Constructing Rape

What can the Scott Kuggeleijn rape case teach us about how we think about sexual violence?

New Zealanders love sport. Cricket and rugby are two sports in particular that are afforded considerable status and occupy a position of national prominence. However, while our professional athletes are revered for their impressive sporting talents, they don’t always all behave in exemplary ways, as some of the evidence presented in the recent trial of Cricketer Scott Kuggeleijn suggests.

The acquittal of Kuggeleijn on rape charges and the discourse surrounding the trial reveals a lot about how we think about sexual violence, the narratives that frame our societal understanding of it, and raises important questions for the future if we are to move toward a safer society for women in particular.

Sexual violence cases involving male athletes are not uncommon. Over the past 20 years numerous cases have been internationally reported. It also isn’t unusual for the accused to be acquitted, for the charges to be dropped, or for the punishment to be light. Footballer Ched Evans in the UK was acquitted of rape in 2016 following testimonies from previous partners regarding their sexual experiences with the complainant, and their accounts of her preferences (England, 2016). Charges against US basketballer Kobe Bryant were dropped in 2004 after the complainant, who was repeatedly berated by media and Bryant’s defence team over several months, stated that she did not wish to speak in court (Stern, 2016). In 2016 US swimmer Brock Turner spent six months in jail following conviction for sexual assault (Hunt, 2016).

Securing a conviction in rape cases, even when the accused does not have the high profile of an elite athlete, is notoriously difficult. The attrition rate (the rate at which cases ‘fall out’ of the justice system process before a verdict can be reached) in New Zealand is very high. In a 2009 study of adult sexual violence cases, only 13% resulted in a conviction (Mossman, MacGibbon, Kingi, & Jordan, 2009).

It is also well-documented that rape is under-reported. Examining media reports of the recent case which culminated in the acquittal of Scott Kuggeleijn on February the 24th this year, it isn’t difficult to see why. Despite witness statements that the complainant was in a hysterical state immediately following the alleged rape, Kuggeleijn’s admission that the complainant had initially said no, and reports he had boasted to his friends that he had ‘cracked it’, media reporting revealed defence tactics which focused on the complainant’s clothing and behaviour (New Zealand Herald, 2017a).  Evidence that was reported and focused on, for instance, included that the complainant had worn a short skirt and singlet and was, according to Kuggeleijn, “provocatively dressed” and “looking for male attention”. He also stated that the complainant was “exposing a lot more parts of her body than other girls do”. The prosecutor asked Kuggeleijn if he felt pressure from his friends to have sex with the complainant after flirting with her the night before, but he denied that. He was then asked if, by the morning, he had become frustrated with the complainant because she wouldn’t do what he wanted her to do. Kuggeleijn was reported to have responded with “I suppose it was slightly frustrating, yeah” but “I did not force myself on her…She is lying” (Biddle, 2017a). Reading these accounts, it is easy to see why most victims do not report their experiences at all.

What excerpts from this trial reveal is the centrality of victim-blaming, where the woman’s appearance, character, and sexual agency are factors used to undermine her credibility as a victim. This, unfortunately, is an all too common scenario. A number of studies have demonstrated how female victims of sexual violence are frequently constructed as responsible for their own demise. They are unable to control their sexuality, are liars, excessive drinkers, and risk takers who ‘got what they were looking for’. As Gavey (2005) has previously acknowledged, significant pockets of victim-blaming and minimising discourses of rape still exist, and the social structures for preventing rape and responding effectively to women who have been raped are still inadequate.

Women are also more often discussed in media coverage in terms of their appearance (Weatherall, 2002). This focus is something that came through particularly strongly in reporting of the Kuggeleijn case. The defence tactics revealed a reliance on tired stereotypes, with defence counsel asking the jury in relation to Kuggeleijn’s accounts of his own behaviour “That’s not the behaviour of a rapist, is it?” (Biddle, 2017b). But how does a rapist typically behave? Despite stereotypes of strangers in dark alleyways, numerous studies have revealed that offenders are typically rather ordinary, reflected in the fact that they are usually known to the victim as either acquaintances or intimate partners. They buy flowers, they hold doors open, they tell jokes – they are often very likable and respected individuals. While a minority operate in a stereotypical way, the majority are very ordinary indeed and cannot be detected through their everyday interactions. However, regardless of their ordinariness, the impacts of their actions are no less devastating for their victims.

Kuggeleijn’s status as an athlete was highly visible in reporting, with the case described in several articles as the “cricket rape trial” (New Zealand Herald, 2017b).  While Northern Districts Cricket Association Peter Roach commented that the allegations made against Kuggeleijn were of “grave concern”, no action was taken against him. Kuggeleijn was reported to have stepped down temporarily during the trial due to the “distraction” this would create. Within three days of the not guilty verdict, an article was published lauding Kuggeleijn’s sporting achievements, noting that he could be selected to represent New Zealand as a Black Cap as soon as May (Geenty, 2017). This example indicates that the common claim that men’s lives are ruined by allegations of rape, even when they are acquitted, is a fallacy. Kuggeleijn’s status as an elite athlete in a nationally revered sport appears to have quickly eclipsed his behaviour on the night in question.

This is an all too common pattern. The 2016 Ched Evans case and his swift return to professional football is also illustrative of this (Prenderville, 2016). Whilst both were acquitted, the evidence clearly shows that both men behaved badly towards women, regardless of how that behaviour is defined in the eyes of the law. This begs questions of whether our idolising of elite athletes allows us to excuse unacceptable behaviours or deny them entirely. Indeed, Withers (2015) suggests that the pedestal on which male athletes are placed is a significant contributor to the low conviction rate. Similarly, Flood and Dyson (2007) have noted that the celebritisation of professional athletes may create a sense of entitlement and a lack of accountability for their behaviour off the field.

However, what transpired during the reporting of this case isn’t just about male athletes, nor is it only about Kuggeleijn. It is about a long legacy of disbelieving women’s accounts of sexual violence, of suggesting that their behaviour, their clothing and their sexuality is to blame for any adverse and traumatising experiences they have.  Analysis of over four decades of newspaper coverage has shown that societal attitudes to rape and women who are victims has been continually been structured around victim blaming rhetoric, and this continues in the present day (Barton, forthcoming 2017). This case is, unfortunately, not exceptional and it illustrates that until we change our dominant narrative around sexual violence, and recognise the diverse circumstances in which it occurs, the words of women who are victimised will continue to be silenced and very few perpetrators will be held to account. And media reporting of sexual violence cases will continue to reflect the same old story.

Ange Barton and Lynzi Armstrong, Institute of Criminology, Victoria University of Wellington.


Barton, A. (forthcoming, 2017). A woman’s words – what are they worth? Rape in New Zealand newspapers: 1975 – 2015. Unpublished Masters dissertation. Victoria University of Wellington.

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New Zealand Herald. (2017a, February 21). Scott Kuggeleijn rape trial: Alleged victim enjoyed the sex, cricketer tells court. Retrieved from:

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Prenderville, L. (2016, November 13). Ched Evans given standing ovation as Chesterfield are thrashed by former club Sheffield United. The Mirror. Retrieved from:

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Weatherall, A. (2002). Gender, Language and Discourse. East Sussex: Routledge.

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