IICSA has recently published a Truth Project thematic report that focuses on child sexual abuse within sport. The report follows a detailed, qualitative analysis of victim and survivor experiences of child sexual abuse in sport to identify themes and inform future recommendations.
Whilst the range of benefits to children of participating in sport are well known and publicised, the report notes that evidence also suggests that some children participating in sport face harmful and abusive experiences:
- Sport can provide adults with unsupervised access to children, including coaches and other authority figures such as senior or established sports peers or even other peer athletes;
- Sport encourages or necessitates physical contact and often involves this as part of the activity itself. This was found to be a more specific enabling factor found in participants’ accounts related to child sexual abuse in sports;
- Coaches and other sports leaders are often authority figures and children can spend a large amount of time with coaches and trainers, developing private and exclusive coach or instructor relationships;
- The potential for abuse increases in situations where intense relationships exist between children or young people and adults who have considerable influence over them. Vulnerability to abuse can increase when an activity involves spending time away from home, providing an opportunity for abuse and decreased chance of disclosure;
- The report notes that a key opportunity for sexual abuse within this context is arguably provided by the culture surrounding sporting institutions. For example, sports institutions can foster a culture of silence and feelings of shame and embarrassment that are linked to gender norms – i.e. disclosure of sexual abuse may be associated with weakness or lack of masculinity.
Overall, the perpetration and experience of child sexual abuse in sports was noted to be generally very similar to those concerning sexual abuse carried out in other institutional contexts, with similar enabling factors identified in other thematic reports. The impacts of experiencing child sexual abuse in sports described by participants were extensive and diverse, and also similar to those described by victims and survivors in other contexts.
The report draws attention to the diverse and varied family and social backgrounds that the research participants had come from and explores the varied role of sport in the participants’ lives as children. It was of note that only one participant was a high performer in a particular sport and had one-to-one coaching. A key finding was noted to be the diversity and more ‘grassroots’ context reflected through the participants’ experiences.
The report also explores the participants’ experiences of disclosure, with links between families of perpetrators and victims and survivors fostered through sporting activities presenting further disclosure difficulties and a potential opportunity for perpetrators to more easily abuse siblings as well. A key theme discussed by participants was how much they wanted, or tried, to tell someone what was happening to them but how difficult this was. Most participants did not actively or formally disclose their sexual abuse in a sports context as a child. Further, adults failed to respond appropriately to indicators of concern.
The report concludes with a number of suggestions for change from victims and survivors, covering structural, cultural, professional and political areas. Whilst some of these suggestions may have already been implemented by sports organisations and other institutions, we must continue to learn from the experiences of victims and survivors to protect children in the future and better support victims and survivors of abuse within sports.
Lauren Donnison, Paralegal, BLM