By Chloe Maclean (Contributor)
Sport is often hailed as an arena where fairness, fun, good citizenship, and social cohesion reign supreme. However, it also has a darker side. Namely, a track record of violence against women.
Sport has an uncomfortable relationship with violence against women that, as more and more recognition and admiration is being given to female athletes, is becoming increasingly questioned, scrutinised, and publicised. When this relationship is brought to public attention, it is usually via reporting of sports stars’ violence against women such as the unravelling of boxer Floyd Mayweather’s violent past, the death of Riva Steenkamp at the hands of Paralympic and Olympic athlete Oscar Pistorius, and numerous allegations of sexual assault and rape committed by professional footballers (for examples, see here, here, and here).
Athletes’ abuse of women is the visible tip of a much larger iceberg. Lying below is a mass of everyday violence against women, much of which goes unreported and un-convicted. Of what is recorded:
- Globally, 1 in 3 women are victims of male violence[i].
- In the UK, 1 in 5 women aged between 16-59 has experience sexual violence since the age of 16, and
- 1 in 4 women in the UK will experience domestic violence in their lifetime[ii].
These statistics suggest violence against women is highly prevalent in British society, but often people do not feel, or perhaps realise, that this is the case. Sport’s role in violence against women is also much larger than most would recognise:
- Cases of domestic abuse vastly increase during the world cup[iii]; after derby matches between Rangers and Celtic[iv]; and after home team losses in general[v].
- Male athletes are disproportionately likely to commit violence against women, when compared with the general male population[vi].
- Trafficking of women and children for sexual exploitation vastly increases during sporting ‘mega events’ such as the Olympics and football World Cups.[vii]
- Sexual abuse of female athletes by coaches or other athletes occur through exploitation of power and/or authoritative positions, which have particularly devastating consequences for the female athletes’ relationship with her own body, and her trust in relationships[viii].
The prominence of violence against women by members of the sporting world – be it spectators, athletes, officials, or coaches – indicates a sporting culture with a lack of education on, or recognition of, the value of women’s lives and their autonomy over their own body. It also points towards a teaching of ‘what it is to be a man’ that incorporates domination and abuse of women. The sporting world does not need to be a world that teaches men to dominate and abuse women. Rather, it can, and should, be a positive vehicle to teach respect, social inclusion, and equality.
What can local level sport do to counter violence against women?
As an activity millions participate in, and even more watch weekly, sport is one of the most effective tools to communicate with men and boys. As such, it has great potential for spreading positive messages about women and girls too. There are various ways that sport can be used to tackle violence against women:
In some cases, violence against women or sexist remarks take place without recognition of any serious wrongdoing. For example, the wolf whistling targeted at ex-Chelsea doctor Eva Carneiro, and other female medical staff of football clubs, is endemic. It is often considered by those whistling as light-hearted, and just ‘a bit of a laugh’. But it is also sexual harassment. It demeans the abilities of these women, and sends a message to both the female staff/athletes, and the women and girls watching the game, that women are primarily sexual objects, on which men can and will make sexual judgements. It feels threatening, uncomfortable, unsafe, and saddening. It is an act with serious consequences for the confidence of women who experience the whistling, and for how comfortable, welcome, or appropriate women feel in a sporting environment.
Another example is that of athletes sexually assaulting women, and claiming not to realise their sexual act had been assault. Prestige comes with playing for a sports team or being an athlete, and sometimes sportsmen believe this gives them access and entitlement to do what they wish to women’s bodies. It’s important to teach players/athletes/coaches that this prestige does not entitle them to other people’s bodies, and that agreeing and respecting conscious consent is crucial before engaging in sexual activities with others.
It’s a sad set of affairs, but it is also one we can change through education. Make respect for women and girls an integral part of your sports team or club’s ethos, alongside making players and fans aware of issues of sexual consent, and the criminality of domestic abuse. For education packs tackling sexism in sport see white ribbon and the Australian Football Leagues ‘Respect and responsibility’ campaign. See Zero tolerance for packs tackling issues of respect for women more generally.
2. Stand-up against abuse towards women.
As stated above, some people exhibiting acts of abuse towards women are naive to the consequences. Others are committed with the intension of harming, belittling, or humiliating a woman. At all times, violence and sexual violence against women centre on asserting power over women and their bodies, simultaneously taking this power away from women themselves. Regardless of the origin, acts of abuse towards women in sporting environments should be challenged, and stopped.
Sitting next to someone whistling at women athletes, coaches, or officials?
Call them out on it.
Sitting next to someone who is making derogatory comments about the appropriateness of women in sport, or sexualised remarks about women?
Call them out on it.
A coach, athlete, or official has committed sexual or physical violence against a woman?
After the perpetrator has been legally addressed, expect a public apology from them, and repentance over the incident. If this isn’t given, ask. Without remorse over the violence committed against women, the violence is treated as not serious at best, and not wrong, and thus not worthy of remorse, at worst. If that is the opinion of a coach, athlete, or official, then serious considerations need to be made about their continued conduct in the sport, as such practice is complicit in the devaluing of violence against women as a crime. Signs of repentance and remorse over the act are important, as this highlights recognition of the seriousness of the act, and condemns similar behaviour in the future. Educational courses to prevent committing further acts of violence against women are easily accessible (via the judiciary, white ribbon or the Scottish Government for example) and are advised.
* Note: In some cases perpetrators will be legally bound to cease participation in roles such as coaching and, depending on the crime, it may not be appropriate for the perpetrator to return to sport at all – for example an athlete/coach/official abusing their power position when committing sexual or physical violence against women.
3. Support women athletes, and the women’s team.
Supporting women athletes and your club’s women’s team gives recognition to the talent, determination, skill, and agency of women to use their bodies in outstanding ways. Embed this support with respect for women’s control and choice over their lives as athletes, and as people. This support helps counter ideas of women as sexual objects, only passive onlookers to men’s achievements, and as weak, fragile, and unsuitable for sport. Support of the women’s game teaches both men and women that women have agency to do amazing things with their lives, as they choose, that deserve to be valued and respected.
Sport is just one part of a broader picture of society. Changes here alone will not eliminate violence against women. However it does set a precedent. It makes a stand. It tells society that violence against women is not natural or okay - it’s serious, its wrong, and it’s not acceptable. The power of sport lies in its universally loved practice, and its respect as a symbol of fairness, social inclusion, fun, and equality. Let’s use sport for the good it can, and does, do. Let’s use it to say ‘no more!’ to violence against women.
Chloe Maclean is a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh studying gender relations in sex-integrated sports practice. She is also an international karate athlete, and the Scottish Karate Governing Body’s director of women and girl’s interests.
[iii] Brimicombe, A and Café, R .2012. ‘Beware, win or lose: Domestic violence and the World Cup’, Significance, 9(5), pp. 32-35.
[iv] Williams et al. 2013. ‘Association between old firm football matches and reported domestic (violence) incidents in Strathclyde, Scotland’. Sage Open, 3(3) DOI: 10.1177/2158244013504207
[vi] Benedict, J. 1999. Public Heroes, Private Felons: Athletes and Crimes against women. Boston: Northeastern University Press.
[vii] Palmer, C. 2012. ‘Violence against women and sport: A literature Review’ Available at : http://www.endviolenceagainstwomen.org.uk/data/files/resources/22/EVAW-Violence-Against-women-and-Sport-Dr-C-Palmer-July-2011.pdf
[viii] Brackenridge, C. 1997. ‘”He owned me basically…”: Women’s experiences of sexual abuse in sport.’ International review for the sociology of sport. 32(11). Pp. 115-130.