#MeToo encouraged Americans to believe women. The Nassar case shows why that’s so important.
When Kyle Stephens told her parents at age 12 that she had been abused by gymnastics coach Larry Nassar, they didn’t believe her.
Nassar, a former sports medicine physician at Michigan State University and doctor for USA Gymnastics, successfully convinced her parents she was lying about six years of abuse, and they believed him so completely that they made her apologize to him, according to the Washington Post. As a result, Stephens, as a teenager, began to pull away from her family.
On Wednesday, Nassar was sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison for sexual abuse in addition to a 60-year sentence for child pornography handed down in December 2017. More than 150 survivors spoke over the course of seven days at his sentencing hearing before the Ingham County Circuit Court in Michigan about how his abuse had affected them.
“Larry Nassar wedged himself between myself and my family, and used his leverage as a family friend to pry us apart until we fractured,” Stephens said at the hearing.
Her father killed himself in 2016, and Stephens says she believes his eventual realization that she was telling the truth was part of the reason.
Stephens is not the only survivor of Nassar’s abuse who was disbelieved or ignored — as Vox’s Jane Coaston notes, Michigan State officials first received a report of Nassar’s behavior in 1997. While allegations against Nassar became public before revelations about Harvey Weinstein started a new conversation around sexual harassment and assault, the current #MeToo moment has undeniably brought more public attention to survivors’ reports about Nassar, and perhaps helped them to be taken more seriously.
Girls and young women are still too frequently seen as non-credible witnesses when they speak out about their own sexual abuse. But the testimony of Stephens and others reveals the disastrous consequences of brushing off or dismissing women’s accounts. Perhaps now, more than 20 years after university officials were notified about Nassar, Americans are finally ready to truly reckon with those consequences.
Girls and women have been speaking up about Nassar for decades. But no one was listening.
Larissa Boyce was a teenage gymnast in 1997 when she and a teammate reported to Michigan State coach Kathie Klages that they were uncomfortable with Nassar’s treatments, which included vaginal penetration, according to MLive. But instead of reporting their concerns to university authorities or law enforcement, Klages told Nassar what Boyce had said.
“I had to listen to you explain away your abuse,” Boyce told Nassar in her statement at his sentencing hearing. “I apologized to you. I apologized for the misunderstanding and said it was all my fault.”
Since allegations against Nassar were made public in 2016, many women have told variations of the same story. They tried to speak up. They told their parents, their coaches, university officials, other doctors. But those who had the power to stop Nassar never did anything. For years, the abuse continued.
A woman identified only as Amanda, for instance, told NBC News that when she went to see Nassar for hip and back pain in 2014, he touched her breast and tried to put his fingers inside her vagina. She complained to another doctor, who contacted university officials. They investigated but took no action. Nassar stayed at Michigan State.
When Nassar was finally facing police investigation, in 2016, Klages reportedly asked members of the Michigan State gymnastics team to sign a card for him. “She said, ‘You don’t have to sign this if you don’t want to, but it’s for Larry and it would be appreciated if we could let him know that we’re thinking about him,’” one former team member told NBC.
Meanwhile, Amanda gave up her goal of going to medical school. She was scared to go to the doctor, so she simply lived with her back pain. Boyce had more than 100 treatments with Nassar after she reported him, according to MLive. She has experienced migraines, panic attacks, and suicidal thoughts. These are just some of the many consequences of Nassar’s abuse.
Nassar’s crimes came to light before #MeToo. But #MeToo helped amplify survivors’ voices.
The Indianapolis Star deserves a lot of the credit for the fact that Nassar eventually faced justice: A 2016 investigation into abuse in USA Gymnastics helped inspire Rachael Denhollander, a former gymnast, to file a police report against Nassar, saying he sexually assaulted her in 2000, when she was 15. Soon more women began to come forward. Nassar was fired by Michigan State in September 2016 and was charged with criminal sexual abuse in November of that year.
The case gained more public awareness in October 2017, though, when Olympic medalist McKayla Maroney posted about her abuse by Nassar under the hashtag #MeToo.
“I was all alone with him in his hotel room getting a ‘treatment,’” she wrote. “I thought I was going to die that night.”
From that point, the Nassar case became part of a larger conversation about sexual harassment, assault, and abuse sparked by revelations about Harvey Weinstein. While what Nassar did to his young victims was child abuse, it’s worth noting that he is also guilty of workplace sexual violence — many gymnasts were, in a meaningful sense, at work when they visited him for treatment, hoping he could help them perform better in their careers. Instead, he took advantage of his position of trust, acclaim, and power within the gymnastics community to harm them.
In the wake of Maroney’s post, the growing public discussion about harassment and assault likely helped direct attention to her story and those of other survivors. The New York Times published a feature on Wednesday highlighting the words of many girls and women who spoke at Nassar’s sentencing hearing. “The army you chose in the late ’90s to silence me, to dismiss me and my attempt at speaking the truth, will not prevail over the army you created when violating us,” said Tiffany Thomas Lopez at the hearing.
Maroney was bound by a nondisclosure agreement with USA Gymnastics that could have subjected her to a fine if she chose to speak at the sentencing hearing. But model Chrissy Teigen tweeted that she’d be happy to pay the fine for Maroney, and last week, USA Gymnastics announced it would not seek to collect any money.
Maroney sent a statement to be read at the hearing. “If Michigan State University, USA Gymnastics and the US Olympic Committee had paid attention to any of the red flags in Larry Nassar’s behavior, I never would have met him, I never would have been treated by him, I never would have been abused by him,” she wrote.
Without the added attention of the #MeToo movement, it’s not clear whether USA Gymnastics would have felt the same pressure to allow Maroney to speak.
Those who may have protected or enabled Nassar are now facing scrutiny. The NCAA has opened an investigation into Michigan State’s handling of the case. The university’s president, Lou Anna Simon, announced her resignation on Wednesday. In December, Maroney sued USA Gymnastics. The organization was “willing to sacrifice the health and well-being of one of the most famous gymnasts in the world because they didn’t want the world to know they were protecting a pedophile doctor,” her lawyer said at the time.
In addition to Nassar, Michigan State and USA Gymnastics might have been held to account even in the absence of #MeToo. But the added influence of a public movement may help ensure that those who turned a blind eye to Nassar’s abuse also face justice, and that organizations that failed their young athletes are forced to reform.
Nassar’s case shows the importance of believing girls and women
The tendency to disbelieve women when they report sexual violence is deeply ingrained in American society. “Our pop culture and religious teachings alike are fraught with descriptions of women as untrustworthy — from Eve and the apple to Gossip Girl,” Emily Crockett wrote at Vox in 2016. “Teenagers and police officers alike radically overestimate the number of women who lie about rape.”
And as law professor Sherry F. Colb wrote at Verdict in December, “the refusal to take women’s stories as truthful has resulted from what it would mean for complaints of rape and sexual harassment brought against ordinary men to be true. To acknowledge that a normal man who generally abides by the law is raping or sexually harassing women (or men) is to recognize that society has been condoning or at least tolerating such behavior for a very long time.”
Society may now be moving toward such a recognition. We don’t yet know what the full effects of #MeToo will be. But the movement’s emphasis on listening to survivors’ stories has already had an impact. Women like Kyle Stephens and Larissa Boyce have been speaking about what happened to them for years. Now the public is listening. Media outlets have developed strategies and practices for telling survivors’ stories, or helping them tell their own. Celebrities with large platforms, like Teigen, are helping others speak out.
Not all survivors have access to this new reality. Those without famous names, working in low-wage jobs, have yet to see the same kind of reckoning that has come to Hollywood and other industries. There is work to be done. But women in service, agriculture, and other industries are doing that work, and the Time’s Up legal defense fund, designed to aid lower-income women, is a sign that those with greater wealth may be starting to help.
The phrase “believe women” has come in for criticism in recent months, as some misinterpret it to mean that we should believe everything a woman says without question or verification. This has never been the intended meaning. Rather, to believe women — or, in the case of Nassar, to believe girls — means to take them seriously when they say someone has violated them. It means asking questions, investigating, and being open to the possibility that a person in a position of authority might be capable of abusing it. It means giving the words of girls and women the same weight as those of powerful men.
If more people had done this years ago, there might have been fewer girls and women to stand at Nassar’s sentencing hearing, describing the physical and psychological pain they experienced as a result of Nassar’s abuse. If more people had believed girls and women in the first place, Nassar might have been stopped in 1997.
#MeToo didn’t bring Larry Nassar to justice. The bravery of survivors, and the commitment of local journalists, did that. But because of #MeToo, the girls and women who faced Nassar at his sentencing hearing spoke at a moment when America was primed and ready to hear them. The best way to honor their courage is to keep listening.