On Wednesday, former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar, a monster who sexually abused over 150 women and girls over a 30 year tenure, and who was enabled by both systems and individuals at Michigan State University, the U.S. Olympic Committee and USA Gymnastics, was finally sentenced to rot in prison.
Nassar’s sentencing is only the beginning of a conversation about the systematic sexual abuse of women. Justice has been served for one man, but there are a hundreds of others who were never punished for their crimes, and hundreds of survivors who were never heard like the survivors of Nassar. While the sentencing is a time to applaud the survivors, their families, the journalists who broke the story and judge Rosemarie Aquilina for the fearless and honest atmosphere she created in her courtroom, the sentencing is not a time to celebrate, feel self-righteous, or be satisfied. Rather, it is a time to ask how to lock up more abusers like Nassar, and how we can prevent more abusers from ever committing these heinous crimes in the future.
Nassar’s sentencing hearing was a week-long affair in which over 100 women bravely and eloquently testified, explaining to the world how Nassar had violated, abused and manipulated them, how these events have affected their lives, and even who they believed had enabled and protected Nassar for so many years.
The American public responded to these testimonies with shock, surprise and disbelief. This reaction alone illustrates the problem our country, and even our world, faces on the issue of sexual assault: how is sexual abuse so prevalent and yet so shocking to the public? According to RAINN, an American is sexually assaulted every 98 seconds. The number of women who are harassed on a daily basis — accosted on the street, harassed at work/school/home by strangers or trusted friends or loved ones — is unquantifiable. With RAINN’s statistics alone, it is easy to comprehend how Nassar was able to rape so many women. And it is even easier to comprehend how none of the systems in place around him were strong enough to stop him.
The sentencing hearing also drew attention to those at Michigan State University, the U.S. Olympic Committee and USA Gymnastics, all of which had a hand in covering up Nassar’s crimes and silencing the women he abused. A number of MSU officials, including MSU President Lou Anna Simon who released a widely-distributed resignation letter Tuesday evening, have stepped down since the words of the survivors have pierced their reputations.
Rather than taking responsibility for the (at best) ineptitude and (at worst) criminal coverup of Nassar’s crimes, MSU President Simon’s resignation letter childishly cited “media politicization” as the reason for public scrutiny, rather than her own personal shortcomings in her role as president. Simon wrote, “As tragedies are politicized, blame is inevitable. As president, it is only natural that I am the focus of this anger.”
Simon’s refusal to admit that there was anything more she could have done to prevent or end Nassar’s crimes, whether or not she was informed of them at the time, is a textbook example of the very attitude that has allowed sexual abusers to go unpunished for so long.
Bystanders who choose not to intervene are guilty. So are those in positions of power who do not act because they claim to not have known about these crimes. Ignorance does not absolve those such as Simon of guilt.
All of us — from girls who tell our friends not to wear short skirts for fear of them “attracting unwanted attention,” to “male feminists” like Aziz Ansari who still do not understand sexual power dynamics, to Michigan State presidents who claim they are blameless for the 30 years of sexual assault that took place on their watch — have fed into the culture of sexual abuse.
We all need to change. Larry Nassar’s sentencing can only be the beginning.