Giving sextortion the red card

  • Mon, 7 August 2023


        The FIFA Women’s World Cup is in full swing. It’s a chance to cheer on your favourite team and also reflect on the challenges many women and girls face to play the game. FIFA is a multi-billion-dollar machine, but women players don’t get to fully reap its benefits. What’s more, women players also experience high risks of exploitation. 

The pay gap that exists for women athletes is one of the factors that creates conditions conducive to abuse and exploitation in the sport sector. Photo: Andy Macfarlane/Unsplash

For women around the world, the gender pay gap is an all too familiar issue and regrettably, the sport industry is no exception. In fact, according to UN Women, sport has one of the largest gender pay gaps and many professional women players cannot live off their earnings, leaving them vulnerable to abuse.  

Ahead of this year’s World Cup, persistent pay inequalities prompted 150 players to sign a letter demanding equal pay and conditions for prize money. The Nigerian women’s team, for example, threatened to boycott the tournament’s first match due to wage theft.   

Having to fight for equal rights hasn’t slowed them down. Yesterday, the Nigerian women’s team stunned Australian hosts with a shock win and are now leading their group. This puts them one step closer to winning this year’s prize money, valued at US$110 million – which is still a paltry figure compared to the US$440 million men received last year. What’s even more alarming about this pay gap is that it can make women more vulnerable to coercion and harassment. 

But pay inequality isn’t the only concern for women athletes. Men predominantly hold influential positions across sport organisations, creating a power imbalance that leaves girls and women vulnerable to abuse. The expert status of officials and coaches is rarely questioned, and the lack of supervision and unclear boundaries between players and coaches can create an environment where mistreatment is tolerated. Unfortunately, these power imbalances also heighten the risk of sextortion – the abuse of power to obtain a sexual benefit.  

In October 2021, a FIFA official confirmed that the organisation had discovered cases of sexual abuse around the world. And last year, the Guardian reported more than 40 cases of sexual abuse and harassment in connection with the federation. The actual number of cases is challenging to ascertain as they often go unreported due to stigma, shame and guilt.  

While not all these cases are classified as sextortion, the most serious ones usually involve people who abuse their power, such as coaches and agents. In fact, the results of in-depth investigations into sexual abuse in the sporting sector suggest that it is a widespread problem that affects all sports in all regions of the world.  

Existing measures to address sextortion in sport depend almost exclusively on reporting mechanisms and sanctions to deter abuse. However, when reporting channels are in place, they tend to lack independence, and fail to provide safe and trusted avenues for survivors to bring their claims. Sport organisations also often lack of capacity to properly detect and investigate reports of abuse. All these factors create an environment of silence and impunity, further perpetuating power imbalances.

Sextortion – the abuse of power to obtain a sexual benefit – is prevalent in the sport sector due to a culture of silence and impunity. Photo: Peter Glaser/Unsplash

In recent years, FIFA started taking notice and begun addressing these issues. At the 2022 Men’s World Cup, the federation piloted a safeguarding programme to protect players from harassment and abuse. And this year, they put in place new programmes, including a grievance mechanism and toolkit to train and support the implementation of measures to protect vulnerable groups. The roll-out of these new resources should be coupled with wider efforts to shift a culture that enables sextortion and other forms of abuse.  

Prevention is the most potent form of defence, so creating stronger prevention frameworks should be the first priority for sport organisations like FIFA. But when prevention fails and abuse happens, players’ safety and dignity should be placed over organisational reputation and financial gain, and wrongdoers must be held to account.  

No more watching from the sidelines while corruption takes place. Let’s get the ball rolling. 


On your marks, set... Stop sextortion in sport (May 2022) 

Our report finds that the sport sector is alarmingly vulnerable to sextortion. Sports organisations must address the power imbalances, systems and cultures that cover up abuse to protect their reputations and financial interests. You can also watch our webinar on sextortion in sport here.  

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