The lively public debate following the controversy started by Four Corner’s “Code of Silence” raises important issues about sexual consent, male bonding and the boundaries between appropriate and inappropriate sexual behaviour for both men and women.
The association between elite sport, alcohol and risky and harmful sexual practices is not unique to Rugby League but follows a long history of similar incidents, some of the most recent being the North Melbourne Football Club’s “Chicken video” and the Prahran Football Club’s arrangement of a stripper performance just minutes before the game. While the meanings associated with such practices may be highlighted and exaggerated for a small group of elite sportsmen, they reflect deep seated gender structures in our society which impose serious constraints on the actions and opportunities of both men and women.
The behaviours and practices of the NRL players in “Code of Silence” are direct expressions of what Robert Connell (Gender and Power 1987; Masculinities 2005) calls hegemonic masculinity. Connell argues that this form of masculinity ranks at the top of the gender order in liberal democracies and is associated with characteristics such as heterosexuality, physical strength, power and competitiveness. Connell uses the term complicit masculinity to express the idea that hegemonic masculinity is an idealised concept to which few men can actually conform, but it is nevertheless the yardstick against which all men measure their manliness.
Connell argues that all forms of masculinities that fail to meet the conventions of the dominant form of masculinity as well as all forms of femininities are marginalised. He coins the term emphasised femininity to the normative form of femininity in our society because it is constructed in the context of accommodating the interests and desires of men. This form of femininity remains prevalent in the media, advertising and marketing campaigns which causes resistant femininities to be silenced.
My research suggests that far from being aberrant behaviours, limited to unusual social settings, the sexual and power dynamics revealed in the Four Corners report are, in some contexts at least, part of everyday cultural, gendered practice.
In the small rural community where I conducted my study among young people aged around 16 years old, sport and alcohol consumption played a central role because the isolated location of the town made access to alternative forms of leisure difficult. Common expressions by my young respondents were “there’s nothing to do here; nowhere to go” and “hanging around”, often including alcohol consumption, was a common pastime among some young men.
Football was central to the cultural life of the town with many of the key community events revolving around football matches, and it was associated with a high level of prestige. The exaggerated display of hegemonic masculinity that these events presented included a celebration of physical strength, verbal and physical aggression, excessive alcohol use and risky and harmful sexual practices.
One participant pointed out that this was tended to be laughed away as “boys being boys” in her observation that “the community has its own way of doing things which is different from mainstream. Just the way they accept things that people do … certain sporting groups might get up to a lot of mischief and stuff and it’s just not recognised as being a bad thing ‘cause they are hailed as being such heroes”. Celebrating the nexus between masculinity, sport and alcohol contributed to the normalisation of certain practices in the community.
The embedded nature of alcohol consumption in the cultural capital of the community meant that there was immense pressure on young people to participate in this. The price of those who refused alcohol tended to be that they became outsiders, excluded from the warm circle of community life. Lack of interest in football had a similar effect so that those young men and women observed in this study who rejected either alcohol, football or both found themselves socially isolated.
The nature of this interplay between sport and alcohol in community life was heavily gendered. For many young women who refused participation the cost was isolation, boredom and loneliness, but the rewards for the young women who played the game, got involved in drinking and engaged in sex, often came at the cost of being labelled sluts by both the broader community and the boys they had sex with. This frequently led to those girls’ exclusion from their own friendship groups because once they were labelled sluts by the boys their peers tended to also exclude them to maintain their status which was dependent on their compliance with the boys’ interests.
It is a sociological truism that what takes place in the community also takes place in the school. One teacher highlighted how the interaction between hegemonic masculinity and sport shape many young men’s choices and opportunities in his comment that “we have this thing that sporting people are so important to our culture. I admire that dedication and I also admire the dedication of the kids who work hard in class but that’s not valued here. Why? When it’s the same dedication putting in all that work as it is running around the oval again and again … it’s quite significant here in this community. Pushing kids to be the best sportsman. We don’t care if you can read and write but hey you can play football!”
The valorisation of a particular type of masculinity, with its emphasis on physicality, was one of the factors implicated in the very real difficulties which many young men experienced in engaging with the broad and abstract school curriculum. The boys’ conclusions to their difficulties - that “school is not for me”, “I’m so dumb” or “you’re wasting your time trying to teach me” - express a sense of failure that lies at the heart of their choices to leave school as soon as legally possible.
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