Why we victim blame -- and why Larry Nassar shows we shouldn't

U.S. Olympian Aly Raisman delivers her victim impact statement in the Larry Nassar case.

By the time his sentencing hearing began in a Lansing, Michigan, courtroom last week, many of us already knew the name of serial sexual abuser Larry Nassar. We knew the names of some of his victims, too -- decorated United States gymnasts whose faces we'd seen on medal stands, award stages and cereal boxes: Simone Biles, McKayla Maroney, Aly Raisman, Gabby Douglas.

Few of us knew the name of the first young woman who stepped to the microphone in that courtroom, the first of more than 100 Nassar victims and their advocates to testify about the horrific abuse they suffered at his hands. Kyle Stephens, who says she was sexually abused by Nassar beginning when she was 6 years old, announced that morning that she had decided to give up anonymity to prove to herself that she has nothing for which to be ashamed.

"Little girls don't stay little forever," Stephens told Nassar. "They grow into strong women that return to destroy your world."

And so began a heartbreaking, inspiring and cathartic series of testimonies from young women who used their names, told their stories, and who, maybe for the first time, felt heard. Maybe for the first time, allowed themselves to believe that none of it was their fault.

Many of Nassar's victims, 150 of whom are suing him claiming they were sexually assaulted, could have been saved from his abuse had the people they trusted chosen to put their safety and well-being first. If parents had believed their daughters, if coaches and administrators had taken seriously the complaints of their student-athletes, and if Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics had prioritized people over public reputation, humanity over a bottom line, morality over medals.

"No one did anything because no one believed me," Katie Rasmussen, who says she was abused by Nassar after being introduced to him through the gymnastics gym Twistars, said in her statement at the hearing.

Former Olympic gymnast Jamie Dantzscher told the court that, when she first came forward in August 2016, she was attacked on social media. "They called me a liar, a whore and even accused me of making all of this up to get attention," she said.

"When survivors came forward, adult after adult, many in positions of authority, protected you, telling each survivor it was OK, that you weren't abusing them," Raisman said to Nassar, who she says began abusing her when she was 15. "In fact, many adults had you convince the survivors that they were being dramatic or were mistaken. This is like being violated all over again."

To believe that a beloved, respected doctor working at the highest levels of a sport could be preying on innocent young girls -- girls as young as 6 -- we must be willing to accept that we are all potential victims. We know that no little girl brings this kind of abuse on herself, so the world must not be fair.

Since sociologist William Ryan wrote the book "Blaming the Victim" in 1971, researchers have studied the phenomenon of pointing the finger at the victim and not the criminal, particularly in cases of sexual assault and domestic violence. Victims are often accused of contributing to their own rapes by dressing provocatively, drinking alcohol or going home with a man they don't know well. Battered women are accused of provoking their attackers or deserving the abuse because they stuck around too long. Post-trauma behavior is also questioned, with a largely uninformed public presuming that the existence of behaviors they wouldn't expect from a "real victim" must mean the victim is misrepresenting what happened.

This secondary victimization occurs not as a result of abject cruelty by those who victim blame, but rather a desire to protect the belief that one won't meet the same fate as long as he or she doesn't make the same so-called mistakes. The just-world ideology, developed by Melvin J. Lerner in the 1960s, is the idea that people can influence what will happen to them with their actions. In other words, anyone who "follows the rules" will be met with morally fair consequences, so victims of terrible crimes must have done something to deserve it.

"Most people are looking for reasons that bad things happen to good people," says Roger Canaff, a former special victims unit prosecutor and the former president of End Violence Against Women International. "Therefore they say to themselves ... 'If something bad has happened to somebody, there must be a reason for it.' People find anything to blame other than the person who's actually committing these acts."

The only victims who consistently avoid victim blaming are those that Norwegian criminologist Nils Christie termed in the 1980s, "ideal victims." Often that means young (or very old), sober, conservatively dressed white women with limited sexual histories who are assaulted by a man they did not know -- in other words, someone from a "demographic that society values and favors," Canaff says. Nassar's victims knew him. In fact, he groomed them, and their parents, with kindness and gifts to set up later abuse. But young athletes in the care of a trusted doctor are about as blameless as you can get.

And yet so many of Nassar's victims, in their impact statements during his sentencing hearing, said they considered their own culpability in their interactions with him. Former Michigan State volleyball player Jennifer Rood-Bedford told the courtroom, "My first reaction was to question myself. To blame myself." Said Raisman to Nassar: "You made me uncomfortable, and I thought you were weird. But I felt guilty because you were a doctor, so I assumed I was the problem for thinking badly of you." And each of these women was assured by Ingham County Circuit Judge Rosemarie Aquilina that she did not share the blame, was not at fault and should not feel remorse.

This sort of assurance for victims comes far too rarely. Instead, police officers, community leaders, school administrators, and even many news outlets, unveil lists of things people can do to avoid being victims, like walking in pairs, avoiding drugs and alcohol and staying out of dangerous areas. Canaff says doing one's best to prevent victimization is smart, but sexual assault will occur even when victims follow all the "rules."

"If you tell primarily young women, 'You need to follow these rules,' then, one, you create rule makers and rule breakers," Canaff says. "And the assumption is that, if you follow the rules you're going to be OK, and if you don't follow them, it's your fault."

The key, he added, is to remember the aphorism of psychologist Veronique Valliere, who says: "There is no vulnerability without danger." Meaning, no matter what choices someone makes, that person isn't vulnerable unless there's someone who means them harm. "Abuse or assault is never the fault of the victim. We all understand that cognitively, but it's a difficult thing to get in somebody's head," Canaff says.

Matthew Dae Smith/Lansing State Journal via USA TODAY NETWORK

"When survivors came forward, adult after adult, many in positions of authority, protected you, telling each survivor it was OK, that you weren't abusing them," Aly Raisman, left, told Larry Nassar at his sentencing hearing.

The long list of coaches, administrators, trainers and doctors who enabled Nassar's abuse because of his proximity to greatness, his purported role in the success of the gymnasts he treated, is staggering. Michigan State gymnast Lindsey Lemke said in her statement that coach Kathie Klages defended Nassar when approached with concerns about his abusive behavior. And according to Outside the Lines, Lemke said Klages circulated a card during a team meeting in September 2016, shortly after Nassar was fired by the university, asking gymnasts to sign it as a show of support for him.

Now imagine that level of support and protection when the accused isn't just a well-known team physician, but rather a beloved celebrity or professional athlete -- someone like Bill Cosby or former MMA fighter Paul Koppenhaver, a.k.a. War Machine. When a celebrity is involved, you see the flip side of the just-world ideology. People believe that someone who has found great success has probably earned it by being a good person and a rule follower.

"People who contribute to the cultural landscape are absolutely forgiven," Canaff says. "Their character is often conflated with their ability, whether it's music ability, athletic or artistic ability. It prevents the truth from coming out, it prevents justice from being done in a lot of cases and I also think it's damaging to the public figures themselves, as they can develop a sense of entitlement, a sort of acquired narcissism that just leads them further onto a path of abuse in a lot of cases."

Cosby's accusers were themselves accused of lying and of seeking publicity, criticized for going to his home, shamed for their alleged drinking or drug use. "Why would any rape survivor ever go to court?" Cosby accuser Lili Bernard told Vox reporter Caroline Heldman as they watched the opening statements of Cosby's criminal trial last June, a series of victim-blaming rape myths used by the defense to discredit the victims in the eyes of the jury. Cosby's case ended in a mistrial after the jury was unable to render a unanimous verdict. His retrial is scheduled for this spring.

After being sexually assaulted and beaten nearly to death by her ex-boyfriend Koppenhaver, Christine Mackiday, better known as adult film star Christy Mack, watched as the defense team argued that rape charges could not be brought because Mack's line of work had instilled in her "the desire, the preference, the acceptability towards a particular form of sex activities that were outside of the norm." The most empathetic response one Twitter user could come up with upon reading of Mack's brutal assault? "No woman deserves to be beaten, not even a porn star." War Machine was sentenced to 36 years to life in prison after being convicted of 29 felony and misdemeanor charges partly stemming from those attacks.

Larry, the thing you didn't realize while you were sexually assaulting me and all of these young girls ... is that you were also building an army of survivors.
Amanda Thomashow, who delivered a statement at Larry Nassar's sentencing hearing

Because victim blaming is so deeply ingrained in us, and because it so often works in swaying the public or a jury, defense attorneys will go to great lengths to smear victims in high-profile cases. The defense will try to discredit the words of the alleged victim using character attacks, often revealing the victim's name publicly so that fans can continue the attacks via social media or pass judgement in the court of public opinion. Even if the accused -- who are of course innocent until proven guilty -- has a pattern of violent or unsavory behavior, he will be believed instead of his accuser as long as she can be painted as promiscuous, a partier or a groupie. Of course, even if she is all of those things, that doesn't mean abuse didn't occur.

And even if she's a 6-year-old girl or a 10-year-old gymnast, she might be still labeled a liar.

The protection provided to Nassar by Michigan State, USA Gymnastics and gyms like Twistars allowed his abuse to continue for decades, even when complaints reportedly reached Michigan State officials as early as 1997. Serial predators and abusers thrive in places where they can count on the protection of loyal followers and supporters, whether it be a college campus, a church, a professional league or the military. Think: Jerry Sandusky in Penn State University's football program. People seeking to protect the integrity of an institution instead allow criminals to take advantage of that institution.

"It's not the institution that's bad," Canaff says. "The reason predators are thriving there is because they know they're going to be protected."

In the public cases we watch unfold in real time, we're helping provide protection every time we stand in support of an athlete found to have committed this type of crime, refusing to allow our view of the world to be shaken by the reality of abuse. We provide protection when we defend our schools and teams, rejecting the reputation they might earn if the truth were to come out. And while we protect the criminals, we re-victimize the abused, denying them a voice, denying their truth and burying their efforts at justice.

The sentencing hearing for Nassar is not about justice -- not in the legal sense. That kind of justice has been assured: The 54-year-old has already earned a 60-year prison sentence for child pornography charges and could receive at least 25 years more for pleading guilty to seven counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct, which is what landed him in the Lansing courtroom. Unlike many cases of sexual assault, the man at the heart of this one couldn't escape punishment. Despite years of silence and protection from his enablers, Nassar's crimes were too many, their scope too horrifying, and the girls and women he hurt too strong.

But if any of the many adults who turned a blind eye had instead believed the brave young girls who tried to tell their stories years ago, countless others could have been saved, and those who suffered in Nassar's care might never have blamed themselves.

While it's scary to admit that we're all at risk of being abused or assaulted, it's also traumatic to know that we could be victimized again when we report it. Lashing out at those who have fallen prey to the most evil among us will offer us no future protection. No matter how strongly we might believe in a just world, victim blaming won't prevent our own victimization. It might, however, prevent those who attack us from being punished. And it might prevent people like Nassar from being stopped before they can abuse again.

"Larry, the thing you didn't realize while you were sexually assaulting me and all of these young girls ... is that you were also building an army of survivors, " said Amanda Thomashow, who reported Nassar to the police and Michigan State in 2014. "You might have broken us, but from this rubble we will rise."

We shouldn't need an army of survivors to believe the stories of the abused. When faced with the choice of being a society that would rather blame victims than punish criminals, or being a society that takes its cue from the more than 100 brave survivors who spoke out in that courtroom, let's choose strength instead of fear. Those women were once little girls who trusted the adults around them to protect and believe them. Remember them the next time a victim speaks out. Whether all alone or one of many, he or she deserves to be heard.

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