Preventing Sexual Abuse In Your Fencing Club

Fencing clubs are locations where children recreate and spend large amounts of their developmental time growing their passion for sport fencing. Fencing clubs should be incredibly supportive and enriching environments for an individual. Community is essential to this development. Therefore, it is also essential, as an adult member of a fencing community, you feel obligated and empowered to understand sexual abuse and take preventive measures to protect the children in your community. All adults in the fencing community are responsible to protect children from sexual abuse. This post highlights steps adult fencing community members should take to protect children. This blog is based directly on information presented by Darkness to Light’s Stewards of Children Workshop. Their organizational goal is to end child sexual abuse.

First, learn facts. Hopefully, by becoming confident and competent about sexual abuse we can end sexual abuse in our sport niche. About 1 in 10 children experience child sexual abuse before their 18th birthday. Child sexual abuse is likely the most prevalent health problem children face with the most serious array of consequences. Sexual abuse happens as a result of choices made in every day environments, like fencing clubs, and by your family. To get involved, it means taking personal risks. By speaking up when you haven’t spoken up before, we protect children, grow as a community, and make all children safer. Lack of feeling support from each other is a predominant reason people don’t speak up. Often when people don’t protect children it is because they are not sure if others will support or back them up. Will I offend someone? Will people ridicule the boundaries I have for my children? Supporting each other means giving support to others’ efforts to prevent sexual abuse, and asking for support when we need help. 90% of children who are victims of sexual abuse know their abuser.

What is Child Sexual Abuse?

Any sexual act between an adult and a minor, or between two minors, when one exerts power over the other.

Forcing, coercing or persuading a child to engage in any type of sexual act. It also includes non-contact acts such as exhibitionism, exposure to pornography, voyeurism, and communicating in a sexual manner by phone or Internet.

Often a traumatic experience for children and teens.

A crime punishable by law.

With 80% or more of child sexual abuse incidents happening in isolated, one-on-one situations, it is important coaches and club owners, as stewards of children, make sure that all interactions in and around fencing club activities are interruptible and observable. When you eliminate or reduce isolated, one-on-one situations with children, you dramatically lower the risk of sexual abuse. It is known that people who abuse children often become friendly with potential victims and their families. They participate in family activities, earn trust, and gain time alone with children. Trust is an essential component to developing a strong coaching relationship, but if boundaries are not in place, or you see they are constantly being tested, a situation where abuse could occur is being created. Sometimes “grooming” behaviors can also be a red flag that abuse is occurring or could occur. Grooming is the process by which an offender gradually draws a victim into a sexual relationship and maintains that relationship in secrecy. At the same time, the offender may also fill roles within the victim’s family that make the offender a high valued person, and perhaps even seen as an indispensable member of the family. A fencing parent who has suspected inappropriate behaviors may have asked themselves, ‘If this person doesn’t coach my child, who will?’ Grooming behaviors include:

Special attention, outings and gifts.

Isolating the child from others.

Filling the child’s unmet needs.

Filling needs and roles within the family.

Treating the child as if he or she is older.

Gradually crossing physical boundaries, and becoming increasingly intimate/sexual.

Use of secrecy, blame, and threats to maintain control.

You as a committed adult member, coach or parent of a fencing community should help minimize the opportunity for abuse to occur. Any concerned adult can and should:

Eliminate or reduce isolated, one-on-one situations with children. Choose group situations and have multiple adults supervise whenever possible.

Scan the physical environment for hidden and secluded areas, and correct any dangers.

Make sure interactions can be observed and interrupted.

Anticipate situational risks that occur during youth activities. A “situational risk” occurs when youth activities create usual circumstances, decreased structure and supervision, or increased potential for boundary violations.

Remember that older youth should not be in an isolated, one-one-one situations in youth serving settings.

Be creative and think on your feet to find solutions. Work together!

Finally, ask your club administrator, ‘What is your Code of Conduct?‘ Many clubs do not have a formal Code of Conduct. You might have to help create one.

If you are a parent, have an age-appropriate, open conversation about our bodies, sex and boundaries with your child. One of the best protective measures is the relationship you have with your child. Understand why children are afraid to tell. It might be so as not to disappoint you, fear of shame, or threats they would not be able to fence. Physical signs are not common other than perhaps headaches, physical excuses to not attend practice, depression or anxiety. Look for abrupt changes in a child’s behavior about fencing, their mood, or engagement with peers. Recognize a child may be attempting to talk to you about their concerns indirectly and will shut down if you respond emotionally or negatively. Being proactive, talking bout private parts, talking about personal boundaries, and talking about your child’s right to say, “No” are good parenting practices. Tell your child to trust their gut feelings and what type of touching is okay. Continue to talk about boundaries as your child grows and as they mature. Boundary violations include:

Touching private parts.

Touch that is uncomfortable or excessive.

Speaking in a sexual way or showing sexual media.

Asking a secret be kept, or having interactions that are overly private.

Asking or encouraging a youth to be in an isolated situation.

Gifts and special privileges that are exclusive, excessive or kept private.

As a trusted adult in a fencing community or parent, think about what you would say, do, and who you would consult with about the choices you will make next if a child discourses a boundary violation has occurred or is occurring.   For more information about talking with children go here.

Reacting responsibly means understanding how to respond to disclosures, discovering and having suspicion of sexual abuse. There are three reasons we need to react to sexual abuse: 1. A child discloses sexual abuse to us. 2. We discover sexual abuse ourselves. 3. We have reason to suspect it.

If a child discloses sexual abuse to you:

Listen calmly and openly.

Don’t fill in the gaps or rush to “get to the bottom of it.”

Don’t ask leading questions about the details. Questions that come across as judgment and can confuse the memory of events.

Only ask open-ended questions like, “What happened next?” or “It’s okay to tell me more, you can tell me whatever you want.”

Say, “I believe you.”

Say, “What happened is not your fault.”

Say, “I’m the adult and it’s my job to protect you.”

Tell the child, “This takes courage. I am proud of you telling me.”

Don’t promise the information can be kept confidential.

Seek the help of a professional who is trained to talk with the child about sexual abuse. Let a professional collect the details form a child. Professional guidance is critical in the child’s healing and to any criminal prosecution.

Don’t make broad promises about the future.

Important: Be careful about showing anger towards the offender. The child may have mixed feelings about the offender because the offender is often someone trusted or even loved by the child. Showing anger towards the offender can sometimes feel out-of-control or threatening to the child. Also, the child may already feel guilty. Expressions of disgust or anger about the offender may feel like judgement to the child as if, “I must be terrible too.”

When you report, report to the police or to child protective services. Many states have a child advocacy centers, these places are often viewed as the best places to go first. In some states you are required to report or it could be a felony offense. As a reporter you will also need to seek support from other adults as you process your own emotions. To contact a children’s advocacy center near you, contact the National Children’s Alliance at or call 1-800-239-9950. There is also the SafeSport reporting agency for Olympic Sports.

Most readers, at this point, only have suspicions. Suspicion means at a minimum, you need to set some limits or ask some questions. Offenders are rarely caught in the act of abusing a child, but they’re often seen breaking the rules and pressing boundaries.

Youth serving organizations assume an obligation of integrity and public trust when they open their doors to children. Fencing clubs are ethically bound to safeguard children. We must act as a community to: 1. Learn facts about sexual abuse. 2. Minimize opportunity for offenders. 3. Talk about it. 4. Recognize signs and 5. React responsibly. Act as a community!

If you realize you have abused after reading this article, there are people who can help you with appropriate sexual boundaries. Even if you haven’t yet abused, but have thought about it, please visit the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Offenders.

Fencing community, thank you for reading. Sexual abuse is a taboo subject, and difficult to talk about. #Metoo stories should be a hashtag that ends with this generation. Abuse is happening in the fencing community. I believe we can all make a difference with education and creating spaces within our communities to talk about this very hard topic. No outside entity is going to fix this for us. Please share this post and talk with your fencing community and your children today.

Jennifer Oldham

Licensed Professional Counselor and Fencing Master

One thought on “Preventing Sexual Abuse In Your Fencing Club

  1. I most often think of grooming behavior as physical touching that seems to occur naturally and could be innocent, such as a hug after a successful bout, mussing a fencer’s hair (then fixing it again), a shoulder rub, a literal pat on the back (which with repetition might become a playful slap on the behind). The difference between pre-predatory behavior and team camaraderie may be subtle. One watches for, and notes, repetition and escalation, and increases surveillance, caution, and quiet admonitions in response. Really it’s a continuum.

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