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Association for the
Treatment of Sexual Abusers


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Volume XVI, No. 2 • Spring 2004
A Whole New Ball Game? Sex Offending in Sport1 and ATSA 2003 Reflections from the Sidelines
 
I was thrilled to receive an invitation to speak at ATSA 2003, not just for the event itself, which would certainly be one of the largest audiences I had ever addressed, but because I knew it would be a way to meet many of the people whose work I have been reading for several years. Most importantly, it would be a way to take ideas and findings from research on sport out into a wider audience of treatment specialists. I was not disappointed. The conference gave me a chance to meet many interesting and attentive colleagues who gave new impetus to my own work. I did have cause to reflect, however, on some of the presentations that I heard that set me thinking. Below I offer a summary of my paper on sport and some reflections on one particular impression that I took away from the conference.
 
Sport as a site for sex offending
As professionals in the sex offending world you won't have to look too hard to see that it offers the abuser a conducive climate for sex offending. But are offences in sports characterized by exactly the same dynamics as those in any other settings or is sex offending in sports really a whole new ball game? And what is being done, and can be done, to bring sport organizations and programs into the treatment and prevention fold? It is in the history of sports that we find the answers to some of these questions.
 
Sport as we know it today is derived from mid- to late-nineteenth century industrialisation and urbanisation. It shares both the values and the ideology of the Victorian Christian church and was also used for enforcing discipline in schools and corrective institutions. Such was the success of mass sport that it came to occupy a special place in the affections of the general public. Our passion for sport acted as a political shield, however, and prevented close scrutiny by researchers and social critics. Sport was seen unequivocally as 'a good thing' and was relegated to a fantasy world that resides outside the mainstream grind of everyday life. Given this, it is not surprising that no attention was paid to child abuse or sex offending in sport until very recently.
 
One of the consequences of our national sporting obsession is our blindness to its faults. It is a world in which the 'other' is readily ignored, whether this be women, racial minorities, disabled athletes or pedophiles. In the cosy world of sports, where physical perfection and spiritual cleanliness are aspired to and expected, it is thought impossible for sexual violations to occur from within.
 
Initial denial of the possibility of sex offending in the UK sport lasted about fifteen years from the mid 1980s. Sport includes both private and public spaces and is a de facto family for many athletes (Brackenridge, 2000). Public violence on the field of play is often legitimated through the ideology of 'boys will be boys' (Brackenridge, 2001) whereas sexual violence in sport takes place within the private domain of the locker room and other spaces away from public gaze (Kirby and Greaves, 1996). Just as with marital rape, there has been a traditionally high tolerance of sexually exploitative practices, such as locker room sex talk (Curry, 1991 and 1998) and demeaning treatment of women sports journalists (Kane and Disch, 1993), women fans and 'groupies' (Robinson, 1998). The coach is afforded expert power over the athlete and often controls his or her entire lifestyle (Donnelly, 1997 and 1999; Tomlinson and Yorganci, 1997).
 
When the social problem of sexual exploitation in sport became associated with 'pedophile' abuse and child protection, government officials in the UK, Canada and Australia began to take notice. A Child Protection in Sport Unit (CPSU; http://www:thecpsu.org.uk ), now operates throughout the UK.
 
The scope of the problem
The majority of research on sex abuse outside sport has been conducted on intra-familial abuse, including physical, sexual, emotional and neglect, since this is the site of highest incidence (Fisher in Morrison et al., 1994). Relatively little research has been conducted on extra-familial abuse and even less on sexual and other types of abuse in the voluntary or not-for-profit sector, including amateur sport. Learning more about contextual and situational factors will be important for treatment regimes, since many of these currently emphasize individual and pathological parameters.
 
Several theoretical advances have been made in examining the question of whether sport is a distinctive location for these problems (Brackenridge, 1997a and b; Brackenridge and Kirby, 1997; Brackenridge, 2001). Given the relatively recent history of research in this area, it is not surprising that there is marked variation in approaches to the subject, both theoretical and methodological. Theoretical perspectives adopted include: feminist and pro-feminist, psychological, constructivist, sociological, medical/health and philosophical/ethical. Variation in methods and measures includes the use of quantitative surveys, tests and scales, qualitative interviews, documentary content analysis, biography and narrative analysis, and discourse analysis.
 
Data from three countries - Canada (Kirby and Greaves 1996; Kirby, Greaves and Hankivsky 2000), Norway (Fasting, Brackenridge and Sundgot-Borgen 2000) and Australia (Leahy, Pretty and Tenenbaum 2002) - are available, all of which indicate that sexual exploitation is a serious issue for sport.
 
Of the 266 respondents to the Canadian survey of high performance and recently-retired Olympic athletes, 21.8 per cent (n = 58) (Kirby and Greaves, 1996) replied that they had had sexual intercourse with persons in positions of authority in sport. Experience of forced sexual intercourse, or rape, by such persons was reported by 8.6 per cent (n = 23). These persons included team doctors, managers and physiotherapists, not just coaches. Locations for abuse and assaults were, in order of frequency, on a team trip, at a regular training session, in a private location, and in a vehicle or hotel.
 
In Norway, a survey of the top 660 female athletes, aged 15 to 39, representing 56 sport disciplines, were asked about experiences of sexual harassment and abuse, using a threshold rather than a severity measure (Fasting et al., 2000). An age matched control group from the general population was also surveyed. More than half of the participants had experienced one or more forms of sexual harassment. More of the athletes (15 per cent, n = 80) had experienced sexual harassment from authority figures in sport than controls had done from work supervisors or teachers (9 per cent, n = 46). This indicates that authority figures in sport may exhibit behavior towards athletes that is not tolerated or accepted in workplaces or educational institutions.
 
In a cross-sectional, retrospective survey of over 2,000 male and female, elite and club level athletes in Australia, (Leahy et al., 2002) 26.8 per cent (n = 99) reported having experienced sexual abuse at some point in their lives. Of these, almost half of the elite group and over a quarter of the club group indicated that this had occurred in sport. Females from both elite and club groups reported higher prevalence rates than males, with elite females reporting the highest rates of all. This study thus supports the earlier research that pointed to increased risks as performance level rises.
 
Qualitative research with survivors of abuse in sport reinforces the situational risk data from the prevalence studies (Brackenridge 1997; Cense and Brackenridge 2001; Fasting, Brackenridge and Walseth 2002). The milieu of elite sport does appear to pose particular risks for women athletes. Far fewer data about male athletes are available but there are fairly extensive journalistic and anecdotal accounts of hazing/initiation rituals in some male sports that point to increased risk, both for novice males and for female fans (or 'groupies'). This is usually associated with the consumption of large quantities of alcohol (Curry 1991; Robinson 1998; Kirby and Wintrup, 2002).
 
Canadian Sandra Kirby was one of the pioneers in sport research into sexual exploitation, conducting the first major survey on the issue, reported above (Kirby and Greaves, 1996; Kirby, Greaves and Hankivsky, 2000). She has recently (Kirby and Wintrup, 2002) explored how social models of 'hazing' and initiation practices in the military can inform an analysis of similar practices in sport teams. Hazing is of particular interest in the North American context since it has also been closely associated with campus fraternity and sorority initiations. College athletes are over-represented in police records for rape and sexual assaults (Pike Masteralexis, 1995; Benedict and Klein, 1997) and professional sports are seen by Benedict (19997, 1998) as a breeding ground for the cultural attitudes that foster acquaintance rape by athletes.
 
The contribution of sport to diagnosis and treatment
I have argued elsewhere (Brackenridge, 2002) that sex offender treatment practitioners pay for too little attention to situational and contextual factors in their analysis of offending practices and, therefore, in their subsequent interventions. I see it as imperative that we move beyond what I regard as an obsession with the determinism of seeking only pathological causes.
 
The question, then, is 'Given what is already known about static and dynamic risk factors, what can we learn by attending more closely to situational variables or contexts within which sex offending in sport occurs?' I think that there might be specificities of context in some sex offending repertoires and that investigating these contexts might just yield knowledge that will be of use in treatment work more generally. If I am right that situational factors have a greater role to play than is currently reflected in research then maybe sex offending in sport is a whole new ball game.
 
Summary and conclusions
Sport has long been adopted by politicians, educators and parents as a suitable vehicle for the development of healthy lifestyles, self-discipline, citizenship and personal morality. It has held a special place in the affections of western industrial societies for its supposed virtues and its potential as a tool of economic and social development. The special status of sport has also protected it from critical scrutiny and meant that social inequalities and other problems, such as sexual harassment and abuse, have all-too-often been ignored or tacitly condoned.
 
The social problem of sexual exploitation in sport has been constructed differently, at different times, by different stakeholders, with different agendas. It was brought to prominence by media coverage of a number of high profile scandals involving Olympic and other elite level coaches. Since this exposure, there has been widespread panic amongst sport professionals in several countries, and among parents of young athletes, about the need to keep sexually exploitative coaches 'out of sport' (Malkin, 1999; Malkin, Johnston and Brackenridge, 2000). Perpetrators of sexual abuse are depicted as monsters and beasts: othering or scape goating them in this way is then used to justify overlooking the social conditions which gave rise to their sexual 'deviance' in the first place. Paradoxically, illicit sexual relationships between under-age athletes and authority figures (predominantly heterosexual and perpetrated by male coaches) were known about and condoned for years before the sexually predatory paedophile became a target for vilification and a cause of moral panic.
 
Research on institutional sex offending has been much slower to develop than individual, pathological analyses. There is reason to be optimistic that sport research might eventually contribute to wider understanding of institutional abuse. But for that to happen there needs to be a concerted effort by both sport and non-sport researchers to share their work more often and more openly. Those of us researching sexual offending in sport and advocating for prevention have encountered hostility for daring to suggest that sexual transgressions might be a feature of modern sport. But the evidence base is now so overwhelming that sport administrators and public bodies have had to take action.
 
Whether or not sport is a distinctive setting for sexual abuse has yet to be demonstrated. What is clear right now, however, is that sex offending in sport has been overlooked for too long at the level of policy and prevention work and that more could and should be done to develop prevention programs. In the UK we have made a good start, requiring all state-funded sports to comply with a set of common national standards for child protection over the next five years as a condition of funding (CPSU, 2003). In the USA, with its vast diversity of sporting organizations, it is not yet clear who will take the lead in prevention work. In this land obsessed with sports at every age group, there is no coordinated strategy for sex abuse prevention. It may be time for that to change.
 
Coda
I heard the final keynote presentations about a delegation of ATSA members to the Vatican earlier in 2003. Their brief was to enrich the discussion on sex offending by Catholic priests by giving 'expert' information. I was hugely interested in hearing these presentations as I see very close parallels between the Church and sport as institutional locations for abuse. Imagine my dismay then when one speaker asked "Which parts of the brain are responsible for this behavior?" My heart sank. Why were there no social scientists on the Vatican Panel? Why were there no women? Why was no account taken by the ATSA delegation of the social, historical and cultural context of the Catholicism and of the religious discourses and ideologies that underpin sex abuse in the church - suffering, forgiveness, redemption, obedience, misogyny, salvation, submission to 'divine' authority? The reductionist assumption that pathology is the only source of the problem gives the Church the perfect escape route - allows it to show pity and offer treatment for the condition of priests without taking responsibility for priest conditioning. Herein lies the difference between a treatment community that sees itself as all-knowing (pathology is all) and one which has the humility to looks beyond its own paradigm, to embrace other explanatory possibilities and to operate in truly inter-disciplinary way.
 
 
Note 1: A full transcript of the paper, with a reference list, is available from the author on celia.brackenridge@btopenworld
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