basic details. In the early 2000s, there were two Port Adelaide players being investigated for rape charges. Despite a suppression order, we all knew who they were.
(Is Bowen Lockwood still unable to get around by himself? Funny how we don’t hear about that.)
This is the environment we live in.
I am not here, however, to talk about my experience, per se. It’s no secret either, but I want to talk about someone else’s experience.
In 2004, police investigated and failed to lay charges based on an incident in which a woman reported that she had been gangraped by a number of Canterbury Bulldogs players.
This is the very same team which now has a female CEO, trots out players for White Ribbon events and promotions, and heavily markets itself as a family-friendly club.
In 2004, NRL news didn’t really get reported outside New South Wales and Queensland. I only found out about this incident late last year, when a club history book was promoted on the Canterbury Facebook page, and the accompanying post was talking about how the author had discovered the real truth and proved the girl lied, buy the book to find out.
I, naturally, complained that this was not appropriate marketing, especially given the club’s new take on sexual assault.
The club did not respond.
Supporters did. One particularly vicious response was from some guy who said that he was glad about it and it needed to be more prominent because it was really hard for him to have people call him a rapist because he was wearing team colours. Standard guy stuff.
I don’t recall whether he replied, or what he said, when I told him that his feelings did not justify retraumatising someone.
Other replies included the “the police didn’t lay charges so she lied”, which thankfully I could debunk with a link explaining the difference between ‘not enough evidence’ and ‘false accusation’ and the statistics which reflected much more of the former than the later. I had to leave the computer after that, because I couldn’t cope with it any more. I remember being scared to log on the next day, but I did, because I had to feed my virtual cat, and I remember crying with relief because there were no new notifications. Nobody had replied. I don’t know if they didn’t choose to engage with me because they thought I was a hysterical bitch, or I got through to them.
The club didn’t run that particular version of the ad again, and the sponsored version didn’t mention it at all.
The thing is, it didn’t need to be mentioned at all. It certainly didn’t need to lead with ‘proof she lied’ after twelve years, by which time, you know, evidence has degraded, memories have faded, and hopefully that poor girl managed to move on somehow.
When people do frame it that way though – as redeeming the reputations of people associated with the alleged offenders, as ‘proving’ they were right all along, as if it’s some kind of victory that justice was ill equipped to prevail – it rips all the bandaids off.
“They still don’t believe me.”
“I’m never going to be able to move on.”
“My needs are not as important as those of the people who did this to me.”
Those are the kinds of thoughts that go through someone’s head when they see one of those headlines about them. In this case, it wasn’t even the players whom were investigated whose needs were placed above fairness to her – it was the male fans. Their need to feel better about themselves, their need to not be associated with people who do that, their need to put her down to prove themselves right. What that man said was that his desire to not be called a rapist was more important than the girl’s right to not be retraumatised and to be able to move on with her life. He didn’t even know her.
Meanwhile, the club was spruiking this book, because they were selling it out of their shop. Proceeds weren’t going to charity – all the money they made from selling the book, they were keeping. That means the club were making money off the book they advertised in a way which was deliberately framed to denigrate a rape victim.
Remember. No means no, pledge to end domestic violence, support White Ribbon, build a future free of abuse. Except when perpetuating that abuse is to your financial benefit and pleases your male supporter base.
It’s not even like it had come up again on its own – they brought it up specifically to sell the book. People said they would buy the book because they wanted to see how the author proved she lied. The investigation by the police was ended because there was not enough evidence. At the time, Bulldogs management were parading it around as vindication, proof that nothing happened, and publically stated that their opinion was to pretend nothing happened, and they were glad because now people could stop treating the players badly. One player even requested an apology from the media for covering the case
For this to remain the club position twelve years later, while at the same time pledging to end sexual violence, is at best illogical and at worst, reprehensible. To use that for profit? Is cruel.
I still hope that poor girl never saw that post, but at the same time, I hope someone found a way to make her aware that there’s now a book out there, forever, in which she’s been branded a liar (by someone with no investigative training but who is associated with the club) so that a bunch of men can feel better about themselves. Because just as we all knew who those Port Adelaide players were, there are many people who know who she is, and they’ve just been reminded that all this happened, which opens her up to a fresh round of abuse; if the book’s existence itself isn’t upsetting, then that would be, especially if she isn’t prepared.
So you’ll forgive me if I’m not enthusiastic for the start of football season. No, really, I’m not. I’m expected to go through the motions, because the idea of not doing so is utterly alien to my family. I used to rely on the games as incentives, and it would be a special treat, and it was my thing alone (until my mum got involved, anyway).
But I woke up this morning, after maybe an hour of sleep, and all I could think was that the game is tonight and I have to support this team which took the experience of someone like me and turned it into a chance to make money off the egos and hurt feelings of a bunch of men who don’t know better, while actively campaigning against that very same thing.
I don’t know if I can do it, to be honest.
It wasn’t just some poor unnamed girl whose story they appropriated and twisted whom they reached out through social media and kicked in the gut. It was me. It was everyone who’s been assaulted and not believed, everyone who’s faced street harassment and social consequences after their identity as a complainant has been revealed, everyone who’s rapist taunted them and bragged to their friends about how they didn’t do anything wrong, or because the police didn’t make a case so the claim was made up (NOT EQUIVALENT THINGS! NO!).
It was me.
It was the seventeen year old me who’d been away from home less than two weeks before someone who was meant to be trustworthy took that and used it as a means for rape. It was the seventeen year old me who had to warn all their new friends that the man they trusted to drive them home was a rapist. It was the seventeen year old me who was locked in a dark interrogation room for two hours until having to choose between failing school for not attending class or dropping the charges. It was the seventeen year old me who was repeatedly approached by strangers who only wanted to ask if it was true.
It was the eighteen year old me who was dumped with the responsibility of looking after his next victim because everyone couldn’t apologise to me fast enough but had no idea what to do with her.
It was the twenty seven year old me who had to explain in detail to their abusive supervisor why it was necessary to take time off work to testify, because a subpoena wasn’t enough.
It was the twenty nine year old me who was denied workers compensation because testifying was automatically characterised as unstable.
It was the me every time I was told I wasn’t really raped because there were no charges, because there wasn’t a conviction, because I didn’t behave right or because he’s too nice. It was the me when I found out he was still allowed inside the club, saw him in the street, the me he stalked from the train station.
Still, nobody believes he wasn’t the only one. My mother remained friends with one of them for many years, always claiming she was “just keeping an eye on him but” and insisting on telling me everything.
The consequences don’t end. If you want to be truly supportive of victims, don’t add to the consequences (and don’t make money off them).
The other, less personal aspect, of this whole thing is that when one rape victim’s story is publically declared a lie, everyone then runs with it. This is how we get the pervasive, yet utterly untrue, idea that people lie about rape. (People who have this idea, I think, have never been raped. Who wants to deal with this for the rest of their lives? Who would volunteer for this? Nobody. Ever.) This is how we get the warped versions of consent, how we get the idea that no conviction = victim must have lied. We get these from them being perpetuated by the ones who benefit from them – this particular class of men, who want to feel better about themselves; the clubs, who want to present themselves one way and win, even if it means protecting players or making money in this kind of way; the police, who use ‘rape cases are hard’ as an excuse to not work on them and therefore contribute to the very statistics which are used in these arguments. The result of these, working in harmony with rape culture (which is a thing), is that victims do not come forward, because there are more negative consequences for reporting than there are for not reporting, even if you disregard the whole idea that the investigation itself is retraumatising (it is).
You’ll forgive me if I’m not so enthusiastic this year. Or, you know, ever. The solution, generally, to ‘this group of people have a reputation that doesn’t fit me’, is removing oneself from the group. While that man may think that ‘proving’ that poor girl ‘wrong’ will fix the reputation, really all it did was make it worse.
“We don’t know what happened that night, and we probably never will understand it fully, but you were hurt and we’re sorry. If we can help in any way, please let us know, otherwise we will do our best to not only work to prevent other incidents, but to ensure our players and supporter base are educated about how to be supportive.”
How not to be a rapist: Do not rape.
How not to perpetuate rape culture and contribute to the retraumatisation of victims: don’t make money off calling them liars, don’t make it about your feelings being hurt, educate yourself and set a better example, and don’t make money off calling rape victims liars.
(See how ‘how not to be a rapist’ is much easier? Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone took the easy path?)
This post didn’t make me feel better.