CW: Descriptions and discussions of sexual assault
Larry Nassar, 54, was a sports doctor who worked for Michigan State University and served as the USA Gymnastics Medical Coordinator from 1994-2014. During this time, numerous accounts of sexual assault surfaced but were only recently taken seriously. Nassar’s conviction has earned him a sentence of 40-175 years in prison.
Nassar’s actions caused not only physical pain to the young women, but also emotional burden that they will carry for the rest of their lives. Though Nassar was the only abuser, these women’s emotional trauma is not solely Nassar’s responsibility. Rather, it was the responsibility of the system that failed to listen to them.
During his trial, 156 women testified against Nassar. In each of their testimonies, they reported lasting emotional suffering following their abuse.
Kyle Stephens was the first survivor to testify. She frequently came into contact with Nassar because her parents were personal friends with Nassar and his wife. When she was six, Nassar began to sexually abuse Stephens. At the age of 12, she told her parents that Nassar had been taking her feet and rubbing them on his bare penis. When Stephens’ parents confronted Nassar about these allegations, he convinced them that her account was not true.
Years later, her parents realized the truth in her claims, but by this time, Stephens had already suffered irreversible trauma. Because her parents did not believe her, Stephens had nobody to turn to, leaving her isolated, which compounded the initial suffering she had experienced.
The rest of the 155 testimonies follow the same pattern of extensive and irreversible emotional trauma. Nassar’s actions would haunt these young women throughout their lives to unimaginable extents.
On the last day of testimonies, Rachael Denhollander shared additional details of the survivors’ accounts: At least 14 coaches, trainers, psychologists, or colleagues were warned of Nassar’s abuse, but ignored that patients were being sexually abused under the guise of medical practice.
“And the effort it took to move this case forward — especially as some called me an ‘ambulance chaser’ just ‘looking for a payday’ — often felt crushing,” wrote Denhollander in the New York Times. Her story, like the stories of all of the survivors, is one of disbelief and silence.
Denhollander and the rest of Nassar’s survivors suffered because of the culture of silence and complicity around sexual assault in American society. In this culture, survivors are denied the resources to seek help and justice after their assault. When they do manage to access these resources, they are often disbelieved and shamed for coming forward.
This culture is especially pervasive when the abuser is in a position of power or considered a pillar of the community, as Nassar was. Nassar was untouchable in the eyes of the community because he was a doctor, was involved with the national gymnastics team, and had held his position for so many years.
Although the combined testimony of all of Nassar’s survivors brought him to justice, these women and girls were all but invisible. They suffered alone, isolated from their communities, because those around them would not even entertain the thought that Nassar might not have been what he seemed.
When sexual assault allegations are denied, perpetrators are granted access to repeat crimes without the threat of repercussions.
To effect any changes within the culture of silence, shame, and complicity around sexual assault, we must listen to and take survivors of sexual assault seriously.
The physical and emotional trauma of a sexual assault is more than one should be burdened with but to endure the additional suffering of being invalidated only exacerbates the initial consequences of sexual assault.