Banter or Sexual Assault?
Something happened during last weekend’s rugby international that made headlines. During an altercation after a breakdown in play, with several players pushing and shoving, England Prop Joe Marler was filmed gently grabbing the crotch of the opposition captain, Alun Wyn Jones. Jones looked to the touch judge for assistance, but he clearly hadn’t seen it.
I spotted it live, and my initial reaction was one of bewilderment before quickly leaving it behind as the game moved on. But after the match the incident stuck with me, and over on Twitter two clear schools of thought began rapidly forming: one considered it to be an hilarious bit of ‘banter’; the other, sexual assault.
‘Banter’ is a word I despise at the best of times, because while it can be used to describe innocent and genuinely funny jokes between friends, it’s often used to excuse offensive or abusive behaviour in the name of humour. This didn’t fall into the same category as dropping the ball behind your back when the opposition are trying to retrieve it for a line-out. It felt weird, pulling me out of the game for a brief second. But I didn’t immediately think of it as sexual assault.
Some people tried to defend it by pointing to the ‘hilarious’ and infamous photo from the late 80s of footballer Vinnie Jones grabbing Paul Gascoigne by the testicles. This didn’t help their case for me, because that was clearly vicious and as far as I’m concerned it should have ended his playing days.
But this wasn’t violent. It was gentle. Many, including former England captain Will Carling, took to Twitter to say it couldn’t have been any form of assault because it didn’t cause pain. The politically correct and easily offended just need to get a sense of humour.
One of the more common condemnations asked those who considered it banter how they would feel if it happened to them in their place of work. The responses mainly amounted to, ‘I wouldn’t expect to be rugby-tackled in the office either’, dismissing it as a logical fallacy. But just as an office administrator and a construction worker may interact differently with colleagues, professional sports stars are to expect certain forms of physical contact as they go about their job. And ultimately, that’s what it is — a job. But a complete absence of unwanted touching isn’t an unreasonable demand. In rugby you tackle, ruck, push and get pushed. It can get heated. But this wasn’t that.
In an admirable interview after the game, Alun Wyn Jones said that if he’d reacted, he would have received a red card. It may have been a joke from Marler, but it was one for which he was certainly looking for a reaction — otherwise, why else would he have done it? He knew he was able to get away with it, and Jones would be powerless to react.
And that’s what it comes down to: power. Some sensible voices joined the Twitter debate to point out that sexual assault often has little to do with sex, but more to do with power. In the middle of a heated international match, in a stadium with 80 thousand people watching, televised to the world, it was hardly a sexual advance. But it was a power move. It was a deliberate attempt to make someone feel powerless to react, regardless of whether Marler himself considered it as having any serious implications. He groped someone in public, with the likely intent of humiliating.
He’s been cited for the incident, and rightly so. These men are heroes to rugby fans around the world, with 9 million people in the UK alone watching the fixture live last year. This is not the example they should be setting. I know from my own brief, amateur career that the same rules don’t apply without the cameras. I know that bullies on school sports fields are always looking to see where the line is drawn, so they can cross it. Teachers encourage children to watch in the hope they pick up an interest in the sport, and this is not what they want them to see. Many potential participants and fans will be put off the sport by incidents like these.
We don’t yet know what punishment he’ll get, but judging by his own contribution to the Twitter debate he sparked (‘Bollocks. Complete bollocks’) he doesn’t feel he did anything wrong. A lengthy ban might change his mind.