Anna Krien, Night games: Sex, power and sport (Review)

Anna Krien, Night Games

Night Games (Courtesy: Black Inc)

Towards the end of her most recent non-fiction work, Night games, Anna Krien writes:

I wish I’d chosen to follow an ‘easier’ rape trial.

She’s concerned that what she’s written, what she’s finding, won’t “sit well with feminists or footballers”. She might be right, but that would be a shame, because what she’s produced is a rational and, yes, provocative analysis of football culture and the way society enables it. It’s about power, entitlement, complicity – and, of course, sex.

“… despite the verdict, I still don’t know who is guilty and who is innocent”

Like Helen Garner (The first stone and Joe Cinque’s consolation) and Chloe Hooper (Tall man), Anna Krien, whose Into the forest and Us and them I’ve previously reviewed, writes in the narrative non-fiction genre. It uses literary techniques to create a narrative about a real issue or event, and can involve the author putting herself (in this case) in the story. I like the style. If well done, it feels honest because the author is clear from page one about the facts (and their limits) she’s presenting, the ideas she’s exploring and, significantly, the challenges she personally faces during her exploration. Krien doesn’t shy away from confronting her feelings, but neither does she let them overshadow her ability to reason.

And so to Night games. The book tracks the rape trial of an AFL footballer. This has implications for the narrative. The name of the complainant must be suppressed, so Krien decides to suppress the defendant’s name too. The complainant’s testimony was given in closed court, so cannot be reported. This could seriously skew Krien’s story, except that she structures the book in such a way that, although the connecting narrative is the trial, the main game (ha!) is the surrounding culture. Also, Krien reverses traditional trial narrative (fictional and factual) and reports the verdict in her Prologue. This de-emphasises the trial drama, and focuses us on the issues she wants to explore. It’s intelligently done – and once again convinced me that Krien is a writer I want to watch.

The book has six parts – the Prologue, an Epilogue, and four parts in between in which Krein tackles what she sees as the critical issues. These are football culture, particularly regarding male bonding rituals, and attitudes to women and minorities such as black and gay players; rape and what she describes as the grey area surrounding consent; and the broader role of women in football, in various guises, including management and media. These parts could almost be read as separate essays, except that they are connected by the trial narrative, and by their thematic connections to each other.

“an abnormal society…”

Some of my family and friends looked a bit askance when I told them what I was reading. After all, rape is an unpleasant subject and I’m not a football follower – but, I am interested in gender and power, social relationships, and ethical behaviour, which are the book’s real subjects. The picture Krien paints of football culture is not pretty, but neither is it particularly new. Who hasn’t seen and heard, in recent years, news stories about drunken parties and sexual assaults involving footballers? Krien teases out what’s behind these behaviours, and it’s mostly to do with male bonding, a bonding that is characterised by bullying and by a “macho culture of humiliation” in which women become the objects through which the men (try to) prove themselves. It’s not quite that simple of course – and women can try to play the game too, can want footballer notches on their belts – but the pervading attitude, until recent moves to change it, has been one of male power and entitlement.

“… a moral quagmire”

More interesting to me was Krien’s discussion of “the grey area, the gulf of uncertainty between consent and rape”. She quotes academic Catherine Lumby, Rugby League’s advisor on gender and cultural change:

Yes, there are many instances of behaviour that we found in our research into players’ experiences that did not equate to sexual assault but are definitely extremely unethical behaviour – such as after having sex with a girl, throwing her out of your hotel room naked without her clothes for a joke. Or suddenly asking, ‘Do you mind if I invite my mate back?’

How easy, Krien asks, is it for women to say “no” in many of the, usually powerless, situations they find themselves in – and if they don’t say no, have they consented? Is acquiescence consent? If not, what is it? The issue of consent was the critical issue in the rape trial Krien follows in the book – and hence her wish for an ‘easier’ rape trial. I’m aware that, except for that stereotypical violent, sociopathic rapist we all think of, consent is the critical issue in many rape cases. But, what I liked about Krien’s discussion was her analysis of the consent issue within this particular culture and her questions concerning how it might be better negotiated and understood at the time the sex occurs and how it might be better handled legally. Underlying this, though, is the idea that there would be less need to worry about grey areas surrounding “consent” if the culture itself fostered respect and equality, not to mention ethical or moral behaviour.

I’ll leave my discussion of Krien’s arguments and thesis here, otherwise I’ll end up writing an essay myself. I’ll simply add that I like Krien’s self-questioning and analytical, rather than emotional, approach. There’s no list of sources at the end, which I missed, but she clearly identifies her extensive research as she goes, naming the people and works she consulted. I also like her writing. It’s accessible and logical, but has fresh turns of phrase that lift it out of dry reportage.

If you weren’t inclined to read this book, think again, because I found Night games to be illuminating beyond its specific focus on football culture. It is also an excellent read.

Anna Krien
Night games: Sex, power and sport
Collingwood: Black Inc, 2013
ISBN: 9781863956017

(Review copy courtesy Black Inc)

16 thoughts on “Anna Krien, Night games: Sex, power and sport (Review)

  1. I don’t read much non-fiction although I recently read and greatly enjoyed Chloe Hooper’s Tall Man, where in building up to the trial and verdict (I didn’t know the outcome and was flabbergasted) the author crafted a different momentum to what you have outlined here. I like the idea of less emphasis on the trial and more upon the society that produces the attitudes allowing these situations to arise. I know nothing about the football world and don’t really wish to, but that women are viewed and used in this way might be an interesting argument to follow. It sounds like a very thorough book and I wonder how it has been received?

    • Tall man was great … glad you liked it. She did craft a different momentum but like Krien she shared her feelings, her uncertainties with us, didn’t she, which I liked.

      The Krien was only published a month ago I think, and I like to read and write my review before seeing what others think so I don’t really know. She was on a couple of panels/sessions at the Sydney Writers Festival and since posting I’ve looked at a couple of other reviews, one of which said that some critics have said it loses momentum when she leaves the trial. I didn’t find that at all … I liked it when she got back to the trial but in fact I found the other matter so interesting, and so well researched, that the trial was almost incidental, if that makes sense.

    • Oh, I’ll go look at it … would like to know what people don’t like – the ideas/content or the style. Thanks Guy.

      And, that price difference is a no-brainer isn’t it? Particularly for a straight, non-fiction text.

  2. Now, see, I want to know which people were looking at you askance! 😉 But more seriously, we have to face, discuss, and think through these “uncomfortable” topics if we have any chance at all of slowly shaping a world in which rape, and all its associated tentacles of behaviour/abuse/power/dominance/gender inequalities, does, if not cease to exist, at least become less prevalent in our culture. Well done for taking on and writing this review.

  3. I haven’t read the book it is on reserve at the library. However, I did attend the very good discussion at the Wheeler Centre between Helen Garner and Anna Krien. It was a revealing talk and Krien informed the audience that her material came mainly from Jason the accused. She did try to talk to the girl but she and her family wouldn’t associate with Krien because she had contact with Jason. Jason is not a player in the major AFL league, he played for the VFL. He did associate with AFL players, and in my opinion this is where some AFL players were protected and Jason was left to hang out to dry. The court case was too limited in what was allowed to be revealed and neither Jason or the girl received justice. I asked the question how Jason and the girl were progressing in their lives now. Jason had moved on but Krien did not know about the girl. I too do not know who is innocent or guilty.


    • Thanks Meg … I had heard about that session. How great that you got to it. You’ve filled in some of the info I didn’t say in my review but that she does cover in the book. It’s like The first stone where the girls wouldn’t talk to Helen Garner, and also, really, Joe Cinque where Garner associated with Joe’s family. Krien made it clear that she didn’t talk to the girl. She also explained that the defendant, whom she named Jason, was a minor player and explained how the AFL lawyer managed to get the girl’s complaints against the AFL players not taken seriously and not charged in the end. So, the trial had to skirt around what had happened IN the house. All very unsatisfactory. The Epilogue though is interesting – where she sees Jason again. The sense is that he may not have learned as much from the experience as one would have hoped … but had learnt something. I liked her brief discussion of the idea that restorative justice may work in some of these murky cases.

  4. Sounds like a well done book. It seems in the US these days many high profile rape cases all center around whether or not there was consent. There was a big case not long ago involving two high school (American) football players who raped a girl at a party. She was so drunk she passed out. The lawyer argued consent because she agreed to go with the boys to the party. The jury ruled otherwise, the boys were convicted, and the press all declared how unfortunate that these young boys’ lives were ruined. Big backlash from feminist quarters: what about the 16-year-old girl? Her life wasn’t ruined? And so it goes.

    • Oh yes, Stefanie, it is this sort of thing that Krien covers, though in this particular case the young woman wasn’t passed out. Krien briefly talks about the idea of some rape being “opportunistic”, which she defines as “to exploit a chance offered by immediate circumstances, without a general plan or moral principle”. Opportunism, in this sense, can range widely from extremely violent attacks that can result in death to, I think, the sort of rape/assault described above to something where the women is conscious but unable to say no or to make her feelings clear. It’s the moral principle that is important here, the understanding of what’s right and a sensitivity to or empathy with the personhood of other. Who says saying “yes” to going to a party is saying “yes” to sex! And saying “yes” to sex with several? Really!

      I’ve seen some of that “young lives ruined” regarding young up and coming footballers (and that football bit is often important!) reporting – with no reference to the young girl’s life.

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  7. Unknown to me previously, we were so impressed by the natural candour and honesty of Anna Krien’s remarks this evening with Stan Grant on the ABC’s The Link. Refreshing, no doubt because she was so naturally well informed, it was one of the best commentaries we have heard of any ABC interview, and subsequent commentary. Unrealistic to expect, Anna is a person that would be such a joy to meet and discuss issues of the world, and Australia.
    Jenny & Philip Gardiner

    • Ah, how lovely of you Jenny and Philip to come here and comment after that piece, which I also saw. I agree with you. So articulate, so thoughtful, and so informed about what she talked about.

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