Emotional Health

Gymnasts Break the Silence: The Pain of Revealing Sexual Abuse

As 156 women stood up in open court this week and confronted their abuser, we listened, stunned at the enormity of his crimes. Larry Nassar, a doctor entrusted to treat the medical needs of young girls, most of them gymnasts and still children, had been sexually molesting his patients for decades. He had convinced them that these “treatments,” often performed when the child’s own mother was in the room (hidden by a drape or with the position of his body to block the view) were medically necessary.

Most were too naïve to know better, or frightened, or both. All had been “groomed” by Nassar—a term that refers to the way abusers have of choosing victims and gaining their trust in order to exploit them. Not only was he allowed to continue this practice for years and years, he was applauded and given awards. Though the case that finally brought him down began when Rachel Denhollander filed a complaint in August 2016, it was not the first time someone had accused him—it was not even the first time Denhollander had spoken up.  She writes in The New York Times,

“More than 200 women have now alleged abuse by Larry Nassar. Even more staggering than that number is the revelation that at least 14 coaches, trainers, psychologists or colleagues had been warned of his abuse. What is truly stomach-turning is the realization that a vast majority of those victims were abused after his conduct was first reported by two teenagers to M.S.U.’s [Michigan State University’s] head gymnastics coach as far back as 1997.”

How is it possible that this could happen, she asks, as we are asking ourselves now? Denhollander answers,

“Research shows that pedophiles are also reported at least seven times on average before adults take the reports of abuse seriously and act on them. In many ways, the sexual assault scandal that was 30 years in the making was only a symptom of a much deeper cultural problem — the unwillingness to speak the truth against one’s own community.”

Throughout history, when women have take on men they are disbelieved, silenced, shunned, and even punished. In Ireland, girls who were abused (along with unwed mothers) were sent off to “laundries,” where they worked in slave-like conditions, segregated from society, often for the rest of their lives. The history of this practice, which lasted until the mid-20th century, is depicted in two wonderful films The Magdalene Sisters (2003) and Philomena, (2013). Here, the only exception to the rule of silencing was that when girls accused men who were less powerful than they were, i.e. minorities, they were often too readily believed. In the tragic case of Emmet Till, in 1955 a teenage African American boy was tortured and brutally murdered for allegedly whistling at a white girl.

Unquestionably, maintaining the patriarchy and white hegemony played a large role in protecting sexual predators. Sometimes it was deliberate. Often, ranks close around a crony or a man who is prominent or powerful, and whose seemingly civilized front belies his true nature. Denhollander reports that Nassar was cunning, and a “master manipulator.” He was like “most pedophiles (who) present a wholesome persona, (so) they are able to ingratiate themselves into communities,” she says.

It makes us profoundly uncomfortable to imagine that average men, and especially accomplished men, can behave like this. Our image of sexual “perverts” is very dark, and we think they can be spotted. But most don’t conform to any stereotype, and that helps them in the quest to find victims. In fact, they can be the very people we entrust our children to for care: the doctor, the priest, the babysitter, the coach.

Start the conversation