Rugby culture does not have to be a toxic dump of bigotry

Sigh.

Chiefs players also hired a stripper on the night one of them was caught chanting a homophobic slur toward teammates.

Franchise bosses have confirmed a stripper was engaged by players for their post-season get-together at a Waikato hot pool and said he was “Very disappointed” and conceded the two incidents weren’t a good look for the professional sports franchise.

I agree. It’s not a “good look”. But not for any of the reasons Chiefs CEO Andrew Flexman thinks.

Because the problem is not, in fact, “the Chiefs hired a stripper.” Hiring a stripper, taboo and saucy as it may seem, is a very common, dare one say “normal” part of Western culture.

The problem is that the Chiefs hired a stripper, then crossed her professional and personal boundaries – and yes, those boundaries are still valid, even more valid, for sex workers.

And there’s a wider problem, but it’s not “the Chiefs hired a stripper, which is embarrassing and unprofessional, the very same night Michael Allardice was a homophobic git to his teammates, which got bad headlines.”

The wider problem is that the Chiefs in particular, and our rugby culture in general, has been (once again) exposed as a hotbed of sexism, homophobia, and small-minded bigotry.

What we’re dealing with here is the concept of toxic masculinity. No, it doesn’t mean “all masculinity is toxic” or “all men are sexist pigs”; it’s a very specific set of assumptions and attitudes which are incredibly harmful to everyone in a society. A few completely random examples of these attitudes are:

  • Real Men are heterosexual.
  • Real Men are sexually aggressive.
  • The worst thing that could happen to a Real Man is for someone to think he’s weak. Or gay.
  • Therefore, a Real Man will treat women, especially sex workers, as objects rather than human beings.
  • And also deflect attention and undermine other men by implying they’re gay, especially if they engage in non-strictly-masculine behaviour.

selena gomez just saying

Now, people may say “oh, nobody at the Chiefs intended to reinforce awful narrow-minded notions about women, masculinity, sex work and sexuality” but those people need to re-read the excuse Andrew Flexman came up with to excuse his players’ obnoxious behaviour:

But Flexman strongly denied the allegations of improper behaviour, saying the franchise had independent witnesses who saw nothing untoward toward the woman.

“You have got to remember this is one person’s accusation and her standing in the community and culpability is not beyond reproach,” Flexman said.

“Her standing in the community is not beyond reproach.” On what basis does he make this judgement call? Well, obviously. She’s a stripper. Not a real human being who can be trusted to say whether or not her professional and personal boundaries were transgressed.

It’s the basic sexual double standard. Women who strip for money? Deviant, unworthy of protection or dignity. The men who pay money to watch a woman strip? Phwoar, yeah, red-blooded, pure testosterone, etc.

Men who use homophobic slurs and abuse sex workers? Especially when they’re rugby-playing men? Well, look, obviously it’s not a good look or anything but obviously nothing serious happened. They were just doing what Real Men do.

You can see this whole attitude reflected in the article. “Chiefs in hot water” – not “Chiefs players disgrace themselves”. Why? “Over stripper fracas”. Not “Over acting like pigs.” Not “By assaulting a sex worker.” This headline practically screams, “this is not a serious story.” Its subtext is simple: sure, yes, the PC Brigade are going to complain but there’s no big story here, it’s just a little PR boo-boo.

Still, maybe we should hold judgement until that well-known arbiter of sexism in sport, unrepentant convicted abuser Tony Veitch, gives us his two cents on the matter.

Like the headline says: our rugby culture does not have to be a toxic pool of radioactive misogyny and homophobia. It is entirely possible to enjoy sport, or play sport, as a competitive athletic endeavour of teamwork and skill and not act like a pack of vicious insecure bullies. Men don’t have to prove they’re Real Men through aggressively signalling “I AM A PERFECTLY NORMAL HETEROSEXUAL” by groping sex workers and shouting homophobic slurs.

There’s no such thing as one true model of A Real Man.

But if there were, it wouldn’t look like Andrew Flexman or his sad little rugby team.

The need for abortion law reform

I wrote yesterday about Right to Life’s latest attack on abortion access in New Zealand, so it’s timely to talk about the issue.

Abortion is one of the great untouchable topics in New Zealand politics. In the 80s we could fully decriminalise homosexuality, but we couldn’t decriminalise abortion. In the 2000s we could decriminalise sex work, but we couldn’t decriminalise abortion. We have absolute marriage equality now … and abortion is still the issue that people, especially on the left, freak out about every time.

As Alison McCulloch said in a post I linked to yesterday:

If this were any other issue, if the lives at stake were any other than those of people seeking abortions, action to provide this health service locally and more safely would be swift. But this is abortion. So even though this is about a procedure roughly one in four New Zealand women will undergo in their lifetimes, and even though abortion is something that is absolutely crucial to the autonomy and freedom of at least half of the population, politicians will continue to say everything is fine, judges will continue to make the law and doctors will continue to have control over our bodies, and our lives.

Alison’s book on the history of the abortion rights struggle in New Zealand, Fighting to Choose, is an absolute must-read.

Why is this the line? Why, at the recent Region 4 conference of the Labour Party I attended, did a remit on medical funding for trans people pass with no problems (I’m not going near the subsequent media statements by Labour MPs), and a remit on end of life choice pass with no problems, but a remit on abortion failed?

I can’t speak for the people who voted against it or spoke against it. I can only guess, and probably unfairly, about why abortion gets treated as a special issue.

But these are the facts.

Abortion is a crime in New Zealand. It is only allowed under certain circumstances, on the agreement of two separate physicians. Rape is not grounds for an abortion – it was specifically omitted because our lawmakers assumed pregnant people would just lie about being raped. You know, the way we always do.

Abortion access is very difficult for some people. The Abortion Supervisory Committee has regularly highlighted this. Until very recently, pregnant people seeking abortions who live in Invercargill had to travel to Christchurch, on a specific day of the week, sometimes staying overnight, to have their terminations. Pregnant people from the West Coast still have to do this.

Our abortion laws were written in the late 70s. Medical technology has moved on – that’s why Right to Life hope to be able to force the Family Planning clinic in Tauranga to stop providing safer, easier, cheaper medication abortions. Society has moved on.

I cannot accept that it is impossible to explain this issue clearly and concisely to people – and get a good, constructive response.

In fact, I know it’s not impossible. In 2013 Alison McCulloch did a Prochoice Highway tour across New Zealand, and received overwhelmingly positive reactions. When you have a chat to people and say “Hey, did you know abortion is still a crime in New Zealand law? Did you know pregnant people have to get two different doctors to sign off on their procedure, and have to plead mental illness to get it?” they are surprised. That’s not the New Zealand they know – the liberal hippie paradise which gave women the vote first and kicked out American nuclear subs. Our abortion laws are worse that America’s – that shocks people.

And when you tell them that people still have to raise money to fly to Australia for abortions if they don’t find out they’re pregnant early enough, they’re shocked. Or that abortion providers are still targeted for vandalism and abuse, in this day and age.

The message is simple: abortion is a common, safe medical procedure, governed by laws from the 70s. There’s nothing radical about acknowledging they need to change. There’s nothing scary about letting pregnant people be in control of their own bodies.

Yes, the religious extremists will howl and wail and threaten divine retribution. Just like they did for prostitution law reform. Just like they did for civil unions. Just like they did for marriage equality. But for God’s sake, New Zealand. Maurice Williamson of all people became an international star on the basis of mocking that kind of ridiculous scare-mongering.

They are bullies. They attack us to make us back down. And time and time again, on this issue, we – the progressive left of New Zealand politics – have rewarded their behaviour by shying away from it.

All we need is the courage to say “our abortion laws are outdated. Bringing them in line with modern medical knowledge will save taxpayer dollars and provide huge benefits to New Zealand women.* It’s the right thing to do and you’re right. There are other important issues too. So isn’t it great how quickly we can fix this one and move on?”

This issue isn’t going away. So why not make it a win?

 

 

*Not only women get pregnant.