Gretchen Kerr, PhD, Erin Willson, MSc
This literature review on Gender-Based Violence was conducted for the Gender+ Equity in Sport in Canada Research Hub to serve as a foundational report for strategic research priorities development.
The review took place from July 2020 to September 2020.
Initial results from this search included 750 articles. These articles were reviewed and limited by year (2000-2020), English language, and populations based in North America, Europe, or Australia. Articles were removed included sport for development, sport as a means for violence prevention (e.g., boxing for female and trans empowerment), were not relevant to sport. or pertained to HIV and AIDS prevention. After abstract reviews and duplicates removed and a total of 56 articles were included. Grey literature was additionally explored after this process by browsing organizations websites and google searches on gender-based violence in sport.
- High prevalence of Gender-Based Violence in sport
- Disproportionate rates of violence for female athletes
- Culture can influence the prevalence and experiences of GBV
- For example, the hegemonic masculinity perpetuated throughout sport
- Initiatives for addressing and preventing GBV are most effective when targeting cultural norms and beliefs
- Influence of intersectional identities on occurrence, experience, intervention and prevention of gender-based violence
- Prevalence data of all populations & levels of sport
- Understanding culture change – what is required for individuals, coaches, athletes, leaders, and organizations to change practices?
- Prevalence, nature, intervention and prevention of peer-to-peer GBV
- Athletes’ perspectives on GBV prevention & intervention
- Using an ecological approach, there are several key components that need to be addressed:
- Creating a culture change
- Aligning sport norms with broader societal norms
- Organizational Considerations
- Organizational change
- Education implementation, different reward system, policy enforcement
- Interpersonal Considerations
- Qualitative studies with athletes, coaches, and leaders through an intersectional lens
- Understanding the nature of their experiences, perceptions of cultural norms, roles and responsibilities
- Qualitative studies with athletes, coaches, and leaders through an intersectional lens
- Individual Considerations
- Prevalence data at pre-national levels of sport, inclusive of all facets of GBV, and using an intersectional lens
This literature review is a foundational document for the E-Alliance Gender+ Equity in Sport in Canada Research Hub. Lead by Dr. Gretchen Kerr, the research team searched Sport Discuss, Scopus, Sport Medicine and Education Index and Google Scholar and Google for research related to Gender-Based Violence (GBV) in sport. Key findings that emerged included the high prevalence of violence experienced by females in sport, the effectiveness of sport-based GBV interventions and prevention initiatives, and the impact of culture and power differentials on the experiences of GBV. We also identified key gaps, such as intersectionality, prevalence data of all populations and various levels of sport, peer to peer GBV, understanding mechanisms to change the culture that fosters GBV, long term health outcomes, and effectiveness of intervention programs. Based on the results from our review, future gender+ equity in sport in Canada research should focus on an ecological model for addressing GBV, that includes a focus on the cultural (including policy implementation and cultural norms), organisational (e.g., National Sport Organizations), interpersonal, and individual levels (e.g., prevalence of all populations, multiple facets of GBV, intersectionality).
Gender-Based Violence (GBV) had been defined in Canada as violence that occurs because of gender expression, gender identity or perceived gender (Women and Gender Equality Canada, 2018). GBV has evolved from the initial focus of violence against women to incorporate all aspects of gender. This has been consistent with the shift in the understanding of gender, moving beyond the previously accepted sex binary of males and females, to be more inclusive of all genders, including transgender and gender-diverse individuals (Ristock, 2002). Russo & Pirlott (2006) describe gender as a complex construct with many interconnected elements including gender trades, norms, roles, and expectations, which are continually changing and evolving.
GBV can including verbal, physical, sexual, and cyber acts of harm (Mergaert et al., 2016; Penado-Abilleira & Rodicio-García, 2018). Examples of GBV include sexual abuse, sexual assault, rape, sexual harassment, sex trafficking, spousal abuse, intimate partner violence and teen dating violence, dowry-related murder, female mutilation, forced prostitution, homophobia, psychological abuse, physical assault and abuse, and violence for not conforming to traditional gender roles (e.g. homophobic slurs) (Cooper et al., 2013; Heise et al., 2002; Mergaert et al., 2016; Reed et al., 2011). A growing form of violence is cyber-related GBV. Interestingly, in a study of Spanish high-school students, it was found that GBV occurred more frequently through cyberviolence than in the physical world (Penado-Abilleira & Rodicio-García, 2018).
Although individuals across the gender spectrum may experience these forms of harm, however, there is a disproportionate rate in which certain groups are victims to these behaviours. As such, the European Commission has incorporated this within their definition of GBV: “GBV is violence directed against a person because of that person’s gender (including gender identity/expression) or violence that affects persons of genders disproportionately (European Commission, 2014). For example, in a sample of 1001 Canadian National Team athletes, Kerr, Willson, & Stirling (2019) found that female athletes were significantly more likely to report harm compared to male athletes across all categories of harm (physical, sexual, and psychological harm and neglect).
The discrepancies between certain groups experiencing violence can be largely explained by the context in which they occur. Bloom (2008) has proposed 3 key aspects of GBV: (1) that it occurs because of deviations from normative role expectations that are commonly linked to gender; (2) there is a power imbalance between the genders; (3) that the violence is context-specific, particularly within the norms of a society. These components of GBV are important because it situates GBV within a broader context and highlights the notion that violence is not only about the actions but also the circumstances that allow the behaviours to occur. Therefore, cultural norms and power dynamics are crucial considerations when discussing GBV.
Certain subcultures also have their own cultural norms that can promote violence. Sport is one example that is recognized for its hegemonic and hypermasculine culture. Sport began exclusively for men, and while this has evolved to be more inclusive of females, Dunning (1999) summarizes that sport is “a primary vehicle for the masculinity-validating experience” (pp. 229), and an avenue to demonstrate male habitus, which includes physical power and prowess. Given the culture of masculine dominance in this domain, it is not surprising that males athletes have been found to have higher measures of rape supportive attitudes including sexual aggression, hostility towards women, and reduced bystander intervention attitudes (Boeringer, 1999; Humphrey & Kahn, 2000). Additionally, Forbes and colleagues (2006) found that athletes who had participated in aggressive high school sports (e.g. football, basketball, wrestling) engaged in more psychological and physical aggression compared to male athletes in non-aggressive sport and male non-athletes.
This review used the databases SportDiscus, Scopus, Sport Medicine and Education Index and google scholar. The search terms included ("gender-based violence" OR "violence against women" OR "gender-based violence") AND (sport* OR athlete?). A total of 750 articles were found using these search terms and databases. The search was narrowed to English articles and duplicates were removed. Papers were removed if the population studied were not in North America, Europe, or Australia, because of cultural relevance to Canadian athletes. Abstracts were analyzed and papers removed if they did not focus on gender-based violence/violence against women in sport. Examples of excluded articles included sport as a tool for social development, sport as a tool for teaching prevention for non-sport populations (e.g., boxing as a resource for sexual abuse survivors), and sport as a tool for prevention of HIV and AIDS for non-sport populations. After these papers were removed, there were a total of 56 articles for the review.
Current State of Knowledge
Over the past decade, there has been continued advances in research on sexual violence. This includes several quantitative studies on the prevalence of sexual harm in various countries and jurisdictions, including Germany, Canada, Quebec, UK, Netherlands and Belgium (Alexander et al., 2011; Kerr et al., 2019; Ohlert, 2017; Parent et al., 2016; Vertommen et al., 2016). The expansion of research on sexual harm has also included a variety of research methods to understand these behaviours. Over time, more studies have included qualitative work, including in-depth narrative analyses (Fasting & Sand, 2015; Hartill, 2014) and an autoethnography (Owton & Sparkes, 2017) of athlete sexual abuse survivors. These have allowed a deeper understanding of the athlete’s experiences, and more detailed accounts of the abuse, the mechanisms that have allowed sexual harm to perpetuate in sport, as well as the effects that the athletes experienced while they were an athlete and long after they had retired from sport.
There has also been an increased focus on specific populations, for example, male athletes and adult athletes. Kerr et al., (2019) surveyed current and retired athletes over the age of 16 years, where 20% of current athletes reportedly experienced sexual harm, thus indicating that these behaviours also exist in adult athletes. Parent & Bannon (2012) discuss the lack of attention on male athletes, which included an overview of the challenges with studying sexual harm in male athletes, such as the focus on males being minimized because of lower prevalence rates (although it still is present) and low disclosure rates. Hartill (2014) took a narrative approach to explore 2 males’ experiences with sexual abuse from their coach as children, which discussed their experiences, the guilt and shame associated with the abuse, and their fear of disclosure and reporting, particularly the fear of homosexual labeling along with general stigma of sexual assault victims, and the long-term effects that had prevailed.
While attention has primarily been on athletes’ experiences, research has also expanded into other domains, including case handling and the responsibility of sport organisations. Rhind et al (2014) reviewed 652 cases of abuse in sport that had been submitted to UK welfare officers of National Governing Bodies, and Fasting, Brackenridge, & Kjolberg (2013) reviewed court reports of sexual abuse in Norwegian sport. Findings from both studies were largely consistent with previous research (e.g., male coaches as perpetrators), but Rhind et al. (2014) also found a lack of adequate training for case handling and provided evidence for an independent panel to manage cases of maltreatment in sport. In many of the reported incidences, the cases were handed back to the sport organisation to manage, who were not equipped with the knowledge and skills to manage the cases effectively (Rhind et al., 2014). Fasting et al (2013) found that using court reports were a helpful way to find concrete evidence and factual accounts of events, as well as more definitional clarity of sexual abuse, particularly as it pertains to legal thresholds.
For a full list of academic and grey literature identified through this review, please consult the Gender+ equity in Sport in Canada Zotero Library.
Prevalence. The prevalence of GBV in sport has been explored in several studies (Alexander et al., 2011; Fasting et al., 2003; Johansson & Lundqvist, 2017; Kerr et al., 2019; Leahy et al., 2002; Ohlert, 2018; Vertommen et al., 2016). However, most of these have focused specifically on the occurrence of sexual abuse and have not include other aspects of gender-based violence, such as homophobia and gender discrimination. Estimates of sexual abuse have ranged from 14-45% of athletes (Alexander et al., 2011; Fasting et al., 2003; Kerr et al., 2019; Vertommen et al., 2016). Some of the reasons for the differences in prevalence rates include the population samples that were involved, with some studies including both athletes and non-athletes, while others included child athletes; also, different levels of sport were examined (e.g. recreational vs. international level athletes) (Alexander et al, 2011; Fasting et al., 2003; Kerr et al., 2019; Leahy et al,. 2002; Vertomment et al., 2016). In addition, the measures for sexual abuse were not consistent across studies, with some focusing on sexual physical contact, while other included sexual harassment and sexist comments. The lack of a consistent measure of sexual harm is a barrier to advancing research in this area.
Several studies analysed gender differences of reports of gender-based violence, finding that females had significantly higher response rates of sexual violence compared to males (Kerr et al., 2018; Leahy et al., 2002; Vertommen et al., 2016). In addition, Kerr et al., (2019) found that females were significantly more likely to report instances of physical and psychological harm as well as neglect compared to their male counterparts. This indicates that there is a gendered nature to all types of violence that occurs within sport. In addition, other risk factors for experienced violence included athletes with a disability, ethnicity, and sexual orientation (Vertommen et al., 2016). It is also important to consider that individuals have multiple identities, including gender, race, class, and sexual orientation, which can all interact and have influences on an individual’s experience with violence. This concept is known as intersectionality (Crenshaw, 1991), and the research indicates that multiple identity factors can increase the likelihood of experiencing violence. For example, LGBTQ2I+ individuals and those identified as a racial minority have been found to be at a higher risk of being victimized than individuals who do not have these intersecting identities (Charak et al., 2019). Findings from these studies demonstrate that forms of violence are disproportionately experienced by some groups of people more than others.
The culture of sport has been looked as an explanation for why certain demographics, such as females, report higher levels of violence than others. Forbes et al. (2006) conducted a comparison study between college men who had participated in aggressive high school sports and those who had not. Findings from this study indicated that athletes in football, wrestling, basketball, and soccer reported higher physical and psychological aggression, and sexual coercion in their college dating relationships compared to non-athletes, and scored higher on sures of sexism, rape myth acceptance and homonegativity (Forbes et al., 2006). The rape myth beliefs and sexism are important to acknowledge when it comes to GBV because those who have gender inequitable attitudes have an increased likelihood of abuse perpetration (McCauley et al., 2014). These results highlight that sport could be an area that fosters these beliefs and an increased acceptance of violence, and therefore should be acknowledged in the analysis of GBV.
Athletes have discussed a hesitation to report and disclose their experiences of GBV because of the fear of repercussions and retribution from their coaches and sport organisations (Kerr et al., 2019). The lack of disclosure has created some challenges for researchers to understand the experiences GBV in sport, particularly the outcomes and effects of GBV. The limited data on sexual violence in sport along with the evidence from child abuse literature indicates that the effects of sexual violence can include emotional distress, anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, disordered eating and post-traumatic stress disorder (Brackenridge, 1997; Wekerle et al., 2014). Similar effects of psychological harm have been reported by athletes, including the psychological symptoms of anxiety, depression and disordered eating (Kerr et al., 2020). In addition, athletes who experienced psychological harm reported feeling a lack of enjoyment in sport, motivation to perform, pride in their accomplishments, and attributed their abuse as a reason for their retirement (Kerr et al., 2020; Stirling & Kerr, 2008).
Prevention and Intervention Initiatives. There have been several prevention and intervention initiatives that have been created for GBV in sport, with the majority of these targeting bystanders with a focus on providing education about GBV. In a review of 58 primary prevention programs, substantial evidence exists that show programs can influence change in males’ attitudes and behaviours towards sexual health and GBV (Barker et al., 2007). Moreover, as male athletes have an increased risk of perpetrating violence (Forbes et al., 2006; McCauley et al., 2014), bystander programs have been created for sport specifically. One such program is Coaching Boys into Men, which engages coaches as leaders in implementing the education program to their athletes (Miller et al., 2012). This program takes advantage of the natural leadership and allyship that coaches have with their athletes and provides training through the use of a series of training cards and weekly discussions with their athletes (Miller et al., 2012). Topics of discussion include building awareness of abusive and disrespectful behaviour, promoting gender-equitable attitudes and norms, and encouraging bystander intervention (Miller et al., 2012). Evaluations from this program indicate higher levels of positive bystander intervention, and in a 12 month follow up, a reduction in perpetration of dating violence and negative bystander intervention behaviours (e.g. laughing at peers’ abusive behaviours) compared to controls (Miller et al., 2012, 2013). Additionally, this program has been modified to be implemented in other countries, including India, but were less successful because of the norms of the society outside of sport that were inconsistent with what was being taught (Miller et al., 2015). For example, in some cultures, outside of the sport arena, men are expected to be dominant over their partners, therefore, it is more difficult for the athletes to integrate this in every-day life (Miller et al., 2015).
In Canada, there have been several educational initiatives on maltreatment in sport. One frequently used program is Respect in Sport, which was built by sexual abuse survivor and NHL player Sheldon Kennedy (Respect in Sport, n.d.). This program has been widely adopted by National and Provincial sport organisations in Canada, and provides a general introduction to abuse and harassment in sport for coaches, parents and sport administrators. Another program introduced in 2020 is the Coaching Association of Canada’s Safe Sport Training, which has been guided by the Universal Code of Conduct to Prevent and Address Maltreatment in Sport, and provides an overview of all types of maltreatment and environmental factors that can contribute to experiences of harm (Coaching Association of Canada, n.d.). At this time, neither of these programs have been extensively empirically evaluated to assess effectiveness.
There have also been barriers to implementing GBV prevention programs in sport. In Australia, there was an effort to introduce a violence prevention program in several football clubs but there was resistance because of beliefs that these programs were focused on “male-bashing” and increased the public perception that all males are perpetrators of violence (Ringin et al., 2020). Additionally, some coaches are reluctant to implement programs because they feel it is not their place to intervene or have a lack of education on GBV (Clark, 2017; Lyndon et al., 2011). In studies on coaches as advocates for prevention, common rape myths perpetrated by the coaches including that “girls cry rape” and are often to blame for violence occurring (Lyndon et al., 2011, pp. 384). Additionally, there is a belief that the priority should be on athletes’ talents, not their morals, as one coach expressed, “you don’t go after a football player because they were a tremendous leader at their church. You go after 40 speed and bench press” (Clark, 2017, pp. 37). These studies indicate that more work needs to be done within the culture of sport to rectify the behaviours, and that coaches may not always be allies in prevention, particularly if their beliefs are aligned with the cultural norms that perpetuate violence.
While most educational initiatives are targeted towards athletes, cultural norms are perpetuated by all the members of an organization. For example, coaches frequently develop their own coaching practice based on their experiences as athletes and will model their previous coaches’ behaviours (Stirling, 2013), which can indicate sport norms being reinforced over time. Additionally, coaches have indicated that they are unwilling to be involved with athlete education of GBV because they do not believe it is their place to address their athletes’ behaviour or accept these behaviours as being a part of sport (Clark, 2017). These provide indicators that the leadership in sport should also be included in education initiatives and could help ensure that a policy is upheld if they understand why it is in place.
While some coaches are hesitant to implement prevention initiatives, there is evidence that using the coach-athlete relationship can be beneficial when focusing on interpersonal and individual levels of change. Coaches have been identified as being allies because of their closeness with athletes, and athletes have expressed their respect for their coaches, as one athlete summarised “my coach is my Guru” (Miller et al., 2015; pp. 194). Coaches can be effective at modeling proper behaviours, which can include enforcing a culture of respect, eliminating phrases that enforce gender inequity (e.g., you run like a girl), and increase their positive bystander behaviours (e.g., talking to their athletes if they see them acting inappropriately). Additionally, there have been positive results from using programs like Coaching Boys into Men that have demonstrated effectiveness in increasing more positive bystander behaviours and reducing gender-inequitable attitudes (Miller et al., 2012, 2013, 2015).
Enforcing a positive culture can help athletes keep each other accountable because of the established norms. In a follow-up from a bystander intervention program, survey data revealed athletes had increased confidence in intervening if friends or teammates were behaving offensively towards women (Corboz et al., 2016). Follow up interviews revealed that inter-team secrecy was important, and that seniority and power on the team would have a large impact on an athlete’s ability to engage in positive bystander behaviour (Corboz et al., 2016). For example, a junior player would be more hesitant to speak up if a team captain was behaving badly, given that senior players established the normative acceptance of these behaviours (Corboz et al., 2016). Therefore, education of athletes, which involves the understanding of GBV and the power and influence that teammates have on each other would be valuable.
Another way in which prevention initiatives have occurred is through the implementation of policy. Policies in sport within the European Union have been analyzed and several gaps were identified, including varying definitions of GBV, a large focus on sexual violence, lack of acknowledgement of gender identity/expression and LGBTQ2I+ inclusion (Lang et al., 2018; Mergaert et al., 2016). Other concerns of these policies included the focus almost exclusively on children in sport, and largely excluding discussion of men as victims and females as perpetrators (Lang et al., 2018). It was also noted that many GBV policies were under the larger umbrella of fair and safe sport, which the authors expressed concern about because it minimized the gendered nature of violence (Lang et al., 2018; Mergaert et al., 2016).
Discussion: Gaps and Future Directions
This review of literature indicates that there has been a concerted effort to understand the prevalence of sexual abuse in sport, there has been an emerging acknowledgement on the impact of culture and attitudes that can impact the perpetration of violence, and there has been an exploration of ways to address and prevent GBV in sport. However, there are also several gaps within this literature. While there have been many studies addressing the prevalence of sexual abuse, missing from this research is the prevalence of all forms of GBV, including a focus on discrimination and harassment against gender identity and expression, and psychological violence. Moreover, while there has been an exploration of GBV in different levels of sport internationally, the focus in Canada has been on high-performance athletes primarily, and as a result, more research at non-elite levels of sport is needed. Most of the research on GBV in sport focuses specifically on the coach-athlete relationship, however, multiple perpetrators have been identified including sport administrators, trainers, and peers (Kerr et al., 2019; Vertommen et al., 2016). Peer violence has primarily been studied in regard to hazing or is labeled as bullying but not investigated through the lens of gender-based violence. Therefore, gender-based violence within various sport relations is an area for future exploration.
While intersectionality has been acknowledged as a risk factor for GBV, violence within diverse populations (including race, Indigeneity, disability, and LGBTQ2I+) has not been explored fully. This would be another area that could merit more research, particularly because individuals often have multiple identities that may influence the nature of their experiences. Finally, given the influence that cultural norms and ideals have on the experiences of violence, there needs to be more research conducted on how to effectively change a culture within sport. This is something that has yet to be addressed but could potentially be explored through engagement of multiple stakeholders (including coaches, athletes, and sport administrators) in fostering necessary changes in norms and accepted (but harmful) behaviours.
An ecological could be used to guide future research and practice. From a cultural perspective, more work is needed to understand how to foster a change in culture and how to effectively align sport norms with broader social norms. From an organisational level, more work is needed to explore the effectiveness of implementing educational initiatives (e.g., empirical evaluations of the long-term outcomes of initiatives), as well as more commitment from national and provincial sport organisations to implement education and enforce policies pertaining to GBV. From an interpersonal level, more qualitative data could be helpful to understand the perspectives of coaches and athletes on their experiences of GBV, as well as their perceptions of cultural norms and their believed responsibility in addressing GBV. In addition, an exploration of athletes’ perspectives as being actors of change is important to influence conversations on prevention and intervention strategies of GBV. Finally, from an individual level, more prevalence data that is inclusive of all facets of GBV and intersectionality would be helpful to guide conversations and to provide baseline data for future interventions.