Athletes, coaches and sex – a sensitive issue laid bare in doctoral thesis

Eystein Enoksen
Norwegian School of Sport Sciences


Susanne Johansson
Sexual Relationships between Athletes and Coaches: Love, Sexual Consent, and Abuse
191 sidor, hft.
Stockholm: The Swedish School of Sport and Health Sciences, GIH 2017
ISBN 978-91-983857-0-3

We live in a Nordic society and in a time when a lot of publicity is directed towards sexual relationships within and between different groups of people. Focus today is on what is accepted behavior between the sexes, highlighted in the #metoo campaign. In sport, there has been a lot of focus on “touch in sport”, and a worldwide discussion in research articles about the behavior and the relationship between coaches and athletes. Lately focus has also been on sexual harassment and abuse in the relationship between athletes and coaches.

In her doctoral thesis, Susanne Johansson has examined the sexual relationship between coaches and athletes (CASR). Her thesis has a solid scientific and methodological approach based on existing literature and previous research dealing with this kind of relationship. The results from her different investigations are based on both quantitative and qualitative data analysis, discourse analysis and narrative case studies.

The Articles

Article I– “Sexual harassment and abuse in coach–athlete relationships in Sweden”
The age group for Johansson’s scientific documentation is 25 years on average. The results from a quantitative survey show that 96,5% of the coaches did limited or no disturbance to the relationship, in terms of sexual harassment or sexual pressure. She found that only 5.5% of the coaches exploited and destroyed the relationship with sexual pressure and/or abuse.

Article II– “Coach-athlete sexual relationships: if no means no does yes mean yes?”
The presented results is based on a literature study and qualitative analyses. In this article the practice and politics of touch in sports coaching and physical education are outlined, as well as the necessity of child protection from abusive coaching practices, sexual misconduct and harmful touch in sport. In this study, she did in-depth interviews with five different respondents. The interviews focused on the reasons why sexual pressure had occurred in the relationship between athletes and coaches. The answers showed that this relationship is quite touchy and difficult to cope with. This kind of relationship is often characterized as an unequal relationship since the coaches usually have a powerful position. Many times, it seems difficult to sort out what is right and what is wrong – what is accepted or unacceptable behavior. The athletes are usually in a weaker position than their coaches.

Article III– “‘This might be him; the guy I’m gonna marry’: Love and sexual relationships between female elite-athletes and male coaches”
This article contains a discourse analysis performed to examine how discourses frame female elite-athletes’ experiences of legality and consent in the coach–athlete sexual relationship. The discourses cover performance enhancement in elite sport and coaching, and romantic love, of which the author states the latter as completely missing in the current literature.

Article IV“‘Am I sexually abused?’ Consent in a coach-athlete lesbian relationship”
This article is based on a narrative single-case study. The case study is used to present and analyze a story of a female elite athlete with the pseudonym Karin. The presented study uses qualitative in–depth interview data on the case of Karin and her CASR that is analyzed in reference to theory on sexual consent to develop theory. Karin’s story is an emotional, compelling, and powerful presentation. The story is interesting to read and the author believes it has the potential to empower, problematize, create understanding and evoke reader engagement. The author tells us that Karin wishes for her story to be told for others to learn from and to help others with similar experiences.

Discussion and conclusion

I have looked forward to reading about Susanne Johannsson scientific approach to this often difficult relationship. In the first part of the thesis, she describes the literature emphasizing the natural human desire for sexual actions in order to get satisfaction in different contexts. We are sexual humans and therefore sexual relationships is as important as our work, family life, friends and our inner thoughts. In her thesis, Susanne Johansson discusses how teaching and information is important to focus on in order to build solid and genuine relationships between athletes and coaches in future sport contexts.

In the interviews, a lot of sensitive information about the relationship between athletes and coaches are presented and discussed in a methodological and theoretical way. Usually a lot of this information is kept secret, but in this context, where there is full openness in the presentation and discussion of results, focus is on the respondents answer on 19 specific questions (11 is for the coaches). The author discusses how coaches have a powerful position in the relationship, and the athlete is in a weaker position. Coaches should not exploit their position and the athlete should be told to be stronger in their communications of interest, wishes and personal integrity.

It is important to be reminded of that there are some bad coaches out there practicing sexual harassment and abuse within the relationships with their athletes. Some people are not capable of handling everything in human relationships. Still, the study shows that 96.5% of the coaches are conscious of their responsibility in the coach–athlete relationship and therefore make a positive personal contribution in their coaching practices. However, the thesis also shows that 4.5% of the coaches are sexual abusers, which is 100% too many. Therefore, Susanne Johansson’s work is an important contribution that spotlights a sensitive, often secret and concealed problem in the development of a good and respectful relationship between athlete and coach. Her discussion on how to deal with this contains good advice for all coaches working with sports performance development.

Copyright @ Eystein Enoksen 2018

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