Thursday, 25 August 2016

On rugby and sex work

Someday, I will figure out a way to blog fast enough to respond to things in real time instead of commenting on news from a month ago. Until then, this is what you get. Content note: sexual assault, misogyny, racism, slut-shaming.

Back at the beginning of August, the Waikato provincial rugby team, the Chiefs, hired a stripper for a social event in a place called Matamata. They sexually assaulted her and blocked her way when she tried to leave the venue. She has since lost her job, apparently for agreeing to let them touch her for an extra $50 – under some duress, by the sound of it, and she didn’t get the $50. There followed the predictable faux-scandalized response in the media and the usual nonsense about rugby-players being “role models”. I mean, they’re role models in the de facto sense that New Zealand males do, in fact, follow their example. It’s nonsense to recommend that anyone should follow their example.

Yes. Yes, it is absolutely a rugby problem. That is exactly what I’m saying. (OK, one qualification: it is a men’s rugby problem. I’d bet good money no women’s rugby team would ever do this.) I would expand on this, but while I was busy on the previous post two other bloggers did it for me:

Which is why the “Come on guys, we’re better than this” tone of much of the mainstream media response to the Chiefs’ sexual assault scandal rings so hollow. Rugby is not better than this. Rugby is this. Rugby is where boys will be boys, and gay people will be abused, and women will be assaulted. And if you don’t like it, that is because you and your PC mates are destroying Our Country, where whacking your kids and then leaving them in your car while you get pissed with The Boys is the only way to stop us turning into a society of “Male Mothers”...
Because on a very basic level we all know... that This Is What They Are Like, the ruggers. We all walked the school hall in fear of their approach, or sided with them so as not to fear... We all worked that hospitality job where The Boys descending on your bar / hotel / restaurant was the occasion for the spilling of blood and beer and piss and puke and the boss said to grin and bear it because it’s The Boys, and Boys Will Be Boys.
The incidents arising out of the Chiefs rugby team’s “Mad Monday” celebrations in the Waikato town of Matamata have been presented to the public as the deeply regretted failure of a number of young sportsmen to live up to the ideals of their code.
Alternatively, the behaviour in question, far from being aberrant, could be seen as entirely consistent with the values of twenty-first century professional sport. These young men are paid to live in a “hard” culture where the slightest indication of “softness” will be taken as proof of either femininity, or queerness, or both... It wasn’t an aberration – it was the norm.

Trotter is the more eloquent writer, but for my money Vorn has captured a salient point that Trotter has missed. Yes, most sports are infected with a culture of toxic masculinity; but New Zealand rugby suffers from a more severe case of the disease than most. I gather there were some impressive acts of what’s called “sportsmanship” in the Olympics this year (I avoided them as I generally do), and that most of them were actually sportswomanship. I also understand the New Zealand rugby team lost the first heat to Japan, which is amusing given that Kiwi rugby-heads hold Asian people in much the same low regard as women and gay men.

Mind you – while we’re on the subject of rugby and race – there’s also a point which Vorn’s Against Rugby series has so far failed to mention, which Trotter brings up elsewhere. Trotter, Vorn, and I are all white. Trotter is a successful columnist, and Vorn a successful musician. It’s all very well for us to shake our heads over the disproportionate honour given to rugby in New Zealand, when we’ve never faced racist stereotypes or colonial legacies hampering our progress in fields other than sports. My personal experience, from high school and pubs and other places where rugby cannot be avoided, is that Pākehā (white) rugby players and fans are orders of magnitude more crude and destructive than Māori or Pasifika rugby players or fans. But that doesn’t erase the toxic masculinity in rugby culture, and it doesn’t undo what happened in Matamata.

Predictably, some Chiefs spokesperson (name of Andrew Flexman) shortly after the incident came out with a public statement impugning the assault survivor’s integrity on the basis of her profession. His actual words: “Her standing in the community and culpability is not beyond reproach.” The value-system implicit in this statement is familiar to any New Zealander. Rugby-players stand at one end of the moral spectrum, and sex workers slouch at the other. Rugby-players, the myth goes, are strong, brave, honest, forthright. Sex workers in this myth are sleazy, greedy, dirty, and generally untrustworthy, though strippers perhaps not quite as much so as prostitutes or porn-stars.

Vorn replies, at length and with thumping sarcasm, that rugby-players and strippers both do essentially the same thing, i.e., they show off their bodily prowess for paying audiences consisting largely of excited, hooting men. This is great satire but not great analysis. It’s like saying that carpentry and sewing both follow the same basic procedure: they do – plan, measure, cut, attach – but that doesn’t make them interchangeable. The high moral standing granted to rugby-players and the low one given to strippers each illuminate core values in Pākehā culture.

Note, by the way, that what Flexman said is logically exactly the opposite of what I’m afraid some other people said about the incident, which basically boils down to “What did she expect, taking her clothes off in front of rugby-players?” (Um, that she’d be paid as per contract?) I’m inserting this paragraph after mostly finishing the post, because I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t notice the contradiction for ages. That’s because both statements were used to support the same verdict, viz., the Chiefs were innocent red-blooded males out for a good time and the stripper had only herself to blame for what happened, if anything did happen. If the same conclusion seems to follow from two contradictory versions of the facts, that’s a certain sign it isn’t based on the facts. So what is it based on?

Rugby, Trotter and Vorn agree, is New Zealand’s religion – a statement so true it has become a cliché, but one which for all that demands an explanation. Rugby doesn’t offer an afterlife or a god to answer prayer, or an insight into the meaning of existence. What it does offer is a moral back-brace of sorts. It’s a contact sport, and it requires rigorous strength and endurance training. So it’s reasonable to conclude that someone who’s good at rugby must be dedicated, competitive, and brave about physical pain. It’s when you equate these strengths with moral worth that rugby-worship comes adrift from reality.

Unfortunately, that equation is a central pillar of Western masculinity. It’s held European armies together since they were first professionalized at the end of the Middle Ages: a man who refuses either to face death or to inflict it on his king’s enemies is a coward who deserves to be shot. This attitude comes in very useful when you want to persuade men to sail to the other side of the world and drive innocent people off their land at gunpoint, which is Pākehā history in a nutshell. It’s been reinforced by the supposition (baseless, but backed by a weight of tradition) that any man lacking so-called “courage” must also be cruel, treacherous, and sexually attracted to men.

This, I think, is the key to Flexman’s otherwise bizarre view that it’s somehow implausible for rugby-players to commit sexual assault. Part of the “courage” myth is that all bullies are cowards, which obviously implies that rugby-players cannot be bullies since they are not cowards. Well-meaning adults tell boys this presumably in the hope that it will shame them out of bullying; but as a survivor of childhood bullying I can tell you it’s not true. I avoid sports because of the people it reminds me of. If you’ll excuse a Game of Thrones reference – yes, many bullies are Joffrey Baratheon, but even more are Ramsay Bolton. Ramsay would definitely play rugby if he were real and lived in New Zealand. He would be the one goading his opponents into punching him so they’d get sent off. (And punching them too, obviously, but never when the ref was looking.)

The other half of the story is Flexman’s insinuation that strippers are especially likely to lie about being sexually assaulted. Vorn is right on the money in pointing out what a silly insinuation this is; what he doesn’t touch on is why so many people nevertheless believe it. What do strippers do? They take their clothes off for money. But I’ve done that, and the artists sketching me were always professional. No, strippers display their bodies for men’s sexual gratification. That’s what this is about.

There is a live debate within feminism whether sex work is legitimate or not, and it is one of those debates where both sides are certain the issue has already been settled. Being of the gender and sexuality that most sex work caters to, I have a conflict of interest in the matter. I don’t know if I can do the question justice at all, and I certainly can’t do it here. However, most New Zealanders don’t subscribe to either feminist position, and the minority who believe in saving sex for marriage is no longer much larger than the minority who actually save sex for marriage. Even combined, the anti-sex-work feminists and the traditionalists can’t account for the society-wide contempt in which sex workers are held.

Somehow, despite being a service which is in demand in every society, sex work has been reviled in the West since ancient times. This is the core contradiction of patriarchy: men want sex on demand from lots of women, but they don’t want those women also having sex with other men. To this end, traditional sexual morality engages the disgust instinct, framing women who do have sex with more than one partner as impure, degraded, and lacking in self-control, like animals. Sex work is particularly perverse because it combines the animalistic evil of unrestrained sex with the soulless evil of taking money for what’s supposed to be intimate.

Once again, the myth is a myth. Nothing happens to a woman’s body, or her personality, or her sense of ethics, or anything else, as a result of her having sex with more people than is socially acceptable. The anti-sex messages I got as an evangelical Christian teenager – a little from my parents, far more from youth-group leaders and Christian writers and speakers – were nearly all lies. (A lie repeated by someone who sincerely believes the liar is still a lie.)

The occasional truths, like “Sex causes pregnancy” and “Sex doesn’t make you a man”, were rare gems in a slag-heap of “Sex makes you dirty like a used tissue” and “Sex will destroy your life” and “Sex causes emotional problems which only marriage can prevent” and, worst of all, “Marriage counts as consent”. I left the faith around when I turned 21 and started having sex shortly before I turned 23. I have not tested every single one of the religious messages, but those I have have turned out to be uniformly false. “Taking money for sex makes a woman untrustworthy” is not going to be the one true one.

So why is that, of all those lies, one of the maybe two that have continued to circulate in secular post-1960s New Zealand society? My best guess would be that a large proportion of sex workers’ clients are deceiving their partners about what they’re doing. To allay suspicion they’ll talk and act, in their social lives as well as to their partners, as if the idea of them paying for sex is unthinkable, and that generally means affecting a disgust response. And disgust is a socially transmitted attitude. (If you’re wondering, the other lie that’s continued to circulate is of course “Sex with someone of your own gender is unimaginably vile”, which deserves a post or twenty to itself.)

If you’re starting to wonder why this matters, remember what happened at Matamata. Cultural myths may be comforting, they may be useful, they may help organize society. But if they’re based on lies, people get hurt.

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