Harassment leads to sport drop-out

Studies suggest that sexual harassment can cause female athletes to leave the field of sport. “This means that harassment may lead to big losses for sport,” says Professor Kari Fasting, Norway’s foremost expert on the subject.
Sexual harassment is just as common in sport as in other arenas. It is not unusual for the coach to be the perpetrator, according to Professor Kari Fasting. (Ill: www.colourbox.no)

“It began at the start of the season. Everything was so nice at the beginning but it began to become more and more that he would demonstrate techniques and stroke my bottom and my breasts … and if I had done something really good it became customary for him to hold me and kiss me on the mouth and whisper ‘You’re my girl’ in my ear.”

Anna is 16 years old, and her coach in his mid-50s. She is one of the best in the country in her sport, and he has coached her for six to seven years. Anna’s father, who means a lot to her, falls seriously ill and this has a negative impact on their relationship. The teenage girl is comforted by her coach, who gives her positive attention and acknowledgement.

Gradually their relationship becomes more intimate until one day the turning point comes when her coach finds Anna alone in the work-out room. “He came and gave me a hug and a kiss but then he went further and he wanted to hold me sexually,” says Anna. Someone else enters the room and interrupts the scene. Anna thinks this “saved” her from an embarrassing and extremely unpleasant situation, which she is not sure she could have extracted herself from on her own:

“I had never said no before. I never resisted when he kissed me on the mouth but I understood that something started to go wrong with my coach.”

Authority figures are more often the perpetrators

Anna is one of many female athletes who have been informants in Professor Kari Fasting’s long-term research on sexual harassment in the field of sport. As in most other arenas, many women as well as a number of men experience behaviour such as undesired sexual attention, unwelcome comments about their body and sex, and undesired physical contact.

In a study of top female athletes conducted by Fasting a few years ago, 28 percent altogether said that they have been the victim of sexual harassment in one form or another, either from other athletes, coaches or others who work in the field. In a later study of sport science students, 24 percent gave similar reports.

Professor Kari Fasting. (Photo: Kristin Engh Førde)

“The figures show that the situation is neither worse nor better in sport than in other places. But sport is an arena that is generally perceived to be ‘safe’ and for this reason many people are probably less aware of the problem than they should be,” says Fasting, who is a professor at the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences. She points out that sport differs from other fields when it comes to who the perpetrators are.

“A greater number of top athletes are sexually harassed by a ‘superior’, meaning a person who is part of the support system around the athlete, than the control group in our study experienced from their managers in the workplace or their teachers at a school or university.”

Boundaries are eroded

“Sexual harassment evokes strong emotions. In our studies, the victims report reactions such as disgust, fear, irritation and anger,” explains Fasting. Many like Anna say that the harassment occurs over an extended period of time, often without the victim telling anybody else about it or confronting the perpetrator.

“One of the most frustrating findings is that many of the athletes who are harassed do nothing to stop it. They react with avoidance or passivity,” says Fasting.

Why don’t the victims set boundaries? According to Fasting, Anna’s story is a typical example of what is known in research on assault as “grooming”, the process whereby a perpetrator builds up trust while eroding the victim’s ability to resist. The process can be divided into four phases: First, the perpetrator chooses a victim, usually by identifying especially vulnerable individuals. Then he develops a friendship based on trust by making the victim feel special. After this, the perpetrator establishes control over the victim, often by isolating the victim from others who are important to her. In the fourth phase the assaults begin, and at this point the perpetrator will have such control over the victim that she cannot defend herself. Sometimes the perpetrator corners the victim with arguments such as “You didn’t object last time” or “You owe this to me”, according to Fasting. 

By using threats such as “Nobody will believe you” or “If you tell someone about this I will...”, the perpetrator ensures that the assaults will be kept secret. In the field of sport, the threat of being excluded from the team is often used. This can be an effective way of gaining control of girls and women who may have invested years of hard training in their sport.

Powerful coaches 

Often the threats are unnecessary. Anna does not dare tell her parents or anyone in the club about her coach’s behaviour. She does not dare confront him either because she has too much to lose:

“I have to be on good terms with him – I wouldn’t dare not to be because he is so powerful. If he wanted to make real trouble for me then I think he could manage it. It’s not that I think that he’s evil in any way really but you become insecure towards someone that you have trusted and looked on as your father when he does things like this when you are 16 years old.”

After a while, Anna manages to set some boundaries for the coach, and the harassment stops. She continues to train with the club, but she refuses to be kissed and gets help from a girlfriend so she can avoid being alone with him. But the incidents continue to ruin a lot for the girl. She does not perform as well in her sport and she is bothered by what has happened. “He will always be at competitions anyway so, in a way, I can’t escape him,” she says.

Must be taken seriously

Fasting believes that the field of sport risks losing a great deal if it does not take responsibility for combating sexual harassment and assault.

“One of our studies indicates that female athletes who are sexually harassed drop out of sport as a result. Consequently, sexual harassment can lead to considerable loss for the field of sport and for the women who do not get to pursue their interests and realize their potential. Sport needs women and women need sport,” says Fasting. She explains that the problem is receiving more attention and some progress has been made. For example, the Norwegian Olympic and Paralympic Committee and Confederation of Sports (NIF) adopted guidelines against sexual harassment in 2000, and new, more extensive guidelines are being drawn up. Now is the time to raise this issue at all levels of education, Fasting believes.

“Everyone who works in the field of sport should be aware of the problem and receive training in how to address it,” says the professor.

Translated by Connie Stultz

The researcher

Kari Fasting is a professor in the Department of Cultural and Social Studies at the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences. She has conducted research on sexual harassment in sport over several decades.

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