Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Little Girls Don't Stay Little Forever: The Complicity of USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University in the Sexual Abuse of More Than 160 Girls

Over 150 women gymnasts and athletes say that Larry Nassar sexually assaulted them over a 20 year period. That is to say, they are women now. The sexual assaults took place when these women were girls, some as young as 6. The staggering scale of the sexual abuse in both numbers and time  should nauseate you. The sentencing hearing of Nassar is currently ongoing, one where young women have come forward to speak their truths, their experiences, and show their determination in the face of a system that collectively sought to disempower and silence them. They have found an advocate in Judge Aquilina who has opened the court to all the young women, should they so choose.  Olympic medalists Simone Biles, Aly Raisman, Jordyn Wieber and Gabby Douglas are among those who have accused Nassar of sexual abuse. 

"It's your turn to listen to me," said Aly Raisman,"I am here to face you, Larry, so you can see I've regained my strength, that I am no longer a victim, I am a survivor. I am no longer that little girl you met in Australia where you first began grooming and manipulating."

It is through their testimony that we are uncovering the complex web of complicity in which medals, sponsorships dollars and name recognition hold higher value than the young girls who collect them. It is becoming brutally clear that there has been an array of actors, from universities to coaches, training camps to Olympic associations who chose the bottom dollar and the preservation of a system inherently abusive and exploitative of female bodies and labour, and that this is the truly shocking, yet undeniably normalized, truth of our time. 

It is not simply USA Gymnastics or Michigan State University that are grossly negligent and complicit players, but all systems of power that seek to protect themselves while ignoring the lowest common denominator, often women, and often the most vulnerable among them: the young, the disabled, minorities, the poor. 

We have only to look to Hollywood where it was not only the Harvey Weinstein's who abused and raped women, but the web of aides, partners and board members that knew of the abuse, facilitated it and hushed it. Did you know that Harvey Weinstein hired ex-Mossad agents to track down women whom he had abused and the journalists writing their accounts - and threaten and silence them? But the true story is in the employees from his company, the lawyers and the friends that knew of this, and didn't say a word. Weinstein brought in the Oscars, he brought in the audiences, he brought in the money. If some women got abused in the process - who cares. Insert something about a few broken eggs here. She's a Hollywood star, why is she complaining?

That is the top of the entities protecting themselves. At the bottom are the glorified so-called human resource departments of companies that systematically undermine the women reporting cases of assault and harassment. The HR departments are in a tough bind: their first client is the company they serve, but their mandate is to respond to allegations with accountability measures. Women report, as they have been told to do, and the outcomes is disastrous. Research after research points to the unbearable truth that women who report are more likely to suffer workplace retaliation or be pushed out of their jobs than have steps taken to judicially resolve the issue, as HR departments are supposed to do. 

"You seem to have a hard time looking at me now, but you didn't when I was half-naked on your table. What kind of doctor can tell a 13-year-old they are done growing by the size of their pubic bone?" -Arianna Guerrero, gymnast.

Our society teaches that there is something inherently disposable about women and girls. Young girls are sexualized, their voices unheard, their truths belittled. From the pages of Lolita to any recent issue of Vogue, girls are bodies to be consumed, ascribed a sexuality by mature men's minds, unable to formulate their own, and then told that they knew what they were doing.  Blame is easy, because it is easy to believe that girls are sexual beings who are aware of "their power", because all we do is sexualize them. It is a vicious, heinous circle. 150 girls are easy to dismiss, their accounts easy to disregard, if we don't believe they are worth much as human beings in the first place. 

But that is, unfortunately, not where it ends. Girls and women find themselves in a double-bind when they operate in a capitalist system that values money, fame, recognition and awards more than it values those that work to accumulate them. It is much easier to cast doubt on a 10 yr old's account of sexual assault at the hands of a renowned sports doctor, than to dismantle a system that have brought fame and fortune to themselves. 

"I reported it," says Amanda Thomashow. "Michigan State University, the school I loved and trusted, had the audacity to tell me that I did not understand the difference between a sexual assault and a medical procedure."

"I was attacked on social media," says Jamie Dantzcher, Olympic medalist. "People didn't believe me, even people I called my friends. They called me a liar, a whore, and even accused me of making all of this up just to get attention."

"Nobody was protecting us from being taken advantage of. Nobody was ever concerned whether or not we were being sexually abused," says Jordyn Wieber.

"When asked to be here for a survivor's statement today, you stated you are too busy to fit it in your schedule. Well, Lou Anna Simon, I can assure you, none of had the time in our schedules for the past five to 20 years for Larry Nassar to abuse us."

That is from Lindsey Lemke, a gymnast, and young woman sexually abused by Nassar. She is speaking directly to Lou Simon, the President of Michigan University, who is now being called on to resign, as The Detroit News has reported that the University was told about sexual abuse by Nassar, and that Simon was told, in 2014, that a doctor at the university was under investigation for sexual abuse. In total, 8 young girls reported their abuse to 14 Michigan State representatives over the course of 2 decades before he was arrested. They told police, athletics trainers, assistances, and the person who is now the University's general counsel. The outcome was that then president, Steve Penny, called a student's parents and dissuaded them from reporting to law enforcement directly. The family agreed to a $1.25 million settlement in which the young girl, Ms. Maroney was required to remain silent (then Chrissy Teigen got involved).  Then the USA Gymnastics and Michigan University covered up the allegations and protected their own. It is a tale as old as time for women and girls. 

No one stepped up, no one followed up, and no one in power used that power to protect the young lives that brought them so much name recognition and so many dollars from new recruits, new students, new lives to be abused. Between 1996 and 2006, USA Gymnastics failed to immediately ban some of the 54 coaches who had sexual abuse convictions. The United States Olympics Committee who once "stepped in to run the national governing body for team handball because it was plagued by a continued pattern of dysfunction," has yet to hold USA Gymnastics accountable for the perverse complicity and gross negligence it has demonstrated toward the young athletes it is meant to represent. This is more than about an individual. Women and girls know all too well that it is an entire system that needs to be burned to the ground. 

These are systems that must be exposed for what they are and demolished, burned in the media and legislated in the courts. Perhaps there are excuses that would have been believable, even just a decade ago. But now, we know better, and we are striving, every step of the way, to do better. We know now that it is not only the perpetrator that must be punished, but it is the system itself that must be dismantled - over and over again, until it is built with the inputs of the very people it has so exploited, until the goals of these systems are human rights-based, abuse in all its forms is banned and transparency and accountability are not just words, but actions with pre-determined steps, with results. 

Larry Nassar has, today, been sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison. For the more than 160 girls, now women, I simply cannot imagine that will ever be enough. 

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