Category Archives: Gender

Guinness and Gareth Thomas rugby tackle homophobia

By Helen Owton

With the Men’s Rugby World Cup about to start, the sport of rugby appears to be making strides to tackle homophobia in sport. The most recent TV advert from Guinness stars Gareth Thomas telling his story about coming out in rugby.

The Out on the Field (2015) survey found that 60% of gay men and 50% of lesbians have been subjected to homophobia in sport which means that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans people in sport must regulate conversations, behaviour and identities on a daily basis because of the implications of ‘coming out’. The assumption in rugby that as well as being aggressive and competitive, all ‘real men’ must be heterosexual means that ‘gay’ becomes a derogatory identity label and an abnormal lifestyle. The Guinness advert challenges this stance and perhaps shows that attitudes are starting to shift.

Researchers who have studied issues of gays in sports largely agree that organised sports are highly homophobic (Anderson, 2002) although there is some more recent debate about whether men’s heterosexual ‘gay’ behaviours (e.g. kissing each other on the mouth) indicates more openness and acceptance (Anderson, 2005). This TV advert is a step towards even more openness and acceptance.

Gareth talks about how he hid his sexual identity and his feelings, however when an individual feels unaccepted and alienated from society problems can occur. Whilst in this advert he refers to his sexuality as being ‘so minor’, in his autobiography, Gareth discloses how he felt during an all-time low:

“The more I thought, the more self-loathing I generated, the more attractive suicide seemed […] The sea was grey and merged with the horizon. Standing there, on the edge of the cliff, it all seemed so easy. A single step and I’d walk off, into the sky. No more pain. No more loneliness. No more lies. No more causing chaos for people that I loved” (Thomas, 2014, p.155-156)

Evidently, it’s not easy for sportspeople to ‘come out’ because of the homophobia they feel they might experience from fans and from their team mates that they share changing rooms with. Homophobia is deeply embedded in the hidden codes of narrow forms of heterosexual masculinity which rests on the belief that to be a ‘real man’ you’re not gay.

Like Gareth Thomas, gay men come out because many report feelings of ‘living a lie’ and feel isolated and alienated from society when they are hiding a part of themselves. He was fortunate enough to receive a positive and assuring response from his friends, family, rugby coaches and teammates which will hopefully mean that more sportspeople will feel more comfortable about coming out to their teammates.

For Gareth Thomas to ‘come out’ not only challenges heteronormative assumptions about sexuality in sport and promotes diverse sexualities, it enables athletes to feel open and proud of themselves for who they are. It helped to affirm his sense of self that his sexuality was respected and accepted by others as well.

However, you don’t have to be gay to challenge these assumptions; James Haskell and Ben Foden have both posed for Attitude (gay magazine) and Ben Cohen works to eliminate homophobia through his StandUp Foundation.

The sub culture of rugby seems to be raising awareness of gay issues and seems to be making a big effort to challenge homophobia which also could enable a much less narrow definition of masculinity to be accepted in rugby. Furthermore, Guinness appear to be using their brand to tell stories of adversity and ‘double lives’ in rugby, for example, Ashwin Willemse’s story of becoming a Springbok:

This topic will be covered in a new OU Sport and Fitness module coming soon.

‘The Silent Voice’ in dance and ballet

By Helen Owton & Helen Clegg

Dance is generally considered to be more accepting of gay men and research (e.g. Risner, 2009) shows that gay and bisexual men comprise 50% of the male population who dance in the US compared to 4-10% in the general population. However, whilst the dance world may acknowledge the presence of a larger proportion of gay men there remains an implicit homophobia in terms of a demand for heternormative performance (Risner, 2007). Ever mindful of the audience male dancers are expected to conform to a narrow concept of the masculine ideal that perpetuates the heterosexual “norm”. For example, in Risner’s (2009) study one participant, when being encouraged to dance with more strength, was told not to dance “like a fag” by his dance teacher.

As Strictly Come Dancing start their rehearsals, we consider ‘the silent voice’ in dance and ballet. Whilst dance is considered more accepting of homosexuality, the majority of this association is regarded towards the acceptance of gay men in dance, not women. Even discussions about inclusions of a same-sex couple in Strictly Come Dancing only involve gay men. Whilst homophobia in dance exists in different ways in dance (compared to sport) with masculinist comparisons and heterosexist approaches means that there seems to be a kind of quiet internal “acceptance” that obscures larger social issues that makes encounter. However, what strikes us is the lack of visible lesbians in professional dance.

Whilst the sexualising of dance and lesbianism for the purpose of the ‘male gaze’ exists in a pornographic sense, there seems to be a silent voice in professional dance about lesbians. Black Swan received the most complaints about the lesbianism portrayed in the film being pornographic and distasteful; an “overtly sexualised ‘hot-but-non-threatening’ feminine lesbian.” (Dixon, 2015, p.45) In Black Swan, a heterosexual woman was represented as experimenting with other women and seemingly “functioned instead as a kind of ‘sexy’ addendum to female heterosexuality.” (Dixon, 2015, p.45) However, when feminine lesbians are portrayed in this way, “Girl-on-girl action is presented as exciting, fun, but, crucially, as entirely unthreatening to heterosexuality.” (Gill, 2009, p.153)

“It may well be tempting to think that lesbians have equality, recognition achieved, on the basis of the supposed tolerance of the kinds of images made visible and perpetuated through the medium and marketing of films like Black Swan, which are then replicated to convey a similar sentiment in the promotion of places like Sitges as ‘cosmopolitan’. What I am arguing, however, is that whenever and wherever this does occur, we have to be completely and utterly certain that inequalities are not simply being reiterated at the exact moment the opposite is being said to have been achieved; to be certain that is, that in perpetuating and celebrating such representations we are not all simply hiding behind the faces of white masks.” (Dixon, 2015, p. 52)

Lesbians have been more connected to sports (Griffin, 1998) and there is a long standing connection between homophobia/heterosexism and women’s participation in sport (Iannotta & Kane, 2002). Women’s team sports are sometimes seen as an environment that promotes the expression of homosexuality. Does being a female dancer/ballerina render sexuality inauthentic because they are more feminine?

Boulila (2011) describes her experience at an LGB salsa class where one of the women believed that the very fact that she was a lesbian meant that she embodied the very “antithesis of elegance in dance”. This may be linked to the intertwining of the stereotype of “butch lesbians” which has been associated with sports and the idea that female dancers are there to embody heterosexual fantasies of the audience. Such binary categorisations of heterosexual and homosexual women in dance, particularly in ballet, encourages the belief that lesbians just don’t dance. Indeed, when asked to estimate the number of lesbians in their dance company across 36 companies only 1 dancer (a participant of the study) was identified as gay (Oberschneider & Bailey, 1997). Whilst this paper is nearly 20 years old more recent work (see Boulila, 2011) and blogs suggest that the idea of lesbian dancers continues to be believed to be a misnomer. We argue that lesbians do dance they just aren’t “coming out”.

So where does this leave us moving forward for women and lesbians in dance? Whilst it is not their sole responsibility to ‘come out’ it does question why there is such a silent voice of lesbians in dance and also an association between femininity, lesbianism and authenticity. Ballet and other forms of disciplined dance appear to be a closet for lesbians which is why it is so important to have ‘queer’ spaces in dance (e.g. Matthew Bourne) that disrupt gender binary frameworks; Firebird (by Katy Pyle), Ineffable (by Lohse) and the Queer Tango Dance Festival 8-12 July 2015 held in (anti-gay) Russia continue to challenge binary frameworks (e.g. male-female, feminine-masculine) for gay women as well.


Boulila, S. C. (2011). You Don’t Move Like a ‘Lesbian’: Negotiating Salsa and Dance Narratives. In 18th Lesbian Lives Conference, University of Leeds.

Dixon, L.J. (2015). Black swans, white masks: Contesting cosmopolitan and double misrecognition in a gay tourist town. Sexualities, 18(1/2), 37-56. Available:

Gill, R. (2009). Beyond the ‘sexualization of culture’ thesis: An intersectional analysis of ‘sixpacks’,‘midriffs’ and ‘hot lesbians’ in advertising. Sexualities, 12(2), 137–160

Oberschneider, M. & Bailey, J.M. (1997). Sexual orientation and professional dance. Archives of Sexual behavior, 26(4), 433-444.

Risner, D. (2007) Rehearsing masculinity: challenging the ‘boy code’ in dance education, Research in Dance Education, 8(2), 139-153

Risner, D. (2009) Stigma and Perseverance in the Lives of Boys who Dance. Lampeter, TheEdwin Mellen Press.

The young dancer of the year misses the pointe about gender

By Helen Owton & Helen Clegg

“BBC Young Dancer 2015 is a brand new award for young people that showcases the very best of young British dance talent. Young dancers enter in one of four categories of dance: ballet, contemporary, hip hop and South Asian dance. BBC Young Dancer 2015 culminates in a grand final at Sadler’s Wells, when the best dancers in each category will dance against each other for the title.” (BBC website)

BBC Young Dancer of the Year 2015 was a wonderful showcase of the young talent currently within the dance world. In light of the lack of male representation in dance, The BBC Young Dancer of the Year award seems to have provided boys and men with a platform in which to be valued and recognised. However it also highlighted the gender inequalities in the dance world and suggested that these are reflective of a more pervasive gender imbalance within the workplace. It seems that the BBC have avoided much public scrutiny over the gender imbalance that existed on the programme. Some comments on social media were not happy with this:

“Guess what BBC – we don’t care. First a gender imbalance for the individual finals… Then the judges were mostly male as well, but that’s as per usual. And finally – the only female grand finalist came from an all-female category?! Hate to be a gender-ist, but the female and male bodies as well as personalities make for a different quality in dancing and I would be bored stiff watching an all-male dance performance at any point (this followed by an all-female), a mix is best.”

Whilst there was scrutiny over why particular dance styles were selected over others, and why and how dance styles could be compared to each other, there does not seem to be a discussion about why there was such a lack of female representation on the show. During this discussion we don’t want to take credit away from the boys who made it through to the final, but point out the inequalities that existed from the way the program was set up.

The Judges

Firstly, let’s take a look at the female-male distribution of judges. Only 33% of the judges were female on the shows. Just 30% of leading dance experts was female who selected the grand finalists. For the final, just one female was placed on the judging panel.

Dance is considered a female activity (Risner, 2009) so where are all these women at the top? For example, Arlene Phillips is a world-renowned director and choreographer, who is missing from these panels of experts. The BBC was accused of sexism and ageism when Arlene was taken off the Strictly Come Dancing panel. Indeed, figures show that older women are less likely to appear on TV.

Additionally, why wasn’t Darcey Bussell on one of the judging panels; particularly in the ballet finalist? For Ballet these were the leading panel of experts: Dominic Antonucci, Ballet Master of Birmingham Royal Ballet and Christopher Hampson, Artistic Director of Scottish Ballet with Kenneth Tharp, chief executive of The Place, who judged across all categories.

According to McPherson (2005), “men dominate executive, administrative, and artistic positions of nearly every ballet company in the United States” and women report feeling excluded from informal leadership and decision making networks ringing very true in the world of ballet. Instead of being held up as one of the leading experts in ballet, Darcey Barcell, CBE, former principle dancer of the Royal Ballet at 20years old and widely acclaimed as one of the best British Ballerinas was reduced to being the presenter of the show. Indeed, Williams (1992) argues that subtle forms of workplace discrimination push women out of male dominated occupations that involves decision-making.

With such a high percentage of judges being male, it’s no wonder that just one of the dancers in the final was female out of 6. Not only this, but in each category, there was always a lower percentage of females apart from one category which was all-female:

  • Ballet: 40% female
  • Contemporary: 40% female
  • Hip hop: 40% female
  • South Asian: 100% female

However, this is not just a problem with the BBC Young Dancer competition. In 2014, The Young British Dancer awards saw an all-male line up for the six available awards as well.

Possible Explanations

It is well documented that males are the minority in dance education environments (Risner, 2007). Dance in the Western World is generally considered a female activity and so those boys who dance are considered effeminate and often assumed to be homosexual (Polasek & Roper, 2011, Risner, 2014). Risner (2014) has documented widespread verbal, emotional and physical bullying of young male dancers due to these constructions. Thus it is possible that boys who decide to attend dance classes, despite such bullying, are those who are skilled at dance and so the variance in dance ability and passion for dance may have much greater variance for girls than boys with boys being at the top range of the distribution.

Furthermore, within the dance studio environment boys are nurtured and often receive preferential treatment compared to the girls and this may be in part to prevent boys from disengaging (Polasek & Roper, 2011, Risner, 2014). Stinson (2005) talks about how such privilege within, not just the studio, but also the dance world is accepted by both men and women and as such often goes unchallenged. Whilst female dancers are often encouraged to remain passive within the dance class and simply respond to commands, male dancers are often encouraged to participate more fully and challenge the passive position of student dancer as this enables them to reclaim their masculinity (Risner, 2007, Stinson, 2005).

The combination of highly dedicated and skilled males who hold an elite position within the dance class and are encouraged to put themselves forward and challenge the status quo may explain the gender inequality in both the BBC Young Dancer finalists and judges. It is possible that young male dancers were more encouraged by their dance teachers to audition for the competition and were more confident in their abilities to take on such a challenge. This could explain the number of male dancers in the semi-finals since this is a higher proportion of male dancers than female dancers given that male dancers are a minority in the dance world.

The valuing of male dancers, at the cost to female dancers, may also explain the gender inequality in the final contestants. This is not to say that the male dancers did not deserve to be in the semi-finals or finals; far from it. What we want is equally confident and privileged female dancers and a challenge to the inherent gender divisions within dance. Boys also need to know that they are achieving in dance because of their talent and not their gender. Boys need to come to dance unafraid of being bullied and without the fear of having their masculinity and sexuality under scrutiny; Russian boys and men don’t seem to experience this sort of discrimination. Girls need to come to dance knowing they will be as equally valued as boys and have permission to move from passive student to empowered dancer.

Where do we go from here?

Whilst it was a pleasure to watch all the finalists dance, we would like the gender imbalances in dance, for both males and females, to progress in a way that both male and female dancers feel valued for their abilities and skills. So then we are no longer distracted from such talent by the stark gender inequalities presented to us in such programmes as BBC Young Dancer of the Year.


Polasek, K.M. & Roper, E.A. (2011). Negotiating the gay malestereotype in ballet and modern dance. Research in Dance Education, 12(2), 173-193

Risner, D. (2007) Rehearsing masculinity: challenging the ‘boy code’ in dance education, Research in Dance Education, 8(2), 139-153

Risner, D. (2014). Bullying victimisation and social support of adolescent male dance students: an analysis of findings. Research in Dance Education, 15(2), 179-201.

Stinson, S.W. (2005). The Hidden Curriculum of Gender in Dance Education. Journal of Dance Education, 5(2), 51-57.

This article was originally published on The Psychology of Women’s Section Blog.

Read the original article here

Shaking up gender relations in sport

By Helen Owton

Despite, England’s devastating loss against Japan (and I haven’t quite recovered from their cruel defeat), the nation’s eyes and attention now fall on the people who were partly responsible for the England’s Women’s Football Team success and impelled them into the semi-finals.

In the lead up to the Women’s FIFA World Cup, Mark Sampson was subjected to criticism (e.g. playing too defensively, selecting the right team) and he has had to prove himself during these few weeks. Not only does he have to prove his coaching, but he has had to be careful not to take all the credit for the women’s success. This isn’t just about football. Indeed Owen Jones argues that “men must embrace feminism, but not steal it” and Mark has given a lot of credit to the ‘England Heroes’ and his right hand person and England Assistant Coach, Marianne Spacey; it’s good to see women and men working dynamically and collaborating in their coaching roles behind the scenes to enable this success. Nonetheless, none of this changes the fact that there are so few women coaches, managers and officials in football, not only in the men’s game, but in the women’s game as well with just a global percentage of 7% of women coaching in football. Additionally, men hold 97% of European coaching licences and only 65 women hold a UEFA Pro Licence compared to 9,387 men.

Whilst more men are helping to progress the growth of the women’s football game and the viewing figures stormed to a peak audience of 2.4 million in the U.K. during the semi-final game between Japan and England, let’s not forget that the liberation of women is down to women and this is the same in football. The strides behind the scenes have been down to the struggle and sacrifice of women in football.

Helena Costa was the first female to coach a professional men’s football team, Clermont Foot but she resigned on the first day of her job. We don’t know the reason why she resigned but there has been some speculation and it might well involve a gendered argument particularly given the undercurrent of sexism that troubles football.

Women coaching men

In fact, there appears to be very few high profile examples of women coaching men in the whole of sport in the U.K.; Amelie Mauresmo coaching Andy Murray in tennis; Giselle Mather (Britain’s most prominent female full-time professional rugby coach at London Irish);Margot Wells coached husband, Allan Wells and is now an elite sprint and fitness coach working with members of the England Rugby Team; Mel Marshall was named Swimming Coaches Association Coach of the year in 2014 after Adam Peaty’s success – seven Commonwealth and European medals and two world records. They all seem to prove their critics wrong.

Recently, Murray has been angered by comments about his female coach but if he wins Wimbledon even more strides will be made for female coaches. Murray says that working with a female coach has meant that he’s been able to talk more openly and he argues in an article for L’equipe that ‘It’s a crying shame there aren’t more female coaches’. Tennis appears to be one of the more progressive sports for women with equal pay and mixed doubles, but prevailing gender norms are still reinforced. Once again, these progressions have been down to the struggle and sacrifice of women, particularly one woman in: Billie Jean King who has relentlessly fought for equality in professional tennis. These few examples of successful women coaches show that although they are in the minority, when they do get the chance they make a big impact.

It is evident that women are powerful influencers both as individuals, coaches, collaborators and enforcers of change in the world of sport. Sport is unquestionably missing out on something dynamic and influential if they do not have women involved and they have obviously started to realise this. Whilst initiatives are being created to include more women in coaching, women also need to be situated in more powerful positions (e.g. Executive committees) to challenge cultural attitudes that still need to change so that both women and men do not have to put up with sexism from the public, from organisations and sexist coverage that puts women off working in particular sporting fields and makes their job harder. The criticism women referees have received at this FIFA World Cup means that these initiatives would also improve the standard of refereeing at future International football tournaments as well, but we must remember that women are frequently subjected to harsh criticism when working in male-dominated roles.

We are taking the right steps forward to challenge this undercurrent flow of sexism but we still have a long way to go before women coach men in premiership leagues. We may be lost for words after England’s defeat in the semi-finals against Japan, but let’s keep the dialogue going about women’s position in football so that the next Women’s World Cup is not played on artificial turf.

Gains for women at European Games eclipsed by Azerbaijan’s appalling human rights record

By Helen Owton

With the Women’s Football World Cup kicking off this month and the recent Women in Sports week, the first European Games in Baku, Azerbaijan could have been another opportunity for women’s sporting success to be celebrated. But Azerbaijan’s atrocious record on human rights, and the ban on certain journalists from covering the event have meant any gains made by female athletes are close to meaningless. The billions spent on staging these games will be wasted – hardly anyone will be able to watch because of the tight media regulations; new rules make it possible for lawsuits to be brought against journalists whose work opposes national interest or “insults the honour of the state and the dignity of the Azerbaijan people”. So unlike the Women’s World Cup in Canada, in Baku few will see the great strides forward for women’s sport.

Out of sight, not out of action

So what have we missed? For a start, the European Games could have been a watershed moment for women’s boxing. Boxing, the archetypal male pursuit of controlled violence, has always been a tough arena for women. Often, they have to prove themselves over and above the levels of men to be accepted, not to mention facing multiple forms of discrimination and harassment. Women challenge existing gender norms by crossing gender boundaries and while the inclusion of women’s boxing at Baku and in the 2012 London Olympics (after and absence of 116 years) was a sign of progress, there is still much more work to be done. How many people have watched women’s boxing since the Olympics? Team GB star Nicola Adams became a household name in 2012 but coverage of her and other women boxers has been largely absent since then. London 2012 was called the “year of the woman”, but it increasingly seems to have been an exception rather than a norm.

Household name: Nicola Adams. Dennis M. Sabangan

Despite the lack of coverage, the GB women’s boxing squad is still fighting strong and achieving. Recent success came at the European Championships in Romania. The team returned with two medals. Natasha Jonas, who competed at London 2012 and the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, won silver in the light-welterweight together with Stacey Copeland who also secured a silver medal in the welterweight final. Nicola Adams is a positive role model and an inspiring leader, so it is no surprise that she carried the flag for Team GB at the opening ceremony in Baku. She’s just won her opening round fight at Baku and is on course to make more boxing history. Nonetheless, she argues for more female role models given that many of her role models were men. This includes the need for more women in leadership roles in boxing. Meanwhile, today’s women boxers join the likes of other pioneering women boxers, Barbara Buttrick, Jane Couch, Cathy “The Bitch” Brown who could continue to inspire, but only if we hear about it.

Dodging human rights issues

And it’s very hard to inspire at an event so mired by controversy. While some argue that sport and politics should remain separate, sport does provide an opportunity to be an agent of social change and has been promoted as a force of good in the world. It would be naïve not to recognise how closely tied sport and politics are despite European Olympic Committee Chief Patrick Hickey insisting that sports remains divorced from politics. Sport presents us with an opportunity to demand change. In the early 1970s, ping-pong diplomacy was used to open up new diplomatic channels between the US and China. Nelson Mandela saw sport as a way to connect a nation; in 1995 he used the Rugby World Cup victory to symbolise the future unity of South Africa. But there are stories from the other side too. In 2008, the Beijing Olympics was a powerful example of human rights being ignored and the interconnections between Olympism, global sport and geopolitics. Similarly, the potential for transformation in Baku has been marginalised in favour of economic and corporate aims. Given this context and the bans on journalists entering the country, using the European Games as an opportunity for women to be seen as role models in sport could prove challenging and contentious. Nonetheless, these games do appear to have brought human rights issues into the limelight and the UN rights office is making attempts to get the Azerbaijan government to ensure freedom of expression assembly and association and fight for the release of jailed human rights defenders. If anything, the European Games in Baku are a reminder that the fight for women’s representation is a human rights issue. We cannot celebrate the gains made by women in male-dominated arenas as long as they take place in a country that does not support equality for all. The Conversation Helen Owton is Lecturer in Sport & Fitness at The Open University. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The Dark Side of Sport: child sexual abuse

* The following blog includes material of a sensitive nature and may not be suitable for all readers

By Helen Owton & Lisa Lazard

2012 was a real breakthrough for victims who experienced child sexual abuse. Since the Jimmy Scandal in 2012, there has been a 71% increase in the number of reports of child sexual abuse. Nonetheless, it is disturbing to recognise the scale of the VIP sexual abuse inquiry which has highlighted a huge number of well-known, powerful people under investigation that includes 76 politicians, 135 TV film or radio figures, 43 from the music industry and 7 sports stars (and 9 sports venues). Whilst it seems shocking that many seemed to have been abused in settings where these vulnerable people should have been safe (e.g. schools, sports, religious institutions) perhaps it’s worth considering how these environments (e.g. sport) are conducive to such forms of abuse and exploitation as well.

The World of Sport

We only have to go as far as the recent FIFA arrests to recognise that sport is not the clean, fair, functional, happy, hyped up field it presents itself as so it’s becoming increasingly important to place these institutional structures under scrutiny. Indeed, a large body of research1-5 suggests that competitive sporting environments provide a unique socio-cultural context that offers possibilities for sexual abuse and exploitation to take place. In sport, the specific danger is the amount of power invested in the coach. Coaches (as perpetrators) can impose their version of reality on athletes (as victims) and isolate them from potential sources of support within that reality by controlling the psychological environment through direct emotional manipulation, psychological abuse, and the creation of a highly volatile, psychologically abusive training environment.6,7 Indeed, Brackenridge and Fasting (2005)8 comment on previous studies on what’s known as the ‘grooming process’ in sport:

The previous studies suggest that, for the abuser, grooming is a conscious strategy. The athlete, on the other hand, is usually an unwitting party to the gradual erosion of the interpersonal boundary between her and the coach. The power afforded to the coach in his position of authority offers an effective alibi or camouflage for grooming and abuse. Incremental shifts in the boundary between coach and athlete go unnoticed, unrecognized or unreported by the athlete until the point where she has become completely entrapped and is unable to resist his advances. (p. 37)

A recent paper9 presents a story about “Bella” and the dynamic relationships between three main types of coaches.4 These types were:

  1. The Flirting-Charming Coach characterised by always flirting, joking, trying to touch and so on
  2. The Seductive Coach went further and was characterised by trying to ‘hit on everyone’
  3. The Authoritarian Coach who was also powerful and used his power as well as being characterised as having psychological/psychic problems and often had a degrading and negative view of women in general.

Sometimes, stories in the news offer us some comfort that perpetrators of child sex abuse are ‘abnormal’ – ‘mad’, ‘bad’ and even monsters. However, this makes them harder to identify. This doesn’t sit very comfortably with the large scale pattern of child abuse. Whilst the moral panics sell newspapers, it does point to some difficulties of how we can make sense of child abuse. How can abuse be so widespread if perpetrated by an ‘abnormal’ minority? The idea of a cover up of widespread abuse by public figures and people we trust is certainly insidious but it is all too easy to talk of these events as committed by people who are ‘deviant’. The panic and fear this creates often results in a restriction of where young people can go and what they can do, particularly for girls and women.

To make sense of child abuse, perhaps we need to think through what allows young people to be treated as ‘vulnerable’. The answer is undoubtedly complicated but the unequal position they find themselves in relation to all adults is something that deserves some focus.10,11 This existing power between victim and perpetrator (e.g. athlete and coach) occurs in the context of structural power relations within institutions (e.g. sport) which often operates using top down hierarchical forms of authority. In this sense, children are subjected to overlapping forms of power that makes them vulnerable.

Britain has turned a blind eye to child sexual abuse for too long in previous years but so have structures that serve to protect institutions; these structures, rules, procedures and norms of violence towards women within institutions (e.g. sport) need to be subjected to scrutiny as well for things to really change.12

Video: Sexual abuse in sport pic


  1. Brackenridge C. (2001). Spoilsports: Understanding and Preventing Sexual Exploitation in Sport. Routledge: London.
  2. Bringer, J., Brackenridge, C. H., & Johnston, L. H. (2002). Defining appropriateness in coach-athlete sexual relationships: The voice of coaches. Journal of Sexual Aggression, 8, 83-98. DOI:10.1080/13552600208413341
  3. Burke, M. (2001). Obeying until it hurts: Coach-athlete relationships. Journal of the Philosophy of Sport, XXVIII, 227-240. DOI:10.1080/00948705.2001.9714616
  4. Fasting, K., & Brackenridge, C. (2009). Coaches, sexual harassment and education. Sport, Education and Society, 14, 21-35. DOI:10.1080/13573320802614950
  5. Parent, S. (2011). Disclosure of sexual abuse in sport organizations: A case study. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, 20, 322-337. DOI:10.1080/10538712.2011.573459
  6. Leahy, T. (2010). Working with adult athlete survivors of sexual abuse. In S. Hanrahan and M. Andersen [Eds.]. Routledge handbook of applied sport psychology: A comprehensive guide for students and practitioners. London: Routledge, pp.303-312.
  7. Leahy, T. (2011). Safeguarding child athletes from abuse in elite sport systems: The role of the sport psychologist. In D. Gilbourne and M. Andersen [Eds.], Critical essays in applied sport psychology (pp.251–266). Champaign. IL: Human Kinetics.
  8. Brackenridge, C., & Fasting, K. (2005) The grooming process in sport. Auto/Biography: An International and Interdisciplinary Journal, 13, 33-52. DOI: 10.1191/0967550705ab016oa
  9. Owton, H. & Sparkes, A. Sexual Abuse and the Grooming Process in Sport: Learning from Bella’s Story. Society, Education & Sport (in press).
  10. Gavey, N. (2005). Just sex? The cultural scaffolding of rape. London: Routledge.
  11. Warner, S. (2005). Understanding the effects of child sex abuse. London: Routledge.
  12. McCray, K. (2014). Intercollegiate Athletes and Sexual Violence: A Review of literature and recommendations for future study. Trauma, Violence & Abuse, 1-6.

‘This girl can…’ with the right balance of inspiration and support

By Jessica Pinchbeck

‘I used to love playing netball at school’ is the standard response I get when I happen to mention to a female friend or colleague that at the age of 34 I still play netball. This response is typically followed by a few minutes of reminiscing about their school experiences and what position they enjoyed playing. However when it is suggested that they join a local club or come to a training session, among the all too familiar barriers of time and family commitments, I have frequently observed a lack of confidence and even fear of taking the plunge to return to sport . For many women I talk to there appears to be something scary and intimidating about playing competitive sport and it is possible that this mind-set is contributing to the current figures and insight on female participation in sport. However, where does this ‘mind-set’ come from and what else might hinder a woman’s involvement?

It is quite well known that there are fewer women participating in sport in the UK. Indeed, the latest Sport England (2015) research shows that 40.9% of men play sport at least once a week, compared to 30.3% of women, but 75% of women would like to participate more, so what might the barriers be and how can we increase the number of women playing sport?

Campaigning and role models
Sport England are investing £10 million in national campaigns such as ‘This Girl Can’ and £2 million to extend local campaigns such as ‘I Will if You Will’ to attempt to close the gender gap that exists in sport participation. Close to my own heart is the ‘Back to Netball’ campaign where over 60,000 women have taken part since 2010. Netball has seen increases in participation in England each year in all age groups of the Sport England Active People Survey, showing a more positive outlook moving in the right direction. The weekly TV coverage of the Netball Superleague on Sky Sports has helped to raise the profile of our top netballers such as Pamela Cookey and sisters Kadeen and Sasha Corbin to provide positive role models for women, but its reach is limited to those who subscribe to Sky. With the growth of netball and England’s recent Europe Championship win more media attention needs to be given to women’s sport to promote these positive female role models more widely.

Not only do national campaigns and media coverage need more development and attention to raise the profile of women’s sport to inspire participation, there is also a need to address the logistical, financial and emotional support required for many women to play sport at any level. Family responsibilities can often take precedence because women are still typically regarded as the main caregivers.

The importance of family
Parents provide the early opportunities for children to be active and a child’s experiences of sport and their enjoyment of it are often shaped by the family influences which determine participation later in life. In a research project on 1507 pupils aged 8-16 years the influence of the family played a central role in the children’s attitudes towards sport and physical activity. There are also certain stages in life where participation is most vulnerable. For teenagers family support is essential to maintaining participation at what are termed ‘key transition phases’ with the transition from childhood to adulthood being a crucial risk time for dropout. In a study investigating girls and young women’s participation in physical activity the majority of participants who always played sport lived in households where parents and siblings also regularly participated in sport, with many examples of family members acting as role models. Therefore the importance of the family in encouraging and supporting girls to play sport is a key strategy to ensure the future generation of women continue to participate into adulthood.

Similarly at certain phases during adulthood participation is ‘at risk’ such as moving into full time work and having children. At times such as this encouragement and support from family to help balance work and life commitments is essential to being able to maintain participation. Playing competitive sport is less flexible than other fitness pursuits such as going to the gym and so an extra layer of organisation and commitment is often required. This is where a good support network is invaluable to maintaining participation.

So for me encouraging more women to play sport requires two key strategies in addition to the national campaigns and media hype. The first is to educate parents on the importance of providing opportunities and positive sports experiences for their daughters growing up to ensure continued participation later on in life. This will ensure that women’s sport plays a key part in future generations. The second is to inspire and empower women to seek much needed support to help overcome the barriers of work and life commitments that often prevent competitive sport participation. If we get both of these right then surely more women will feel inspired and supported to play competitive sport throughout all of life’s more difficult transitions.

England women’s football to make memories at FIFA15

More controversy surrounding FIFA include the responses about women being featured in the next EA Sports video game FIFA16. Whilst this is great news for women’s football, it’s amazing that this is another ‘first time’ event for women and it’s not as progressive as everyone might think. The EA Sports game was first released in 1993 and it is only now, over 20years later that women are going to be featured in the next edition. It’s about time women were included with 4.1 million women playing within organised structures worldwide.

A Sexist Backlash

However, there has been a huge sexist backlash towards this inclusion of the 12 new teams which is evident on twitter. Many of the sexist remarks were defended by them being ‘just jokes’ but that is not acceptable. There are fine lines between ‘banter’, bullying, harassment and abuse and in light of the history and the ongoing oppression that some women continue to experience all over the world – it’s not funny! These are yet more ways to trivialise the seriousness of derogatory jokes towards women and to trivialise women’s football. Amelia Butterly argued that not only are these remarks unfunny, they are inaccurate and addressed these comments. The twitter feeds included comments about female players having a bad game ‘because she’s on her period’, being unable to play for 9 months ‘because she’s pregnant’, blaming feminism for ‘ruining everything’ and one man asked ‘Why would you want to include them unless they’re going to exchange shirts on the pitch!’

It is good news that these ‘jokes’ are finally being reprimanded because these negative, sexualising, derogatory and out of date comments get splashed over twitter whenever women’s football is on TV and attitudes need to change. Evidently, whilst the inclusion of women in EA Sports is a positive move forward for women’s football, it is not enough to just include women in a new console game; attitudes need to be changed so that women are respected and valued not only in sport but in society. These attitudes are unlikely to just be evident in football; they are likely to leak into public working life which is why it is so important not to let these disrespectful comments pass without reprimand.

It is difficult to see how things will change as long as sexist reputations remain in football and whilst FIFA is under investigation for corruption whilst simultaneously withholding funds from investing in the women’s game. Whilst Heather Rabbatts’ resignation is the latest attempt to try and bring reform to Fifa, let’s also use this opportunity to put sexism alongside other priorities (e.g. kicking out racism, homophobia, and corruption) in football.

Whilst all this is going on though, the England Women’s Team don’t seem to have let these news stories affect their focus. After their 10-day training camp at St George’s Park, assistant coach, Marieanne Spacey, urged her team to ‘make some memories’. They’ve certainly made a start on that; they have had a warm-up game against Canada which gave them the opportunity to practice on the artificial turf. Despite England conceding one goal, Karen Bardsley had her work cut out and denied quite a few goals and Fara Williams with a phenomenal long shot which unfortunately hit the bar; an exciting game with great coverage. With England qualifying for the 2015 Women’s World Cup with 100% record that is worth supporting!

Women’s World Cup primes for kick-off a mind corruption allegations at FIFA

By Helen Owton

With the breaking news of allegations of corruption at FIFA, everybody seems to be talking about what impact it will have on the upcoming World Cups in Russia and Qatar.

But the next World Cup isn’t in Russia or Qatar, it’s in Canada. The FIFA Women’s World Cup kicks off on June 6 and the complete lack of discussion of how the crisis at the top of football will affect the competition further trivialises the women’s game. Corruption needs to be eliminated from FIFA, and we must remember in doing so that the organisation is not just responsible for the men’s game, but for women’s football too.

It’s worth noting that while FIFA been accused of receiving bribes totalling US$150m, the body has been simultaneously starving the women’s game of funding and investment.

Achieving against the odds

The seventh women’s World Cup takes place in the same year FIFA celebrates its 111th birthday, although I doubt there will be much celebrating going on in light of the recent arrests. It’s actually quite surprising to realise that the first men’s World Cup was staged in 1930, which means that in 85 years there have been just seven women’s competitions.

This is perhaps no surprise, given that in 1921, Britain’s Football Association banned women’s football altogether “in light of complaints made” about the problems they could experience as a result of playing.

In this century, FIFA has shown its blasé attitude towards women footballers by making them play on artificial turf for all their World Cup games, despite the face that no one would dream of making male players do the same. As US footballer Megan Rapinoe has argued:

FIFA made a $338m profit on the 2014 Men’s World Cup. To say that it’s not logistically possible to install real grass at all the stadiums is not acceptable.

There is no doubt that this will have an impact on the the games played, which could play into pre-established prejudices against the quality of women’s football. How are women supposed to prove that they can play just as well as the men (if not better) if it’s literally not a level playing field?

Winnipeg stadium: not-so-hallowed turf.
Krazytea, CC BY-SA

Despite all this, members of the English women’s team certainly seems to be campaigning successfully to receive the attention they deserve. It’s also encouraging that the Canadian Soccer Association and Canada’s sports minister have already responded to the allegations made against FIFA and are making attempts to prevent this news negatively affecting the Women’s World Cup. Indeed, Canada is a world leader in the promotion and protection of women’s rights and gender equality.

Women’s football is still an arena that highlights women’s quest for equality. As the UN says, “human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights”. That applies as much on the football field as is does anywhere else.

Once again, women are forced to achieve against adversity to prove to the world that they can achieve success no matter what barriers – be they artificial turf, a breaking news story about corruption, lack of investment or negative public perception – are imposed on them.

The Conversation

Helen Owton is Lecturer in Sport & Fitness at The Open University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

The Big Fight!: Sports stardom vs. domestic violence and a question of moral character

By Helen Owton

* The following blog includes material of a sensitive nature and may not be suitable for all readers

Despite my interest in boxing as both a spectator and a participant and the typical pre-fight hype dominating the media I made a conscious decision not to watch the Mayweather v Pacquiao contest. I was disappointed that a sportsperson lacking in such moral character was able to receive such exposure and all I thought about was what it must be like for Mayweather’s victims of domestic violence (DV) to watch him receive so much media attention and admiration. Unlike some reporters, I was not banned from watching it; mine was a defiant choice. Mayweather served 2 months of a 3 month sentence when he pleaded guilty for 2 cases of DV, so the question remains after such a conviction as to why he was allowed to come back to the sport and compete on the world stage. Whilst Mayweather is undoubtedly a skilled fighter and a talented sports person, is it fair that this ability supersedes the welfare of his victims and allows him to remain a sporting hero in the public eye and a role model?

So often though, the victim’s perspective does not get considered so it’s important to understand the consequences of domestic violence and to recognise its severity. Victims of domestic violence can experience significant and prolonged psychological trauma (PTSD) and severe stress-related symptoms even years after the abuse.1 Much research1-7 has reported the psychological consequences of abused victims (depression, suicidal ideation, posttraumatic stress disorder, and alcohol and drug abuse). Furthermore, victims of DV have higher levels of health problems (gynecological, chronic stress related, central nervous system) with symptoms including abdominal, pelvic, back pain, appetite loss, urinary tract infections, vaginal bleeding, infections, painful intercourse, and digestive problems.8 Considering these traumatic symptoms I can only imagine the lengths these women would go to in order to avoid the hype surrounding this fight so as not to trigger any further trauma and stress. With boxing promoting at its best this would have been an immensely difficult task. However, Josie Harris had the courage to speak out about her experience which reinforces the need for everyone in the community to speak out and recognise the severity of DV because it affects so many people around them; it must have taken incredible strength for her to talk about it. To be honest, I’m surprised there hasn’t been more dialogue about this issue.

This is not the first case to question whether certain sportspeople should deserve the privileged position of ‘sports star’ following convictions involving violence against women. Most recently, in the UK, was the case of footballer Ched Evans in 2014 as to whether he should have been allowed to return to Sheffield United to train after being convicted of rape and serving 2 years of a 5 year sentence; after much deliberation he was not allowed back. This might have something to do with Evans remaining on the Violent and Sex Offender Register indefinitely which could be why he’s trying to prove his innocence now. As Charlie Webster stated in her interview, after she resigned from Sheffield United as Patron, “Rape is not a trivial subject”, and should be taken very seriously, particularly given the psychological and physical consequences of these crimes. Her argument was that whilst she believes in rehabilitation, she does not believe that it is right to put him back into exactly the same very privileged position where young boys and girls look up to footballers like David Beckham; all well-known sportspeople have that responsibility, including Floyd Mayweather.

What sort of messages do we give the younger generation or indeed any generation, if we allow people who have been physically (emotionally and/or sexually) abusive to continue to compete and be positioned on a godly pedestal where they continue to hold power and be glorified? A role model is “a person whose behaviour, example, or success is or can be emulated by others, especially by young people” so a sportsperson cannot be judged only on their sporting success because young people who choose their role models judge them on their moral character as well. Any abuse is too much abuse and for any victims of abuse it is the responsibility of those in power to safeguard them from the exposure of re-traumatisation and flashbacks. It is hard enough for the victims to process what has happened to them let alone shove their abuser in their face and expose them to others’ admiration and glorify their violent tendencies in an event that lead to much opportunity to trivialise domestic violence (e.g. twitter jokes about Mayweather and DV). The ethos of boxing involves an opportunity for redemption not an opportunity to exploit sexist power to their advantage and be worshiped for displaced aggression.

As a convicted rapist, Ched Evans wouldn’t be allowed to coach so why should he be allowed to play professional men’s football? As journalist Lucy Hunter Johnston stated, “A convicted rapist couldn’t be a teacher, doctor or police officer, for example”. So shouldn’t ‘sports star’ be among this list as well, given that ‘boys look up to footballers, not their Dads’ and the link between major football tournaments and an increase in domestic abuse.9  However, if some sport stars are uniting to support Violence Against Women campaign then this seems to be a valuable argument to include ‘sports star’ among this list to recognise that any violence against women is not tolerated in sport. Mayweather may have won his big fight but he’s no winner in the big fight against domestic violence.



  1. Ghani et al. (2014). Psychological Impacts on Victims of Domestic Violence: A Qualitative Approach. Australian Journal of Basic & Applied Sciences, 8(20), 5-10. Available:
  2. Dorahy, M.J., Lewis, C.A. and Wolfe, F. (2007). Psychological distress associated with domestic violence in Northern Ireland. Current Psychology, 25(4), 295-305
  3. Kelly, E. (1988). Surviving Sexual Violence. Cambridge: Polity Press.
  4. Levendosky, A.A., and Graham-Bermann, S.A. (2001). Parenting in battered women: The effects of domestic violence on women and their children. Journal of Family Violence, 16(2): 171-192
  5. Phillips. K.E., Rosen, G.M., Zoellner, L.A. and Feeny, N.C. (2006). A cross-cultural assessment of posttrauma reactions among Malaysian and US women reporting partner abuse. Journal of Family Violence, 21, 259-262
  6. Pilar Matud, M. (2005). The psychological impact of domestic violence on Spanish women. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 35(11), 2310-2322
  7. Rodgers, S. (1996). ‘Guilty knowledge: The Sports Consultant’s Perspective’. Paper presented at Workshop on Guilty Knowledge, Cheltenham and Gloucester College of Higher Education.
  8. Campbell, J., Jones, A.S., Dienemann, J., Kub, J., Schollenberger, J., Campo, P.O., Gielen, A.C., and Wynne, C. (2002). Intimate partner violence and physical health consequences. Archives of Internal Medicine, 162(10), 1157-1163.
  9. Kirby, S., Francis, B., & O’Flaherty, R. (2013). Can the FIFA World Cup Football (Soccer) Tournament be associated with an increase in domestic abuse? Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 00(0), 1-18. Available: