We now know there is a sexual harassment and abuse problem, so what can we do to fix it? My survey asked for solutions for creating a more positive and safe environment for everyone.
Going forward, if you were harassed or assaulted, how would you handle it? Who would you report it to?
This was a little bit of a leading question, as I wanted the women taking my survey to take a moment to envision what they would do if they were harassed or assaulted in the future. Sometimes that moment of visualization might actually change a person’s future response.
A good chunk of the responses said they “didn’t know” what they would do, which is an entirely fair, reasonable response. Another subset expressed regret for how they handled their past situation of harassment or assault.
Despite many who said they would go directly to USA Fencing (or their own governing organization) or SafeSport, there was a significant number of responses that expressed distrust in the current American fencing systems:
“Reporting to SafeSport or USFencing [sic] does no good.”
“I’ve kept a burn book for a while documenting every instance where I’ve been sexually harassed. I don’t have faith in the current organization to take my complaints seriously.”
“I don’t know! I can’t take the safesport process seriously (both because of underwhelming responses to problems and because of a dismissive attitude on the part of USFA leadership), but I would want people to know and be able to avoid the person/situation. I’d probably start with the tournament organizers.”
“I honestly don’t know. I went through hell when I reported the assault and I don’t think I ever want to go through that again. I would probably just quit fencing because USA Fencing and SafeSport were no help to me and were great at victim shaming/blaming.”
“As a tournament official, I am a mandated reporter, so I would report it through the appropriate SafeSport channel. However, depending on the circumstances, I might also feel compelled to report it to local law enforcement, because I may not trust USFA/USOC procedures to follow through with sufficient rigor and speed.”
“I would talk about it with my friends, but probably try to handle it on my own. I have no faith in US fencing or SafeSport to take action and do the right thing.”
Most importantly, there was a fear of repercussions for reporting:
“Fear of repercussions would prevent me from reporting.”
“I don’t know. I don’t know that I would feel safe to report it and maintain anonymity or avoid negative repercussions.”
“Now? I don’t know if would. Negative social consequences still exist for reporting this.”
“I wouldn’t report it. If I said something, I would be kicked out of the club and my competitive career would be over.”
“When I was being harassed, I felt like I would damage my team if I reported it. Others on my team felt similar pressure. We did not want to lose our scholarships or hurt the team by attacking our coach. I wish that we had felt more empowered and that we weren’t afraid of impacting our performances, teammates, and didn’t feel as though we would lose everything by reporting our abuser. I wish we had realized that the abuse was not worth tolerating.”
“There is unspoken pressure within the community not to report. The fencing community is small, and to report harassment would have ramifications within the social structure of the community. While the person at fault should be held accountable, incidents are not reported because of the broader effects on people connected to the abuser and the fencing community. This is particularly relevant when the abuser is in a position of power (high level coach) within the fencing community. Many fencers feel that the fencing community is their primary social circle. Victims would rather keep silent than risk negatively impacting that community by reporting the abuse.”
However, the procedure for SafeSport is evolving. As recently as last year, USOC started processing the complaints external to USA Fencing. Hopefully through this development it will alleviate some of the fear of retaliation and provide an unbiased place to report.
What do you think can be done to limit sexual harassment or assault within fencing?
The most common answer to this question was: EDUCATION. Many thought SafeSport training didn’t do enough, partially because the opinion was that it is not an effective training program, and partially because it’s only required by professional members. The women responding to the survey believe that everyone should have access to the information provided by SafeSport, including parents and athletes, so that predatory behaviors can be spotted long before the issue of assault arises. When it comes to harassment, better education needs to exist as to what constitutes or does not constitute harassment.
“Talk about it more. Identify what it is for young fencers and who they can safely talk to. Hold people accountable. If a fencer is made uncomfortable by another fencer or coach, there is a reason. No matter how wonderful we think the “accused” is.”
Education was also important for informing young fencers on how to set appropriate boundaries. Many of the people who were taken advantage of in this survey were fairly young when the harassment or assault occurred. They felt they did not have the resources to say no, or did not know who they could turn to for help. Better awareness of different places to report: USA Fencing, SafeSport, club owners, parents, legal authorities, etc. is key. It is of note one club owner published a fencing-oriented resource for preventing sexual abuse of minors in the fencing club.
What resources would you like to exist within the fencing community to handle sexual harassment and assault?
“I’d like to see a designated contact person at large tournaments. Like how you can go to the trainer if you’re having a medical problem, you should be able to go to an anonymous councellor [sic] if you’re dealing with a harassment/assault problem. (I’m not sure what the logistics of the anonymity would be.)”
A substantial number of responses advocated for an anonymous reporting tool or system where victims could submit their story. The benefit of such a system is that it would protect reporters from retaliation, and if multiple people reported the same person for harassment or assault, maybe those people could be connected through the system and decide to take the next step of going to SafeSport or legal authorities.
“I think safe sport is a start. But it only seems to apply to an inappropriate coach student relationship. Who do you go to if a coach is being harassed by another coach?”
SafeSport training has a fairly singular focus-the training seems to be more directed at protecting minors from coaches than any other population in fencing from another population in fencing. Women responding to the survey wanted to see SafeSport address more kinds of harassment and abuse with different demographics.
Another suggestion people had was to have a clear, established guideline put out by the national governing body that would highlight all options that a victim would have if something happened, up to and including going to legal authorities. Such a step seems important given the large number of responses that indicated institutional distrust in US Fencing itself.”
“I know so many young girls may not know what to do but they all get the fencing magazine and look at that. Have an article explaining to them what to do, who to contact if they don’t feel comfortable talking to their parents, what to do if its a coach or a parent…or another fencer…be specific… maybe an article interviewing one of the gymnastics olympian girls…. they are so inspirational and if they see someone their own age it might help them. I love the magazine and I just think the it is a great place to inform the younger group.”
Respondents also wanted to see spokespeople come forward from within the sport. Some of the women believed that there had to be female athletes and coaches popular in our sport who have gone through harassment and assault from another fencing community member. While it is difficult to speak out, a few responses illuminated that having such a role model spokesperson in our sport would help others feel comfortable coming forward with their own experiences.
Finally, women want to see more women in professional areas of fencing, such as more female referees and more female coaches. They believed that having women in these positions of authority would help change the culture the most.
Would you want to see training classes beyond SafeSport for women and men in the community on this topic? Mandatory? Optional? What would the content of this kind of class be?
I received such a range of responses to this that I felt it best to share some of the most thoughtful, insightful answers.
“Yes, SafeSport is kind of generic and does not go as deep into the many effects sexual assault may have on a victim. I think holding open classes or video classes that are perhaps mandatory once a year for coaches/high level referees and available as options for fencers or anyone else maybe at NACs and Nationals and/or online.”
“What is SafeSport? I think that is your answer. If some people don’t even know about what is available, we need to do more.”
“Better discussion of what harassment can include. I think that many people do not report harassment because it is so common that it is dismissed as mildly inappropriate behavior that should be overlooked. Also a discussion about power imbalances since there are a lot of situations within fencing where this is the case (coach-athlete, ref-athlete, tournament director-athlete, tournament director-ref).”
“Safe sport was okay. But it would not address the institutional patriarchy with which fencing is rife. I have started trying to educate the boys in my club, because otherwise I see no end to this in the sport.”
“Clubs should has age appropriate classes for kids and parents.”
“Safesport is just a checkbox and hoop we have to jump through. I don’t think anyone takes the course seriously. It’s just a CYA program by USAFencing. Having posters to be mandated to be displayed at clubs. That is a constant reminder of what is okay and what is consent. So athletes and parents are aware and a bold reminder to those who may abuse their position they are doing so knowingly.”
“I’m not sure SafeSport is entirely effective, however I’m also not sure I have better suggestions. In general, having more public-facing education for everyone and preventing these affairs from being kept secretive and/or internal would be better. The more people know this behavior is unacceptable and the more people that are willing to speak up would hopefully give less leeway to those who think they can get away with inappropriate behavior.”
“No. Safesport is useless. Training classes can be cheated. I think that leadership in the community needs to make a stand and enforce an unequivocal standard. Culture doesn’t change unless standards and perceptions change. Education is great, but if the person isn’t receptive and can just get away with cheating the system then it is useless and a waste of time. Currently someone can pass their safesport by playing videos on mute and guessing answers. They don’t have to subscribe to ideals when all they need to do is pass a test. Consequences are the only way to control the behavior.”
“SafeSport is already mandatory for coaches, referees, and those with the +professional membership. I think a refinement of the harassment and assault portions for teens would be a great addition because they’re often times the people who need the help and may not know what to call what’s occurring to them or think it’s normal. I’m not sure if this should be mandatory, but should be easily available.”
“Sure, but I don’t really think it would help. Anyone can take a class and be labeled as okay to work with other people/minors and still be a predator. Sorry to be the voice of apathy, but I speak from experience. The person who took advantage of me is still a beloved and respected member of the community.”
“Children as well need to be educated on what is or is not sexual harassment or assault. Including directing them in who they can confide in besides parent/ guardian, etc.”
“I think safe sport is great for power dynamics but it does nothing for training between peers or strangers.”
What consequences should exist for sexual harassment? What consequences should exist for sexual assault?
“Expulsion from the sport. Lifetime ban. Public execution. What those men did to me have affected my life. I am not the person I could have been; I am angry, bitter, and stressed. I have very little trust for men because of what they said and did.”
The phrases that kept popping up in response to this question were “zero tolerance”, “ban”, and “expulsion.” Generally, the responses made me feel as if people didn’t believe that their national governing organization was taking a hard enough line on harassment and assault in the fencing community. There was very little variability in the answers.
Women are still a significant minority within our sport. Over the 2016-2017 season, the ratio of women compared to men participating in Division 1 non-Championship events in the United States was about at 40-60 split. Women are even less prevalent in the professional roles of coach and referee. Of USA Fencing referees with a rating of 4 or above active over the past 2 years, only 40 of 175 (23%) are female. Of coaches at NCAA schools, only about 20% were female.
Could Sexual harassment and assault have something to do with the lack of women in our sport? It’s a little bit of a Catch-22: maybe women aren’t going into these roles due to sexual harassment and assault, but at the same time, if we had more women in these roles it could help change the culture. Perhaps governing bodies can do more to encourage women to become coaches or referees.
We need to talk more about harassment and assault in fencing. While 60% of women who took this survey have faced harassment, only 60% reported knowing of someone else who has been harassed, even though it is statistically probable that they all know someone who has been harassed. Only a very small percentage of those in my survey reported their abuser through legal avenues or SafeSport. The burden is on the victims to come forward. Fear of retaliation or repercussions is real; however, as a community, we can make it easier for people to come forward with complaints by clearly outlining their options and providing avenues of support. We can address the negative perception of USA Fencing and SafeSport and turn it from one of distrust to one of advocacy. We can work to change a culture that allows perpetrators to get away with harassment or assault by taking action when we see or hear abuse occuring and being willing to believe stories of harassment and assault when victims come forward.
It is important to note that only part of the the fencing population’s input was collected for the purpose of this article. While this survey focused on women, men in the fencing community are also victims of and witnesses to sexual harassment and assault. Often though, men are often in privileged positions to intervene when harassment or assault occurs. Many of the women who were surveyed expressed uncertainty about how to proceed. Engaging the men of fencing as this conversation develops will enable the community to understand how their perception of this issue differs from women’s own view. Broadening the audience of the conversation will empower us to enact necessary change.
Sport should be a refuge, a place where we can safely grow through participation. Harassment and assault have no place here, whether you are competing, refereeing, coaching or more. As one woman put it: ”The fencing environment must be known that it is a safe place….period.”
We can do better.