Former football player tells of the night he was allegedly raped by his teammate

Ben was abused by his football peers.

Ben was abused by his football peers.

The burly young Victorian footballer sits hunched and crying in the bath as his mother scrubs frantically to remove the words "whore" and "slut", which have been scrawled upon his naked body in lipstick.

It has been years since Ben, 21, has cried. But today the tears wiggle down his face and into the stained bathwater, as the Warrandyte seconds player heaves and sobs like a child.

The night before the biological science student had been staying at a teammate's house when he says he was repeatedly attacked by a group of older players.

He would recall being woken by a sudden blaze of the bedroom light and remember the laughing men ripping off his underpants, pinning him down and drawing on him.

At first he brushed off their behaviour as "just the stuff that footy club boys do". Then he says one of them did something unthinkable.

Ben's story, told here for the first time, is one of the few reported cases of alleged adult male rape within an Australian sporting club.

But it is certainly not unique.

Sexual assault agencies are aware of other similar cases where young men have been abused by teammates – when humiliating practical jokes between friends have crossed the line into criminal assault.

The evening started like any other boozy night out with footy boys. It was about a month after the end of the 2003 season. The Warrandyte Bloods reserves side had finished third on the ladder, but were booted from the finals series in the first round by Upper Ferntree Gully.

At closing time at the Grand Hotel, Ben remembers being repeatedly asked by an older player – his alleged rapist – to go back to another player's house with about 12 other people. "In the end I thought why not," Ben says.

By the time he got back to the share house, Ben was feeling "pretty blotto" and decided to go to bed. In the small spare room he stripped down to his underpants, crawled under the covers and fell asleep.  

Before this night, the part-time courier had witnessed and heard stories about the extreme behaviour of a handful of players at the club, who he said would try to shove soap up people's bums in the showers and, during one end-of season trip, bake faeces in the oven.

Another Warrandyte player who spoke to The Age says a "ringleader" of one group of older reserves players was a 32-year-old serving police officer.

At first, Ben says he "wasn't that worried", as a group of about four men, including the policeman, stormed into his room, wrote on him and ripped off his jocks before they returned, presumably, to keep drinking.

Wanting to sleep in peace, Ben said he got up and tried to barricade the door with a vacuum cleaner and other things stored nearby.

But the tactic was ineffective. Suddenly, sickeningly, he remembers being woken by a horrible painful sensation of something inside him. When he opened his eyes, he says, he saw a large carrot lying between his legs, and the grinning policeman running out of the room.

He could hear laughing and feel a sticky cream - Vaseline - around his anus. The lubricant was also on the carrot and smeared on the bed. He was sure he'd been penetrated.

The last time Ben had cried was when he was 14 at his grandmother's funeral, but that night the tears came in a tidal wave. "I felt so degraded, so worthless," remembers Ben. "I couldn't hold myself together, it was like a steam train had hit me."

Ben says some in the group tried to console him, while his alleged attacker said something like "I just went over the top mate, I shouldn't have done it". But another bloke just laughed and called him "carrot arse".

 The Centre Against Sexual Assaults' Carolyn Worth says she is aware of other alleged cases in which where a male victim, who had typically passed out, had something inserted into his anus by a friend or teammate.

"You don't hear them everyday but every now and again one turns up," she said.

Australian experts believe that male-to-male abuse within sporting clubs could be as prevalent as in other masculine environments, such as the military, where crimes have been well documented.

Late last year it was alleged that sailors on an Australian navy frigate used to intercept asylum seekers were involved in a hazing ritual in which young men were anally penetrated with pens and other objects on their birthdays.

Meanwhile, a young able seaman told a Sydney court martial in September that he had been brutally raped with a rubber chicken in front of 30 other crewmates while onboard HMAS Newcastle in 2011.

Sexual assaults linked to team bonding also regularly make headlines in the United States. In Vermont, high school football players reportedly sexually assaulted younger players with broomsticks or pool cues.

Australian research has shown that only about 35 per cent of recent sexual assault victims report the crime to police. Ms Worth said the proportion of silent victims could be even higher for male victims assaulted by their sporting teammates.

Men who have been raped typically stayed silent, Ms Worth says, because they feel humiliated and worried what people will think of them.  "Then there's the perception that this is not something that happens to 'real blokes' – it happens to girls."

Yet, Dr Michael Flood, an expert in gender issues, says there has been a long history of men being "initiated" into workplaces through practices that involve peoples' genitals or bodies. Dr Flood, who has worked on studies for the AFL, said sometimes these rituals slide into sexual assault.

The term "hazing" is most often used to describe college initiations in the United States, he says. In Australia and the Australian Defence Force in particular, acts commonly involving "physically stressful and ritualistic practices"  have been better known as bastardisation. 

Catharine Lumby, who has worked with the National Rugby League as a gender adviser , says "male-dominated bonding cultures" such as  the military, sporting groups and university colleges have a lot of positive elements. But some men in these groups will deal with their insecurity and anger by projecting their frustrations on others, she says.

"By degrading other people they demonstrate that they're men. It's important for them in those scenarios that they have other people to witness it," Professor Lumby said.

Gary Foster, manager of male sexual abuse support group Living Well, says sporting clubs involved in sexual abuse often try to protect their image, instead of attempting to hold alleged offenders to account. In some cases, he says, it is the victim that ended up being blamed, for breaking a team's code of silence.  

Shortly after Ben was allegedly raped, depression and drug abuse made their appearance in his life. In early March 2004, the young man turned up at a pre-season training session slurring his words, after downing six beers and multiple Valium tablets. Later that evening he fronted up to the club's board and told the group he had been raped.

Former Warrandyte Football Club president Phil Treeby says the club's management looked into the incident immediately. He says they spoke to a number of witnesses who confirmed Ben's version of events. Although Mr Treeby said the policeman would not speak to the club about the allegation, a decision was made by the club's committee to ban him.

Yet despite this action, Ben said he was facing pressure to keep quiet about what had happened from some of his teammates. One player suggested that Ben was masturbating on the night (which Ben denies) or that "if you go to the police that is what people are going to say." Another dismissed Ben's terrible nightmares about being raped by denying it, saying: "you weren't raped – maybe you're just gay".

It was Ben's parents who finally called the police. The matter was investigated by the Ethical Standards Department because the alleged offender was a serving police officer.

Rape charges were laid in 2005, but the policeman was acquitted when he stood trial in 2006. Retired Victoria Police detective Chris Gawne investigated the case and says the jury at the trial did not accept that there was sufficient evidence "beyond reasonable doubt" to convicted the alleged offender.

"It is difficult to get a conviction against a serving police officer. Apart from whatever evidence issues there may be ...there is an added issue that juries are reluctant to convict a serving police office," he says. "The community don't want to think that a police officer would do such a thing, that they would commit a criminal offence."

The former Ethical Standards Department detective says that in his experience it is always difficult to get sufficient evidence in a sexual assault investigation and there are often confusing issues around consent.

"But this case was completely different," he says. "Consent was never an issue, it was a matter of whether the complainant was mistaken about penetration taking place."

The alleged offender, who remains in the force, did not respond to The Sunday Age's opportunity to comment.

In 2008,a Victims of Crime Assistance Tribunal - where rulings are determind by a magistrate, not a jury - concluded that Ben had been a victim of the "criminal act" of sexual penetration of a person on October 4, 2003. They awarded him $16,600.

Jill Duncan from a Centre Against Sexual Assault says male rape "really rocks people's souls".

"When the people who have done that are known and trusted and you might have looked up to them, there's a huge betrayal of ordinary human values."

Male sexual assault expert Sarah Crome says men who had been sexually assaulted as adults tend to experience similar effects as female survivors, including psychiatric disorders and relationship and behavioural problems.

"Self harming and compulsive behaviour including self-mutilation, reckless behaviour like driving dangerously, drug and alcohol abuse and work addiction are widespread complaints. Suicidal thoughts and suicide attempts are not uncommon," she says.

Dr Flood said men who had been sexually abused in hazing rituals were also likely to be dealing with some distinct troubles.  "Being assaulted by peers as part of behaviour that is semi-public and condoned would add to the trauma and distress of the experience," he said.

Eleven years after his alleged assault, Ben is outwardly doing well. He has bought a second home, finished university, begun a professional career and, more recently, became engaged. But internally, he often struggles with depression.

There was the day he drove up an outback road, with a rope in the back of his ute and sat under a tree and contemplated his future.

"I have had a suicide attempt on pills, before throwing my fingers down my throat, and then sat listening to [my fiance] weep while speaking to the poisons information line," he says.

Ben says he has also stitched his own arms up after self harming.

Former players at Warrandyte Football Club who have spoken to The Age have mixed views over whether the club culture at the time could have contributed to the alleged rape of a young man.

The club president at the time denies the incident was linked to the culture of the group, but says unsavoury personalities were no longer tolerated at Warrandyte. .

"He wouldn't find friends at our club as it is today," Mr Treeby said.

He said what happened to Ben was extra impetus for the club to approach AFL Victoria for access to respect and responsibility training, commencing the program in 2011.

"Do the guys do stupid things sometimes?" he said. "While someone might have too much to drink or someone might get a tattoo with poor spelling, we've gone on quite a journey since then with the other players."

This year a group of footballers in the same suburban league were fined and ordered to do community service after it emerged they ran naked around the oval as self-punishment for losing a game of indoor Olympics.

Eastern Football League chief executive Phil Murton said a group of 10 to 15 adult East Burwood Rams players had made a "spur-of-the-moment decision" to run a lap of the ground in "various states of undress."

"The players chose the penalty and participated voluntarily, while some chose not to do so," Mr Murton said

Dr Foster said sporting leagues should have a "zero tolerance" towards demeaning behaviour, because by accepting hazing and other humiliating pranks, there was a danger serious crimes could be committed.

"When you start to step towards any process when you're demeaning of someone else, if you're using force, you've started on this path," he said.

"Someone might take the extra step."

Ben said he had experienced the worst of what can happen when men made a sport of humiliating their mates.

"What I do understand is that breeds of culture of 'What's next? What's next?'."

"That's the reason I wanted to tell my story. Bad acts breed worse acts – and this act affected me greatly and still does."

Need assistance? Contact the 24-hour Sexual Assault Crisis Line on 1800 806 292 or 1800 737 732.

theage.com.au