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)