Sextortion: Sexual abuse in sport


A study by Transparency International shows that “sextortion” is still widespread. High-profile cases of sexual abuse in sport show that the problems run deep.

“Sextortion” is still a big and troubling topic in international sport. This shows the latest report from Transparency International (TI). In a survey of athletes in Germany, one of four countries along with Romania, Mexico and Zimbabwe in which this study was conducted, just over 30 percent of those surveyed said they had experienced sexualized violence in organized sport at least once.< /p>

Although recent cases in sports such as gymnastics and soccer highlight the extent of sexual abuse, the problem remains largely underreported in the sports world. “Sextortion” is described as a form of sexual exploitation and corruption, which occurs when people in positions of power try to extort sexual favors in exchange for something within their power, such as signing a contract with a club or entering major tournaments. 

Dynamics of Power

“It struck me that the sports sector has all the ingredients to perpetuate the problem of sextortion,” Marie Chene, head of research at Transparency International, told DW. “The power imbalance is enormous because many children are in a precarious situation. The relationships between coaches and athletes are often very close, emotionally and physically, due to the nature of sport. The relationship can in some cases be decisive for a career and that creates a dangerous environment”.

Chene: “Sport could be a good vehicle”

Simone Biles was one of several gymnasts from the United States to report sexual abuse. Due to the relatively new definition of “sextortion,” Transparency International's report relied on statistics on sexual abuse in sport, which is widespread in all sports worldwide. A key reason for TI's decision to investigate the current state of sextortion in the sports world was the belief that the sports industry has the power to create a foundation for real change.

Gymnast Simone Biles at the US abuse hearing of Larry Nassar

“We believe that the sports sector has a key role to play in communicating values,” explains Chene. “Basically, sport is about social justice, about fairness and about achievement.” The researcher explains further: “When sexual abuse, which is one of the two components of sextortion, occurs in sport, it undermines the mission that the Sport is visible and if we want to make this issue visible and recognize sextortion as a form of corruption, then the sports sector could be a good vehicle for that.”

Although many of the cases examined showed that both sexes were affected by “sextortion”, the report also confirmed that the perpetrators of sexual abuse are overwhelmingly male.

Gender inequality

The proportion of male abusers in the various studies ranged from 96 to 100 percent. TI criticizes a “hyper-masculine culture”. Coupled with the lack of equality for women athletes in terms of pay and visibility, and the low number of women in positions of power in organizations, this only exacerbates the problem.

In cases of abuse in sport, men are the main perpetrators

“Women's sport does not have the same status as men's sport,” says Chene. “There is a huge gender pay gap, very little representation of female athletes, and few women in leadership and leadership positions.” There is an 'old boys network,' says Chene, “where old men stay in positions of power for decades and have no to change the status quo. So that the system is self-perpetuating.”

Sylvia Schenk, Chair of the Working Group on Sport at Transparency International Germany, said in a statement: “From the Chinese Peng Shuai, whose alleged assault was covered up by a high-ranking government official, to the American Kylie McKenzie, who no longer has a chance at competing after being subjected to long-term harassment and abuse by their federation coach – far too many are dealing with the consequences of a sexist and exploitative system.”

Not even half of sports federations are responding

The German Olympic Sports Confederation (DOSB) tried to change this in 2010 with the adoption of the Munich Declaration on Protection against Sexualized Violence in Sport, but failed. The declaration's 15 measures include the prevention of sexual violence as a compulsory subject in sports education and the adoption of a code of ethics. Nine years later, a study found that less than half of national sports federations had included prevention of sexual abuse in their statutes.

Prevention first

The result forced the DOSB to to make the public funding of associations dependent on the adoption of these preventive measures. In addition, inadequate reporting systems for sports organizations continue to hamper progress in combating and preventing sexual abuse.

The German Olympic Sports Confederation (DOSB) calls for changes on the subject of “Sextortion”

“Sports organizations and governments need to act to stop abuse,” Schenk continued. “The first line of defense is preventing abuse before it happens through a transparent culture, strong preventive measures, including education about sextortion and other sexual abuse, and the wider implications of sexism.”

” Sextortion needs to be taken seriously

The report includes a number of recommendations, with TI focusing on prevention for the first time in relation to sextortion. Although many of the proposals are long-term measures, Chene reiterated the urgent need for rapid change.

“During our research, we heard so many horror stories, so many dreams shattered,” she said. “It's not just about the sexual abuse, but how reports of sexual abuse are being taken up and survivors are being silenced.”

Chene added in her statement, “It's about time to change the culture of silence and impunity for all forms of abuse in sport “Sports organisations, governments and civil society must take abuse seriously and act now to stop sextortion.”

From English by Thomas Klein