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'When it comes to rape, I think we're still obsessed with women'

Anna Krien, author of ‘Night Games,’ on consent, toxic masculinity of sport and how these problems can be counteracted.

“A little appalled, my friend looked me in the eye. ‘Those men had all the power,’ she said. ‘She was in a strange house, in a bedroom with most of her clothes off, and a bunch of guys she does not know came in expecting to fuck her. I mean, did they even prepare themselves for the possibility of her saying no?’”

– Night Games, 2014

William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award Anna Krien pictured at the 2014 William Hill Sports Book of the Year ceremony. Source: Andrew Matthews

FOR ANYONE WHO has read Anna Krien’s ‘Night Games,’ some of the behaviour of the accused in the recent rugby rape trial will seem depressingly familiar.

The book, which was originally published in 2014 and subsequently won the William Hill Sports Book of the Year award, is essential reading for anyone seeking a better understanding of toxic masculinity in sport.

First and foremost, it focuses on the rape trial of a young minor-league Australian Rules footballer. In order to protect their anonymity, the names of the defendant and complainant are changed.

An individual who is referred to as ‘Justin Dyer’ is charged with the rape of ‘Sarah Wesley,’ after what he claimed was consensual sex in an alleyway in Melbourne the night/morning after the 2010 Australian Football League Grand Final.

As she reports on the case, Krien gets access to the defendant and his family, but never meets the anonymous complainant (whose evidence was given in closed court and could not be reported) — an issue she admits is problematic.

Before the incident involving Dyer occurred, Wesley told a friend she was raped in a bedroom at a party, with at least two high-profile Collingwood footballers suspected of committing the act. The vast power of the team quickly becomes apparent, however, and the investigation of the two full-time professionals is dropped.

Dyer, meanwhile, becomes the central accused figure, having initially been told he was a witness. The case was consequently complicated by the fact that the incident in the bedroom leading up to the alleged rape in the alleyway is not allowed to be discussed in court.

In addition to an account of this particular court case, the book also serves as a wider exploration into the dark side of sport and a comprehensive look at the underlying misogyny that undermines its more positive aspects.

Krien highlights a number of horrific and shocking stories involving sporting figures and their treatment of women, which range from deeply unsavoury to blatantly criminal — over 20 accusations of sexual assault had been made against Australian sports personalities in the decade leading up to when the book was published, while the practice of ‘gangbangs,’ the macho culture of humiliation, slut shaming and the dismissive attitudes of authority figures are all recurring themes.

In short, ‘Night Games’ explores a world where women are callously used as props in male-bonding exercises. It is not anti-sport, Krien is keen to point out, but a work that rails against the worst excesses of jock culture.

The book is also an invaluable educational tool, full of razor-sharp insights and illustrations of the deep complexity that often characterises rape cases and how they are adjudicated.

Some of the common clichés and conventional wisdom about issues such as consent are also thoughtfully deconstructed. Consider, for example, the following passage: “For all the good intentions of the feminist slogan ‘no means no,’ the resulting awareness has been too simplified and the true meaning of consent has fallen by the wayside. After all, by the logic of ‘no means no,’ surely ‘yes means yes’? But people agree to do things all the time without an understanding of what they are undertaking. True consent relies on three factors: a capacity to say yes, a knowledge of what exactly one is saying yes to, and that the decision to say yes is an independent one, free of threat.”

I recently contacted Krien. She had been unfamiliar with the rugby rape trial that has dominated the headlines in Ireland for a number of weeks, but after reading up about the basic details of the case, she agreed that it was “pretty damn similar to the rape trial I covered”.

She subsequently spoke to The42 about some of the issues covered in her book, which remain deeply relevant four years on…

What made you decide to write Night Games?

There were quite a few stories going around and quite a lot of allegations of hush money being paid to females by football clubs to shut up and disappear basically when it came to allegations of sexual assault against certain footballers.

I would be pretty sure there’s a similar culture in Ireland — there are boys that can do no wrong and it was sort of an inevitable book to write in that sense. I’m kind of surprised that it hadn’t been written yet in that way. It’s a locker-room mentality, which feeds into a much broader culture of influence and power and a sense of entitlement.

In AFL Football, it gets a lot of government funding and the taxpayers put in a lot of money without really knowing. Therefore, I think it has a responsibility that it didn’t seem to be meeting when it comes to respect and valuing women, and not only that, but also [it was] arresting the development of these young men, basically allowing them to be juveniles right into their old age. So it was a kind of no-brainer book in a way.

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I’d imagine it was a tough book to write. Did you find the process emotionally draining?

I guess it was emotionally draining, because you have to look at yourself and your own experiences as a female and particularly as a young female. And whether you had brushes with sportsmen or all those kind of things growing up, a lot of the stories that you hear are familiar and you become almost numb to them and that’s the shocking thing in a way. As a woman, you become so accepting of certain behaviours.

The case that I covered was quite eye-opening in terms of watching a criminal trial and seeing how much the jurors weren’t allowed to know and also seeing the impossibility of it, the impossibility of proving rape basically, of proving consent or non-consent and the ridiculous ideas that people have about what rape is and what rape looks like.

And the fact that it would be impossible to know what it’s like until you’ve experienced the moment of powerlessness and seeing how you haven’t reacted in the way you would like yourself to have reacted. So I think that was really revealing when I saw what happened to a rape allegation in court.

There’s an expectation that journalists always remain cool and detached in their work. How difficult is that rule to adhere to when reporting on a rape case?

Objectivity is always something you could strive for, but in a way I found it difficult, because I found myself coming quite close to the defendant’s family and wasn’t allowed access to the complainant.

That was a really tricky situation, because I felt immense sympathy for the young man. In a way, I think he behaved incredibly badly and I also think he’d been left out to dry by the football world, while others had been coddled and looked after by their QCs [a type of lawyer in Commonwealth countries]. So I wasn’t detached, I was very much attuned to everyone’s humanity in that sense.

What sort of character was the defendant?

He was quiet, he bizarrely struck me as quite gentle and he struck me as incredibly immature as most footballers of that ilk strike me.

When they graduate from high school, most of their peers, their world expands, whereas with these footballers, their world constricts — they don’t meet new people, they don’t go to university, they don’t cross paths with a range of diverse opinion. They go into the club.

I remember always being asked about the groupies, as if groupies were only females. My response was always: ‘Don’t you mean the male groupies?’ Because that’s what the club is. The board members and the CEO and all the men that hang around the locker room. It’s just this sort of insidious world that by daylight can have a fun, almost cute sense of pranking each other and being close and being quite powerful on the field, but by night, it can become quite sinister and really lacking in empathy.

Australian Rules Football - AFL Premiership - Geelong Cats v Richmond Tigers - Simonds Stadium 'Night Games' focuses on a number of scandals in Australian sport.

The structure of the book is interesting. You highlight the ‘not guilty’ verdict at the start and also seamlessly veer through this awful history of the dreadful behaviour of countless sports figures in relation to women and the deep-rooted misogyny that seems to be a recurring feature of sport. Tell us about your thinking behind how you chose to structure it.

I started with the ‘not guilty’ verdict immediately because I wanted to make the point, that court is not where progress is made, it’s just where things end up. They’re kind of dead ends in a way, they don’t work when it comes to sexual assault of this nature and so I wanted to really just start from the verdict and work back from that, as opposed to building up the suspense as if court was going to deliver any kind of justice, which it never was going to.

The idea that if you get a ‘not guilty’ verdict, then you’re clean or you’re vindicated or something. And the girl was what? Confused? Or lying? It just doesn’t capture the complexity of the issues.

Would it be fair to say there was a lot of negativity within the Australian Rules Footballing community towards you and towards the book?

There was definitely a sense of trampling on territory that I didn’t belong in. The usual dumb [stuff]: ‘What would she know?’ That’s sort of to be expected. I don’t know if it matters what you write about, you’re always going to get dumb comments like that.

There was blowback from the elite footballing world, there was blowback from feminists because I did have empathy for the accused, I did explore his version of the story and I did consider those kind of ideas of sex and regrettable sex and also those things that people get angry about — you shouldn’t question someone’s opinion or someone’s declaration of rape, I analysed all those things. And so I guess I got blowback from both sides.

I think one of the rewarding moments was when I was contacted by several community football coaches who said that they’d given the book to their U15s, their boys, and that was when I was like ‘that’s exactly what I want’.

What do I care about a pseudo academic sitting in a stuffy university? I need the boys to be reading this — they need to learn what the lines are and they need to learn how to stand up for their female [counterparts] and to have respectful friendships with females and to not be cut off and to [feel] this sense of entitlement just because of the way they play with a ball.

Because of the situation they’re in and the pedestal they’re often put on by society, are sports stars more prone to this type of behaviour than the average person?

Not necessarily, because I think it’s got to do with this team thing — you don’t see it with tennis players. People cross the line and there could always be other examples, this idea of spit roasting and everyone getting a go at it and just walking into a room unannounced, already unbuckling your pants without even considering how that might look from the female’s perspective, it’s not as if she can stand up and say ‘actually, I’m not really interested’.

There’s this expectation that if she was not into it, she’d be able to extricate herself from that situation. It seems to be a big team football kind of thing and I guess it’s the poison and the magic — they’re so close to each other and they know where [their team-mates] are on the field. They can throw the ball without looking because they know their teammates are going to be there. But when you take that out off the field into the night, they’re still not really thinking of anyone else but each other, and that seems to be a real team thing, and it’s really problematic.

Irish rugby players The trial involving Paddy Jackson (left) and Stuart Olding, who were acquitted of rape following a trial last month, has got people talking about issues such as toxic masculinity in sport. Source: PA Wire/PA Images

Would you agree that this behaviour is not strictly a modern problem and it’s probably been deeply ingrained in sport for decades?

Yeah, for decades I’d say, but I’d also think that the Aussie Rules football in the ’60s and ’70s, it was a part-time gig. You worked, you had families, I’m not saying that you weren’t necessarily macho or you weren’t a misogynist or anything like that, but there was a good chance you came across other people in other worlds and you had other priorities in your life.

Football was blowing steam and that was it, that was the blowing steam, it wasn’t the night after, it didn’t just keep going and then there was the professionalism of sport and the fact that that was all you would ever do with your life. I think that’s where that enclosed mentality has sort of begun to get infested.

Would it be fair to say there’s still a chasm between how a lot of men and women perceive issues like rape and consent and if so, why is it the case?

When it comes to rape, I think we’re still obsessed with women in the sense that we’re only obsessed with educating women how to not get raped and educating women what they should and shouldn’t do with their body and what they should and shouldn’t do with their face and we’re not talking to the boys at all and that’s really sad because we’re neglecting boys. We’re not giving them responsibility, we’re not giving them a sense of duty as to how they should treat their fellow person.

And I feel like we’re denying them friendship as well in the sense of ‘you can only be friends with your mates and you can play tricks on women’. It’s such a shrunken life — they don’t have the opportunities to connect with females or connect with another way of life or another way of thinking — I just think it’s such a sad neglected offering to give to a boy.

These cases force the media and people in general to confront the issues and start having serious conversations about consent et cetera. As a result, do you feel there has been progress of late? Have attitudes, at least in Australian sport, changed over the last 10 years or so because these issues have come to the fore?

It’s difficult to know if there’s been a genuine change. There’s definitely an extreme carefulness now as to how a footballer might act and it’s very micro-managed again, which is not necessarily the best thing. There’s intense media training and that kind of thing and [a greater awareness of] how to present themselves.

We just had this really great result — woman’s football has just started up and it’s become kind of awesome and it’s drawing big crowds. I’m not sure if it’s the solution, but there’s definitely a sense that the playing field just got a little more even.

Is the increasing accessibility of porn for people from a young age a big factor in influencing how their perception of sex is shaped?

Definitely. There’s an Australian writer Kate Holden and she’s a former sex worker. She writes a lot about how young men would come see her and they would say things like ‘we want to come in your face’ and she would say: ‘Well, I’m not up for that. I’m a prostitute, but I’m not going to take that.’ They would be so surprised [and ask]: ‘You like that, don’t you?’ She was so confused as to where they’d be getting those kind of ideas and it was clearly from the internet and free access to porn.

I guess it’s a problem, but it’s only a problem because it hasn’t been countered with good sex education, good relationship education and kids are just being left to it, left to navigate it without any tools, or without any adult help. I think you could easily counter a lot of that stuff with just a damn good conversation.

A common theme in these cases is the men involved claiming they thought the women were ‘up for it’. Do you think, in certain instances, they genuinely believe this to be the case and have just misinterpreted the situation badly?

I think there are times [where it is the case]. I have seen accused young men completely bewildered with the situation they found themselves in, but stupidly immature, ill advised and surrounded by idiots, as in the club.

Who are their mentors? These dyed-in-the-wool arseholes basically, who just believe in nothing but the entitlement of the footballer. So again, I kind of felt like the anger could easily be re-directed. Not that the accused would have no responsibility or anything like that, but I think the wider club and the wider culture should bear a lot of the brunt as well.

Internet Browsing Stock The increasing ease of access to pornography has been cited as a factor in shaping people's view of sex. Source: PA Archive/PA Images

As tragic as it is to think about, it is easy to see why a woman would be reluctant to come forward in certain circumstances and why research indicates rapes often go unreported, isn’t it? Even going up on trial and being questioned is an incredibly difficult scenario, particularly when it relates to such a sensitive subject.

You wouldn’t wish it on a friend to do that.

[In relation to the Irish rugby rape trial] They may have got ‘not guilty’ but God, she showed them in their true light, didn’t she? She’s a winner in that sense and she’s brave and Jesus, she was only 19. The things that are said about her and the things that were said about her, I just don’t know what people were thinking when they think of the 19-year-old girl in a situation such as that.

Then to have the bravery to stand up for herself.

A big talking point over here of late has been the incredibly brazen and, many would argue, unfair manner of questioning in rape cases. 

I thought the same thing here not in the particular trial I covered but in another trial, the questioning of the complainant was appalling down to what kind of undies she was wearing and how short her skirt was. In a sense, you could say it was just a defence lawyer doing his job and his job was to paint the picture of the ‘typical slut’ and just play to these ridiculous stereotypes we have of women. ‘There are good women and there are bad women, and this one happens to be a bad one.’

It was troubling in the sense that I left court having very little faith in it.

How important is the media’s role in people’s perception and understanding of rape? I suppose it comes down to education, doesn’t it? Discussing it in a sensible manner and not reverting to those awful stereotypes.

Definitely. Sports journalists have sort of become sports journalists. I think there were a few decades where they were not really journalists, but they were groupies themselves or fans and they were just reporting on the game and a lot of journalists were aware of what went on behind the scenes, but didn’t think that was worthy of reporting or knew that if they did report on that kind of thing, they’d never work again or they’d never get an interview or that kind of stuff.

I think journalists are increasingly aware of their duty and their role [in terms of] what needs to be reported, and it’s not just statistics and injuries and stuff like that anymore.

What is it that men/boys most struggle to understand about consent? There’s talk of it being introduced in schools here and some initiatives have already been implemented in that regard — it would be an important step, wouldn’t it?

Consent is clearly an important issue to discuss. I think there also has to be an awareness of one’s presence in a sense and what that presence might do to someone else and to be able to picture how another person might feel in a situation. That’s a schoolyard thing. It happens in the playground all the time. You see the kids. They suddenly all decide to gang up on one kid. They need to read those signs and read them in more complex scenarios.

I think a lot of young men really don’t see it like that, they walk into a bedroom, there’s a couple in there and some kind of weird porn music playing in their head. They have no concept of the 19-year-old who’s looking at it through a completely different eye.

So consent is really an issue, but I really think empathy is most important.

What did you take away from writing the book? The issues you explored, such as rape, consent, toxic masculinity in sport, did your own thinking on these issues change in any way as a result of doing the book? Something you highlight well is how many of these cases are often very complex, and that’s probably something people sometimes overlook or fail to understand.

I think it’s a constant learning process in a way, not just with ‘Night Games,’ it’s that sense of the technical terms or you might go to a website and it will have technical terms for: ‘What is domestic violence?’ Or ‘What is sexual assault?’ And then there’s the reality. And the reality is always so much more mixed up and there’s light and shadow, and there’s pain often on all sides, and there’s power and there’s no power. I think my job as a writer is to be constantly comparing those two things.

You’re aware of the recent case here in Ireland. What was your reaction and your thinking? There are a lot of parallels with some of the situations that your book focuses on. Did it feel like history repeating itself in a way?

My honest, uncensored thought is: what a bunch of shitheads. Whether they’re not guilty or whether they are guilty, they are most definitely shitheads. They can be found innocent or guilty, but that is one true ringing fact.

Until some of these men start choosing to investigate their behaviour and then turning it around and talking to young men and talking to boys and saying: ‘Bloody hell, this is what I did and this is how not to do what I did and not to fall into this trap, this bullshit world where I think I’m king,’ that’s when I think a boy might actually become a man.

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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