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Sexual harassment and cyber bullying

Many of the activities that occur in school and sports clubs are public but increasingly they are also occurring in the semi-private spaces of social networking sites (SNSs). Celebrating the successes of young people is great but increasingly (at least in the fact that we are hearing more about it) there is a dark and sinister side to sport and SNSs. Ignorance is bliss but we can’t simply turn a blind eye to events. No child should ever feel that inappropriate actions are every permissible or appropriate – be that the instigators or the victims of such actions. Therefore, as adults, we are charged with a duty of care for all young people and, as such, “they’re just being kids” is never a suitable excuse for harassment or bullying. We should never condone the behaviour of others through our inaction or ignorance and instead must ensure that the young people we nurture and support can nurture and support those around them too.


Volume 2.8 (Blog 103):

De Matelaer, K., Vertommen, T., Andries, C., Maschalck, J., & Vandevivere, L. (2014) Yasmin: Learning about unacceptable sexual behaviour in a sport setting. In K.M. Armour (ed.) Pedagogical cases in physical education and youth sport (pp. 101-116). London: Routledge.

 

Yasmin

A year ago Yasmin, a then 11-year old, was a regular member of a mixed-age korfball team out of school, which also meant (due to the nature of the game) that it was mixed gender. She was the only girl in her age group who was showing signs of an adolescent body and was growing body hair and breasts and had started menstruation. She was an average player, in terms of the whole team, but had good basic skills for the level at which she played.

It was the team’s habit to celebrate winning a game with a team hug and it was in one of these hugs that one of the older boys took liberty with Yasmin. Using the distraction of the hug Joe, a 14 year-old boy, cupped Yasmin’s breasts. This was not the first time that it happened and all of her teammates were well aware of his “physically uninhibited behaviour” but everyone ignored it. Yasmin might have as well but one of the older teenagers caught the incident on his camera and, with some editing, posted it on Facebook with the caption “big friendsbig boobs”. In the picture Victor, 18, had zoomed in on Yasmin and Joe’s hand was clearly touching her breasts. However, and just in case anyone missed his action, Victor had marked it with a huge red circle. The picture quickly caught the attention of other members of the club who proceeded to post inappropriate comments; “porn baby”, “take every chance you get with both hands” and other, similar messages. From then on Yasmin became the focus of other players teasing and the number of comments on Facebook continued to grow.

Yasmin was lonely and didn’t feel there was anyone she could talk to – either at the club or at home. She became demotivated and was ashamed to go to training. She hoped that someone would react to the bullying but no one did and in the end she quit the club.

Yasmin’s parents didn’t know why she had left the club until Yasmin left her Facebook page open and her mum stumbled on the photograph. Complaints were made to the club but these were greeted with no action and replies that “it’s just kids”. Indeed, Victor, was now volunteering as an instructor with the younger team (6-8 year olds).  The incident had been overlooked and while the club had sent him on a professional development course, it contained nothing about ethics, sexually appropriate behaviour or conflict resolution. He wasn’t, it seemed, even aware of what he should do in these situations. Similarly, Joe (equally unpunished) remained a popular figure in the team but he continued to act inappropriately to the younger girls. In contrast Yasmin had changed noticeably at school over the last year. She has became increasing “shy and introverted” and doesn’t engaging in any sport or leisure activity anymore.

  

The Pedagogical Case

From a child development perspective there are a number of reasons that might explain ‘what happened’ at the Korfball club but none that condone it. Puberty and the associated growth spurt occur one and half to two years earlier for girls than boys. This would explain, a little, the similarities in development between Yasmin and Joe. When this is coupled with Joe’s move into what De Matelaer and colleagues call ‘middle adolescence’ – a time when he is more likely to experiment and engage in risking behaviour – then his decision to feel Yasmin’s breasts is more easily explained. Victor’s behaviour is less easily understood and his harassment could be considered as anti-social behaviour. Either way it is the responsibility of both parents and educators to guide youngsters through their sexual and gender development and there is clearly more work to do at the club.

In many respects this couldn’t have happened at a worse time, developmentally, for Yasmin. As a result of her early maturation she is more at risk of emotional and behaviour problems. Research suggests that she “has a greater chance of displaying depressive symptom, anxiety problems and of reporting psychosomatic symptoms”. Yasmin is also more likely to “report body dissatisfaction and are more vulnerable to developing disturbed eating patterns”. The inappropriate actions, firstly of Joe and then Victor, have gone a long way to making Yasmin feel uncomfortable and uncertain about herself and the actions of others. At a time when she is already vulnerable she needed much more support from those around her.

In the field of sports ethics and sports politics it has been shown that the prevalence of sexual harassment in youth sport is uncertain. Importantly, while it has been acknowledged that this is a “setting that is vulnerable to sexually transgressive behaviours” it has been shown to be a ‘site’ where its values and norms often lead to abuse. Young athletes are often engaged in intimate relationships based on trust, loyalty, inequity and dependence where they are pressured to perform. They are also asked to push their personal boundaries and observe the rituals and initiation traditions of the sport. Finally they are expected to exist within a “dome of silence” which is positioned to stop individuals talking about incidences of abuse.

More concerning perhaps, given Yasmin’s experiences, research has focused on abuse that occurs between an adult and a child. Consequently, the prevalence of peer-on-peer sexual harassment and/or abuse is much less well known. The picture that is emerging, however, suggests that after being ‘flashed at’ the next most frequently reported form of sexual harm was being touched against ones will – with 88% of those who reported being touched suggesting that it was a peer who touched them. There are frameworks in place to deal with this, and expected policies are in place, but it is clear that Yasmin’s club are not living up to their responsibilities.

By examining legislation and law we learn that, “in most cases, very little is actually done in cases such as Yasmin’s.” The bottom line is: who will file the complaint against either Joe or Victor? In Joe’s case, due to his age, he is a minor and therefore (under Belgium law) holds criminal law immunity. He could be called to a juvenile court for breaching Yasmin’s civil rights but is likely to only be subject to educative or rehabilitation measures. In Victor’s case he is considered (judicially) to be an adult. He did publish and disseminate a photograph in which the identity of the victim is made apparent and this is forbidden without written consent. A prosecution is possible but also very unlikely and, therefore, the responsibility lies with the club who know about the incident, the photograph, and Joe’s “uninhibited behaviour and its regularity”.

When approaching the case of Yasmin as a pedagogical case De Matelaer and colleagues argue that they are two related and yet separate events to consider. Firstly the touching of Yasmin’s breasts and secondly the cyber-bullying that followed. In both cases “there is a fundamental problem of failing to respect Yasmin’s integrity and/or a violation of her boundaries and, thus, her personal safety”.

Rather than judging Joe’s actions as being ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ a flag system (green, yellow, red and black) is proposed. Six criteria (mutual agreement, free will, equality, appropriate for age, appropriate for context, self-respect) are allocated and a score (OK/not OK, not applicable) for each of these is then applied. In Yasmin’s case – and considering Joe’s actions - all bar ‘appropriate for age’ are judged ‘not OK’ and a red flag is ‘raised’ – not physically but against the incident. This flag should prompt the coach as well as the athletes to confront Joe when he behaves inappropriately. It is an educative system that helps children to understand what is appropriate or inappropriate and to what degree.

From the perspective of the cyber bullying three established (intentional, repetition, and imbalance of power) and two additional (anonymity and public versus private) criteria are considered. When greater attention is applied to cyber bullying and these facets, then bystanders can be encouraged “to create a more positive climate through intervening”. Indeed, youngsters are more likely to intervene if they believe that they are expected to. Sexual education is important in this but so is an awareness of what is expected in these situations. In Victor’s case he needs to be punished by the club to show that they take these matters seriously and to educate everyone (including Victor) about cyber bullying. If Victor is to become a coach then he needs support and mentoring so he can change his behaviour.

It is important to remember that there “are dangers for the individual victim (Yasmin), but also for the self-esteem and reputation of the perpetrator(s) (Joe and Victor) and finally for the learning climate of the sports club”. By reflecting on these incidences and judging them on their merits and not through the ‘dome of silence’ we can make real steps to changing the norms of behaviour and finding new ways of being sporty.

  

What’s next? As part of this blogs I propose the following as a way of considering the implications of this research on your teaching- Think, Act, Change (or TAC for short).

Think about findings of the paper – do they resonate with you? Use the comment box below to ask a question, seek clarification, may be challenge the findings.

Act on what you’ve read. What do you believe? Is it your responsibility to make changes or is this just something else that I’ve put on your plate? Is there action to take? If so, what might it be?

Change what you do in response to your thoughts and actions? Is this a personal undertaking? If you want to do something or are looking for help then please let the community know about it.

I wouldn’t expect every paper to get beyond the T or even the A of TAC but if one paper resonates enough to get to C then hopefully all this is worthwhile. Good luck.

 

Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Vicky Goodyear for her work behind the scene as copy editor. Her help certainly forms a vital part of the production of this blog, and in getting out on time and in a semblance of coherence. However it is important to note that any mistakes that remain are mine.

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