The sexual subjection of boys in sport: towards a theoretical account


Childhood sexual abuse (CSA) is a persistent and widespread social practice (Gilbert et al., 2009) predominantly perpetrated by men. In considering the sexual abuse of male children, one is faced with a number of explanatory accounts that say little about the experiences of boys. These can broadly be divided into those that focus on the individual and those that focus on society. Thus, over the last three decades feminist perspectives have challenged individualist accounts (see Ward et al., 2006) that construct the perpetrators of CSA as somehow weak or ill and fundamentally distinct from the wider male population (Cowburn and Dominelli, 2001) whilst ignoring the gendered aspects of sexual exploitation and abuse (e.g. Kelly, 1988; Rush, 1980). According to Seymour (1998: 422) ‘it is evident that the nature of gender socialization in our patriarchal society predisposes males toward child sexual abuse.’

However, both positions are problematic (Brackenridge, 2001) and according to Liddle (1993) there is a missing ‘theoretical linkage’ between the micro (psychology) and the macro (sociology) that frustrates a satisfactory account of this social problem. Cossins (2000) has argued for a sociological theory of CSA but still presents abuse as a pathological response to childhood trauma, albeit prompted by the demands of masculinity.

The problem of explaining individual action (agency) within an account sensitive to social structure, culture and history is not a problem particular to theorising CSA. Arguably, the late sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002) constructed a conceptual framework for social practice that is able to overcome the structure-agency dichotomy (McNay, 1999, 2000). Potentially, it offers the ‘theoretical linkage’ required for a socio-culturally sensitive account that avoids the charge of either biological or social determinism (Hartill, 2010).

Central to Bourdieu’s social theory is the notion that when social agents act they always do so within a context, so that they both determine and are determined by that context, or social field. In this fashion, for example, ‘the banker or the priest are financial capitalism or the Church made flesh’ (Bourdieu, 1990b: 57). Unusually for a major social theorist, Bourdieu wrote specifically about sport (see Bourdieu, 1990a, 1993) designating it a ‘relatively autonomous’ cultural field that sits alongside and overlaps with other fields, such as science, the media or religion. In this way, it is possible to consider athletes, coaches, officials, etc. as sport embodied – the field made flesh. Thus, Bourdieu theorises social action from a position whereby historical social structures ‘inhabit’ the individual, they are embodied, and it is on this basis that individual action is generated, but not determined. Crucially, for Bourdieu ‘there exists a correspondence between social structures and mental structures’ (Bourdieu and Wacquant, 1992:12) so that ‘property appropriates its owner, embodying itself … generating practices perfectly conforming with its logic and its demands’ (Bourdieu, 1990b: 57).

There is insufficient space here to comprehensively set out this perspective, however, in this chapter I will consider this notion of embodiment in relation to the ‘elite’ male child and the sexual subjection of boys within sport. I will draw upon interviews with ‘survivors’ of CSA in sport to illustrate my perspective. These men were between ten and twelve years old when the abuse began; it continued for a period of not less than one year.

The Illusio and Sport

For Bourdieu, the struggles that take place within social fields are analogous to game-playing, and sport is frequently drawn upon as a metaphor for ‘social games.’ The notion of illusio is central to Bourdieu’s theoretical formulation:

Illusio is the fact of being caught up in and by the game, of believing the game is ‘worth the candle,’ or, more simply, that playing is worth the effort ... If your mind is structured according to the structures of the world in which you play, everything will seem obvious and the question of knowing if the game is ‘worth the candle’ will not even be asked ... the illusio is the enchanted relation to a game that is the product of a relation of ontological complicity between mental structures and the objective structures of social space. That is what I meant in speaking of interest: games which matter to you are important and interesting because they have been imposed and introduced in your mind, in your body, in a form called the feel for the game (Bourdieu, 1998: 77).

The field of sport is very clearly imposed upon boys; indeed, it is introduced as being fundamentally related to their male, masculine identity – their boyhood – itself (Connell, 1995; Messner, 1990). Thus, Coakley (2006: 157) states ‘youth sports [is] a context that has been organized and controlled by men in ways that reaffirm traditional gender ideology.’ Therefore, boys in western societies are raised in an environment which encourages them to feel, from a very early age, that the game was definitely ‘worth the candle’:

Will: Coaching - sport - was very serious, very serious … you wanted to be the best, because what you wanted was praise from this man. We were all slaves to praise, you know. We were willing to do all sorts of things because we wanted praise from this man because it meant so much.

Early in their boyhood, these ‘survivors’ all had a trenchant belief in ‘sport’:


Illusio is thus ... the fact of being invested, of investing in the stakes existing in a certain game, through the effect of competition, and which only exist for people who, being caught up in that game and possessing the dispositions to recognize the stakes at play, are ready to die for the stakes ... (Bourdieu, 1998: 77).

Sheldon Kennedy was an outstanding young athlete who was sexually abused by his highly respected coach whilst on ‘camp’ (see Kennedy, 2006). However, when offered the ‘opportunity’ of joining him again, to develop his ice-hockey career, despite his trauma about what had already happened, he simply didn’t have the vocabulary to say ‘no’:


Sheldon: I was supposed to be the next David Beckham right, and so how does a guy quit, how do I just up and quit sport?’

Boys abused in sport have been drilled, not only in the technical aspects of their sport, but also to recognise the stakes of the game in which they are invested. To speak out, or act, against the game would be to ‘crack the game asunder,’ to disregard the stakes of the game. Such is the manner in which the game has been introduced to him, the sports-boy cannot feasibly entertain such an act. Thus, the elite child athlete, is subjected to sex, not by a ‘sick’ individual but by a ‘man who held the keys to the world that I had wanted to be part of since I was a little kid.’ (Sheldon).

‘Why didn’t I say something?’ is perhaps a perpetual question of the adult survivor; they knew they could have, yet when they say, ‘I just couldn’t,’ this is in fact exactly the point – ‘saying something’ was theoretically possible, yet literally impossible. For this reason, boys sexually abused in sport are only able to speak of their experiences, if at all, many years after the abuse[1] – that is, once they are able to recognise that the game is (and was) not ‘worth the candle.’ Therefore, once they are no longer overwhelmingly characterised by an enchanted relation to the game (the sport illusio), critical reflection becomes more possible. Yet no doubt for many, this never occurs.

Action, Resistance and Symbolic Violence

According to Bourdieu (1998) ‘knowledge’ presents a potential source for social agents to resist the force of ‘social games’ but he argues that this is far from a simple process: ‘one does not free oneself through a simple conversion of consciousness’ (Bourdieu, 1998: 79). Where children are concerned this is surely an even more complex process and where the child is constructed or labelled as (and aspires to be) an ‘elite athlete’ it is clear that their (new) identity demands that they be ‘an athlete’ and little else. That is, it is not simply the case that the child desires to be an athlete, rather, they have been explicitly depicted, often from a very young age, as ‘an athlete’ and this imposed identity (and status symbol) requires considerable maintenance. This is made abundantly clear from recent ‘evidence,’ influential within UK sport at least, that claims 10,000 hours of practice are required to reach professional/elite status (Balyi and Hamilton, 2004). Thus, according to Malcolm Gladwell ‘the tennis prodigy who starts playing at six is playing in Wimbledon at 16 or 17’ (Daily Mail, 2008).

This is the symbolic violence of which Bourdieu speaks; the symbolic violence that, of course, permits very real violence and abuse (not least sexual) on generation after generation of children. According to Bourdieu (1998: 103):

Symbolic violence is the violence which extorts submission, which is not perceived as such ... achieved when the mental structures of the one to whom the injunction is addressed are in accordance with the structures inscribed in the injunction addressed to him. In this case, one says that it went without saying, that there was nothing else to do.

In such a fashion we may be better able to understand the position of children faced with a sexual encounter with an adult in sport. The young, elite, male athlete, successful and ambitious, is perhaps a perfect exemplar of accord between subjective and objective structures. Indeed, it might be argued that the purpose of governing bodies is singular: to turn the child into an athlete/player; and that this single, coherent, totalising objective has the effect of rendering the child in a dominated state by providing him with the cognitive capacity to do little else other than apply the categories of the dominant.

Boyhood-sport extorts the submission, complicity and silence of young males to their own exploitation:


MH: Were you told not to say anything?

Will: No, never! Never, never. That was never, ever suggested. He knew perfectly well I wasn’t going to say anything.

Of course, sexually victimized boys could say something. That is, if we considered that social agents (including children) operate from the basis of unshackled, autonomous rationality. This is not the argument here. According to Bourdieu (2001: 39):

It is quite illusory to believe that symbolic violence can be overcome with the weapons of consciousness and will alone ... because the effect and conditions of its efficacy are durably and deeply embedded in the body in the form of dispositions. This is seen, in particular, in the case of relations of kinship and all relations built on that model, in which these durable inclinations of the socialized body are expressed and experienced in the logic of feeling (filial love, fraternal love, etc.) or duty, which are often merged in the experience of respect and devotion ...

Brackenridge (2001) then likens sport-abuse to ‘virtual incest’ due to the familial role that sport often plays in the lives of ‘promising’ athletes. Therefore, ‘symbolic violence acts ... to maintain a relation of domination … [and] it works when subjective structures … and objective structures are in accord with each other’ (Krais, 1993: 172). Do sexually victimized child-athletes freely choose not to speak out? No, yet neither were they, nor should they be, (theoretically) reduced to inertia, somehow non-cognisant of the events engulfing them. Undoubtedly, they acted in myriad ways: to ‘manage’ their abuse and their abuser – to calm them, to appease them, to resist and challenge them, to please them, to reduce the impact on others (especially parents), to maintain the status quo through silence. Indeed, the scale of the challenges they faced forced them to bring all their powers of ingenuity, creativity and thought to bear on their action.

They did act, they were agents (as opposed to objects) in this encounter; they could have acted differently. Yet theoretical accounts frequently deprive them of this capacity in the misguided assumption that this would be tantamount to giving credibility to erroneous claims that children somehow freely consented to the encounter.

Initiation and Training: ‘A Faustian Pact’

The complicity of abused boys is coerced – but not simply through the persuasive efforts of an individual adult-male, but through their initiation and training in the field of athleticism - it was virtually preordained:

Simon: ... there was kind of a - what could be better than being a rugby hero? It’s literally a Faustian Pact. But you have to sign you know, it’s not a choice, you have to sign ...

Ordination is both an entry requirement, and a condition, of the boy’s sustained engagement in the symbolic economy (the brotherhood) of organised male-sport. All the participants, whilst articulating a notion that they were likely candidates for abuse because of parental relations or family background, refer to the fact (or strong likelihood) that their abusers subjected many other boys to the same experience. That is, they were, in fact, not distinct, except that they occupied a deeply enchanted relation to the field. According to Bourdieu (1998: 111):

Soft relations of exploitation only work if they are soft. They are relations of symbolic violence which can only be established with the complicity of those who suffer from it, like intradomestic relations. The dominated collaborate in their own exploitation through affection or admiration.

The notion of collaboration may be difficult here, nevertheless, I feel that ‘survivors’ of CSA may well recognise the appropriateness of this formulation for their childhood situation. However, it is through these necessarily ‘soft relations of exploitation’ – perhaps epitomised in the ‘it’s all for the kids’ narrative (Messner, 2009) - that belies a highly organised economy driven to ‘develop’ (exploit) ‘talent’ (the child’s body), underpinned by a seemingly insatiable desire for elite success, regardless of costs to health or well-being. Thus, boys are persistently urged not only to enter sport, to play sport, but to become sports-like – to become sportsmen, athletes; to embody sport, to believe in it, to be it.

Through the sexual abuse of a child we can see very clearly the embodied nature of this complicity. Indeed, in organised sport it is perhaps more evident than any other field how children are trained to succumb physically to adult (male) authority – the sportsboy is trained rigorously and relentlessly, ‘day-in day-out,’ to submit his body utterly to the will of adult men. Bourdieu (1990b: 73) argues ‘the body believes in what it plays at ... what is ‘learned by body’ is not something that one has, like knowledge that can be brandished, but something that one is.’ This is no doubt especially true for the elite child.

Boyhood in sport is about learning to push one’s body beyond its normal limits, learning to cope with physical discomfort and pain, learning to see one’s body as a tool to be exploited for ends that may principally serve others, to sacrifice oneself without complaint at the behest of adult men and to learn the strategies of domination. This is the ‘game’ introduced to the boy and this is what his body believes in.

Furthermore, in the hyper-masculine, ultra-instrumentalist world of elite youth sport, where children’s bodies are valued hierarchically according to their execution of arbitrary physical skills, all things sexual are utterly denied whilst simultaneously constituting a ‘rite oriented towards virilisation’ (Bourdieu, 2001: 25). Thus, male-sport is an often erotic, sexualised, homophobic environment that denies itself as such, and thus denies de facto the sexual objectification/fetishisation of children’s bodies – it couldn’t happen here (Brackenridge, 2001).


Organised sport is engaged in a determined endeavour to structure children’s minds in accord with an instrumentalist logic fundamentally geared towards conquest and domination. As Pronger (1999) puts it, ‘the logic of adding to oneself by subtracting from others.’ It does this whilst persistently engaging in acts of euphemism, constructing itself through a sustained discourse of healthy and wholesome activity, simultaneously denying any relation to sex. Such an endeavour presents a considerable risk for the elite male-child athlete who is trained from a very young age to believe, ‘body and soul’, in the game and the agents who epitomise it.

Therefore, the contemporary call to ‘listen to children’ and ‘give children a voice’ in sport (e.g. ‘Child Power – Your Voice’ Amateur Swimming Association, 2009) must be weighed against the field-forces and strategies that seek to homogenise the sportsboy/girl and limit his/her capacity for critical thought. In the objectification, commodification and exploitation of children’s bodies, and the demand that they embody the field of sport, children are taught to intuitively understand that their bodies are objects to be used according to the demands of the agents of the field (men).

Therefore, in light of CSA in sport, it is incumbent upon adults to ask what capacity for autonomous and critical thought can the highly (relentlessly) trained child reasonably be expected to have developed towards the field they are instructed to resemble? If there is no space between subjective (cognitive) structures and objective structures – if the child is in fact ‘the field made flesh’ – there can be little hope that such children will feel able to speak up about the trauma they are faced with.

For the boy (if not also his mature self) to speak out about the violation, an act that would risk revealing the true nature of the logic of the universe that has structured his cognitive structures, would be tantamount to further violating himself, this time by his own hand. In revealing the ‘truth’ about himself, the revelation would place him at odds with the (masculinist) symbolic economy that is so fundamental to his being. Such an act, for the young male, characterised by the sport illusio, enchanted by the game, is virtually unthinkable. Thus, the command of silence that masks and enables abuse is a fundamental feature of the ‘game’ of elite sport and the current enchantment with these masculinist rites and practices, generally, does not serve our children well.



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[1] 27 years is the average duration between abuse and disclosure for males (Spiegel, 2003).

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