An important book that addresses young people’s vulnerability in sports

Anders Östnäs
Lund University

Michael J. Hartill
Sexual Abuse in Youth Sport: A socio-cultural analysis
222 pages, paperback.
Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge 2017 (Routledge Research in Sport, Culture and Society)
ISBN 978-1-138-49424-4

Michael Hartill’s book is a socio-cultural analysis of sexual abuse in youth sports, a topic that is relevant globally and not least in Sweden. It is part of a research series called “Routledge Research in Sport, Culture and Society”. The author is a Professor of Sociology of Sport at Edge Hill University at Ormskirk, Lancashire, in northwest England.His writing covers mainly areas such as sexual abuse in youth sports and masculinity and sports.

The book is divided into six main chapters: 1. Perspectives, Theories and Models of Sex Offending and Child Sexual Abuse; 2. An Alternative Epistemology for Approaching Childhood Sexual Abuse; 3. Research with ‘Survivors’ of Child Sexual Abuse in Sport; 4. A Sketch of the Field; 5. Narratives of Sexual Subjection in Sport; 6. A Relational Account of Child Sexual Exploitation in Sport, The chapters are preceded by an Introduction and followed by a Conclusion, three appendices and an index.

In the first chapter, Hartill discusses different perspectives and theories about sexual abuse and sexual exploitation, where most theories are generally oriented, most often based on feminist theories. Someone who focused on this phenomenon in the field of “sports” is the British researcher Celia Brackenridge (1950-2018), who was a prominent lacrosse player in England before she began her research career. Her interest focused early in her career on sexual exploitation of young people, as she among other things wrote a book on the subject together with the well-known Norwegian scholar Kari Fasting. Throughout his book, Hartill befittingly references Brackenridge as the leading authority on the subject.

After reviewing available theories and perspectives, he lands in the following:

      • Socio-cultural contexts must be considered from a critical standpoint.
      • In order to create a wholeness around the sexual exploitation of children in sport, there must be a theoretical connection between macro and micro, between structure and individual.
      • The gender perspective must be taken into account.

Chapters two to four I will only briefly address. The most important content, as I understand it, is the theoretical basis forHartill’s analysis, namely Bourdieu. As a relation to the subject’s macro-orientation, the author emphasizes the well-known concepts “field”, “habitus” and “capital” as important analytical tools. In Brackenridge’s analysis, abuse is usually about the relationship between and coach and adept. As mentioned above, Hartill often refers to her pioneering research,

In my opinion, what is most rewarding, albeit disturbing, feature of the book is the stories of sexual abuse that Hartillrecounts. It is about seven young people, five men (Simon, a rugby player; Paul, who plays basket; Stephan, a swimmer; Jack, a figure skater; and Will, also a rugby player) and two women (Mary, a gymnast, and Elaine, who plays tennis), who in a genuine but at the same time frightening way describe what they have been through regarding sexual abuse. Each story is followed by an analysis.

This is a book that in a stylistic, theoretical and practical way addresses a current problem area around children’s and young people’s vulnerability in sports.

All these young athletes were sexually exploited by male coaches, where power and authority played a major role. The coaches were also very manipulative. Most had families and children. It was also striking that almost everyone in the sports environment knew of or suspected the coaches’ abuse, but no one talked about it. There was a culture of silence in the various sports clubs, which is not unusual in these contexts. The abuse also took place over time periods of several years, often from a very early age. Most of the victims experienced tong-term mental effects of the abuse.

The analysis based on Bourdieu’s conceptual framework can be summarized, albeit superficially, as follows: the young people were in the coaches’ “field”, where the coaches had the “symbolic capital” and where the coaches’ “habitus” was preserved through the culture of silence. The coaches’ position of power was also obvious in all cases. Many of the young athletes were clearly unaware of the coaches’ paedophilia.

Sexual abuse has also been brought to light in Swedish youth sports. Susanne Johansson has researched the issue and believes that one in twenty active athletes have been exposed to some form of sexual harassment and exploitation by coaches.[1] This is especially true when the relationship between coach and sportsman is deepened. The Swedish children’s rights organization BRIS has in a report, 2017:2, addressed sexual abuse in sports. The close and in-depth relationships between coaches and youth athletes also stand out in the young people’s narratives in Hartill’s book. Another well-known example is the abuse of high jumper and former world record holder Patrik Sjöberg by his coach and stepfather Viljo Nousiainen. As an adult, Sjöberg wrote a book about the time of the abuse.

From a global perspective, the US national gymnastics team has been overshadowed by several scandals. Among other things, the national team doctor, Larry Nassar, was sentenced in 2018 to life in prison for having subjected more than 100 female gymnasts to sexual abuse. The events have been further communicated through a documentary on Netflix.

This is a book that in a stylistic, theoretical and practical way addresses a current problem area around children’s and young people’s vulnerability in sports. Bourdieu’s conceptual apparatus works well in relation to the stories of the seven young people. It is an important book for researchers, policy makers and practitioners in sports and especially youth sports. It is definitely a book to recommend!

Copyright @ Anders Östnäs 2021

[1] Johansson, Susanne Sexual Relationships between Athletes and Coaches: Love, Sexual Consent, and Abuse Stockholm: The Swedish School of Sport and Health Sciences 2017
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