Sexual harassment in sport – An unfortunate reality

Coach Discussing Strategy

In the past few weeks there have been a number of reports of sexual harassment charges against sports coaches around the world. To mention just three:

· A karate instructor accused of sexually abusing young girls appeared in the Randburg Magistrate’s Court in South Africa last week and was denied bail pending further investigation into the charges. (Adapted from News24 – 14/11/2011)

· Criminal charges for sexually abusing boys have been filed against Jerry Sandusky, long-time assistant coach to legendary Penn State, USA football coach Joe Paterno, who lost his job following Sandusky’s arrest following criticism that the allegations had not been handled appropriately when they arose many years ago. (Adapted from CNN – 30/11/2011)

· Swedish athletics was once again shaken by a sex scandal. This after another coach was accused of sexual harassment. A man in his 60s has been suspended by his club – accused of sexually harassing under-age girls (Adapted from Stockholm News – 10/11/2011)


Why should parents be concerned?

We entrust our children to the “care” of coaches and teachers so that they can learn to participate in physical activity and derive the benefits that sport offers. However, we sometimes tend to overlook the negative influences that they may be exposed to. There are many examples of situations in sport that are “ripe” for behaviour that constitute forms of sexual harassment. Think about the following situations:

· The inherent physical aspect of many sports, or sport instructional situations

· Team tours

· The intense relationship which often exists between the coach/teacher and the athlete/student

· Team initiations and rites of passage

Unfortunately, sexual harassment is not new to sport. Research has shown up many experiences and cases of this kind of behaviour in sport going back many years. In actual fact, what this research has shown up is really the attitudes, values and behaviours that form part of society and culture as a whole at that particular time in history. We cannot separate out what is happening in sport from what is going on around us generally.

What is Sexual Harassment?

Sexual harassment can be defined a behaviour and/or language of a sexual nature by one person toward another that is unwanted and leads to this person feeling humiliated and often intimidated.

What behaviour does Sexual Harassment include?

  • Uninvited touching, massaging, kissing and embracing
  • Derogatory or demeaning jokes and comments of a sexual nature
  • Propositions, promises or threats in return for sexual favours
  • Non-verbal behaviour such as whistling, sexual staring or leering
  • Displays of sexually explicit or offensive material
  • Sex based insults, taunting, name calling or innuendoes
  • Repeated requests to go out especially after prior refusal
  • Offering sexual favours
  • Engaging in behaviour which is sexually embarrassing, humiliating or intimidating
  • Offensive communications
  • Physical assault
The “grey area” of sexual harassment

From the above we can see that some forms of harassment and sexual harassment are extreme and obvious. Examples of this would be sexual abuse of child athletes, rape and molestation. Others behaviours are not nearly as obvious. A big problem with doing something about sexual harassment is deciding what behaviours constitute unacceptable behaviour. The reason for this is that not every one views behaviour the same way. This is particularly relevant as one moves away from the extreme examples of unacceptable behaviour to what we might call the “grey” zone of conduct.

Hillary Findlay (1998) explains this problem clearly:

“For example, what one person might view as acceptable another might define as harassment. Similarly, what one might see or intend as a joke, another may view as insulting or embarrassing. An invasion of personal space might seem intrusive to one person but may reflect another person’s more physical or tactile way of relating to people. A coaching strategy intended to produce peak performance in an athlete or team may be viewed by one person as strident and aggressive but by another person as abusive. A congratulatory hug, kiss or pat on the ‘behind’ might be perfectly acceptable to some but could make others feel uneasy and vulnerable. Finally, cultural differences can give rise to behaviour or conduct which is acceptable and tolerable to some but invasive, uncomfortable and even threatening to others.”

It is also extremely important to consider the context and environment that a particular behaviour takes place in. Research on sexual harassment in sport has shown that often athletes spoke about a “poisoned” or “chilly” atmosphere when speaking about their experiences. Athletes often talk about the context under which they felt the victims of sexual harassment to be cold, hostile and alienating.

Sometimes the actions of an “over-zealous” coach can prompt numerous complaints of harassment. At what point does hard training and commitment spill over to a form of harassment? Is such behaviour really a form of harassment? It is often difficult to say, however if an athlete experiences this as humiliating and/or intimidating, it could well be an instance of harassment.

Finally, it is important to bring to notice that more than often it is team members who perpetrate behaviour that is of a sexually harassing nature on their fellow team mates. Often this kind of harassment can be dealt with swiftly by reporting the incident to someone in authority such as a manager, coach or senior team member who can act immediately, firmly and informally. This is a particular advantage of cultivating a healthy and appropriate team culture based on the principles of mutual respect and self-discipline.

In South Africa, as in many other countries, sexual harassment is illegal and against the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa and sporting organisations have a legal obligation to take every reasonable step to prevent sexual harassment and should it occur to investigate and take action.


What are some of the physical and behavioural signs that parents should look out for if they suspect that their child may be a victim of sexual harassment or abuse?

  • Waking up during the night sweating, screaming or shaking with nightmares.
  • Masturbating excessively.
  • Showing unusually aggressive behaviour toward family members, friends, toys, and pets.
  • Complaining of pain while urinating or having a bowel movement, or exhibiting symptoms of genital infections such as offensive odours, or symptoms of a sexually transmitted disease.
  • Having symptoms indicating evidence of physical traumas to the genital or anal area.
  • Beginning wetting the bed.
  • Experiencing a loss of appetite or other eating problems, including unexplained gagging.
  • Showing unusual fear of a certain place or location.
  • Developing frequent unexplained health problems.
  • Engaging in persistent sexual play with friends, toys or pets.
  • Having unexplained periods of panic, which may be flashbacks from the abuse.
  • Regressing to behaviours too young for the stage of development they already achieved.
  • Initiating sophisticated sexual behaviours.
  • Indicating a sudden reluctance to be alone with a certain person.
  • Engaging in self-mutilations, such as sticking themselves with pins or cutting themselves.
  • Withdrawing from previously enjoyable activities, like school or school performance change.
  • Asking an unusual amount of questions about human sexuality.

What should parents look for before enrolling their child with a sports club or organisation to ensure that their child is protected in the environment?

  • Does the organisation have policies and procedures for the prevention of sexual harassment and abuse?
  • Are there codes of ethics and conduct for coaches?
  • Are these policies and procedures and codes of ethics and conduct implemented?
  • Does the organisation provide training on how sexual harassment and sexual relationships can negatively influence coach-athlete relationships?
  • Is there a complaint procedure that ensures privacy?
  • Are the legal rights of athletes and coaches protected and are they protected against retaliation?
  • Are all applicants for coaching staff and volunteer positions adequately screened in line with appropriate recruitment guidelines?
  • Are strong partnerships with parents/care givers in the prevention of sexual harassment and abuse fostered?
  • Is there a climate of open discussion about the issues of sexual harassment and abuse so that athletes with problems feel confident enough to speak out?

Don’t let your child become a victim of sexual harassment. Take a stand against any form of harassment so that our children can experience an enjoyable and fulfilling life as a sports- man or woman.



Findlay, H. A. (1998) Harassment: what we are learning about what we are doing. Canadian Association of Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance (Summer 1998), 64(2)

Smedley, Kathy. Licensed Professional Counsellor, a Licensed Marriage, Family Therapist, and Program Director for the Northeast Texas Children’s Advocacy Centre

Taylor, Gill. Against the rules: Sexual Harassment in Sport

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