Best of 2013: Sex and power in football and politics

Night Games: Sex, Power and Sport, by Anna Krien. Black Inc., 2013. Website

Cover of Anna Krien's 'Night Games' features a naked female mannequin holding a football in front of its pelvic regionBarry

Sick of hearing about footballers using women as disposable items? A young writer has crash tackled the ugly questions of non-consensual sex, coercion and the male privilege and misuse of power that can flow from sporting success.

Feel the power of Krien's prose: 'suddenly sobering, she realises she is not one of the guys, that all this, that guy who is taking pictures with his mobile phone, the other guy who is waiting his turn, has nothing much to do with her ... She's the ball and everyone gets a touch — that is, if they're 'hungry' enough ...

'Treating women like shit shades into a culture of abuse, which in turn can shade to rape ... I feel like a slut. I thought it was you ... Don't let them leave yet, don't let them leave ... Can you finish me off?'

I'm sure you'll agree, Jen, that Krien's Night Games is a confronting, jarring piece of work. There were many times when, sickened by cruelty and indifference, I had to put the book down and walk my anger off.

Men taking liberties with women's bodies with seeming impunity is an old, old story but Krien has weaved this tale together during a new and increasingly diligent age of awareness. As hundreds of hirsute, highly-paid gladiators wade mid-season through our four major professional football codes and tens of thousands more romp through amateur comps, she pulls a big opponent to the ground and trounces him with relish.

This may well amount to a cultural game-changer. Part-speculative journalism, part court reportage, part meditation on human sexuality, Night Games centres around a recent court case alleging rape.

She consistently, sincerely poses big questions. When is something 'group sex', as opposed to a gangbang? Is it consensus, or coercion, when a woman enters into sexual activity with one young man, then finds his mates queuing up for their go?

Does the potent commingling of alcohol, drugs, testosterone and fame make everything up for grabs? Does consent have to be obtained for any and every act? If not, is it then a case of outright rape or a grubby encounter set to be legally dismissed as a 'he said/she said' game, to be abandoned after each tawdry melee?

Jen, I think Krien makes a devastating case for male contempt and abuse in this country. We need a re-examination of sexual etiquette. Better yet, a national discourse on simple humanity.

I recognise the efficacy of the technique deployed, but I'm uncomfortable with Krien's 'projecting' into and onto the thoughts of others in her legal coverage. Still, discomfort is doubtless her worthy intention. That device, from the realm of fiction (alongside other New Journalism techniques such as immersion and self-disclosure) accomplishes its purpose.

Ultimately Krien's researched and reiterated 'reveals' — of footballers as aspiring lords of all they drunkenly survey, of policing as a flawed currying of favours, and of the judicial process as self-serving horse trading — makes for an eye-opening, daunting and timely read.


What with the steady denigration of our female (now former) prime minister, the Australian defence force under investigation for the disseminating of explicitly sexual and sexist emails and The Footy Show still somehow on the air, it's not been a great month for gender relations.

But perhaps the most galling and incendiary news was that of AFL footballer Stephen Milne facing charges of four counts of rape following Victoria Police's review of a 2004 case.

No mere coincidence, Barry? Milne or, at least, the case against him certainly makes an appearance in Night Games. In recent weeks Milne spoke about the sledging from spectators during games and the toll this took on his young children, another reminder that in the shadowy world of Night Games the victims have many faces.

And it's these faces — or perhaps their silent voices — that Krien coaxes out in her exhaustive investigative work. Yes, Barry, I, too, felt my blood boil, but I couldn't put the book down. I liked that Krien held my hand even when dragging me through the mud of some of the most debased human behaviour on record.

Krien is nothing if not intrepid. There she is, a young, dare I say, attractive, female journalist knocking on the doors 'of Sam Newman, Ricky Nixon, Matty Johns and the Cronulla Sharks' with her dictaphone at the ready.

But this isn't a book blithely waving its feminist credentials in the hope of bringing down a blokey house of cards. It's human to take sides, especially when the aggrieved party is vulnerable or outnumbered, but, as Krien reminds us, in the often clouded aftermath of sexual assault, clarity, too, can be a casualty.

'Is this the grey zone I'm trying to put my finger on, that glacial space between a man's action and a woman's reaction?' she writes. 'And in that slow underwater place, is it a race? To see how far, how much he can get before she surfaces? Or is he also underwater?'

For me, the court case of a young, unknown footballer and his damaged yet cosseted alleged victim is the perfect foil for Krien to glean out the greater issues: from the potent quasi-sexual allure that lies at the heart of mateship to the legal alternative of 'restorative justice' with its focus on redress and redemption.

And perhaps her greatest achievement is having us stand in the corners of both the injured party and the accused in order to better recognise our own moral position.

I can't agree more, Barry. When it comes to our football codes — let alone our political arena — a conversation needs to move beyond gender name-calling or the 'us and them' polemic. As a piece of journalism Night Games is undeniably raw, unflinching and objective, but its real influence may well lie away from the page.


Jen Vuk and Barry GittinsJen Vuk is a freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in The Herald Sun, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian, The Age and The Good Weekend. Barry Gittins is a communication and research consultant for the Salvation Army who has written for Inside History, Crosslight, The Transit Lounge, Changing Attitude Australia and The Rubicon. This article was originally published on 27 June 2013.

Topic tags: Barry Gittins, Jen Vuk, Night Games: Sex, Power and Sport, Anna Krien, Stephen Milne, St Kilda Saints



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