Sexual abuse in sport

This is an excerpt from Critical Essays in Applied Sport Psychology by David GilbourneM & ark B. Andersen.

Before sport psychologists (as members of the biopsychosocial support team) can step up to the role of gatekeeper, effectively acting to protect the rights of young people in sport, we must first insist on our own rights to be educated and provided with clear ethical guidelines and core competencies embedded in a support system that empowers us to act on behalf of young athletes at risk. Violence against children in all its forms (physical, psychological, sexual) is a social problem, and, like other sectors of the community, the sport sector cannot prevent serial offenders from gaining entry into the system. What we can perhaps achieve is to increase deterrence by empowering all adults in the system, starting with ourselves as sport psychologists, with the specific knowledge and resources required to understand and to act to protect athletes.

Sexual Abuse in Sport

Research into sexual abuse in sport began with both prevalence studies (Kirby, Greaves, & Hankivsky, 2000; Leahy et al., 2002) and qualitative investigations into the processes and experiences of sexually abused athletes (Brackenridge, 1997; Cense & Brackenridge, 2001; Leahy, Pretty, & Tenenbaum, 2003; Toftegaard-Nielsen, 2001). Depending on the definitions and methodologies used, the prevalence rates suggested by research reports range from 2 percent (Tomlinson & Yorganci, 1997) to 22 percent (Kirby et al., 2000). One study with an Australian sample employed a more precise, legally based definition of sexual abuse (Leahy et al., 2002). In that study, sexual abuse was considered to be any sexual activity between an adult and a child (under 18 years old), regardless of whether deception was involved or the child understood the sexual nature of the activity or not. This definition included sexual contact accomplished by force or by the threat of force regardless of the age of the victim or perpetrator. Sexual abuse included noncontact (e.g., exhibitionism, involving a child in sexually explicit conversation, engaging a child in pornographic photography), contact (sexual touching, masturbation), and penetrative (oral, vaginal, anal) acts. Results indicated that of 370 elite (national) and club (regional) athletes surveyed, 31 percent of female athletes and 21 percent of male athletes reported having experienced sexual abuse before the age of 18. Environment-specific sexual abuse rates were particularly high: 41 percent of the sexually abused female athletes and 29 percent of the sexually abused male athletes indicated that the abuse was perpetrated by sport personnel. The sport-related abuse was largely perpetrated by those in positions of authority or trust in relation to the athletes—primarily coaches and less frequently support staff and other athletes. The vast majority (more than 96 percent) of perpetrators were men.

Long-Term Effects

Prevalence studies suggest that sexual abuse and its psychological sequelae are areas of significant practice application for sport psychologists working with athletes. Yet empirical evidence about the psychological sequelae associated with sexual abuse in athlete populations and the implications for specific interventions are areas of research that have been conspicuously absent in the sport psychology literature. In the clinical psychology and psychiatric research base, investigators and clinicians have begun to apply a trauma framework to understand the impact of sexual abuse. Central to this evolving theoretical framework are the concepts of post-traumatic stress and dissociation as key responses to traumatizing events. There is now substantial evidence that survivors of sexual abuse may be particularly at risk for developing post-traumatic and dissociative symptomatology (Becker-Lausen, Sanders, & Chinsky, 1995; Briere & Runtz, 1990; Johnson, Pike, & Chard, 2001; Mulder, Beautrais, Joyce, & Fergusson, 1998).

Core post-traumatic symptoms of reexperiencing, avoidance, and hyperarousal have been frequently identified in sexual abuse populations (e.g., Carlson, Armstrong, Loewenstein, & Roth, 1998; Johnson et al., 2001). Symptoms related to reexperiencing and hyperarousal can include intrusive thoughts, physiological arousal, reactivity to trauma cues, and hypervigilance (American Psychiatric Association, DSM-IV-TR, 2000). Avoidant symptoms can include avoidance of thoughts, feelings, places, or people associated with the trauma. Dissociation is understood as “a disruption in the usually integrated functions of consciousness” (DSM-IV-TR, 2000, p. 477). Dissociative symptomatology (e.g., amnesia, derealization, depersonalization) involves a splitting between the observing self and the experiencing self. During a traumatic experience, dissociation provides protective detachment from overwhelming affect and pain, but it can result in severe disruption in the usually integrated functions of consciousness, memory, identity, and perception of the environment (van der Kolk, Pelcovitz, Roth, Mandel, McFarlane, & Herman, 1996).

The majority of people who manifest core post-traumatic symptoms also appear to develop complex sets of other interrelated or secondary symptoms (Carlson, 1997). These symptoms can include depression, impairment of self-esteem, and a disruption of important developmental processes leading to affect and impulse dysregulation and deformations of relatedness and identity (Briere, 1997; Courtois, 1999; Herman, 1997).

One published report to date has specifically investigated, from a trauma framework, the long-term effects of childhood sexual abuse on athletes (Leahy et al., 2008). Using a contextualized perspective taking into account childhood physical and psychological abuse experiences and adult trauma experiences, the study of 90 athletes (45 men and 45 women) suggested that childhood sexual, physical, and psychological abuse was strongly correlated and that the primary unique correlate of long-term traumatic sequelae was reported psychological abuse. Some researchers have argued that even though individual forms of child abuse are unlikely to be experienced unidimensionally (e.g., Higgins & McCabe, 2000a, 2000b), both sexual and physical abuse may be understood as inherently psychological forms of abuse (Hart, Binggeli, & Brassard, 1998). It may be, therefore, that the harm lies in the embedded psychological abuse of the sexual abuse experience (Hart, Brassard, & Karlson, 1996; Jellen, McCarroll, & Thayer, 2001; Sanders & Becker-Lausen, 1995). This variable may be particularly salient in the environment of competitive sport, as research has documented apparently normalized coaching and instructional practices and team initiation rituals that constitute psychologically abusive practices (Brackenridge, Rivers, Gough, & Llewellyn, 2006; Kirby & Wintrup, 2002; Leahy, 2001). It may also specifically relate to the particular strategies that appear to be used by perpetrators in athletes’ environments.

Perpetrator Methodology

Leahy, Pretty, and Tenenbaum (2004) published data indicating the correlation of specific perpetrator methodologies with long-term traumatic outcomes in a sample of 20 athletes. A thematic analysis of data from semistructured interviews with these athletes was conducted. The group was purposefully selected to balance male and female participants with similar sexual abuse experiences, half of whom scored within the clinical range of traumatic sequelae in clinical assessments. Results revealed two general dimensions of perpetrator methodology apparently designed to engender feelings of complete powerlessness in the sexually abused athlete and, conversely, to present the perpetrator as omnipotent. The perpetrators’ methodology seemed to be characterized—as was particularly obvious in cases where the abuse was prolonged and repeated—by the need to impose his version of reality on the athlete and to isolate the athlete within that reality. The perpetrator successfully maintained that reality by controlling the psychological environment. In addition to controlling the athlete’s outer life, the perpetrator controlled his or her inner life through direct emotional manipulation and psychological abuse.

From the psychological literature, we know that the repeated imposition of a powerful perpetrator’s world view, and the lack (due to isolating and silencing strategies) of alternative reference points, can entrap the victim within the perpetrator’s viewpoint (Herman, 1997). This manipulation can be seen in the following statement from a male athlete who was abused by his coach: “At the time . . . I suppose I did wonder how he could get an erection in front of me, but . . . I didn’t really think that he was getting off on it, because it was always presented as education, and that sort of thing” (Leahy et al., 2004, p. 533).

The athletes’ reports in the study described a sport environment pervaded by an unpredictable and volatile emotional cycle of reward and punishment. In the closed context of a competitive sport team, this cyclical repetition of fear and reprieve and punishment and reward can result in a feeling of extreme dependence on the (perceived) omnipotent perpetrator (Herman, 1997). As one female athlete who was sexually abused by her coach said, “To us at that time, his word was like gospel.” From the psychology literature, we understand this state as a traumatized attachment to the perpetrator. Under these conditions, disclosure simply does not happen. Silencing is an integral—not separate—part of the experience, and these aspects of the perpetrator’s methodology target the individual’s emotional life as a method of keeping that person in a state of confusion, fear, and entrapment. This method is illustrated in the following statements by three athletes who were sexually abused by their coaches.

The Bystander Effect

In a further examination of athletes’ experiences of sexual abuse, Leahy et al. (2003) reported the prevalence of the bystander effect, which appeared to compound long-term psychological harm for sexually abused athletes. The bystander effect refers to the situation where the victim perceived that others who knew about (or suspected) the sexual abuse did nothing about it. One female athlete, sexually abused by her coach (who was simultaneously abusing others on the team), provided this distressing account of the bystander effect (Leahy, 2010):

They saw things that were wrong, and they didn’t do anything about it. . . . [T]his is very bad, not only the fact that I fell out of a sport that should have protected me. . . . I lost so much. I lost my relationship with my family. . . . I could have saved a few years of my life. (p. 316)

Athletes’ experiences of the bystander effect make clear the distress-amplifying impact of abandoning the victim to isolation and silence (Leahy et al., 2003). The apparent lack of systemically sanctioned accountability in relation to the power of the coach-perpetrator appeared to influence other adults in the competitive sport environment. These others included coaching staff members and other support staff and volunteers who were not as senior in the competitive sport hierarchy as the perpetrator. This situation was especially notable in the elite sport context: “We were so elite and no one ever questioned what we were doing” (Leahy, 2010, p. 327). Nonintervention by other adults in a young person’s environment is likely to be interpreted as meaning that those adults are also powerless in relation to the perpetrator.


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