Sport needs to take male sexual assault seriously

Schools like to put rugby on the timetable as an experiment to highlight the weaker children. At least, this is what I believed at school. A hypermasculine mudfest, allowing your peers to laugh at your insecurity and softness. Years later, this same expression of manly confidence led to the most harrowing personal experience anyone can suffer.

My rape was at the hands of a man who deceived me, emotionally unmoved by my muffled screams. I couldn’t respond to his act of defilement. I was powerless. Since that day, it’s been hard not to pick up on the many expressions of toxic masculinity. Seeing the England rugby player Joe Marler fondle Alun Wyn Jones’s genitals as he slyly laughed was one such expression.

I’m overjoyed he’s been punished, if only for ten weeks in the sin bin. But the drama which unfolded following this assault has exposed the irregularities in sport and in regard to male sexual assault. Pundits and fans suggesting the incident was just lads being lads, or a bit of harmless fun, don’t realise what they are covering up.

On the JOE House of Rugby podcast, players James Haskell and Rory Best deliver a barnstorming backward pass, choosing to ignore the literal reality of assault and opt instead for light-hearted commentary which borders on reactionary. It’s all about offence according to them. In their loyalty to the aggressor, they are rejecting the notion that sexual assault is a crime even in sport. Marler himself tweeted on Sunday: “Bollocks. Complete bollocks.” A flippant remark from someone who knew what he was doing, hoping for a reaction from his opponent. He has since deactivated his account.

The sexual assault charity Safeline estimates that one in six men have faced some form of sexual abuse in their lives. Indeed, there is a wider awareness of sexual assault and rape in recent years, due in part to the bravery of victims coming forward. This honesty has inspired people to reveal the details of their darkest moments. But there’s always more we can do to approach the subject with respect to victims, rather than institutions.

Marler’s ban is a punishment for his actions. But a slap on the wrist shouldn’t mean the issue is resolved. Victims will still be around after their aggressor has faced justice. In high profile cases of sex crime, such as the recent Reynhard Sinaga serial rapist case in Manchester, victims will be subjected to seeing the face of their aggressor painted on frontpages, casually chatted about in pubs, or used as bait for some political argument. Alun Wyn Jones may not have realised how brave he was in holding a press conference after he’d been assaulted in front of a roaring audience. Just because he’s a man doesn’t mean his victimhood should be discounted. Indeed, Jones’s openness, and that of any male victim, only allows for better recognition of what constitutes sexual assault – a definition everyone must learn.

Official rules for rugby union state that players guilty of “grabbing, twisting or squeezing the genitals” face a minimum 12-week ban. Those lost two weeks aside, the rulebook should reflect the crime and refer to such an act as sexual assault: because that’s what it is. The ex-Wales player Gareth Thomas, who came out as gay in 2009, joked about the incident in the match analysis saying, “It would’ve never happened in my day and I’m really upset about that – because if it had I would have never retired!” He later apologised on Twitter, perhaps not realising he’d just contributed to an enforced veil of silence for victims. The aforementioned podcast gave its review of Thomas’s joke as a positive deconstruction of events, far away from the reality of what it was.

Why would victims want to come forward if their experiences are met with laughter, defensiveness, and disbelief? We’re expected to be open about our feelings and confront our past, blossoming into dynamic activists, when mostly we just struggle to forget. For men, this is compounded by people telling us to ‘man up’ or ‘take it like a man’. With male sex crime, it’s about busting these myths and giving men of all ages space to come forward in their own time, far away from the repressive locker-room banter.

Toxic masculinity is a killer; a culture that gives no sympathy. My rapist felt no remorse in his action. Joe Marler’s crime was encouraged by a system of gruff, generous camaraderie. A system which victims of any gender or sexuality, know all too well.

Writer. Regularly irritating. Moans about politics, Brexit, mental health, and culture. All views mine.

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