Playing by the Rules of the Game: Women's Experiences and Perceptions of Sexual Harassment in Sport

By Krauchek, Vivian; Ranson, Gillian | The Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology, November 1999 | Go to article overview

Playing by the Rules of the Game: Women's Experiences and Perceptions of Sexual Harassment in Sport


Krauchek, Vivian, Ranson, Gillian, The Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology


Sexual harassment has now been established as not merely a personal trouble for individual women but a social problem "rooted in power dynamics" (Sev'er, 1996: 188). However, in spite of the wide variety of sites in which sexual harassment is experienced, much of the scholarly work on the subject has focussed on workplaces and educational institutions.

In this paper, our interest is in the experience of sexual harassment in an environment that has received much less attention. We report here on a study of female athletes coached by men in the male-dominated world of elite sport. Our study is strategic because of the ways coach - athlete relationships, and the sporting context in which they occur, differ in important ways from more conventional workplace or educational relationships and settings. First, the authority exerted by the men as coaches is, self-evidently, over women's bodies and the physical performances of those bodies. Second, while the athletes' performances take place in public, much of the"work" to achieve them is not so public. While coaches may share some accountability for their athletes' performances - the "ends" of the relationship - they are generally not accountable for what happens off the field. Brackenridge (1997) describes several features of the coach-athlete relationship that may make female athletes particularly vulnerable to sexual harassment from male coaches: the dependence of the athlete on the coach's expertise and the heavy pressure not to leave the sport or drop out that is placed on highly talented athletes; the construction of coach and team members as"family" and the special intimacy of the coach-athlete relationship; the apolitical, laissez-faire attitude to inequality that makes sport "a particularly active site of social exploitation" (Brackenridge, 1997:115). On the latter point, Canadian scholars (e.g., Hall et al., 1989; Lenskyj, 1992; Kirby, 1995; Hall, 1995; 1996) point to the general unwillingness of national sports organizations in Canada to view sexual harassment as an institutional, rather than an individual problem.

Our particular focus on female athletes is not meant to discount the sexual harassment known to have been perpetrated by male coaches against male athletes. It is rather that, as Tomlinson and Yorganci (1997) point out, the relations of power and control that characterize all coach-athlete interactions are particularly acute when the coach is a man and the athlete - competing in male-dominated terrain - is a woman.

Sexual Harassment in Sport

In spite of inertia on the part of sports organizations, public awareness of sexual harassment and abuse in sports has been heightened by media attention in the last few years. Kirby (1995) cites three 1993 television programs as establishing sexual harassment and abuse as serious problems in Canadian sport. One of these programs - a CBC documentary - described the sexual involvement of a male coach with three teenage members of a top-level female rowing squad, and extensive sexual harassment by a male coach of members of a university women's volleyball team. (Teskey, 1993; Tomlinson and Yorganci, 1997). More recently, the sexual abuse experienced by National Hockey League player Sheldon Kennedy has been widely publicized. Media and other popular sources (Burton-Nelson, 1994; Rayment and Fowler, 1995; Mackay, 1996) have uncovered a litany of sexual offences by male coaches, usually against female athletes.

Among the earliest scholarly studies of sexual harassment in sport are Lackey's (1990) survey of 264 Nebraska women college and university athletes, and Yorganci's (1993) survey of 149 female athletes in the U.K. Lackey found that at least 20% of the female athletes he surveyed identified harassment as occurring in each of three categories: profanity, intrusive physical contacts (for example, "slapping on the butt"), and demeaning language, in other words language that is "embarrassing, derogatory, containing sexual innuendoes that male athletes are superior to females" (Lackey, 1990: 23).

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