Lacey Gibson Contributor, Harvard School of Public Health M.S. Candidate

[Editors Note: This paper was written as part of Gibson's research at Harvard School of Public Health. You can find more of Lacey's writings here.]

I. Summary statement

 “I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything… Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.[i]” – US President Donald J. Trump

When the elected president of the United States brushes off discourse of sexual violence as innocent “locker room talk”, it may be time for the nation to address the ethics promoted by sports culture[ii]. Media headlines of sexual violence perpetrated by the most idolized figures of U.S. athletic institutions have become common features for daily news within the past decade. In 2015 there were at least 44 recorded cases of NFL Players who have been accused of sexual or physical assault with intimate partners[iii]. Since then, this statistic has only further creeped up. This number includes but is not limited to former idols for young men such as Jameis Winston, who was accused of sexual battery and assault, and Darren Sharper, who was convicted for repeatedly drugging and raping multiple women[iv]. These continuously developing cases are supported by a growing body of research on the high prevalence of peer-to-peer perpetrators of sexual violence within U.S. high school, collegiate, and professional sports teams.

Despite the popularity of research on sexual perpetrators in sports, there is a gap in empirical knowledge on U.S. athletes who have survived sexual violence. Popular media has drawn attention to isolated accusations of generally heteronormative sexual violence experienced by female competitive athletes and perpetrated by male coaches – often former athletes themselves[v]. Otherwise, this gap in research is generally unremarked by researchers and journalists who lead this field of study. Further research is needed on true prevalence of male and female athlete[1] survivors as well as on specific sex-linked and gender-linked consequences experienced by survivors.

A gender analysis is a research tool that focuses on gender-, sex-, and sexuality- specific similarities and differences in relations and norms between men and women, with the ultimate goal of transformation of these relations and norms to ameliorate gender-based social, economic, or health disparities[vi]. Throughout this article, I employ a gender analysis that focuses primarily on elements of gender, rather than biology or sexuality. Through this gender analysis, I draw attention to gaps within the empirical knowledge of sexual violence within U.S. athletic institutions by highlighting current epidemiological research on male athlete sexual violence perpetrators, female athlete survivors, and male athlete survivors. Next, I provide an overview of current policies to prevent sexual violence associated with U.S. sports. Finally, I conclude by recommending essential avenues for future research and prevention policies.

Throughout the text, sexual violence encompasses any “sexual act committed against someone without that person’s freely given consent”[vii]. I frame sexual violence as a gendered form of social embodiment[viii]. In other words, sexual violence is a physical consequence of the material and social world that is incorporated into bodies, and its sex- and gender-specific experiences may have commonalities and differences. Specifically for male athletes, sexual violence is an embodied form of aggressive masculinity. This ecosocial framework stands in contrast to dominant conceptualizations in research of sexual violence as a behavior of isolated individual “predators” or “pedophiles”[ix]. Thus, this article provides a foundational overview of the root societal causes of sexual violence within athletics.         

II. Epidemiology of sexual violence in athletics

An increasing body of evidence from the 1990’s onwards supports the fact that male high school, collegiate, and professional athletes are at a disproportionately high rate of perpetrating sexual violence[x]. For example, one study reports that male athletes account for 3% of the student body population, but commit 19% of reported cases of sexual violence within colleges[xi]. Moreover, compared to college-aged males who are non-athletes, male collegiate athletes face a disproportionately high risk of upholding attitudes that may foster sexual violence, such as beliefs in traditional gender roles, acceptance of rape myths, hostility toward women, and homophobia[xii]. Among populations of high school and collegiate male athletes, gendered risk factors for committing sexual violence include negative attitudes toward women (i.e. hostility toward women, belief in male superiority, belief in male sexual dominance, conservative views of women), rape myth acceptance, aggressive personality characteristics, participation in hypermasculine discourse (i.e. speech that includes war-like, misogynistic, or violent analogies), viewing contact sports, participation in a “party atmosphere”, and participation in team sports over individual sports[xiii].

In contrast to the wide array of data on prevalence and risk factors for athlete perpetration of sexual violence, research on athlete survivors of sexual violence is limited. Statistics from international sports institutions show that between 2 to 8% of minor and adult competitive athletes may be survivors of sexual assault within the context of their sport, and that competitive female athletes may be at higher risk than competitive male athletes[xiv]. Limited domestic data indicates that female collegiate athletes report significantly more cases of rape survival than female collegiate non-athletes[xv]. Suggested risk factors for victimization of sexual violence among female athletes that is perpetrated by coach figures include elite athletic status, low self-esteem, disordered eating, sexual inexperience, and “complete devotion” to this coach figure[xvi]. The coach figure is generally framed as a masculine sexual predator of female athletes, and is typically older, reputable, and respected in his career[xvii]. Consequences of sexual violence survived by female competitive athletes may include feelings of shame, social separation, and cyclical dependency on the sexual perpetrator[xviii]. Nonetheless, future studies should examine potential gender asymmetries or similarities in the probability of sexual violence committed by a coach compared to a peer athlete, depending on the gender of the athlete and coach. For example, further research is needed to capture the prevalence and effects of potential sexual violence against female athletes that is committed by male peer athletes or by women coaches.    

Even fewer studies have been conducted to determine prevalence of sexual violence survival among male athletes because of a pervasive heteronormative “male predator, female victim” framework within literature[xix]. Moreover, underreporting due to stigma and fear of consequences may lead to unreliable data on both male and female survivors[xx]. Nonetheless, it is logical that regardless of sex or gender, athletes may be affected by sexual violence because of their close association with potentially sexually aggressive male athletes[xxi]. Additionally, asymmetries in power between coaches and male or female athletes, “god-like” trust placed in coaches by athletes, and excessive time that coaches and athletes spend together, make athletes vulnerable to sexual coercion perpetrated by coaches[xxii].

Furthermore, sports culture fosters an environment of aggressive masculinity that perpetuates sexual violence and makes other athletes particularly vulnerable[xxiii]. Aggression within sports, discourse on subordination of women, celebrity status of athletes, drug abuse, “groupie culture”, and male bonding that may cause team loyalty to override personal integrity are all evidence of this negative culture[xxiv]. Perceptions of sexual violence in sports as solely problems of individual criminality rather than institutional problems are unproductive in producing wide-scale change in the root causes of sexual violence as embodied perpetuation of aggressive masculinity[xxv]

III. Public health responses to sexual violence in athletics

In recent years, frustrated politicians and outraged spectators have voiced calls to decrease peer-to-peer sexual violence perpetuated by male athletes. In 2011, the U.S. Department of Education implored athletic institutions to enact sexual violence prevention programs, and in 2014, President Obama created a taskforce to address peer-to-peer sexual violence perpetrated by collegiate men[xxvi]. Athletic institutions may be a particularly useful arena to counter sexual violence due to the respect that athletes instill in their coaches and in their teams. As one college sexual violence prevention advocate states:

“By focusing of primary prevention of sexual assault with the entire athletics department, we create a common language for talking about sexual assault and we set a standard for behavior, not just within the athletics department, but for the entire campus.[xxvii]”    

Scientific evaluation supports the effectiveness of sports-based interventions to prevent sexual violence within high schools and college campuses. For example, recognition of abusive behavior, intentions to intervene, and positive bystander intervention were all shown to be improved by a high school athletics-based dating violence intervention[xxviii]. Peer-reviewed literature also suggests that high school and collegiate coaches trained in gender equity can lower athletes’ likelihood of dating violence, decrease acceptance of violence against women, and improve bystander intervention outcomes[xxix]. Specifically, sports-based interventions are likely to be most influential if they involve all relevant community members, involve active participation, are sustained, use peers in leadership roles, are tailored to characteristics of participating individuals, and offer positive messages[xxx]. Athletic institutions should emphasize positive elements of sports participation, such as accountability, social cohesion, and self-control to counter the negatively embodied masculinity that has been systematically perpetuated[xxxi]. Moreover, sports-based interventions should not be limited to dating violence. Instead, they should address understudied sexual violence that occurs outside of the perceived norm of heteronormative relations. Lastly, these interventions should be gender-transformative, addressing root issues in relations and norms of “masculinity” and “femininity” that may lead to the noted continuation of sexual violence.      

IV. Conclusion and recommendations

Thus far, I have presented current epidemiology on sexual violence perpetuated by and experienced by athletes, and I have showcased pathways for sexual violence prevention through sports-based interventions. Approaching this collective evidence within the framework of a gender analysis provides evidence of the essential need to shift the current binary, heterosexual framework of “male predator, female victim” and to challenge masculine gender norms in sports. Further research is needed to concisely evaluate prevalence in athletics of experienced and perpetrated sexual violence by gender, status (i.e. peer-to-peer or coach-to-peer), race/ethnicity, and socioeconomic status. Additional studies should also address sex- and gender-specific consequences of sexual violence survived by both male and female athletes. These data can in turn inform sports-based sexual violence prevention intervention. Athletic institutions should be targeted for intervention in order affect root causes of embodied perpetuation of aggressive masculinity. Within these interventions, the shaming language of individual criminal predators should be supplemented by discourse on embodied institutional error.

Nonetheless, this article provides only a small piece within the puzzle of embodied aggressive masculinity that has become pervasive in modern society. Sexual violence occurs as an abuse of power by high-ranking celebrity, religious, law enforcement, military, and political figures. Thus, aggressive embodied masculinity should also be targeted for change within these institutions. Further research, advocacy, policy development, and implementation of interventions can aid in reversing the widespread gendered epidemic of sexually violence that has infiltrated U.S. society to affect our most influential supposed male role models, including the nation’s president. With time, sexually violent “locker room talk” can be replaced with the positive values of sports that have provided foundation for our nation. Here’s to truly making America great again.   


[1] Note: Male athletes is the commonly used term that refers to men who are athletes, and female athletes refers to women who are athletes.

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[xvi] Brackenridge, 1997.

[xvii] Brackenridge, 1997.

[xviii] Brackenridge, 1997.

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Hartill, 2008.

[xxi] Brown et al., 2013.

[xxii] Brackenridge, 1997;

Hartill, 2008.

[xxiii] Hartill, 2008.

[xxiv] Flood and Dyson, 2006.

[xxv] Hartill, 2008.

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