Sexual violence in organized sport in Germany

  • Jeannine Ohlert
  • Corinna Seidler
  • Thea Rau
  • Bettina Rulofs
  • Marc Allroggen
Main articles

Abstract

Although the topic of sexual violence in sport has gained considerable attention in recent years, prevalence rates of sexual violence experience in German athletes are not yet available. Therefore, the current study aimed to address this by assessing prevalence rates in a comprehensive sample of German elite athletes. Overall, 1529 German elite athletes over 16 years of age from 128 different sports took part in an online survey. Mean age was 21.6 years; 56% were female. Participants were presented with seventeen different sexual violence situations (from sexist jokes to forced penetration) and asked to indicate how often they had experienced each particular situation in the sport setting. Results revealed that 37.6% of the athletes had experienced at least one sexual violence situation in organized sport; 11.2% reported a severe form of sexual violence. Female athletes were affected significantly more often than male athletes, and persons with a sexual orientation other than heterosexual more often than heterosexuals. No significant differences could be found with regard to age, level of performance, type of sports, dis-/ability or migration background of the athletes. These results indicate that sexual violence is a problem that needs to be addressed across elite sports in Germany. Prevention concepts need to be developed and applied across sports contexts.

Keywords

Sexual harassment Sexual abuse Interpersonal violence Squad athletes Female athletes 

Sexualisierte Gewalt im organisierten Sport in Deutschland

Zusammenfassung

Obwohl sexualisierte Gewalt im Sport in den letzten Jahren beträchtlich an Aufmerksamkeit gewonnen hat, sind noch keine Daten zur Prävalenz sexualisierter Gewalterfahrungen unter deutschen Sportler*innen verfügbar. Ziel der vorliegenden Studie war es daher, die Prävalenz anhand einer umfassenden Stichprobe deutscher Spitzensportler*innen zu ermitteln. Insgesamt 1529 deutsche Kadersportler*innen über 16 Jahren aus 128 verschiedenen Sportarten nahmen an einer Online-Befragung teil. Das Durchschnittsalter betrug 21,6 Jahre; 56% waren weiblich. Den Teilnehmenden wurden 17 verschiedene Situationen sexualisierter Gewalt geschildert (von sexistischen Witzen bis zur erzwungenen Penetration). Sie wurden gebeten anzugeben, wie oft sie die einzelnen Situationen im Umfeld des organisierten Sports erfahren hatten. Wie die Befragung ergab, hatten 37,6% der Sportler*innen mindestens eine Situation sexualisierter Gewalt im organisierten Sport erlebt; 11,2% gaben schwere oder länger andauernde sexualisierte Gewalt an. Sportlerinnen waren signifikant häufiger betroffen als Sportler, und Personen mit einer nicht heterosexuellen Orientierung häufiger als Heterosexuelle. Keine signifikanten Unterschiede fanden sich in Bezug auf Alter, Leistungsniveau, Sportart, Behinderungsstatus oder Migrationshintergrund der Sportler*innen. Die Ergebnisse zeigen, dass sexualisierte Gewalt ein Problem ist, das in allen Bereichen des deutschen Spitzensports angegangen werden sollte. Präventionskonzepte müssen entwickelt und auf den verschiedene Kontexte im Sport angewendet werden.

Schlüsselwörter

Sexuelle Belästigung Sexueller Missbrauch Zwischenmenschliche Gewalt Kadersportler*innen Sportlerinnen 

Introduction

After several incidents of sexual violence in organized German sport, the German Olympic Sports Confederation adopted an agreement that committed all German sport organizations to implement prevention programs against sexual violence within their body (the so-called Declaration of Munich, Deutscher Olympischer Sportbund, 2010). In spite of this declaration, no comprehensive data regarding the occurrence of sexual violence in organized sport in Germany is available. Prevalence rates are necessary to identify high-risk groups and develop target-oriented prevention programs. To fill this knowledge gap, the aim of the current study was to investigate the prevalence of sexual violence in organized sport in Germany and to compare the prevalence of sexual violence among subgroups.

Defining sexual violence

There are various definitions of sexual violence in international research. One of the most commonly used definitions in the field of sport is the one used by Alexander, Stafford, and Lewis (2011), who define sexual violence in sport as a “behaviour towards an individual or group that involves sexualised verbal, nonverbal or physical behaviour, whether intended or unintended, legal or illegal, that is based upon an abuse of power and trust and that is considered by the victim or a bystander to be unwanted or coerced” (p. 61). In order to be able to distinguish between different forms of sexual violence, Brackenridge (2001) introduced a continuum of sexual violence in sport, ranging from sexual harassment or “the chilly climate” to sexual abuse or “groomed or coerced” with a “grey zone” (“unwanted attention”) in between. Alexander et al. (2011) created three distinct categories from Brackenridge’s continuum, named “sexual harassment”, “grey zone” and “sexual harm”. Vertommen et al. (2016) used related categories; they differentiate between “mild sexual violence”, “moderate sexual violence” and “severe sexual violence”. However, besides considering the type of situation when rating the severity, they also included the frequency of occurrence of single events. Thus, a situation of sexual harassment that would be categorized as “mild” if it occurs only once is categorized as “severe” if it occurs regularly or over a longer period of time (for exact assignment to the different categories see Vertommen et al., 2016). Although this kind of categorization is relatively new in the area of sports and is not without its disadvantages, it seems to better take into account the important issue of how harmful regular exposure to sexual violence might be for a person (Vertommen et al., 2016).

Research on sexual violence in sport

Sexual violence, especially in the context of sports and sports organizations, has rather recently been gaining more attention, but the body of literature still remains small in comparison to other fields of research. The first studies on sexual violence in sport were inspired by a paper by Celia Brackenridge (1994) who raised the concern that organized sport might be a potential field of risk for (child) sexual abuse. However, the majority of the available studies are qualitative in nature and do not report any prevalence rates (for a summary see Brackenridge, 2001). Three other factors make it difficult to directly compare prevalence rates for the available studies: the different samples used, the different definitions of sexual violence, and the different groups of perpetrators surveyed.

Regarding the samples, several studies focus on student athletes only (Alexander et al., 2011; Elendu & Umeakuka, 2011; Fasting, Chroni, Hervik, & Knorre, 2011; Fejgin & Hanegby, 2001; Toftegaard Nielsen, 2001; Volkwein, Schnell, Sherwood, & Livezey, 1997), whereas others work with representative samples from the general population (Johansson & Lundqvist, 2017; Parent, Lavoie, Thibodeau, Hébert, & Blais, 2016; Vertommen et al., 2016). Only a few studies refer to elite athletes (Fasting, Brackenridge, & Sundgot-Borgen, 2004; Gündüz, Sunay, & Koz, 2008; Kirby & Greaves, 1996; Leahy, Pretty, & Tennenbaum, 2002), and some focus solely on female athletes (Fasting et al., 2004; Fasting et al., 2011; Fejgin & Hanegby, 2001; Gündüz et al., 2008; Volkwein et al., 1997). With regard to the perpetrator, some studies exclusively investigate sexual violence by the coach (Fejgin & Hanegby, 2001; Johansson & Lundqvist, 2017; Parent et al., 2016; Toftegaard Nielsen, 2001; Volkwein et al., 1997), whilst the remainders refer to sexual violence in the sport context. The largest differentiation concerns the different definitions of sexual violence, with some studies considering only sexual abuse, some including sexist comments, and others that do not sum up different experiences to a total prevalence rate. Furthermore, only very few studies use items that are directly comparable to other questionnaires. Thus, when looking at the huge variance of approaches and definitions, it does not seem very useful to directly compare the prevalence rates from the different countries and studies.

The logical consequence of the heterogeneous study designs is a huge variation in the prevalence rates: the lowest prevalence was found by Parent et al. (2016) for their Quebecois sample of 14- to 17-year-old students from a representative survey who reported a 0.4% prevalence for sexual harassment by the coach, and 0.8% for sexual abuse by the coach. Another representative survey on 25-year-old sport club members in Sweden found an overall prevalence of 5.5% for sexual violence by the coach (Johansson & Lundqvist, 2017). Another recent representative survey by Vertommen et al. (Vertommen et al., 2016) in the Netherlands and Flanders (Belgium) reported higher prevalence rates for any type of sexual violence in sport: 11.9% in the Netherlands and 16.7% in Flanders, and even an increased risk for international elite athletes with a lifetime prevalence of 28.6% (OR = 2.54). The prevalence for severe sexual violence (independent from level of competition) was 5.5% (6.5% for female and 4.4% for male athletes).

Depending on the sample, perpetrator, and definition, prevalence rates rise to 44%, in the case of female sport students in Greece when sexist remarks regarding doing their sport in general are included (Fasting et al., 2011). In Denmark, Toftegaard Nielsen (2001) included sexist jokes by the coach and found a prevalence rate of 63% for student athletes. Studies focussing on elite athletes have found prevalence rates ranging from 22% for Canadian Olympic athletes (Kirby & Greaves, 1996) and 28% for female elite athletes in Norway (Fasting et al., 2004) to 56% for female elite athletes in Turkey (Gündüz et al., 2008), all using a fairly broad definition of sexual violence. An Australian study by Leahy et al. (2002) assessed sexual abuse experiences in elite athletes (excluding “mild” sexual violence) and found a prevalence rate in sport of 13% (8% for males and 17% for females).

Differences between subgroups

Researchers expect the context of (elite) sports itself to bear an increased risk for sexual violence in comparison to other areas of life, due to hierarchical leadership structures, physical contact, and participation at an early age (e. g., Alexander et al., 2011; Cense & Brackenridge, 2001). Apart from that, several subgroups of the population have been found to be at a greater risk than others (not only in sport, but also in their life in general). Gender and sexual orientation are two factors that link to risk of sexual violence. In terms of gender, the large majority of studies report higher prevalence rates for female athletes (with the exception of Alexander et al., 2011). The sexual orientation of athletes has only been included in the study by Vertommen et al. (2016), but their findings of increased prevalence rates for gay or bisexual athletes match with those of studies in the general population (Friedman et al., 2011). Two other risk factors were found by Vertommen et al. (2016) as well as in population-wide research (Hussey, Chang, & Kotch, 2006; Jones et al., 2012): persons with disabilities of any kind are at higher risk of experiencing sexual violence. The same holds true for people with a migration background. Furthermore, diverging prevalence rates for different kinds of sports are evident in qualitative research, with higher values in individual sports, or sports with scarce clothing and early onset of the high performance age (Brackenridge & Kirby, 1997; Fasting & Brackenridge, 2010). Still, Fasting et al. (2004) did not find any differences in prevalence in a quantitative sample of Norwegian female athletes; thus it is also possible that qualitative studies have overestimated the effect of the type of sport for the risk of being affected by sexual violence. Finally, another possible risk factor that should be noted is the level of performance, as athletes on higher levels are found to be more dependent on their coach and thus at a higher risk of sexual abuse (Leahy et al., 2002; Vertommen et al., 2016). This is also in line with the theory regarding the Stage of Imminent Achievement by Brackenridge and Kirby (1997).

To summarise previous findings, although a number of quantitative studies on sexual violence exist regarding sport worldwide, no study has yet quantitatively examined prevalence rates in organized sport in Germany. Therefore, the aim of the current study was to assess the prevalence of sexual violence in elite athletes in organized sport in Germany and to compare different subgroups in order to identify vulnerable groups.

Method

Participants

In total, 1799 German squad athletes1 over the age of 16 from 128 different sports and representing 57 different sport organizations took part in the survey. Information on the experience of sexual violence was provided by 1529 of the athletes2; thus, all data reported here refer to this number of participants. Regarding their sport performance level, 17% of the participants were members of the German D/C or D squad, 36% of the C squad, 29% of the B squad and 18% of the A squad. More than half of the athletes (56%) were female. The mean age was 21.58 years (SD = 6.68 years, range 16 to 59), and the experience in their actual sport ranged from 1 to 50 years (M = 12.06, SD = 6.27). Six in ten participants (62%) were students in schools, colleges or universities; 12% were members of a federal sport promotion group3, and another 7% were professional athletes. One in seven athletes (15%) had a migration background. In total 6% of the sample belonged to the Paralympic athletes group.

Measures

Questions regarding the experience of sexual violence

Questions regarding the experience of sexual violence in sports were taken from the Dutch/Flemish study by Vertommen et al. (Vertommen et al., 2016). The reason for basing this study on the questionnaire by Vertommen et al. are manifold: First of all, the Belgian and Dutch club-based sport systems have similarities to the German sport system. Furthermore, the study by Vertommen et al. is one of the most recent prevalence studies in sport and covers a range of different forms of interpersonal violence (e. g., sexual, physical and psychological). This broad approach on interpersonal violence was adopted in the German study, but this paper focuses on the experience of sexual violence only.

An independent translation of the questionnaire to German and back-translation to English was performed independently by the first author (German native) and an English native. Differences in the back-translated version were discussed until an agreement was reached. The questionnaire consisted of 17 different descriptions of possible sexual violence situations, ranging from “You were the subject/victim of sexist jokes” to “You were forced to have sex with penetration (oral, vaginal or anal)”. The complete wordings for the different situations are presented in Table 1. Athletes were asked to indicate how often in their lives they had experienced the described situation within organized sports in Germany (“organized sports” refers to voluntary, nonprofit sports clubs and federations and their surroundings). The answer was given on a four point scale with “Never”, “Once”, “Twice to four times” and “Five times or more”.
Table 1

Prevalence and frequency of occurrence for the different situations of sexual violence in sport with all athletes, sorted by total prevalence (N = 1529)

 

Frequency of occurrence

 

Situation

Once

(%)

Twice to four times

(%)

Five times or more often

(%)

Never

(%)

Prevalence

(%)

You were the subject/victim of sexual remarks about your body and looks

8.4

5.5

3.1

83.0

17.0

You were the subject/victim of sexist jokes

7.3

5.2

3.9

83.5

16.4

You were looked at with an intrusive sexual glance

6.4

4.7

2.6

86.4

13.7

Your privacy was invaded (someone was standing too close to you, etc.)

8.0

3.7

1.8

86.4

13.5

You were whistled or yelled at in a sexist way

6.0

4.8

2.6

86.7

13.4

There was physical contact that made you uneasy/feel uncomfortable

6.1

3.1

0.9

89.9

10.1

You were being touched during training in a way that made you uneasy/feel uncomfortable

4.2

2.1

0.7

93.0

7.0

You received calls, notes, emails, texts, photos or clips (possibly on your mobile/the internet) that had a sexual connotation or were sexually explicit

3.5

1.9

1.0

93.6

6.4

You were being rubbed or massaged in a way that made you uneasy/feel uncomfortable

3.2

0.9

0.3

95.6

4.4

You were asked to be alone with someone which made you uneasy/feel uncomfortable

3.2

0.6

0.3

95.9

4.1

You received calls, notes, emails, texts, photos or clips (possibly on your mobile/the internet) that featured you in a compromising or sexually explicit pose or situation

1.5

0.4

0.2

97.9

2.1

Someone touched you sexually against your will

1.6

0.2

0.2

98.0

2.0

You were forced to kiss someone/made to kiss someone against your will

1.4

0.1

0.2

98.3

1.7

Someone exposed him/herself to you (in your presence or via social media)

1.1

0.1

0.3

98.5

1.5

Someone took photos of you that emphasized your disability, or someone asked you to show your disability explicitly, and you had the feeling that it sexually aroused that person.a

1.1

0.0

0.0

98.9

1.1

You were asked to undress, assume a sexually explicit pose or perform sexual acts in the presence of someone (with or without camera) or via social media

0.9

0.0

0.1

99.1

1.0

Someone tried to have sex with you against your will

0.8

0.0

0.1

99.1

0.9

Your sport team did a kind of “ritual” with you that contained sexual suggestive things (e. g. shaving the intimate parts)

0.7

0.1

0.1

99.1

0.9

You were forced to have sex with penetration (oral, vaginal or anal)

0.5

0.1

0.1

99.4

0.7

aBase: All athletes with disabilities (n = 90)

Two more situations were added that were not part of the original questionnaire by Vertommen et al. (2016): “Your sport team involved you in a kind of ‘ritual’ that contained sexually suggestive things (e. g. shaving the intimate parts)” and “Someone took photos of you that emphasized your disability, or someone asked you to show your disability explicitly, and you had the feeling that it sexually aroused that person”. The latter situation was only shown to athletes with disabilities.

Demographics and other questions

Athletes were asked to answer demographic questions regarding their age, gender, sport, squad membership, duration in their sport, and occupational status. As this paper is based on data collected as part of a larger survey, several other questions were asked that are not in the scope of this article and thus will not be explained in detail.

Procedure

The study was conducted following the ethical guidelines of the APA and the protocol for cross sectional studies of sexual abuse in sports (Timpka et al., 2015); ethical approval was given by the ethical committee of the involved university hospital. Due to ethical considerations, participation in the survey was only possible for athletes of at least 16 years of age. An online questionnaire designed with the software “Limesurvey” was used as the platform for distributing the survey. An employee of the German Olympic Sports Federation (DOSB), who manages a list of all German Olympic squad athletes, contacted 6699 athletes via email. Similarly, an employee of the German National Paralympic Committee (DBS) contacted all 300 Paralympic athletes. As the DOSB and DBS are two umbrella organizations representing almost all important sports federations in Germany (except male soccer), and all squad athletes should be included in their list, the two lists used for this survey should comprise the vast majority of German elite athletes.

In the email, the athletes were asked for their participation and given the link to the questionnaire. They were also informed that their participation was voluntary, that they could withdraw from their participation anytime, and that there would be no consequences if they declined participation. It was made clear that their data would be analysed by employees of the involved university hospital according to data protection guidelines and would not be provided to any sports organization as raw data. Athletes did not receive any compensation for their participation. The response rate was at 27% for those participants who had answered at least the demographic variables and the first questions, and 20% of the total population completely filled out the questionnaire. Athletes took a median duration of 17 min to answer all questions in the survey.

Analyses

Questionnaire data was imported into SPSS 23 and all analyses were conducted with this software. A data screening procedure according to Tabachnick and Fidell (2013) was performed, including a check for nonplausible answers and univariate outliers. For age group comparisons, athletes were divided according to their developmental stages (Oerter & Montada, 1995) into five groups: 16–17 years, 18–20 years, 21–24 years, 25–40 years, and older than 40 years (referring to their current age, not the age at which they experienced sexual violence). To compare the different types of sport, a classification with seven categories according to Schaal et al. (2011) was used: (1) aesthetic sports (e. g., gymnastics, figure skating), (2) contact/combat sports (e. g., judo, karate), (3) team ball sports (e. g., basketball, field hockey), (4) aiming sports (e. g., archery, golf), (5) racing sports (e. g., track and field, cycling), (6) racket sports (e. g., badminton, table tennis), and (7) high-risk sports (e. g., ski jumping, toboggan racing).

As only 63 participants indicated a sexual orientation other than heterosexual (e. g., bisexual, homosexual, not sure yet), they were grouped into one category to allow for comparisons of sexual orientation.

The different situations of sexual violence were grouped into three categories of severity: “mild sexual violence”, “moderate sexual violence” and “severe sexual violence” according to Vertommen et al. (2016). In this categorization, the type of situation as well as the frequency of occurrence is considered; thus, a situation that would be “mild” if occurring once could also be “severe” if it occurred more than four times. Consequently, “mild sexual violence” included situations such as being the victim of sexist jokes, touching, standing too close, or receiving messages with sexual content, if they only happened once. The category “moderate sexual violence” contained the same situations if they happened twice to four times. In case a person had experienced these situations more often, these situations were rated as “severe sexual violence”, as well as situations like experiencing exhibitionism or being forced to kiss someone, to undress, or to have sex against their will. The latter situations were also rated as “severe sexual violence” if they had happened just once. The categorization of sexual violence experiences into “mild”, “moderate” and “severe” could of course be questioned, yet seems to be necessary in order to differentiate different forms of sexual violence. It should be stated that the experience of sexual violence is subjective and dependent on individual backgrounds, interpretations and assessments. Forms of sexual violence that are categorized “mild” in this study could be interpreted as “severe” by an individual person.

Chi-square tests were used to calculate differences in prevalence rates between the subgroups of athletes. Effect sizes were computed using Cramer’s V.

Results

Prevalence rates of sexual violence in sport

Overall, 37.6% of the participating athletes indicated that they had experienced at least one of the described situations of sexual violence in their life within organized sport in Germany. On average, the affected athletes were 17 years old at the time of the first experience of sexual violence; 10% were under 14 years old and 57% were aged between 14 and 17 years. The perpetrators were predominantly male (91%) and adults (older than 17 years; 81%) in roles looking after the athletes, e. g., as a coach, physiotherapist, staff member (for more details see Allroggen, Ohlert, Gramm, & Rau, 2016). Table 2 depicts the prevalence rates for different subgroups of the sample. As shown by the table, almost no differences in prevalence rates were evident for the different subgroups. Only women showed a significantly higher prevalence than men.
Table 2

Prevalence rates of sexual violence in organized sport for different subgroups of athletes

  

n

Prevalence

(%)

χ 2

p

Cramer’s V

Total sample

1529

37.6

   

Gender

91.32

<0.001

0.25

Female

854

48.1

   

Male

672

24.3

   

Age

3.86

0.425

 

16–17 years

419

37.0

   

18–20 years

511

37.6

   

21–24 years

257

35.8

   

25–40 years

298

41.3

   

41 years and older

43

27.9

   

Level of performance

0.81

0.848

 

A squad

274

38.7

   

B squad

441

38.1

   

C squad

553

37.8

   

D/C or D squad

261

35.2

   

Type of sport

3.92

0.687

 

Aesthetic

145

36.6

   

Contact/combat

159

41.5

   

Team ball

336

37.5

   

Aiming

115

32.2

   

Racing

507

39.4

   

Racket

30

40.0

   

High risk

181

34.8

   

Migration background

0.64

0.422

 

Athletes with migration background

225

40.0

   

Athletes without migration background

1304

37.2

   

Disabilities

1.23

0.267

 

Athletes with disabilities

93

43.0

   

Athletes without disabilities

1436

37.3

   

Sexual orientation

2.76

0.097

0.04

Heterosexual

1460

37.3

   

Other sexual orientation

63

47.6

   

Prevalence rates for the single situations of sexual violence in sport

Table 1 shows the lifetime prevalence and the frequencies of occurrence for the 19 different situations of sexual violence in the field of sport. The most reported situations were sexual remarks (17.0%) and sexist jokes (16.4%), whilst the least reported situation was forced sex with penetration (0.7% of the participants).

Severity of sexual violence in sport

Of all athletes, 15.9% experienced mild sexual violence, 10.1% moderate sexual violence, and 11.2% a severe form of sexual violence. Table 3 depicts the prevalence rates for the different subgroups; severe sexual violence ranged from 6.7% (for male athletes) to 22.2% (for respondents indicating a nonheterosexual identity). Still, almost no significant differences between the subgroups could be found regarding prevalence rates of severe sexual violence: female athletes reported a significantly higher prevalence than male athletes for severe sexual violence, and individuals with a sexual orientation other than heterosexual reported a higher prevalence than heterosexual participants. No other subgroups differed in this regard.
Table 3

Severity of experienced sexual violence in sport for different subgroups of athletes (n are similar to those presented in Table 2)

 

Severity of sexual violence

Group comparison for severe sexual violence

 

Mild

(%)

Moderate

(%)

Severe

(%)

χ2

p

Cramer’s V

Total sample

15.9

10.1

11.2

   

Gender

25.13

<0.001

0.13

Female

19.6

13.3

14.9

   

Male

11.2

6.0

6.7

   

Age

6.01

0.199

 

16–17 years

17.7

8.6

10.5

   

18–20 years

16.8

11.2

9.2

   

21–24 years

13.6

8.9

12.8

   

25–40 years

14.8

12.1

13.8

   

41 years and older

9.3

2.3

16.3

   

Level of performance

1.71

0.634

 

A squad

12.8

11.7

13.5

   

B squad

17.9

9.1

10.9

   

C squad

15.7

11.2

10.7

   

D/C or D squad

16.1

7.7

10.7

   

Type of sport

2.84

0.828

 

Aesthetic

14.5

11.7

10.3

   

Contact/combat

19.5

10.7

9.4

   

Team ball

16.7

10.1

10.1

   

Aiming

12.2

7.0

13.0

   

Racing

15.8

10.7

12.8

   

Racket

16.7

13.3

10.0

   

High risk

16.0

8.3

10.5

   

Migration background

1.15

0.284

 

Athletes with migration background

16.9

9.8

13.3

   

Athletes without migration background

15.7

10.1

10.9

   

Disabilities

0.27

0.602

 

Athletes with disabilities

15.1

15.1

12.9

   

Athletes without disabilities

15.9

9.7

11.1

   

Sexual orientation

7.84

0.005

0.07

Heterosexual

15.8

10.2

10.8

   

Other sexual orientation

17.5

7.9

22.2

   

Discussion

Sexual violence in sports has gained considerable attention in Germany within the last few years because of press coverage of several cases from various kinds of sports. However, until now, no study has examined the risk of sexual violence in German sports institutions. The current study aimed to assess these prevalence rates using an extensive sample of German elite athletes. As our results show, more than one third of participants have experienced sexual violence in sport during their lifetime, with one in nine athletes having experienced incidents of severe sexual violence. Regarding subgroups, only two significant group differences were identified: women are affected more often than men and persons with a sexuality other than heterosexual affected more often than heterosexuals (especially for experiences of severe sexual violence). None of the other expected risk factors (level of performance, type of sports, migration background, dis-/ability) showed significant associations in our study.

The prevalence rates identified in the current study are within the range of findings identified elsewhere, especially with respect to studies including elite athletes (e. g., Gündüz et al. 2008; Leahy et al., 2002). Although no other study used an identical design, meaning that caution should be exercised when making comparisons, it can be said that the prevalence rates are fairly high and need to be addressed via preventative measures. Furthermore, although the majority of these experiences can be categorized into “mild” or “moderate” forms of sexual violence, additional results from this study, which have been published elsewhere (Ohlert, Rau, Rulofs, & Allroggen, 2017), indicate that these “less serious” forms of sexual violence can also lead to psychological problems and reduced sport motivation in the victims. Additionally, perpetrators can use mild and moderate sexual violence as a gateway to more severe forms of sexual violence at a later time.

One possible explanation for the fact that young athletes are at risk of experiencing sexual violence in sport could be the structure and club culture in Germany. Germany has a very strong, but also heterogeneous, club structure with a large proportion of small clubs and voluntary workers in coaching and management positions (Breuer & Feiler, 2015). The predominantly voluntary character of sport clubs possibly hampers the implementation of safeguarding procedures. Another reason might be that only squad athletes were included in our study, that is to say only high-level performers in their respective sports, who represent a very distinct group of athletes with high training loads who spend almost their whole day in sports surroundings for a long period of their life. This kind of hyperinclusion into the sport system can lead to an increased risk for sexual violence experiences (Leahy et al., 2002), especially when sport federations have not implemented prevention strategies. According to a recent German study, there is a lack of safeguarding procedures in the field of elite sport: Only 39% of sport governing bodies in Germany indicate that they have sound knowledge on safeguarding procedures, whilst only half of them engage actively in the prevention of sexual violence (Rulofs, Wagner, & Hartmann-Tews, 2016). Furthermore, on the club level, only half of the German clubs deem sexual violence to be a relevant topic, with only 38% of sport clubs implementing preventive measures against sexual violence (Hartmann-Tews, Rulofs, Feiler, & Breuer, 2016).

The fact that more female than male athletes reported sexual violence confirms previous results in and outside sport (e. g., Alexander et al., 2011; Vertommen et al., 2016). This finding again stresses the necessity to consider gender relations and hegemonic masculinity in the field of sport. However, this finding should not disguise the fact that boys and men are also at risk of experiencing sexual violence in sport and that safeguarding procedures are needed to address all athletes in sport (Hartill, 2014). Furthermore, our data shows a higher vulnerability to sexual violence in the group of nonheterosexual athletes. Sexual orientation and gender identity still seem to be highly sensitive topics in the field of sport. Athletes who irritate heteronormativity in sport are more often at risk to experience sexual harassment and abuse (Smith, Cuthbertson, & Gale, 2012).

An unexpected result of our study is the fact that few differences between other subgroups of athletes were identified for sexual violence in general, but also for the severe forms of sexual violence. Increased prevalence rates for athletes with disabilities or those with a migration background, as well as for athletes on higher levels of performance or from certain kinds of sports, had been expected. However, none of these differences were evident in our survey. In terms of migration background and disabilities, the most plausible explanation is that participation in elite sports reduces the respective athletes’ vulnerability and thus decreases the risk of becoming a victim.

Concerning the similarity of prevalence rates in different kinds of sports, it should be noted that our results are contrary to common expectations and theoretical considerations (Brackenridge & Kirby, 1997), although they replicate the findings of Fasting et al. (2004) who did not find differences in prevalence rates among sport types. An explanation for this may be that qualitative research and theory building initially concentrated on sports with high numbers of young children and known cases of sexual abuse; thus, it made sense to see those athletes as a vulnerable group. According to our study, however, the dress code, the early onset of the high performance age, and other characteristics of different sports were not risk factors for sexual violence.

That sexist jokes, remarks, yells or looks (with more than 10% for each category in comparison to 7% of not acceptable touches during training) were the most commonly experienced incidents, indicates that sexual violence is not only a problem of particular coaches abusing children, but rather a hazard that is grounded in the culture and/or the settings of the respective training group or club. This is also supported by other results from the same project (Allroggen, et al., 2016), which showed that athletes who had experienced sexual violence in sports did perceive a weaker “culture of attention and participation” in their club than those without a sexual violence experience.

Although the lifetime experiences of sexual violence in sport would be expected to be higher in older athletes, our data revealed no differences in prevalence between age groups. There are two plausible explanations for this: firstly, as our study was a retrospective survey, sexual violence experiences (especially those of the so-called “mild” forms) might not have been recalled correctly by older athletes, resulting in an assimilation of the numbers. Furthermore, older athletes might not have perceived so called “mild” forms as sexual violence but rather as common behaviour in the sports context. One reason could be that they have spent several years in the sport system without sexual violence being a recognized topic (Lang & Hartill, 2015). The second explanation could be that the age of (early) adolescence is an age of increased risk for the athletes, as they are exposed to the same group of persons every day while concurrently going through puberty with all its challenges (Ohlert & Kleinert, 2014). This explanation is supported by the additional data of the project, indicating that the majority of athletes had experienced sexual violence the first time before the age of 18 (see also Allroggen et al., 2016).

Brackenridge and Kirby (1997) proposed that the “stage of imminent achievement”, which is the period in the sports career when an athlete has already reached a high standard of performance and is on the verge of reaching the highest level, is a phase of increased risk for sexual violence, as bonds of high dependency are formed between coach and athlete. For most sports, this stage coincides with the age of adolescence (Brackenridge & Kirby, 1997). Our results, however, do not support this hypothesis as no differences between the different elite levels were evident. If the assumptions of Brackenridge and Kirby were to hold true, there should have been higher prevalence rates for members of higher squads (like A or B squad).

Regarding the limitations of our study, firstly it should be stated that the population of squad athletes in Germany is not known in every detail. Although we were able to use the extensive contact list of athletes from DOSB and DBS, not all information regarding age, gender, sport and email address is available for every athlete, and furthermore this list depends on the information provided by the umbrella organization of the respective athlete. Secondly, because of ethical and data privacy protection reasons, the age for participation had to be set at 16 years old, so younger athletes were not represented in the survey. As the proportion of squad athletes younger than 16 years old is variable for different kinds of sports (e. g., high proportions for gymnastics and figure skating), our results are not transferable to all sport types without taking these considerations into account. However, our study comprises by far the largest sample of elite athletes having been questioned about sexual violence experiences, in Germany and other countries. At the same time this means that prevalence rates in recreational sports could be different, as we only surveyed athletes in elite sports. Furthermore, it should be mentioned that we have only presented data regarding sexual violence experiences in organized German sport. At least some of the athletes will surely have experienced sexual violence (additionally) outside of their sport; thus, when looking at the persons, not at sport as a context, prevalence rates may be even higher.

Finally, it should be noted that this study was an online survey pertaining to a very sensitive topic. Therefore, it is possible that especially those athletes who have experienced sexual violence were highly motivated to participate in the study because they wanted to share their experiences and to support prevention against sexual violence. In this case, prevalence rates would be overestimated. On the other hand it is also plausible that especially those affected by sexual violence did not participate in the study because they did not want to actively recall their experiences, or because they did not have confidence in the privacy protection of their data, as the emails had been sent out from the DOSB and DSB as umbrella organizations in German sport. Moreover, it is probable that some athletes who have been affected by sexual violence in sport do not remember these occurrences anymore or have already quit the (elite) sport system because of their experiences; thus, the prevalence rates would again be underestimated.

To conclude, this is the first time that prevalence rates for sexual violence in organized sport in Germany have been reported, whilst the findings contain several unexpected results. The implications of our study are relevant for research, sports organizations and coaches. Regarding research, our study contradicts the theoretical considerations and findings from some studies, whilst supporting others. Therefore, future research should aim to provide extensive and comparable prevalence data from more countries, as well as data for nonelite sports in Germany. Additionally, more detailed information regarding victims, perpetrators and their characteristics, as well as structures of the sexual violence situations, is needed in order to gain more insight into risk factors and preventative factors. Obviously, it would make sense to analyse different club structures and social interactions within the clubs in order to identify structures bearing a higher risk for sexual violence.

For practitioners in sports organizations and clubs, our study suggests that all sports, regardless of whether there has been a recent case of sexual violence or not, should put more effort into the prevention of sexual violence. Sports organizations and clubs should intensify their efforts and shift their focus to a “culture of attention”, as risk factors seemingly can be found in the handling of relationships, respect and general behaviour within a club or sports team, more than in the characteristics of single athletes or the sport itself.

Footnotes

  1. 1.

    In the German sport system, elite athletes are classified into four different squads. The highest level is the A squad. This is the national team that represents Germany in international competition. Athletes of the A squad are not always professional athletes, but almost always receive some federal funding for their sport. The B squad is the extension of the A squad, comprising athletes who are likely to make the A squad in the future. B squad athletes receive less financial support for their sport. In most German sport federations, the C squad is the highest squad for junior athletes. The D/C or D squad athletes are junior athletes below the C squad, mostly organized into federal state squads (Landeskader) rather than countrywide.

  2. 2.

    As we used an online questionnaire for this study, and participants were not forced to answer every question, the number of participants is lower than the total sample because of missing values.

  3. 3.

    In Germany, the government uses sport promotion groups as a means of supporting elite athletes in their career. Sport promotion groups belong to the German army or police, and have a special arrangement for elite athletes regarding training facilities and off-times for taking part in training camps and competitions.

Notes

Funding

This study was supported by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (Grant FKZ 01SR 1401XY).

Compliance with ethical guidelines

Conflict of interest

J. Ohlert, C. Seidler, T. Rau, B. Rulofs and M. Allroggen declare that they have no competing interests. There are no financial or other relationships that might lead to a conflict of interest.

All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards. Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.

References

  1. Alexander, K., Stafford, A., & Lewis, R. (2011). The experiences of children participating in organized sport in the UK. Edinburgh: Dunedin Academic Press.Google Scholar
  2. Allroggen, M., Ohlert, J., Gramm, C., & Rau, T. (2016). Erfahrungen sexualisierter Gewalt von Kaderathlet/-innen. In B. Rulofs (Ed.), “Safe Sport” – Schutz von Kindern und Jugendlichen im organisierten Sport in Deutschland: Erste Ergebnisse des Forschungsprojektes zur Analyse von Häufigkeiten, Formen, Präventions- und Interventionsmaßnahmen bei sexualisierter Gewalt (pp. 9–12). Köln: Deutsche Sporthochschule. Sexual violence experience of squad athletes.Google Scholar
  3. Brackenridge, C. (1994). Fair play or fair game? Child sexual abuse in sport organisations. International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 29, 287–298.  https://doi.org/10.1177/101269029402900304.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Brackenridge, C. (2001). Spoilsports: understanding and preventing sexual exploitation in sport. London: Routledge.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Brackenridge, C., & Kirby, S. (1997). Playing safe. Assessing the risk of sexual abuse to elite child athletes. International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 32(4), 407–418.  https://doi.org/10.1177/101269097032004005.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Breuer, C., & Feiler, S. (2015). Sportvereine in Deutschland – ein Überblick. In C. Breuer (Ed.), Sportentwicklungsbericht 2013/14 – Analyse zur Situation der Sportvereine in Deutschland (pp. 15–50). Köln: Sportverlag Strauß. Sport clubs in Germany – an overview.Google Scholar
  7. Cense, M., & Brackenridge, C. (2001). Temporal and developmental risk factors for sexual harassment and abuse in sport. European Physical Education Review, 7(1), 61–79.  https://doi.org/10.1177/1356336X010071006.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Deutscher Olympischer Sportbund (2010). Schutz vor sexualisierter Gewalt im Sport – vorbeugen und aufklären, hinsehen und handeln! https://www.dsj.de/fileadmin/user_upload/Handlungsfelder/Praevention_Intervention/sexualisierte_Gewalt/Erklaerung_DOSB_Praevention_und_Schutz_vor_sexualisierter_Gewalt.pdf Protection against sexual violence in sport – prevent and explain, watch and act!.Google Scholar
  9. Elendu, I. C., & Umeakuka, O. A. (2011). Perpetrators of sexual harassment experienced by athletes in southern Nigerian universities. South African Journal for Research in Sport, Physical Education and Recreation, 33(1), 53–63.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Fasting, K., & Brackenridge, C. H. (2010). An analysis of Norwegian court reports of sexual abuse in sport. Paper presented at the XVII ISA World Congress of Sociology, Gothenburg, 11–17 Juli 2010.Google Scholar
  11. Fasting, K., Brackenridge, C., & Sundgot-Borgen, J. (2004). Prevalence of sexual harassment among Norwegian female elite athletes in relation to sport type. International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 39(4), 373–386.  https://doi.org/10.1177/1012690204049804.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Fasting, K., Chroni, S., Hervik, S. E., & Knorre, N. (2011). Sexual harassment in sport toward females in three European countries. International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 46(1), 76–89.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Fejgin, N., & Hanegby, R. (2001). Gender and cultural bias in perceptions of sexual harassment in sport. International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 36(4), 459–478.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Friedman, M. S., Marshal, M. P., Guadamuz, T. E., Wei, C., Wong, C. F., Saewyc, E. M., & Stall, R. (2011). A meta analysis of disparities in childhood sexual abuse, parental physical abuse, and peer victimization among sexual minority and sexual nonminority individuals. American Journal of Public Health, 101(8), 1481–1494.  https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2009.190009.CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  15. Gündüz, N., Sunay, H., & Koz, M. (2008). Incidents of sexual harassment in Turkey on elite sportswomen. The Sports Journal. http://thesportjournal.org/article/incidents-of-sexual-harassment-in-turkey-on-elite-sportswomen/. Accessed: 7 July 2017.Google Scholar
  16. Hartill, M. (2014). Exploring narratives of boyhood sexual subjection in male-sport. Sociology of Sport Journal, 31(1), 23–43.  https://doi.org/10.1123/ssj.2012-0216.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Hartmann-Tews, I., Rulofs, B., Feiler, S., & Breuer, C. (2016). Zur Situation der Prävention und Intervention in Sportvereinen. In B. Rulofs (Ed.), “Safe Sport” – Schutz von Kindern und Jugendlichen im organisierten Sport in Deutschland: Erste Ergebnisse des Forschungsprojektes zur Analyse von Häufigkeiten, Formen, Präventions- und Interventionsmaßnahmen bei sexualisierter Gewalt (pp. 18–21). Köln: Deutsche Sporthochschule. The situation of prevention and intervention in sports clubs.Google Scholar
  18. Hussey, J. M., Chang, J. J., & Kotch, J. B. (2006). Child maltreatment in the United States: prevalence, risk factors, and adolescent health consequences. Pediatrics, 118(3), 933–942.  https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2005-2452.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  19. Johansson, S., & Lundqvist, C. (2017). Sexual harassment and abuse in coach-athlete relationships in Sweden. European Journal for Sport and Society, 14(2), 117–137.  https://doi.org/10.1080/16138171.2017.1318106.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Jones, L., Bellis, M. A., Wood, S., Hughes, K., McCoy, E., Eckley, L., Bates, G., Mikton, C., Shakespeare, T., & Officer, A. (2012). Prevalence and risk of violence against children with disabilities. A systematic review and meta-analysis of observational studies. The Lancet, 380(9845), 899–907.  https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(12)60692-8.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Kirby, S., & Greaves, L. (1996). Foul play: sexual abuse and harassment in sport. Paper presented to the Pre-Olympic Scientific Congress, Dallas, 11–14 July 1996.Google Scholar
  22. Lang, M., & Hartill, M. (Eds.). (2015). Safeguarding, child protection and abuse in sport. International perspectives in research policy and practice. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  23. Leahy, T., Pretty, G., & Tenenbaum, G. (2002). Prevalence of sexual abuse in organized competitive sport in Australia. The Journal of Sexual Aggression, 8(2), 16–36.  https://doi.org/10.1080/13552600208413337.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Oerter, R., & Montada, L. (1995). Entwicklungspsychologie (3rd edn.). Weinheim: PsychologieVerlagsUnion. Developmental PsychologyGoogle Scholar
  25. Ohlert, J., & Kleinert, J. (2014). Entwicklungsaufgaben jugendlicher Elite-Handballerinnen und -Handballer. Zeitschrift für Sportpsychologie, 21, 161–172.  https://doi.org/10.1026/1612-5010/a000129. Developmental tasks of adolescent elite handball players.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Ohlert, J., Rau, T., Rulofs, B., & Allroggen, M. (2017). Prävalenz und Charakteristika sexualisierter Gewalt im Spitzensport in Deutschland. Leistungssport, 47(3), 44–47. Prevalence and characteristics of sexual violence in German elite sports.Google Scholar
  27. Parent, S., Lavoie, F., Thibodeau, M.-È., Hébert, M., & Blais, M. (2016). Sexual violence experienced in the sport context by a representative sample of Quebec adolescents. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 31(16), 2666–2686.  https://doi.org/10.1177/0886260515580366.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  28. Rulofs, B., Wagner, I., & Hartmann-Tews, I. (2016). Zur Situation der Prävention und Intervention in den Mitgliedsorganisationen des DOSB/der dsj. In B. Rulofs (Ed.), “Safe Sport” – Schutz von Kindern und Jugendlichen im organisierten Sport in Deutschland: Erste Ergebnisse des Forschungsprojektes zur Analyse von Häufigkeiten, Formen, Präventions- und Interventionsmaßnahmen bei sexualisierter Gewalt (pp. 18–21). Köln: Deutsche Sporthochschule. The situation of prevention and intervention in member organisations of the DOSB/the dsj.Google Scholar
  29. Schaal, K., Tafflet, M., Nassif, H., Thibault, V., Pichard, C., Alcotte, M., Guillet, T., El Helou, N., Berthelot, G., Simon, S., & Toussaint, J. F. (2011). Psychological balance in high level athletes: gender-based differences and sport-specific patterns. PloS One, 6(5), 1–9.  https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0019007.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Smith, N., Cuthbertson, S., & Gale, N. (2012). Out for sport – tackling homophobia and transphobia in sport. Edinburgh: Equality Network.Google Scholar
  31. Tabachnick, B. G., & Fidell, L. S. (2013). Using multivariate statistics (6th edn.). London: Pearson.Google Scholar
  32. Timpka, T., Janson, S., Jacobsson, J., Ekberg, J., Dahlström, Ö., Kowalski, J., Bargoria, V., Mountjoy, M., & Svendin, C. G. (2015). Protocol design for large-scale cross-sectional studies of sexual abuse and associated factors in individual sports: feasibility study in Swedish athletics. Journal of Sports Science and Medicine, 14, 179–187.PubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  33. Toftegaard Nielsen, J. (2001). THE FORBIDDEN ZONE: intimacy, sexual relations and misconduct in the relationship between coaches and athletes. International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 36, 165–182.  https://doi.org/10.1177/101269001036002003.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Vertommen, T., Schipper-van Veldhoven, N., Wouters, K., Kampen, J. K., Brackenridge, C. H., Rhind, D. J. A., Neels, K., & Van Den Eede, F. (2016). Interpersonal violence against children in sport in the Netherlands and Belgium. Child Abuse & Neglect, 51, 223–236.  https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chiabu.2015.10.006.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Volkwein, K. A. E., Schnell, F. I., Sherwood, D., & Livezey, A. (1997). Sexual harassment in sport – perceptions and experiences of American female student-athletes. International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 32(3), 283–295.  https://doi.org/10.1177/1012690297032003005.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Deutschland, ein Teil von Springer Nature 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and PsychotherapyUniversity Hospital UlmUlmGermany
  2. 2.The German Research Centre for Elite Sport Cologne—momentumGerman Sport University CologneCologneGermany
  3. 3.Institute of PsychologyGerman Sport University CologneCologneGermany
  4. 4.Institute of Sociology and Gender StudiesGerman Sport University CologneCologneGermany

Personalised recommendations