By Rose DeRenzo
2017 and 2018 undoubtedly marked a new age for our society. The #MeToo movement has become one of the most proliferated campaigns of the year. With over 19 million tweets under the hashtag MeToo a year after its viral emergence, millions of victims have been given a platform, and the support to speak up about their sexual assaults that had been missing for too long. The phrase “Me Too” was coined in 2006 by Tarana Burke, a civil rights activist, to help the women who have survived sexual violence. More than 10 years later, the phrase has resurfaced in a new light to kickstart a movement of empowerment and courage to speak up and end abuse of power.
In time with the movement came the trial of Larry Nassar, former USA Gymnastics doctor and physician at Michigan State University, who sexually assaulted hundreds of young women through his position, which he had kept for 20 years despite the many complaints filed against him. Powerful, emotional statements during the trial came from 156 of the survivors and marked a new age of listening to victims and finally taking action.
Larry Nassar was accused of molesting girls for years, pretending it was for examinations or medical treatment. Some were as young as 6 years old. Nassar had pleaded guilty to seven counts of criminal sexual conduct in Ingham County in Michigan and admitted to using his trusted medical position to assault and molest girls, only after he had been sentenced 60 years in federal prison for child pornography convictions.
Starting from reports in 1997, victims and their parents were reporting Nassar’s abuse to organizational and medical officials, and even police officers. None of those claims were taken seriously, but instead were brushed under the rug and kept quiet. “Many of the women said that when they spoke up about the treatment, they were ignored or their concerns brushed aside by organizations in power, primarily USA Gymnastics, Michigan State University and the US Olympic Committee.”
USA Gymnastics, Michigan State University, and the US Olympic Committee became a focal point of the trial, as they all seemed to play a part in covering up or ignoring allegations against Nassar, and kept him employed for two decades. They turned a blind eye to the women who accused Nassar of abuse, and pressured them into silence. “Michigan State University, the school I loved and trusted, had the audacity to tell me that I did not understand the difference between sexual assault and a medical procedure,” Amanda Thomashow, MSU graduate, said in court. “That master manipulator took advantage of his title, he abused me, and when I found the strength to talk about what had happened I was ignored and my voice was silenced.”
All three organizations have denied the allegations and have denied any wrongdoings, saying they had reported the sexual abuse to appropriate authorities when they heard. Certain leaders from those organizations were called to resign, such as MSU President, Lou Anna Simon, who has since been charged with lying to police. Three leaders of USA Gymnastics board stepped down and cut ties with Karolyi Ranch training facility, where much of the abuse occurred. The Olympic Committee called for USA Gymnastics to step down and are considering decertifying them as a national governing body.
Instead of putting the focus on Nassar, his disturbing crimes, and those who enabled him, I believe we should do as Judge Rosemarie Aquilina did, what others failed to do: listen. She listened to every woman who spoke at Nassar’s trial, giving personal and intimate responses, which were met with praise despite the unusual nature of the court setting.
As stated by Aquilina, “The national crime victimization survey that’s done by the Justice Department annually reports that 310 out of every 1,000 assaults are reported to police, which means that two out of three go unreported. The voices of the survivors have asked everyone: Report.”
Judge Aquilina put the focus of the trial on the immense issue of sexual abuse in our nation. She, and the survivors turned the trial into a call for change, “One in 10 children will be sexually abused by their 18th birthday. One in seven girls, one in 25 boys by their 18th birthday…That means that in the United States, I’m not talking about any other country, 400,000 babies born in the U.S. will become victims of child sexual abuse. It stops now. Speak out like these survivors, become part of the army.” That army started with the 156 victims that spoke over the course of Nassar’s sentencing hearing.
According to an article by CNN’s Eric Leveson, court officials expected 88 victims to speak in court. But that number nearly doubled over the course of the sentencing hearing as more and more women came forward. This is a perfect example of what can grow from people listening to other people, encouraging more and more victims to be present and strong against one man who used his power to take advantage of young women.
Those young women who, at no fault of their own, stumbled into the false care of a monster, under the guise of safety and healing, and were unprotected by the organizations they needed to trust. Almost all of them initially met Nassar for a sports-related injury, and because of the abuse, they struggled with anxiety, depression and instances of self-harm. Others said they no longer trust doctors or that they shrink from any physical touch. Despite the horrific trauma they must have endured, these women spoke at trial directly to Nassar about that trauma he had caused. They stood as a strong force against him.
Aly Raisman, Olympic gold medalist, was one of those strong women, “We, this group of women you so heartlessly abused over such a long period of time, are now a force, and you are nothing. The tables have turned, Larry. We are here. We have our voices, and we are not going anywhere.”
Rachael Denhollander, former gymnast, was the first woman to publicly accuse Larry Nassar of sexual abuse, and the last survivor to confront him in court. She also used her platform to call for a change, “Larry’s the most dangerous type of abuser. One who is capable of manipulating his victims through coldly calculated grooming methodologies, presenting the most wholesome, caring external persona as a deliberate means to insure a steady stream of children to assault. And while Larry is unlikely to live past his federal sentence, he is not the only predator out there and this sentence will send a message about how seriously abuse will be taken.”
Many of the victims made statements against Larry Nassar as part of the #MeToo movement. They send a crucial message along with those in the #MeToo movement, that men in power are no longer above the law, they can and will be help accountable for their actions, and justice is required.