The sexual abuse scandal at Penn State University and in the world of elite swimming, which thrust the issue of child sexual abuse (CSA) in sports back into the media spotlight, may have faded from view, but that doesn't mean it has stopped being a concern.
Although sexual abuse in organised sport is not new, and male athletes have been more willing in recent years to speak openly about being victims of sexual abuse,1,2,3 just how widespread the problem is - in society in general and sport specifically, however, remains unclear.
A 2009 study4 suggests that, in high-income countries, up to 5% of boys are victims of penatrative sexual abuse, and up to three times that number are victims of sexual abuse in some form.
Reliable data on CSA in sport is even harder to come by. A 2002 Australian study found that 31% of female and 21% of male athletes reported experiencing sexual abuse at some time in their lives, and of those, four out of ten of females and three out of ten of males said they had been sexually abused within the sports environment.5 Such statistics probably underestimate the true rate of sexual abuse because of under-reporting, said the study's authors, a view I share based on the anecdotal evidence I have collected from interviewing male victims of abuse by coaches in my research.
Delayed reporting typical
Not only is there chronic under-reporting, but when abuse reports are made, they are often delayed. A comprehensive review of the literature by Josef Spiegel in 20036 found that males with a history of CSA tend to delay reporting abuse longer than females, with twenty-seven being the mean number of years it takes for males to disclose the abuse to anyone.
Spiegel also found that, when a boy does speak up, "adults tend to disbelieve him and often attempt to silence him." 7 Among the small group of men who have given me accounts of sexual abuse in sports for my research was "Will." Abused by his rugby teacher, he didn't report the abuse until thirty-eight years later.
Why is delay so typical? In a 2008 study of males and females who had been sexually abused as children, researchers found that responses to their disclosure of abuse were often negative and "reinforced the participants' beliefs that they were responsible for the abuse, or at least responsible for preventing it from happening again ... a negative response [which] often led to years of not telling anyone about the abuse."8 This helps to put into context the courage of those who do feel able to speak up.The ‘homosexual' nature of the encounter between man and boy, coupled with a homophobic environment, is also central to the silence that permits abuse to continue; as a result, it is widely argued, the shame associated with sexual abuse may be even more severe for male victims than females.
Abuse by coaches
One of the most publicised cases of sexual abuse in recent years was by a Canadian hockey coach, Graham James, on one of his players, Sheldon Kennedy. In his 2006 book2 Kennedy recalls the emotional turmoil he suffered at the hands of his coach:
I was plagued by all kinds of irrational fears. Did the fact that Graham chose me mean that I was gay? It was obvious that he wasn't giving this special attention to the other boys, so why had he chosen me? ... maybe he had seen something in me that I wasn't able to admit to myself ... and by saying no to one form of sex but allowing another to happen, was I really showing a preference and therefore giving Graham my consent?9
The stigma of homosexuality in sports, where heteronormative and homophobic discourse often goes unchallenged, means that for many male children, the "homosexual" nature of the sexual activity is deeply problematic, a point Will made in telling his story to me:
You see most of us, em, most of us have this problem with, you know ... not all of these processes are bad. By which is meant, you know, you have this, I mean for me, for me, you know ejaculation - the first time I've ever ejaculated - I'm sorry to use these terms - but the first time I ever ejaculated was at the hands of this man. Whatever one says, the process of orgasm is quite pleasurable. And of course when that happens - you know, you have this immense guilt that comes with it. You know ... are you encouraging the man? Are you - I mean - I felt complicit, and that silenced me.
In the context of traditional team sports, where homophobia is frequently normalised, boys are constantly and openly "measured' for their conformity to sexist and homophobic norms and ideals. In such circumstances, then, young males who have been abused simply do not want to tell.
Persistent evaluation of an individual's conformity and allegiance to the dominant group norms is a core feature of institutionalised (male) settings, and sport is an excellent example of this, where the needs of the individual are subsumed by the priorities of the group. For the men I spoke to, sexual abuse was in fact prolonged by the sense of fraternity and comradeship fostered by their abusers; indeed, they (reluctantly) kept up the facade of friendship well beyond the end of the sexual "relationship" when faced with "friendly" non-sexual advances by their abusers.
For a young boy or child shown affection' and camaraderie (albeit sexualised) by a powerful, controlling, revered, even "heroic" or idolised figure, the path to resistance may be impossible to find because it is hard for the victim to understand what exactly is being resisted. For another one of my research subjects, "Simon", the experience was "beyond good or bad, it [was] just entrancing, it takes you over."
The feeling of being trapped is one Kennedy also talks about in his book, Why I Didn't Say Anything, recounting how, as a thirteen year old, "I felt trapped, and I felt like my choices were gone at that point, I felt like I had no choices after being abused." Simon likewise recounts declining an explicit opportunity to disclose the abuse he was experiencing to his father:
Anyway, so I walk in and my dad's there and I go, 'Oh my god what's going on here?' ... 'Oh, I need to talk to you,' ... and he said, 'So did [abuser] ever interfere with you?' ... and without really much of a second thought I said, 'No, he never touched me.' So something had gone so wrong with my brain that I was prepared to defend the abuser against my own flesh and blood. And that makes no logical sense to anybody who hasn't been abused, but everybody who's been abused goes, 'Yeah, I absolutely understand that.'
The connection between disclosure and the father-son relationship was also highlighted by Sheldon Kennedy:
... it was partially my fear of my father that made it so hard for me to tell anybody. I was afraid that Dad would be ashamed of me. I was afraid of looking weak in his eyes. I was afraid that he would somehow blame me for bringing this shame on myself and the family by not being strong enough to resist ...
The experience of being subjected to sex by another male is deeply contrary to the narratives that the adult world provides for our male children within sport, where strength and dominance are clear indicators of masculinity, which stands in opposition to the feminine.
The narrative of heterosexual masculinity so much a part of what makes sports appealing to a boy thus virtually ensures his silence in the face of sexual abuse by a male coach. The narratives that run through male sports define contemporary boyhood; to be an athlete means to be an ideal boy and is one of masculine domination.
That narrative does not include vulnerability or victim-hood. Until it does, boys in sports will continue to experience sexual abuse in sport, and continue to suffer in silence.
Mike Hartill is a lecturer in the Department of Sport and Physical Activity at Edge Hill University, Ormskirk, Lancashire, England, and has written frequently on sexual abuse of boys in sports. He is particularly interested in hearing from men who may have experienced sexual abuse in sport. He can be reached at email@example.com.
1. Fleury, Theo with Day, Kirstie McLellan. Playing with Fire. New York: HarperCollins, 2009.
2. Kennedy, Sheldon, with Grainger, James. Why I Didn't Say Anything: The Sheldon Kennedy Story. Toronto: Insomniac Press, 2006.
3. Moore, Brian. Beware of the Dog: Rugby's Hard Man Reveals All. London: Simon and Schuster Ltd., 2010.
4. Gilbert R, Spatz W, et al. Child Maltreatment 1: Burden and consequences of child maltreatment in high-income countries. The Lancet. 2009;373 (9657):68-81.
5. Leahy T, Pretty G, Tenenbaum G. Prevalence of sexual abuse in organized competitive sport in Australia. The Journal of Sexual Aggression. 2002;8:16-36.
6. Spiegel, Josef. Sexual Abuse of Males: The SAM Model of Theory and Practice. New York: Brunner-Routledge, 2003, p. 49.
7. Id. at p. 50.
8. Draucker C, Martsolf D. Storying childhood sexual abuse. Qualitative Health Research. 2008;18(8):1034-1048.
9. Kennedy. Why I Didn't Say Anything at p. 40.
Posted December 2, 2011; updated April 24, 2015