EDITORIAL THURSDAY 14.05.09.
There are so many different issues thrown up by the Matthew Johns saga that it is difficult to make any kind of definitive assessment of them all. But perhaps we should get back to the starting point, which is the fact that the Four Corners TV program was presenting a report examining the culture of sexual behavior associated with rugby league. It’s not just about Matt Johns and the anonymous participants who joined him and whether or not they did anything wrong, either legally or morally. It is about all of us, and what we collectively consider to be an appropriate way to behave with each other as men and women.
It’s not just Rugby League, but Australian society generally which has a history of double standards, of rewarding outrageous behavior in some circumstances and punishing it in others. We have a history of treating promiscuous men as heroes but treating sexually adventurous women as sluts. A culture of treating sporting stars as if they can do no wrong, and then becoming shocked when they start to believe it themselves. We are encouraged to view fictional characters such as James Bond, a violent sociopathic womanizer, as role models. We live in a permissive and sexualized society where nearly naked women are served up in advertising and entertainment, and raunchy humour is commonplace, while at the same time women are still in many cases made to feel dirty about sex as if it might be wrong for them to actually enjoy it.
Most of us still believe that the best relationship is the committed, and exclusive relationship between two people who love and respect each other. Such people are unlikely to be caught in an embarrassing situation because they simply would not get involved in such a thing in the first place. Life sure would be a whole lot easier if everybody felt the same way, and we all followed the same rules. But this is a free country which accepts that there are other people who have different sexual orientations, and different sexual preferences. There are people who enjoy swingers clubs, partner swapping, casual relationships, and yes, even group sex. The majority of people might find those things distasteful, or even disgusting, but so long as people conduct their activities among consenting adults, they have every right to quite literally do whatever turns them on.
And let’s not deceive ourselves. The number of married people, both men and women, who have extra marital affairs is enough to indicate that there is a significant level of hypocrisy in the community about making a promise to be faithful, while secretly indulging whatever fantasy might make itself available. In fact, attitudes towards sex are so divergent and confused, and the messages so mixed, that I am astounded that we aren’t even more screwed up about such things than we already are.
The truth is that there is a considerable amount of evidence to suggest that people who are tempted to engage in some of the more extreme sexual practices are not as happy about it as they thought they would be. While some people no doubt enjoy themselves, others try what seems to be a lifestyle choice, only to discover that they are left feeling unfulfilled, empty, even used. The willingness to make yourself the play thing of others can often be a sign of much deeper problems, which may not be immediately evident on the surface.
So, where is the common sense in all of this? Surely the beginning point has to be respect for each other, not just between men and women, but as human beings generally, as well as a well developed self respect which recognizes that we can only value ourselves if we also value others. This is the point which is at the heart of the concerns about the supposed culture within rugby league circles, a culture which lacks respect for women, objectifies them, and demeans them. There has certainly been plenty of evidence to support that belief, but the truth is that it is a culture that is encouraged beyond simply the boundaries of Rugby League, or even sport generally, and still exists in many parts of the broader community. Equally, there are people passionately committed to Rugby League, and sport generally, who are just as horrified about the problems as the rest of the community.
Those are the people who will have to institute change within the game if it is to overcome the taint of this long list of scandals. The whole problem with changing a culture is that those people who are inside it find it very hard to see things the same way as do people on the outside. It is a feature of any culture that its members see it as normal. That’s why there has been so much denial, and disbelief. That’s why people accused of being in the wrong are so often tempted to see themselves as victims, and have such difficulty seeing who the real victims are.
As for Matthew Johns, it seems that he has been left to carry the can for a problem that extends well beyond his own involvement. Everybody makes mistakes in their lives. At least he seems to have accepted responsibility for his.