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Will Sexual Assault Spike During The Olympics?

Organizers are preparing for a possible rise in sex crimes around the Games, and that may be smart — some research shows that the incidence of such crimes does increase around major sporting events.

Stanley Chou / Getty Images

Security guards outside the stadium before a men's football match at the London Olympics.

Municipal authorities, charities, and police are partnering to establish a temporary center in east London to help victims of domestic and sexual assault during the Olympics. Domestic violence expert Allan Brimicombe tells the BBC that assault could rise during the Games, both among crowds around the events and among Londoners stuck at home, where "troublesome relationships" may turn abusive. If that does happen, it won't be a London-specific problem — a growing body of evidence suggests that sporting events in general could lead to violence against women.

A 2011 report commissioned by the group End Violence Against Women found that big sports events can increase rates of intimate partner violence. For instance, reports of such violence rose by 79% during a 2010 rugby tournament in Wales, compared to the previous weekend when there was no tournament.

The report also cites evidence that sex trafficking increases around sporting events — the Greek Ministry of Public Safety found that trafficking for all purposes (not just sex) increased by 95% in Greece in 2004, the year that country hosted the Olympics. In recent years, some anti-trafficking advocates have also argued that sex trafficking increases during the Super Bowl, though evidence for this appears to be mixed.

The End Violence Against Women report doesn't address the effects of increased crowds on sexual assault, but Brimicombe wouldn't be the first to link large gatherings of people with an increased risk of sexual violence. The Occupy Wall Street demonstrations last year, which brought lots of people together in close quarters, led to a series of high-profile assault allegations (though some Occupiers claimed they were overblown). And sexual assaults have been reported during the ongoing protests in Egypt and Syria. Summarizing crowd behavior research for Forbes, Daniel DiSalvo cites the presence of weapons and alcohol or drugs as major factors that can turn a crowd violent. The End Violence Against Women report also mentions increased alcohol consumption as a possible cause of increased violence during sporting events.

Back in June, End Violence Against Women criticized the organizers of the London games for failing to make specific information on sexual assault and domestic violence victim support available to athletes, who the report says are especially vulnerable to sexual abuse by coaches. Brimicombe now says athletes too will be able to seek help at the temporary center. The center will also collect data on sex crimes, which could help organizing committees at later Games. Though the End Violence Against Women report contains valuable and sobering data on sporting events in general, there are some gaps, especially when it comes to measuring whether sports competitions increase the number of women and children trafficked against their will. Greater attention to issues of sex crime at the 2012 Olympics may begin to fill in those gaps.

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