Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Sexual Abuse in Sports

Research shows that sexual abuse happens in all sports and at all levels, with a greater prevalence occurring within the arena of high performance and elite sports. The sporting culture, with its larger-than-life coaches, fierce competition, the need for recognition and funding, and a "win at all costs" philosophy, creates an environment that contributes to the sexual exploitation of athletes.

Sexual abuse is both a physical act and a psychological experience. As a physical act, sexual abuse involves touching and non-touching behaviors. This can be done in coercive or seductive ways. As a psychological experience, the abuse of power and authority by the predator renders the athlete powerless. First a cycle of dependency is created between the predator and the athlete, involving special attention and friendship. Predators look to build a bond of loyalty, and then move to isolate and control the athlete. This specialness descends into sexual attention, where intimidation, guilt, secrecy and further dependency are manipulated. Sometimes the abuse occurs with threats and violence. Sometimes with deception or even with misdirected love. By the time the athlete wants to - or wishes - to disclose the nature of the sexual trauma, a sense of helplessness and hopelessness secures their silence.


• Members of the athlete's entourage who are in positions of power and authority appear to be the primary perpetrators for sexual abuse. This includes coaches, trainers, athletic directors, physical therapists, etc.

• The risk of sexual abuse is greater when there are loose guidelines, unstructured and unsupervised practice times and high athlete vulnerability, especially in relation to age and maturation.

• Research identifies risk situations as the locker-room, the playing field, trips away, the coach's home or car, and social events, especially where alcohol is involved. Team initiations or end-of-season celebrations are also risk factors.

• Passive attitudes, non-intervention, denial, and/or silence by people in positions of power in sports culture increases the psychological harm of sexual abuse for the athlete.

• Lack of bystander action also creates the impression for victims that sexual abuse is legal and socially acceptable - and that those involved in the sporting world will be powerless to speak out against it.

The Depressive Fallout of Sexual Abuse

• Research demonstrates that sexual abuse in sport results in psychosomatic illnesses, anxiety, depression, substance abuse, self harm, and suicide.

• When it is impossible for a young athlete to avoid the reality of betrayal by someone who should be trusted, the child will blame himself. This blaming of the self significantly crushes well-being and any hope for healing from sexual assault.

• Abused or exploited athletes are re-victimized if they are rejected by their sports organization, community and society.

• The depression, isolation and self-destructiveness an athlete experiences will also have an adverse effect on his or her family.

• Athletes who make direct statements, indirect statements or display highly sexualized behavior are signaling their trauma. However, there are many who cannot, and descend into the depths of despair.

• If the process of healing does not take place, sexual trauma will last a lifetime.

Tips for Parents

• Communicate honestly and openly with your child. Encourage your child to keep no secrets from you.

• Reinforce safe boundaries for your child's physical, sexual and emotional life.

• Discuss trustworthy versus untrustworthy behavior in every day conversation.

• Keep an open dialogue going when your child is spending time with adults outside of your reach.

• When involving your child in sports, ensure the organization and coaches have gone through criminal checks, child abuse registry etc.

• Be present at the training area so you can observe the interaction between your child and his or her coach.

• Be wary of coaches who tell you things about your child that in your heart you know are not true.

• If your child discloses that something inappropriate has occurred, reassure and support them.

• Tell your child you believe them - and don't blame them.

• Tell your child you will keep them safe.

• Let them know you are glad they told you.

• Try not to appear shocked, disgusted by your child's disclosure.

• Resist the urge to interview your child to gain more information.

• Don't tell your child that you blame yourself for not knowing this was going on.

• Don't confront the predator or take matters into your own hands. Call the authorities and seek professional help immediately.


Stefan Molyneux, MA said...

Thank you so much, do you have any statistics regarding prevalence?

(PS you might want to check out my interviews of prominent psychologists as well)

Purple Pineapple said...

When I was in high school, I had a teacher/coach who approached a small group of my friends, including myself, asking us if we wanted to go to his cottage in the summer. We declined and never really thought anything of it again. It wasn't until years after graduation, we heard that this same teacher/coach was going to jail for sexually abusing students from my high school at his cottage and in his home. It's so scary to think about. I just hope all these athletes can get all the support and help they need.

Dr. Deb said...


OMG! I'm glad you were safeguarded from this person.

OHN said...

Hi Dr. Deb~~The recent headlines has brought this type of abuse to the dinner table conversations of many families. I believe that it should be openly discussed with all kids so that they know their parents are there for them if the kids have anything to say.

Having three sons I have been around teacher coaches/father coaches etc. Most are terrific guys but there have been a few that my radar dinged and I felt I needed to keep a particularly close eye on. My husband thought I was being an alarmist with one such man but there was something "not right" about the way he looked at the kids and acted around them. Sadly a couple of years later he was caught in a child porn sting in our area. Even worse...he was a teacher of middle school aged kids, which were his targets.
Men like this are despicable predators.

Another incident was when my middle son was in kindergarten. He came home telling me that "Andrew" kept putting his hands inside my sons shorts. My son knew it was wrong and told "A" to stop but it continued so he told me. When I spoke to his teacher she had the nerve to be irritated with ME for bringing it to her attention because she was then mandated to report it. Well hell yes she should. Long story short, it came out that "A" was being sexually abused at home and was acting out at school. I can't imagine this poor kids life had I not addressed the issue with the teacher (who never did thank me for alerting her). This all happened 16 years ago but things of this nature are happening all around us. We need to be advocates for our kids and our neighbors kids and speak up when we see something that isn't right.

There really is a reason why people have a "gut feeling". We need to pay attention to that.

Dr. Deb said...

Wow, what a story. Thank you for sharing this with us all.

Psych Client said...

I'm a victim of sexual abuse not during a sporting event but I'll be vigilante for my son. I am anyway because of my history. I try to balance that though and not see every male as a potential abuser. that isn't healthy either or fair.
I love your blog

Anonymous said...

Dr Deb, thank you for writing this post.

You mentioned that "If the process of healing does not take place, sexual trauma will last a lifetime."

What process of healing would you suggest? How can an athlete recover from such events in their life?

DrB said...

Thank you, Dr. Deb for your posting. I would like to inform you and others about a new nonprofit recently launched by Katherine Starr (former Olympian sexually abused by her coach): Excellent resource for athletes, parents, professionals, etc.

Becky Clark, PhD, LCSWR, CC-AASP