The Aftermath of Larry Nassar's Sentencing: Where Do We Go From Here?
A huge win for rape and sexual assault survivors happened this week with the conviction and significant sentencing of Larry Nassar, a former Michigan State University and USA gymnastics doctor. Nassar, previously sentenced to 60 years for child pornography, received a stunning 40 to 175 years for the violations against a multitude of women during his two-decade tenure, some as young as 6 years old (and including much of the 2016 Olympic Team.)
As a survivor myself, I watched as the judge who presided over the case gave unprecedented access for survivors to detail to the court the impact Nassar had through the decades he violated these girls. More than 150 women and girls came forward to tell their stories, while Nassar complained of mental trauma for being required to be in court to listen to their statements the entire time. His statement of the complaint via letter to the judge that said, “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned” brought gasps from the people in the court. By not allowing Nassar to avoid hearing each story, this judge gave a powerful message to survivors. “You are heard. Your story matters.”
When sentencing Nassar, Judge Rosemarie Aquilina said:
Our Constitution does not allow for cruel and unusual punishment. If it did, I have to say, I might allow what he did to all of these beautiful souls ― these young women in their childhood ― I would allow some or many people to do to him what he did to others.
I truly understand this knee-jerk reaction. I really do. Nassar inflicted pain on others, long-lasting (and often lifelong) trauma. However, I was shocked to see the cascade of, “He will be in jail and hopefully be raped over and over” responses to his sentencing. For me, this is counter to the #metoo movement. The very implication that anyone should be raped is triggering for many survivors. This sets the precedent that rape is a tool for vengeance, punishment and retribution. There’s justice, and there’s vengeance. Through the confines of the law, Nassar will be in jail for the rest of his life. Short of the death penalty, this is the stiffest sentence he could receive from the courts.
Charles Gardner Geyh, a law professor at Indiana University’s Maurer School of Law, commented on this case to HuffPost:
Suggesting that it would be fitting for Nassar to be sexually victimized, if only the law allowed it, was “a step too far. She is the representative of the government here. From the law’s perspective, we ought to be saying no sexual assault at all.
So now what? Where do we go from here?
As we reel from the impact of such a massive and public case, our focus must shift. We need to move from “what a bad man Nassar is” to “what/who contributed to this man’s ongoing abuse of girls/women?” and “why did no one believe these girls as they told their stories over the years?” Instead of spending our time giving Nassar more attention by wishing harm on him, let’s move to “how do we prevent this in the future?”
Changes are happening but slowly and in direct proportion to the publicity Nassar’s case received. Michigan State University’s president, Lou Anna Simon just resigned last week. The Karolyi Ranch in Texas recently closed too after reported knowledge of the abuse and fostering the environment that led to concealment of Nassar’s abuse. A lawsuit claims the Karolyis created an oppressive, abusive environment at the ranch that included scratching children until they bled, depriving them of food and water, screaming obscenities and encouraging parents to hit their children, court records state. It alleges the environment enabled Nassar to “groom” children by sneaking them food and acting as their friend to later sexually abuse them. Steve Penny, the CEO of USA Gymnastics for more than 10 years, resigned in March 2017 amid the controversy. Several coaches and other adults knew about the abuse for years and did not pursue the proper legal frameworks in place to prosecute the offenders. In some cases, the parents of these abused minors were in the room when Nassar sexually abused them — he’d block their view with his bodies or they’d been distracted on their phones during the appointments.
Sexual abuse/assault/rape must be taken more seriously across the board, and I am so thankful for the giant leaps that high-profile cases are taking to pave the way for survivors to feel as though they can successfully prosecute their abusers. But, let’s not kid ourselves, there is so far to go.
Stiffer punishments must be dealt out for people who enable, harbor or otherwise encourage sexual abuse and assault. I challenge the world to focus on continuing to hear survivors, believe victims and prosecute abusers without getting bogged down in retribution. We must support unbiased (and external) oversight of athletic programs involving children and women. We must continue to clean out places where abusers hide, especially among our most vulnerable populations. We must work on ending the backlog of rape kits, where survivors have bravely faced rape exams to provide valuable biological information on their rapists. The estimate is hundreds of thousands of rape kits sit untested and unprocessed in the United States.
Prosecution of sexually-based crimes must be treated with equal weight as other physical crimes like assault. The burden must shift from “what was she doing to encourage or allow this assault to happen?” to “she is not to blame, 100% of rapes are because of rapists.”
Try not to get bogged down in the anger and feelings of revenge.
Stand with them.
If you or a loved one is affected by sexual abuse or assault and need help, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area.
If you or a loved one is affected by domestic violence or emotional abuse and need help, call The National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233.