Sexual Harassment - Develop a Policy

Article excerpt

The four-hour workshop on sexual harassment in sport was halfway over, and the coaches participating had reached a trust level where deeper concerns could be bared. "You know I have always cared about my athletes," one woman coach said. "If it gets to the point that I am afraid to get so close to an athlete that I might touch one of them, or try to help them out if they get into trouble, I would just as soon start selling insurance or something."

The coach was not alone in her concern. Many dedicated coaches and physical educators choose not to focus on sexual harassment. They fear that discussing the issue will create a problem where there isn't one or that developing a policy will produce needless anxiety about appropriate conduct for student athlete and staff. it is not surprising that such concerns are surfacing now, since until recently only women taught and coached female athletes. The occasional male coach was accompanied by an obligatory "chaperone",, especially for travel. Even in the fifties, there was an awareness that the intensity of coach-athlete relationships could lend itself to exploitive behavior.

Defining sexual harassment is not easy, and confusion exists about what behaviors constitute "crossing the line." Sexual harassment is broadly defined as the unwanted imposition of sexual advances in the context of a relationship of unequal power. It impairs a student athletes own access to educational resources and right to enjoy a healthy athletic experience.

There are two categories of sexual harassment under existing law. Quid pro quo occurs when benefits are granted or withheld as a result of a student athletes willingness or refusal to submit to the sexual demands of a coach or teacher. A hostile environment exists when professional conduct is pervasive or severe enough to disturb a student athlete and interfere with her or his ability to perform.

Surveys have documented the prevalence of sexual harassment in educational settings. A 1990 National institute of Mental Health survey of 3,187 female students on 32 college campuses found that more than half had experienced some sort of sexual coercion, from as early as age 14 (Touflexis, 1990). In a 1993 American Association of University Women survey of 1,632 high school girls, 31 percent of girls and 18 percent cent of boys said they were "often," harassed or assaulted at school (Harris/Scholastic Research, 1993). In sport, claims of improper coach-athlete relationships have escalated during the 1990s, and research on the frequency and psychosocial impacts of sexual harassment in athletic setting is underway.

Coaches and teachers exercise power over student athletes, primarily in the forms of praise, criticism, and recommendations about future goals. Because they are sometimes manipulated by administrative demands, budget constraints, or media scrutiny, however, coaches and teachers may feel more vulnerable than powerful. They may also feel isolated from their faculty peers, since they must spend so many long hours among students in the gym. This combination of privilege and social isolation can increase one's vulnerability to relationships that stray outside the bounds of professional ethics. Rutter (1991) found that 96 percent of cases of sexual exploitation by professionals occurred between a male in a powerful position and a female in his care. Rutter believes there is a wider cultural pattern at work that encourages men, even professional men, to challenge women's intimate boundaries. …