Tag Archives: sexual abuse

Sexual Abuse Allegations Rock USA Gymnastics

21 Aug

I wrote this awhile ago and it never got published and so, given the fact that Aly Raisman just spoke publicly about this for this first time this past weekend, I thought maybe I would drop it here. Trigger warnings for sexual violence and pedophilia. 

On Tuesday, March 28th, 2017, former Olympic gymnast Jamie Dantzscher testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee about her experiences as an elite athlete. Dantzscher reported that starting when she was 12 years old and continuing through the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games six years later, she was sexually abused by the USA Gymnastics (USAG) team doctor, Larry Nassar. She spoke in front of The Committee in support of an amendment to the federal law that governs Olympic sports organizations in America. This amendment, formulated by Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Cali), would overhaul the ways in which organizations that put together the United States Olympic teams deal with allegations of sexual assault and misconduct within their sport. The legislation would require anyone associated with an Olympic governing body, such as USAG, to report allegations of sexual misconduct to law enforcement and would create procedures intended to prevent coaches who have been fired due to such accusations from getting a job at another club. Although this legislation would impact all Olympic sports, it appears to be in direct response to what some have characterized as gross negligence on the part of USAG when it comes to protecting its athletes from serial sexual predators.

Women’s gymnastics poses a unique challenge when it comes to preventing misconduct. Athletes spend roughly 35 hours per week in the gym, sometimes working one-on-one with their coaches. Hands-on spotting is required to assure athlete safety, and as a result coaches are often male owing to the fact that on average men are taller and have more upper body strength than women. The sport also requires that an incredibly high level of trust exists between coach and athlete; a poorly placed foot or a missed hand could result in serious injury or death. In the best cases, this leads to an incredible bond between gymnast and mentor, where the two individuals function as a team and are able to help one another reach the goals they have set. In the worst case, this unquestioned trust and imbalanced power dynamic can result in a situation where a coach abuses the athlete or else turns a blind eye to the misconduct of others in pursuit of a shared dream. In the case of Dr. Larry Nassar, and of 2010 USAG Coach of the Year Marvin Sharp before him, the organization seems to have prioritized its own success over the safety of the athletes, many of whom are minors.

In an interview with 60 Minutes this past February, former USAG National Team member Jessica Howard summarized her experience of abuse and explained why she and the dozens of other gymnasts who have come forward since Nassar’s arrest didn’t do so previously. She said, “no one wants to step out of line because there’s a group of people that make decisions that dictate whether you’re successful or not. So you just comply with what you’re told to do.” The people who make up the governing body of USAG, the body that chooses who represents the United States in international competition, are the same people who see these young women monthly at the National Team Training Camp in Huntsville, Texas and they are the same people who hire the support and medical staff that are tasked with keeping the athletes safe and healthy. The gymnasts spend their entire childhood and early adulthood attempting to impress the members of USAG because those people hold the key to their futures; without the approval of the USAG Selection Committee the gymnasts dreams simply cannot come true. As a result, the athletes unquestioningly do as they are told because they assume, understandably and probably correctly, that obedience is required for the realization of their dreams.

As of March 23rd, 103 women have come forward and joined the federal lawsuit against Dr. Larry Nassar. Among these women are members of the USA gymnastics national team, club gymnasts in Eastern Michigan as well as student athletes at Michigan State University where Dr. Nassar had an office. Almost all of the suits list USAG, MSU and Geddert’s Twistars, a Lansing-area gymnastics club, as codefendants for ignoring red flags about Nassar’s behavior. What this growing lawsuit indicates is that over the course of at least 2 decades USAG, as well as other organizations and individuals, shirked their moral responsibility to protect the women under their guidance and instead allowed a doctor to have unfettered access to them. Perhaps these organizations operated in a shadowy area of the law, but what they did was look the other way as young women were routinely victimized and disempowered under the guise of medical attention. If the situation involving the Catholic Church is any indication of what is to come, it seems likely that this lawsuit will grow larger by the week, month and year and the uphill battle that USAG will have to fight to regain its reputation as a safe space for young athletes is only beginning.

A Reflection Post-Delhi

3 Jan

A little over a week ago when I was at work and before any customers came in, I was listening to the news while I set up the bar.  CNN was covering the protests that had swept through India after the brutal gang rape of a female student in Delhi, a city that is known for having high instances of sexual attacks.  The station had set up an interview with someone they considered important and knowledgeable — a man in his mid-to-late 40s — in order to get some local input on the attack itself as well as the protests that had erupted in its aftermath.  He said the normal things.  You know, how horrible the attack was, how he hoped the young woman would pull through, how surprised he was by the size of the protests when so many similar attacks (although I would imagine the majority of them far less brutal) had elicited nothing to that degree.  And then he said something (which I will paraphrase), by way of explanation of the rape itself, that has been clanging in my head for the past 8 days:

The reason these attacks have been happening is because of the percentage of males to females in the overall population.  These men don’t have women to settle down with.  There aren’t enough of them.  So they are frustrated and this is what happens.

And then there was clattering and screeching noises inside my head and I had to sit down.

Okay, so, it is true.  There are more men than women in Delhi.  According to the Delhi Census of 2011, the city itself has an overall population of 16,753,235.  Of that 16.7 million people, 8,976,410 are men and 7,776,825 are women.  So that you don’t have to do the math, that means that, in 2011 at least, there were 1,199,585 more men than women living in Delhi.  Sure, that’s a lot of people.  And sure, I imagine it is very frustrating for men who want to get married and have sex…or have sex and get married…or just have sex.  Being frustrated, as legitimate as it may be, is no excuse to get together with your friends, pretend to drive a shuttle bus, and pick up a girl off the street who is simply trying to get home and literally rape her to death.  No amount of frustration can ever justify that.  Ever.

You know what that is?  That sounds to me like you are trying to take the weight of responsibility off of these mens’ shoulders and blame it on sheer numbers.  They simply couldn’t help themselves.  Their desires to stick their penis in something was simply too great.  They were powerless to resist.  You know what I think?  I think that what happened to that woman, what those men did to her, was generations in the making and not just in India but everywhere.  All over the world.  (This analysis does not take the onus of responsibility off the individuals who perpetrated this attack, but simply is an attempt to put it into a greater context of inequality and violence.)  We are all guilty.  Sure, female infanticide is a part of it.  But the fact that there are less females than males is not what makes female infanticide a crucial part of this story.  The mindset that allows the killing, the neglect, the abandonment of female children is what makes this important.  The mindset that many people have that females are worth less than males is what allows people to justify killing their own babies and is part of the society in which these men are raised.  It is what allows them to see women as less human than they are.  As simply a hole in which to stick their penises.

But it goes beyond India.  And it goes beyond infanticide.  That is just one small part of it.  We, unfortunately, live in a world where, as I have said before, the female body is a battle ground.  Where the word of a female does not count for as much as the word of a male.  I read today in the newspaper that the Indian government, in response to this attack, has fast tracked the investigation and the trial of these men in order to show that this is not acceptable behavior.  But what about all the other rapes that were never investigated in India?  What about all the unopened rape kits that sit on shelves in cities and town across the United States, their statutes of limitations running out?  It’s a lot of work, it takes a lot of resources, to go through all those kits and we simply can’t keep up with the rate of sexual assaults.  But shouldn’t that be the biggest sign that something is wrong?  That we are dealing not with a few isolated incidents but instead with an epidemic?  Women are raped every single day.  Every single one.  Every day a man, or a group of men, decide to force open the legs of a women and violate her.  Insert himself inside of her.  And every day a man, or a group of men, all over the world gets away with it and the woman is left to pick up the pieces.  Often it is she is who vilified.  At what point are people in the mainstream, not people in a corner of the internet, but people with power and sway going to admit that we have a worldwide problem with the way we think about women.

We need to stop making excuses.  We need to stop trying to blame specific policies or cultural norms or religious laws.  We need to realize that we have a serious worldwide, cross-cultural, cross-societal, cross-religious deficit in the way we view women.  We can change laws.  We can have protests.  We can even hang a few people.*  But until we look inwards and understand that this view of women is engrained in us, all of us, nothing is actually going to change.  We will have another horrific gang rape in Delhi, or a small town in Texas.  We will have another woman assaulted by a powerful man, be it the French leader of an international organization or the president of the United States, and then dragged through the media, her reputation completely destroyed while, for the most part, the man continues in his pursuit of power and sex relatively unscathed.

Honestly, I just don’t think it should be that hard.  Part of being a human being, in my estimation, is to keep your eyes and ears open and constantly take things in, learn and adjust your behavior.  Maybe you were raised somewhere where everyone told you the Holocaust never happened and that Jews were born with horns.  But then you read Primo Levi’s “Survival in Auschwitz” and you realize what you were told simply isn’t true and you set off to learn and understand and adjust yourself to your new understanding of history and the world.   Women and men are physically different, sure, but in terms of our worth in the world we are equal.  It’s simple, just start there.  Without women, there would be no men and without men, no women.  We need each other for the species to survive.  So it’s not just that we need to respond to specific instances of infanticide, of rape, of abuse, of victim blaming. We need to acknowledge, and respond to, the environment that allows these things to continue happening.  We all, barring perhaps the sociopathic, think that murder is wrong, evil.  So why not rape?  Why not date rape?  Why not violence against women overall?  Let’s start there.  Raping a woman should mean the end of a political career.  It should be a sign that something is severely wrong with the perpetrator.  Rape is far too commonplace because people get away with it.  Because, for so many, the woman played a crucial role in her own assault simply by existing.  Because, in some places and to some people, a woman is tarnished by her rape, is considered dirty, undesirable.  The woman feels embarrassed, ashamed.  But it is us, all of us, that should feel ashamed that this keeps happening, again and again, and we don’t really, seriously, try changing the scope of the conversation.  So let’s try.

*For the record I am never in favor of capital punishment.  Let them rot in jail, I say.  And Indian prison, or so I have read, is not a fun place to live out your days.