Opinionista Antoinette Muller 26 January 2018

Larry Nassar: The abuse of privilege and the complicity of silence

Larry Nassar has been punished for his crimes against young, female athletes. Athletes to whom he held a duty of care. While his list of offences might be extreme, they are not unique. Predators like Nassar exist everywhere. And more often than not, they remain protected.

How do you sleep at night? You are the person they had to ‘take the lead on athlete care’. I cringe to think your influence remains in the policies they (USA Gymnastics) claim will make athletes safe.”

These were some of the most memorable words in Aly Raisman’s testimony against Larry Nassar, the national team’s disgraced former physician.

The Olympic gold medallist was one of more than 150 woman to testify against Nassar, who was sentenced to 40-175 years in prison.

Raisman’s words catapulted the Nassar case into the public consciousness. Yet, it had started long before.

“After 16 months of near-silence from national news outlets, CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News had devoted fewer than 20 minutes total to the story in the four days prior to Raisman’s statement, according to the watchdog organisation Media Matters,” The Atlantic noted.

Before Raisman, there was Rachael Denhollander. In September 2016, she became the first woman to go public with accusations against Nassar. For six months following breaking her silence, she was the only one.

On Wednesday, Denhollander became the final of Nassar’s victims to give testimony. Like Raisman, her words were gripping and cutting. She revealed how a man she was supposed to trust sexually assaulted her repeatedly “under the guise of medical treatment for nearly a year”.

She asked Judge Rosemarie Aquilina to consider: “How much is a little girl worth? How much is a young woman worth?”

Following her testimony, the judge described Denhollander as “the bravest person” she had ever had in her courtroom.

It closed a chapter of anguish where young, successful women shared their horror stories. Many were as young as 15 years old when they were abused by Nassar.

Prior to sentencing, Nassar apologised to his victims, but it’s hard to believe that he felt any remorse. Nassar had submitted a letter to the court during his hearing. In it, he says, among other things: “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.”

During the hearing, he also said that it was too difficult for him to listen to the victim impact statements.

Those words paint a story of the prevailing male privilege that protects Nassar and other men like him. Nassar and other abusers can choose not to listen. Their victims aren’t so lucky. And it might have been possible to prevent some of the suffering.

In 2016, the Indianapolis Star ran an exposé on the systematic failure by USA Gymnastics to protect young athletes from sexual abuse and to report allegations against coaches to authorities.

That report would eventually lead to Denhollander coming forward. Eventually, the floodgates opened. Young women recounted harrowing stories of abuse and revealed how good their abuser was at gaining their trust.

The space in which Nassar operated for decades was one where injuries end careers and where he was hailed as a “good doctor” by an official with USA Gymnastics.

Such was his position of influence that USA Gymnastics waited five weeks to contact law enforcement officials when concerns about misconduct were first raised. They justified this by saying they were busy with their own internal investigation.

Nassar was already in jail by then, on state charges of criminal sexual conduct with a person younger than 13 and federal child pornography charges, the Indy Star reported.

The same investigation by the Indy Star revealed more than 360 cases across two decades where gymnasts accused coaches of sexual misconduct. Coaches weren’t banned from the sport until years after they were convicted of crimes against children.

Nassar himself retired instead of being fired.

And while he has been duly punished for his offences, the time it took to reach this point is galling. It is a reminder that there is still a long way to go to dismantle the privilege that makes young, female victims feel like hostages through silence.

Last year, Daily Maverick reported that early research from the Girls Only Project indicated that there was a prevalence of abuse among young high school girls in South Africa, too. These stories cannot be ignored.

Because men like Nassar are not special or rare. His list of offences might be extreme, but men like Nassar exist everywhere. They exist in junior sports teams. National teams. They exist as CEOs of big companies. They are our colleagues. They are cat-calling us when we walk down the street. They are our intimate partners. They are our friends.

And we continue to protect them. We protect them because despite great strides, women are still told they are too “emotional”. We are told that we’re just not down with the “banter”. We’re told to get over it. Women are told to be proper. Quiet. Women are told this is just the way it is. Victims are blamed. Those in positions of power and privilege are treated with impunity. And we are complicit.

How do you sleep at night? DM

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"A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of custom. But the tumult soon subsides. Time makes more converts than reason." ~ Thomas Paine

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