The issue of sportsmen’s s-xual conduct was yet again brought to the fore by the Four Corners program “Code of Silence“, which last week featured the alleged mistreatment of a New Zealand woman by members of an Australian rugby league team.

This was just another episode in the continuing saga of sport and sex. For several years allegations of sexual abuse by sportsmen have met with angry condemnation from some and defensive bewilderment from others, but seldom with convictions from the law. So why do players feature regularly in reports of sexual shenanigans?

In our research we have looked at how female AFL fans explain such behaviour and what they think of it. We have conducted interviews in Victoria, New South Wales, and Western Australia with 67 women aged between 18 and 82 who are self-confessed AFL fans. These women were asked why they thought that some players became embroiled in behaviour that culminated in allegations of sexual misconduct.

Two types of explanation were frequently given. One puts the sexual abuse down to the actions of “rogue male” players. These are men who entice, badger or force women into situations from which they find it difficult to extricate themselves, with the result that they engage in sexual activities to which they may not otherwise have consented and which may lead to abuse.

Women told us about players who would make brazen advances. One fan said that at a social function she was introduced for the first time to one of her club’s players, a married man with children, who much to her disgust immediately kissed her fully on the lips.

But the issue is not a simple one. Some women from footballing families claimed to understand how footballers operated and thus how, as women, to conduct themselves in their company. These women believed they knew how to avoid footballers’ advances, keeping themselves away from compromising situations. There was an associated notion that women who are violated fall prey to their own naiveté — not recognising what they may be letting themselves in for when they accept a drink or succumb to an advance from a player. Clearly, this perspective minimises players’ actions and responsibilities and instead lays blame on the victims.

Some women also explained away rogue male behaviour by attributing it to the biological determinism of “testosterone-laden” young men. For these fans, the players’ actions appear to be a natural part of being a man. That some of this behaviour goes beyond that done or considered acceptable by other men in the same age range is overlooked, commonly because footballers are seen as hyper-masculine figures.

The other type of explanation was that of “predatory women”. Many of our respondents noted the “groupie” behaviour of some young women. A number knew women who sought out footballers with the intention of having sex with them. The predatory women explanation also fits with the idea that men can’t help but act on their primal urges when women display their “availability”.

Certainly footballers have their groupies. Certainly some footballers have consensual sex with these women. On the surface, this didn’t appear to be an issue for most fans, provided that the encounter did not escalate beyond that openly or tacitly agreed to by each party. But the sexual double standard still exists.

It seems that the woman as sexual initiator is still regarded in many circles as the brazen enticer of men. Men’s primal excesses would be kept in check if only women would remain sexually demure. Implicitly, the woman is again to blame.

We cannot conclude our brief account without raising the issue of gendered power relations. Footballers bring to their encounters with women an element of celebrity, of social desirability and imposing physicality. They bring the power of their gender. For footballers gendered power is boosted by their celebrity status. This is advantageous to those players who are rogue males and it also means that the predatory women engaging in consensual sex are not necessarily doing so on an equal basis with the footballers. Hence, encounters can escalate beyond what the woman anticipated; for example, an unwanted involvement in group sex such as that reported by the Four Corners program.

Our research on female football fans does not directly investigate player (mis)behaviour, but the views of the women we interviewed and their thoughts on interactions between players and women provides some pointers to how we may better understand and hopefully constructively address the issues surrounding the alleged sexual misconduct and abuses by sportsmen.

Peter Fray

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