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Sexualized boundary violations in popular sports
Prof. Dr. Bettina Rulofs / Sports Sociology
Photo: Özlem Eryigit

Unwanted touches in popular sports?

Sports scientist Bettina Rulofs heads the research project "Sexualized Boundary Violations, Harassment and Violence in Organized Sports in NRW".

Paul Andrew Stewart, born 1964, is a former English professional footballer. Winning the FA Cup in 1991 with the "Spurs" was the greatest success for the three-time A-national player. However, Paul Andrew Stewart is also one of the prominent people who is affected of sexualized violence in sports. In 2016, he first reported abuse by his youth coach, which he experienced between the ages of 11 and 15.
Bettina Rulofs, a sports scientist from Wuppertal, assumes that the phenomenon of sexualized violence is not only a problem in competitive sports, but also occurs in popular sports, but the scientific evidence is lacking. Revealing these unknown mechanisms is the stated goal of a research project Rulofs has been working on since the summer of 2020. The research project is titled `Sexualized boundary violations, harassment and violence in organized sports in North Rhine-Westphalia'. "We were missing data on popular sports. I mentioned this at an event on which representatives of the NRW State Sports Federation were also present. They then encouraged me to submit an application for research funding," she reports.

Where does sexualized boundary violation begin?

The difficult precision of the question where a sexualized violation of boundaries begins make the sensitivity of the approach to the topic already evident. "The assessment of what constitutes a sexualized boundary violation is subjective. Probably, there is a social consensus," the researcher explains, "which says that sexual acts that take place with physical contact, in constellations that are characterized by a dependency, so for example in a teacher - student relationship, or coach - athlete relationship, are to be evaluated as a sexual violation of boundaries or even violence." It is more difficult in the area of verbal, sexualized boundary violations and gestural boundary violations, or when someone gets too close to you. In sports in particular, there are always situations that have to be dealt with individually, since everyone perceives proximity differently. Such moments occur not only in locker room or shower situations, but also when assistance is needed during the training or lesson. Such situations are e.g. exercises on the gymnastics apparatus. There, the touch that is necessary to secure the person must be clearly regulated so that the accusation of a sexualized violation of boundaries does not arise afterwards. "You can achieve a lot with transparency and communication," Rulofs says.

Research project reaches beyond NRW

"The NRW State Sports Federation reviewed and approved this application. It then decided to ask other state sports federations to contribute to the funding as well. We thus raise this project in other state sports federations in Germany as well. This has been very successful. We can now carry out studies beyond NRW," the researcher is pleased to say. The University Hospital in Ulm, with which Rulofs has already carried out a similar project on competitive sports, is now a cooperation partner once again. To this end, the researchers are conducting online surveys both with individual club members about the frequency of violence and abuse in sports clubs, as well as with city and district sports associations and professional associations of individual sports on prevention and intervention measures. Problematic case constellations are also in focus, because "it is often the case that an incident of sexualized violence presents itself quite differently from the perspective of those affected than from the perspective of a sports club that has to deal with or solve this case in some way. We want to reconstruct these different perspectives and associated conflict situations using selected cases of sexualized violence." Rulofs emphasizes that these interviews are anonymous, confidential and voluntary. Partly as a result of media coverage, Rulofs has has noticed in recent years that there is a greater openness and willingness to address this taboo subject on the part of the public. She therefore hopes for lively participation.

Is it even possible to count those who are affected and the perpetrators?

The previous study on violence and abuse in competitive sports produced alarming figures. "The survey took place in the winter of 2015/2016. At the time, we contacted all male and female squad athletes in Germany via the German Olympic Sports Confederation. This were a little under 7,000 people. We had a response rate of 1799 athletes who took part in the survey. 48% of the women and 23% of the men who took part told us that they had already experienced some form of sexualized violence in the context of sport," Rulofs explains. The spectrum of the query about incidents of sexualized violence ranged from verbal boundary violations, to sexual harassment, to experiences of violence involving physical contact, including rape. Overall, 5% of female athletes and 1% of male athletes reported experiencing sexual violence with physical contact in the context of sport. But these data exist only for competitive sports," she points out, "so the plan now is to expand the study, since popular sports are more widespread in Germany."

Giving those affected a voice

Professor Rulofs worked at the German Sport University Cologne for several years. During this time, she carried out the VOICE project (Voices for truth and dignity) in cooperation with the German Sport Youth (dsj), the German Child Protection Association (Deutscher Kinderschutzbund Bundesverband e.V) and other European partners. The aim was to come to terms with sexualized violence in non-profit organized sport through the voices of those affected. "In this study, those affected themselves mostly reported serious cases of child sexual abuse to us." In this context, the researcher, who was born in the Kleve district, always speaks of those affected rather than victims, because many have found a way out of this distressing experience. "Of course, those affected say that they are victims on the one hand, that they have to suffer and accept serious losses as a result," Rulofs emphasizes, "but they also highlight again and again that they are not just victims." Many who were affected by sexualized violence have found a way to deal with the situation through therapy or other support from their personal environment, and they are now in a good state again. However, there are also individual people for whom it is very difficult and who have to deal with severe post-traumatic stress disorders many years later. Serious consequences of abuse manifest themselves in people in the form of severe psychological crises, which are often associated with hospital stays and can cause various problems in everyday life. "Sexual abuse in sports can have serious, psychological consequences" she explains, "including difficulties, for example, finishing school, completing an education, finding a job, or getting involved in relationships."

Information do not reach the base

Sexualized boundary violations in sports take place even in educational institutions. The district government made a guide for schools available. It is titled 'Sexualized Violence in Schools. Guidelines for dealing with suspected cases of sexual boundary violations, assaults and crimes by teachers and other employees at school'. But how helpful is this guide? "Guides are adequate per se because they firstly list certain principles or recommended actions on these issues in written form," Rulofs says, "they show what schools, school administrators, but also individual teachers can do to deal with this issue." The difficulty with such guides stems from the simple fact that these guides often do not reach the target group. "We have seen this in our studies of sports as well. To name an example: at the lowest level of the relatively complex sports association system, i.e. the clubs, the topic does not reach them sufficiently yet, and few clubs have. contact persons or their own protection concept. There is a lack of training or a code of ethics for trainers, meaning there is a lack of all these steps that could make it easy to engage in prevention." Rulofs advocates further training and working to raise awareness. In the aforementioned school guidelines, for example, there is an extra chapter for physical education teachers, she explains, "and I always take these behavioral tips that are in there for physical education teachers, for example, to a seminar in the bachelor's program to discuss this with prospective physical education teachers and to make it very concrete. What does it mean? How can we behave when it comes to providing assistance? How can I, as a teacher, protect myself from false suspicions? Unfortunately, this always resonates with the topic. The students are also interested in this, they are very interested in learning more about it. They want to prepare themselves for this topic."

Considering the perspectives of all stakeholders

The most sensitive part of her current project is, without a doubt, bringing together the different perspectives of all the conflict partners involved in incidents of sexualized violence. "There are major conflict situations when dealing with cases, because various players are involved. Those affected themselves, often the coach or trainer in the environment, the club management, as well as the parents of those affected. Then, one level higher, there is the professional association, which tries to advise the club. And one level higher, there is the state sports federation, which also tries to bring in its perspective. All of them are often very keen to handle this case well in some way, but some problems and dissonances arise. It is not uncommon that the rights and interests of those affected are being lost sight of." An understanding of the other's perspective must be achieved, logics of action of the respective actor must be understood, in order to be able to work on a common solution. "By working through individual cases more intensively, we hope to be able to develop recommendations for action on how to identify and remedy problems in case processing as early as possible," says Rulofs, describing the situation. "There needs to be factual, transparent communication that seeks mutual understanding."

A project with social benefit

The research project 'Sexualized Border Violations...' demands a high degree of sensitivity from all participants. It is about oppressive, delicate, and painful information that the team around Bettina Rulofs has to process and evaluate. In conclusion, she says: "For many times I noticed for myself that this subject touches me deeply. The reports of those affected do not leave us cold, they get under the skin. For me as a scientist, I have been able to recognize the social benefit of working on this topic very strongly, and I find that enriching for my life as a researcher. It drives me to continue researching this topic because I hope to be able to make a difference for those affected by sexualized violence as well as for the sports clubs. And maybe doing something good there and making sure that sports clubs deal with it more sensitively in the future, personally, I think that is important."

Uwe Blass (Interview on January 12, 2021)


Prof. Dr. Bettina Rulofs studied Sport Science at the German Sport University Cologne as well as English at the University of Cologne. She taught at universities in Cologne, Vienna and Paderborn after her doctorate. Since 2019, she has been a university professor of Sports Sociology in the Faculty of Human and Social Sciences at the Institute of Sports Science at the University of Wuppertal.