One case is a case too much -Sexual violence in sport is reality

Content Warning: sexual abuse

“As a little gymnast girl, I felt how my coach opened my pyjama and started to touch me. I pretended I was sleeping, and nothing happened”.

Tineke Sonck is not pretending anymore that it didn’t happen. It did happen, she was sexually abused, and it affects her life years after. Tineke has shared her story through the VOICE initiative, so girls and boys around Europe and in the world understand that they don’t need to stay silent, their voices will be heard, and their perpetrators will not be able to escape. Sexual violence is not accepted, it is often a criminal act and every perpetrator needs to be convicted and punished – no matter how well-known he or she is as a coach, leader or other sports official.

Tineke Sonck and her story were part of the Expert Conference on Sexual Violence against Women and Children in Sports, organised by Council of Europe in Helsinki, Finland on 29-30 April. The conference brought together researchers, experts, policy-makers, governmental representatives and sport professionals to act to tackle sexual violence against women and children in sport. ENGSO was represented at the event by Honorary President Birgitta Kervinen, the Chair of the ENGSO Equality Within Sport Committee, Niina Toroi and ENGSO Youth Committee member, Gerda Katschinka, who was one of the speakers.

Sexual violence in sport is reality. However, it can be tackled through education, working together and most importantly - through actions.

In the panel entitled “Which measures to take to end sexual violence against women and children in sport?” Gerda Katschinka stressed, that “it is crucial for ENGSO Youth to promote children’s rights and to enable children to participate in the decision-making about their sports. Sport organisations which want to proactively prevent sexual violence against children should include the engagement of children – their voices – in all aspects of their work. A UK research shows that even where a system of child protection and training is well-established within the sports organisation, adults are often reluctant to discuss relevant issues with young people. Important knowledge is being withheld from children that may empower them.”

What can be done to prevent sexual harassment and violence in sport? Professor Kari Fasting's conclusions show that currently very little research is being done about sexual violence, and in particular on adult female experiences of sexual violence in sport. In addition, there is a need for developing measurements, common terminology and information about the consequences. In general, knowledge-sharing plays an important role, and that is something that everyone involved in sport can do, says professor Fasting.

Kari Fasting
Kari Fasting

Mike Hartill
Mike Hartill

Sexual violence occurs across Europe, in different sports, in various ages and sexes. A group of international researchers showed that in Germany up to 37% of elite athletes over 16 years old had encountered sexual harassment. Another study conducted in Belgium and the Netherlands showed that 14% of the interviewed people who had taken part in organised sport, had been sexually harassed when they were under 18 years old, said researcher Mike Hartill from Edge Hill University (UK). The numbers might be just the top of the iceberg, since more research is need. One case is a case too much and therefore, more studies are needed in order to support necessary resources towards action.

If one starts to speak up, it can have an effect on a multitude of people. Within professional football there was a case when a player shared a story of being a survivor of sexual harassment. More than 700 other players got empowered by that one story and reported of being sexually harassed as well, said Mike Hartill.

Marja Kokkonen
Marja Kokkonen

Professor Marja Kokkonen from the University of Jyväskylä, underlined that sexual violence in sport is related to equality. Kokkonen emphasised that sport and especially sport decision-making is still male-dominated and throughout different levels and sectors of sport, gender equality and equity at large must be noted and act upon. This includes media. Media often exploit sports violence and reinforce gender inequality, including how female athletes are presented.

One case of sexual violence or harassment is always too much. One story can be just enough to prevent other cases to happen. We all have the responsibility to use voices and talk about this sensitive topic. Most importantly, we all must act to tackle sexual violence in sport.

Text and pictures: Niina Toroi

For more information about the conference click here.