Former Damallsvenskan player comes forward with her account of sexual abuse

Casting an eye over the wider problems in women's football

Former Damallsvenskan player comes forward with her account of sexual abuse
Credit: Lukas Schulze/Bundesliga/DFL via Getty Images

With the steam picked up by the #MeToo hashtag online, more and more accounts of sexual harassment and abuse have been coming to light with several notable instances in Swedish football over the last two months, including the account of an anonymous former player to Kvällsposten earlier today.

The following article contains references to sexual abuse and could be troubling for some readers.

Axén’s troubling story

When former player Gunilla Axén came forward about the sexual harassment she’d received whilst working for the SvFF (Swedish football association) the entirety of football in Sweden was taken aback. When the Eskilstuna native went public about the inappropriate pictures she’d received around 2004, there was an immediate fall-out with the former chairman of the SvFF, Lars-Åke Lagrell rubbishing her claims.

Axén has stated that at the time she informed others in the association including former Secretary General, Sune Hellströmer, something denied by Hellströmer who has said that had the information reached him he would “have taken immediate action.” In the same token Lagrell denies knowing anything of the harassment or penis pictures sent to Axén and went as far to imply that she was using the story as a way of getting revenge for not progressing in the organisation.

Expressen contacted one of the alleged men – a former international – who was vague in his answers, saying if it was him, he regretted it but cannot remember but if he did indeed send her inappropriate photos it was likely he was drunk. This is something Axén has responded to and said it happened several times over the course of a year.

Though there is a degree of good news out of the story as the current SvFF chairman, Karl-Erik Nilsson has appointed a taskforce, headed by current Secretary General Håkan Sjöstrand to investigate the claims put forth by Axén.

#timeout

A month after Axén’s story had made the rounds more sportswomen were coming forward in Sweden, creating their own #MeToo hashtag, using #timeout to reference the general culture in sport. The accounts in #metoo in range from vulgar language to physical abuse from groping to rape, the original article in Dagen Nyheter states that 2,290 women from all over sport in Sweden had signed their names.

Included in the number of athletes, coaches, journalists and even supporters who’ve anonymously come forward with their stories and signed their name for #timeout are VfL Wolfsburg’s Nilla Fischer and Djurgården’s Irma Helin. Fischer, who has amassed over 150 caps for Sweden stated that, “it feels extremely important,” to fight against the entrenched and normalised behaviour in sport saying that, “Sport is democratic, it should be a place where you feel safe and free,” going on to say that she hopes #timeout will lead to positive changes in all sports.

Last week, during the Fotbollsgalans afterparty, Helin has spoken about a man who came up to her without warming and kissed her on the mouth. The man, an unknown to Helin, was described by the footballer as “probably 30 years older” than herself and was showing his gratitude that she’d recently transferred from Linköping to “his” club (Djurgården). Helin doesn’t expect the man in question would have done the same with a male player and flatly states that, “it was definitely not okay.

Emma’s story from Kvällsposten

Wishing to keep her anonymity, so simply referred to as “Emma” throughout the article, a former Damallsvenskan player has come forward with her account of the culture she experienced in the Swedish top flight she expereinced as a teenager. Her account includes an instance of being drugged and raped by a teammate and a culture that lead her to wanting to take her own life.

Though it's not entirely clear, Emma's story took place at some point in the last ten years, when she was about fifteen and progressed to the senior women’s team at a south Sweden club. Already aware that she was romantically inclined to women the footballer noted that at first she was looking forward to spending time with women who were similarly as inclined, however things soon crossed the line. From the dressing room where her teammates would casually make comments about her appearance like, “nice ass” or look at her in a sexual way to the way some would press and rub against her at alcohol-soaked parties.

Initially it was something Emma appreciated, the actions almost making her feel like one of the group but in hindsight she can see how strange and toxic it really was. Afterwards the former player began to realise that some in the group were specifically trying to make her feel like an outsider so she would feel the need to do things to be initiated and join in.

In was in Damallsvenskan that things got all the worse for Emma, recalling a time when at a corner she was grabbed by the backside before being told, “After the match, you’re mine” by a well-known opponent who was twice her age. The player, an idol of the young footballer waited for her after the match and they had sex in the changing room, Emma describes feeling “shocked” and “a little chosen,” particularly inclined to follow the player into the locker room as she had been waiting for her. Emma was left to wonder why no one in the vicinity – including her own teammates – had asked her about it afterwards, surmising that the only logical explanation was it was so commonplace it didn’t warrant an eyebrow raise.

From bad to worse

Despite loving football, Emma was being pulled apart by it, she wanted to stop playing but couldn’t explain to her parents why and after reading former Umeå player, Tina Nordlund’s book developed an eating disorder. Nordlund herself had retired from playing at the age of 25 after suffering from anorexia and in a complicated way, Emma was inspired by Nordlund, aware that she wouldn’t have to play anymore should she too develop anorexia.

That same autumn Emma became enamoured with an older teammate, one she thought she was safe with. It was this older teammate that Emma states drugged and raped her. “I do not know what it was, but she gave me it with a cup of tea,” says the former footballer, “then I do not remember much.” She recalls the teammate having sex with her and dressing her as well as feeling, “so damn bad” the next morning. Kvällsposten correspondent, Fredrik Jonsson notes that Emma had tears in her eyes as she admitted that she felt ashamed by it all.

Several years have passed since Emma’s experiences whilst playing and she’s done well to move on and with the help of a psychologist, to heal the scars that were left behind. Only after her psychologist had said “you've been victim of sexual abuse,” “you were a child you've been exploited,” did Emma really come to terms with what had happened.

Still very much a child in many ways Emma feels that whether or not she had or hadn’t said she wanted relations with other players, they shouldn’t have been so keen and that women in their 30s should have shown sense with one in her teens. Emma states that she has never gone to the police with her experiences, partly because it took so long for her to fully realise what had happened but also because she doesn’t want to reopen the wounds that have taken so long to heal.

#MeToo

There is no coincidence that Emma has come forward with her testimony this week, the stories of brave women all around the world what has promoted her to come forward and share her experiences,

You can not play football just because it's fun, some people take as they like, they are allowed to control the group and also other groups. My dream of playing in Damallsvenskan became a nightmare where I became sexually exploited and harassed by both opponents and teammates.”

Emma believes that there is a negative culture in women’s football often seen as “locker room talk,” adults calling each other “pussy” and “whore” and lewdly commenting on each other’s bodies. For as bad as it is in men’s sports, Emma believes it’s as least as bad in women’s football; at least at the elite level.

Having asked for anonymity from Kvällsposten, “Emma” has appeared in a video on the site with her voice digitally changed and only the back of her head visible. When asked why she’s come forward anonymously she’s stated that she doesn’t want to confront those who hurt and wronged her but that she wanted to tell her story to prevent the same happening to others.

Emma finds it hard to believe that her case is a standalone and hopes that the SvFF will investigate her claims, saying that if it’s happened once – which is once too many – then it may happen again in the future.

With little information given about the footballer beyond the fact she played in southern Sweden and was influenced by a book that was released in 2006, her final remark implies that the worst of her experiences may well have been with Swedish internationals saying, “I think generally, too much power is given to players, especially those who play in the national team.” Emma finished by saying she wants to see more equality in football and more education about sexual harassment from the union in conjunction with the associations.

Strong reaction 

The story has seen a swift response in Sweden with secretary general of the player’s association, Magnus Erlingmark stated that he is “not surprised by the story though had never specifically heard of Emma’s case. Speaking in reference to the #MeToo campaign, Erlingmark can see a shift in culture, when women (and men) start to come forward with their stories, others will follow suit, no longer as afraid or ashamed. Though Erlingmark says it’s not very common to come across such cases of sexual harassment between players it is something that will be on the agenda and be discussed on both the men’s and women’s sides.

General secretary of elite women’s football in Sweden, Linda Wijkström has stated that she’s disturbed by the recounts of Emma, not willing to gloss over the serious nature but to “review what happened, when and what can be done to prevent it” from happening again.

Wijkström has already sent out new recommendations to clubs across Sweden this summer, dealing with sexual harassment, leadership issues though isn’t as concerned about a pseudo-macho culture in women’s dressing rooms. Agreeing that there is most likely a “silence culture” at work with victims fearing to speak out, but in cases like Emma’s, Wijkström is aware the player will need support around them.

Wijkström has stated that she will act directly on what she has learned but that there is a wider job to be done, in society as well as in football, for it to be discussed in schools as well as youth teams, to change the culture.

Emma’s account has also been met with surprise by players and coaches who play at Sweden’s southern most clubs, as stated by Limhamn Bunkeflo’s Anna Welin, “It’s not something I’ve seen or heard about in my team.” A statement echoed from one side of Malmö to the other. 

Rampant

Earlier this month former US number one, Hope Solo came forward with allegations against the former president of FIFA Sepp Blatter, alleging that he grabbed her backside just before they stepped onto the stage at the Ballon d’Or ceremony in 2013.

Expanding on her claims, Solo has gone on to state that “sexual harassment is rampant in the sports world.” Solo has called out those in sport who harass and abuse, ranging from “inappropriate comments, unwanted advances and grabs of the ass,” as well as “coaches, general managers and even press officers speaking about players’ physical appearance.” Solo citied the high number of players who date and go on to marry their coaches, especially those at university age, saying it’s not just coaches but doctors and press officers as well and, “amongst players in the locker room. It’s rampant.”

Solo paints a picture more akin to the last days of Sodom than of an athletic environment, of anything and anyone goes, a sentiment echoed by the Guardian’s Daniel Taylor who spoke of Bristol Academy club trips as like, a coming together of stag- and hen-dos.”

Whilst anything that takes place between two consenting adults, on or off of the company’s times, is for the most part, not questionable there lies a greater problem of those who don’t or can’t consent. And as unhappy as Solo is with the apparent free-for-all in the locker rooms her concern about players dating their college coaches is a serious issue that raises safe-guarding issues.

Whilst there are many in women’s football who would rather try and sweep the “rampant” bed-hopping under the rug for fear of a bad reputation and a sport that lives up to stereotypes there is the wider concern of stories like Emma’s, of players being groomed and taken advantage of. A multinational scandal will not help any sport grow in the public’s eye but whilst there are inappropriate relationships and gross misuses and abuses of power happening across the breadth of women’s football something must be done to address the safety of players.