The #MeToo campaign, although spurred into life by the goings-on in Hollywood, has drawn attention to the continuing spectre of sexual harassment and abuse women face. One of the problems is the silence that surrounds this issue, and the #MeToo campaign has done a great job of encouraging women to speak out, many for the first time, having kept the abuse secret sometimes for years.
Unfortunately, just as the glitz and glamour of Hollywood belies its dark underbelly, so too the sporting world has a darker side. As much as participating in sport helps girls and women in a myriad of ways, it is also just another place they face potential sexual abuse. In the US, of the 108 people on USA Swimming’s list of individuals banned from the sport, at least 90 were banned for sexual misconduct and more than 50 have been arrested, charged, or convicted in connection with those crimes. From the high profile rape case and conviction of tennis grand slam winner and coach Bob Hewitt (a South African citizen serving his jail time in Port Elizabeth), to the recent charges of sexual assault brought against US Olympic Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar by gold medallist McKayla Maroney, there is no hiding from the fact that female athletes in particular, fight a battle to remain safe while playing the sport they love.
Besides anecdotal evidence and the few athletes that do speak out, research and statistics that provide information on the scope of the problem within sport is scarce in South Africa. However, Girls Only Project, a non-profit company headed up by sport psychologist Dr Kirsten van Heerden, has made it their mission to conduct research and hear from girls and women about the real issues they face in the sporting world in South Africa.
Their research has unearthed some disturbing findings. In a sample of 2000 high school girls, close to 5% reported that they had been sexually harassed by a male coach or administrator. This means 1 girl in a hockey squad of 20, 5 girls in a netball tournament of 10 teams, or 25 girls in a sports festival of 500 girls.
One of the issues is the power dynamics at play between coaches (and managers) and athletes. Just as Hollywood producers and directors hold a position of power over young actresses, so too the relationship between a coach and athlete is not an equal one. This is particularly true for elite athletes and some international studies have found that elite female athletes are more likely to be harassed or abused by their coaches or management team than recreational athletes. By its very nature the coach/elite athlete relationship is close one, with athletes spending large amounts of time with their coaches both in training and travelling to competitions. Athletes very often perform for their coaches, seeking their approval and praise almost more than their parents. If the coach is happy with a performance the athlete is happy, if the coach is unhappy, the athlete is unhappy. Athletes will do whatever a coach asks – as one athlete said: ‘if my coach said stand on your head for 10 min everyday and it will make you faster, I would have done it’. It’s a very powerful, special relationship and in the majority of cases, helps athletes grow, develop and reach their sporting potential. Unfortunately, these power dynamics can also be open to abuse.
Although only anecdotal, the ‘culture’ of transactional sex in South Africa is also an issue in sport. Girls Only Project say they have heard stories of girls needing lifts to their games or tournaments and male coaches or managers saying they will take them if they perform a sex act on them. Unfortunately, the girls seem to be resigned to this type of transaction being part of life and many times these incidents go unreported.
While some moves have been made by government for inclusivity in policy when it comes to women in sport, there is still a lack of specific policy around women in sport issues. Opportunity is one thing, providing a safe environment is another. In South African sport there is constant discussion and debate about the state of women in sport, highlighted by the fact that there was only 32% female representation in Team South Africa at the Rio Olympic Games. While this is a complex issue, girls certainly need to be made to feel safe if we are to even begin to rectify this situation.
Girls Only Project details if you are interested to find out more about the organisation are:
Facebook: Girls Only Project