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Sexual Maltreatment in Sport

This is an excerpt from Social Psychology in Sport-2nd Edition by Louise Davis,Richard Keegan & Sophia Jowett.

By Gretchen Kerr, PhD, and Erin Willson, MSc

Sexually related offenses have received the most media and research attention, beginning in the early to mid-1990s with victims’ revelations from National Hockey League players in Canada and national-level swimmers in the United Kingdom, among others. Since then, a continuous stream of cases of sexual abuse of athletes have emerged across countries and sports. The Larry Nassar trial in the United States, the Barry Bennell case in the United Kingdom, the Bertrand Charest case in Canada, and the Fernando Lopes case in Brazil, as some of many examples, have drawn significant public scrutiny of sport. The disproportionate attention devoted to sexual maltreatment, compared with other forms of maltreatment, may be because sexual maltreatment is more clearly defined in the legal system, particularly when the sexual maltreatment involves minors.

Over the past decade, there have been advances in research on sexual maltreatment, including prevalence studies in countries such as Germany, Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and Belgium (Alexander et al., 2011; Ohlert, 2018; Parent et al., 2016; U.S. Center for SafeSport, 2021; Vertommen et al., 2016; Willson et al., 2021). Alexander and colleagues (2011) found 29% of respondents reported sexual maltreatment, whereas 14% of athletes in a study by Vertommen and colleagues (2016) reported at least one experience of sexual harms, and 19% of current and 23% of retired Canadian athletes reported at least one experience of sexual maltreatment (Willson et al., 2021). In the United States, 9% of athletes reported experiencing inappropriate sexual contact in their sport environment, and 34% of athletes experienced unwanted sexual comments or looks. In Sweden, 5.5% of respondents reported coach-related sexual harassment and abuse (Johansson & Lundqvist, 2017); 13% of female and 6% of male athletes in Australia reported sexual maltreatment in sport (Leahy et al., 2002); and 35% of athletes in a German study (Ohlert, 2021), 45% of athletes in a Norwegian study (Fasting et al., 2003), and 8.8% of adolescent athletes in a Quebec study (Parent et al., 2016) reportedly experienced sexual harms. The large variation in prevalence rates, from 5.5% to 45%, can be attributed to differences in populations studied (e.g., elite versus non-elite athletes, child versus all athletes) and the measures and definitions of sexual harms used. For instance, some surveys focused on contact forms of sexual harms such as unwanted sexual touching, while others included noncontact forms of harms, such as sexist jokes and remarks and intrusive sexual glances, in addition to contact forms. More consistent conceptual frameworks and measurement tools to assess the prevalence of sexual maltreatment in sport will advance research in this area.

There has also been an increased focus on specific populations, including male athletes, adult athletes, racialized athletes, athletes with a disability, and those identifying as LGBTQ2I+. Willson and colleagues (2021) surveyed current and retired athletes over the age of 16, where 19.7% of current and 21% of former athletes reportedly experienced sexual maltreatment, indicating these behaviors are also experienced by athletes in late adolescence and emerging adulthood. Hartill (2014) adopted a narrative approach to explore two male athletes’ experiences with sexual abuse from their coach as children. The participants identified the barriers to disclosing and reporting, including the guilt and shame associated with the abuse, fear of disclosure and reporting, and specific fears of homosexual labeling, along with the general stigma experienced by sexual assault victims. In a 2021 study of athletes in the United States, Black athletes and bisexual athletes experienced almost twice as much inappropriate sexual contact, and athletes with a disability experienced significantly more inappropriate contact. Similarly, individuals with those same identity characteristics (racialized, sexual minority, disability) reported more sexual assault (U.S. Center for SafeSport).

There is also growing awareness of the potential use of social media as a vehicle by which to perpetrate sexual maltreatment. Sanderson and Weathers (2020) reviewed 99 published media accounts documenting coaches being arrested for sexual behavior using Snapchat and involving athletes. The coaches were primarily male with a mean age of 30 years; the victims were primarily female with a mean age of 15 years. Coaches used this platform to exploit the relationship of trust and closeness they had with their athletes and engaged in grooming—gradually violating relationship boundaries and external barriers and breaking down resistance. With direct and discreet access to athletes, including sharing of explicit photos, the online interactions often, over time, led to a physical relationship. Litchfield and colleagues (2016), using the term virtual maltreatment, reported that three prominent forms occur on social media: (1) the admiration of physical beauty and sexualization, (2) threats of physical or sexual contact, and (3) emotional ridicule, all of which are largely unregulated online. Examples of these forms of violence include expressions of desire for sexual relations, often in explicit terms, or referring to women using derogatory language.

Although coaches have often been the focus of research as perpetrators of sexual maltreatment, we mustn’t forget that other stakeholders in sport can also be perpetrators, as illustrated by the Nassar case in USA Gymnastics. As a team physician, Nassar perpetrated sexual harms over decades of treating young athletes, crimes for which he is now imprisoned (Kirby, 2018). Additionally, in a Canadian prevalence study of maltreatment among national team athletes (Willson et al., 2021), peers were most frequently cited as the perpetrators of sexual harms.

Sexual maltreatment between peers in sport often occurs through hazing and initiation practices, which have been well documented in research and in the media. Hazing has been defined as “any activity expected of someone joining a group that humiliates, degrades, abuses or endangers, regardless of the person’s willingness to participate” (Hoover, 1999, p. 8). While hazing can occur in many forms, sexual violence is a predominant method to initiate teammates. Athletes have reported disturbing hazing activities of a sexual nature, including forced public nudity (e.g., stealing clothes or towels after a shower and making the athlete walk home naked, being taped to a bench while naked), forced penetration with objects (e.g., broomsticks), and being forced to perform sexual acts (Allan & Madden, 2012; Waldron & Kowalski, 2009).

More Excerpts From Social Psychology in Sport 2nd Edition



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