How To Address Abuse: A Q&A with Alex Zelin, Nicole Johnson

by SwimSwam Staff 1

June 06th, 2018 News

A lot of questions have developed after Ariana Kukors came forward about her abuse, with many people pointing out what should have been done. The focus of our interview with Nicole Johnson, Ph.D., and Alexandra Zelin, Ph.D. is focused on how we prevent something right now. What can you do?

This is the 2nd time that Johnson and Zelin have contributed to SwimSwam – they previously wrote about rape culture on college campuses with regard to the Brock Turner case, urging readers to recognize its existence, recognize how harmful it is, and share strategies for how to help change the sexual assault culture.

Editor’s Note: Johnson and Zelin did not interview Ariana Kukors Smith for this article, or discuss her experiences with her, and are instead focusing on the overall “what can you do now” if you sense that anything is amiss.

To read SwimSwam’s interview with Kukors Smith, click here.

What similarities do you see between the Brock Turner case and what Ariana has come forward with?

Johnson: The similarities between these cases are what I see across the majority, if not all, cases of sexual violence, and that is the role of rape culture. In both cases we see women in a vulnerable position (unconscious/intoxicated in the Brock Turner case and Ariana being young/taken advantage of in a power dynamic by her coach) and cultural concern of the role these cases may have on the swimming community. The swimming community has an opportunity here, similar to Brock Turner’s case, to take this as an opportunity to grow and increase protection/safety for swimmers or, following the common cultural nomenclature of one or two “bad seeds,” disbelief/excusal of Ariana’s pain and suffering. I am encouraged by asking to work on this piece that the swimming community is hoping to do the former and grow during this time of progress within the #MeToo movement.

Ariana mentioned that Sean Hutchison groomed her. Can you talk a little bit about what grooming is?

Johnson: Grooming is a common and intentional behavior among perpetrators of violence, which involves systematically gaining a victim’s, and often their caregivers’, trust and admiration in order to ease the perpetration of violence and reduce the likelihood of negative consequences (e.g., arrest). As Ariana described this often involve slow, incremental increases in physical contact (e.g., shaking hand, to holding hand, to sitting close, to placing arm around, to placing hand on knee, to thigh…) making it harder for the victim, and others, to identify the contact as problematic and in turn fight against it. This is also often coupled with increased trust/affection creating further barriers to recognition and resistance. The perpetrator will frequently shower the victim with compliments, making them, as well as their caregivers, feel special, loved, and appreciated by the perpetrator. These feelings of being loved and appreciated often result in the victim reducing their defenses and potentially confusing this experience with “love.” The reduction in defenses is also common among caregivers – for example, if the caregivers believe the perpetrator to be a great “mentor” or resource for their child, they may allow their child to spend more and more unsupervised time with the perpetrator allowing for further opportunity for violence. The perpetrator will continue to escalate their physical contact until sexual violence become commonplace with the victim. As the perpetrator is aware that sexual violence would not be accepted and may result in negative consequences, the perpetrator grounds the relationship with the victim in secrecy, making statements such as, “Others wouldn’t understand” or “I love you and we’d lose each other if someone found out.” Given the conflation of love within grooming, the victim must unwrap their experiences in order to identify the violations they endured. Such unwrapping often requires separation from one’s perpetrator, as controlling the victim is a frequent occurrence in grooming, as described by Ariana.

Zelin: With grooming, we also need to discuss gas-lighting, victim-blaming, and battered women’s syndrome.

Can you describe what each of those are?

Zelin: Gas-lighting: A form of psychological manipulation that creates doubt within a victim, leading an individual to doubt their own reality including their memories, experiences, and sanity. For example, perpetrators frequently tell victims they “were asking for it” or “wanted it” which may result in self-doubt and potential questioning of their own experiences.

Victim-blaming: The blame for the event is placed on the victim. Within the case of Ariana, for example, people blamed her for “not knowing better” instead of reaching out to help.

Battered Women’s Syndrome: Battered Women’s Syndrome, or Battered Spouse Syndrome, occurs when a romantic relationship becomes (or starts out as) abusive and controlling. As a result, the target of the abuse often feels powerless to protect themselves, will often go to extreme lengths to prevent outburst of aggression, withdraws from others (usually starting at the demand of the abuser), and can potentially develop learned helplessness. When the target of the abuse brings up leaving, the abuser may prevent the target from leaving, may dismiss their feelings, or even promise to change without actually doing so. Despite the name of the syndrome, it can occur within any relationship regardless of the gender of the perpetrator or the target.

We also want to highlight that these situations do not just occur against women. Men can be victims of grooming, gas-lighting, victim blaming, and Battered Women’s (Spouse) Syndrome, and we cannot ignore these instances. However, it is also important to highlight that due to existence of rape culture described in our previous piece, these experiences appear to be more prevalent among women and have as such been the focus of much research and prevention programming.

How can we spot that something is going on?

The target of the abuse may:

Become hypervigilant. People who are in abusive relationships are on hyper-alert to always please their partner and avoid punishment. A swimmer in this case might be consistently thinking about how they can best please their coach rather than what is best for their own development. Walker (2012) suggests that the hyper arousal of abused victims can lead to panic attacks, development of phobias, trouble sleeping, development of eating disorders, and potentially even the development of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD).

Socially withdraw. People who are abused often withdraw into themselves, eventually isolating themselves from those with whom they were once close. Some of the isolation can come from the abuser, such as “I can’t go out with friends Sunday afternoon, coach says I must rest up,” and “I know, I LOVED going to *insert ice cream store here,* but coach says I should spend time on technique work instead of spending time with friends.” Victims will often also create their own excuses for not participating in activities they once loved.

Become attached to the abuser. Related to learned helplessness, the abused target starts to depend on the abuser for everything and refuses to leave the abusive situation. Targets might be told, “You will never succeed at the Olympic level without me,” “You will never find another coach as good as me,” and “I am doing this because it is in your best interest.”

Recognize if your swim organization’s culture supports this behavior. Ask yourself:

  • Do coaches room with athletes on travel trips?
  • Are coaches seen in the locker room when the swimmers are there?
    • Yes, coaches need to go to the bathroom too, but do they spend more time than necessary to relieve themselves in the locker room?
    • Are they in there every day? During swim meets you will find coaches running in/out of the locker room for the bathroom, but if a coach is always going into the locker room after a certain group practices that should raise a red flag
  • Are certain swimmers getting special training sessions when no one else is at/around the pool?
    • Extra technique training, both in the pool and in dryland?
  • Are coaches interacting with swimmers outside of regular practice/training times?
    • Are coaches dictating the social life of the swimmer
  • Does the swimmer appear submissive to the coach?
    • Submissive can also include “enamored.”
  • Does the swimmer or the coach become angry and defensive if someone points out they spend too much time together?


  • Grooming behavior
  • Gaslighting
  • Victim Blame
  • Battered Women’s Syndrome

We have a hunch/gut feeling that something is going on. What can we do? Or just in general what can be done?

  • Provide psychoeducation with swimmers and coaches about grooming behavior, gaslighting, victim blame, and battered women’s syndrome.
  • Discuss the inherent power differential between those in power (e.g., coaches) and swimmers.
  • Discourage silence and empower conversations surrounding abuse.
  • Remind everyone that violence/abuse is NEVER the victim’s fault and that violence/abuse are most frequently perpetrated by those we know and trust.
  • Talk to the parent of the victim/different coach/board member whom you trust. Sometimes the parents of the victim have no idea that it is happening, perhaps even thinking “this is how my child is going to become an Olympic medalist” with no idea that what is occurring is wrong. Bringing the issue to the attention of someone whom you trust and know who will discreetly begin asking questions/paying attention is important. Making a scene about the situation will only negatively influence everyone involved.
  • Provide resources to everyone for confidential support.
    • Johnson: I have a list of resources on my lab’s website.

About Alex Zelin

Alexandra (Alex) Zelin, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Her research focuses on gender, gender inequality, sexism, and sexual harassment and assault both at work and at home. She became involved in Defined Lines during her third year of graduate school and has been an active member ever since, including bringing the program to her own university. Alex is a “swammer,” hailing from SwimMAC Carolina and swimming for two years at the University of Mary Washington before injuries kicked her butt (literally).

About Nicki Johnson
Nicole (Nicki) Johnson, Ph.D. is as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Education & Human Services at Lehigh University. Nicki’s degree is in Counseling Psychology and the focus of her research is the prevention of gender-based violence. Nicki is the founder of Defined Lines’, a “bystander-plus” prevention program for college students, incorporating traditional bystander rape prevention programming with feminist consciousness raising techniques and community action.

About Defined Lines
Defined Lines started as a research group studying the impact of bystander intervention on college students’ attitudes toward a number of areas concerned with sexual violence. The aim of the intervention is to give people information, break myths, and empower people to be proactive bystanders in situations that span the spectrum of sexual violence. From jokes, to cat calls, to assault, we were emboldened by the words of Gloria Steinem, “Whenever one person stands up and says, ‘wait a minute, this is wrong,’ it helps other people do the same.”

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6 years ago

Solid article with good descriptions of what people should be looking for with grooming behaviors.