The Larry Nassar case and the power of #MeToo

By Anna Gray

‘Silence is indifference. Justice requires action and a voice – and that is what happened here in this court’. These were the closing remarks of Judge Rosemarie Aquilina in the trial of Larry Nassar, a former US gymnastics team doctor accused of sexually harassing patients for a period spanning twenty years. Judge Aquilina’s comments capture the importance of this case, both for sport and for the ongoing global conversation about sexual assault and harassment.

Over the course of the trial, 156 women came forward to make powerful victim impact statements, including the six-time Olympic medal winner Aly Raisman. The bravery of each woman taking to the stand was staggering and their statements make for an emotional and overwhelming watch.

#MeToo has helped induce a shift in how we deal with sexual assault

However, all the women had a clear message – they are not victims, they are survivors. This image of solidarity amongst survivors of sexual assault comes at a time when #MeToo and #TimesUp are pushing the conversation about sexual harassment up the global agenda, adding extra importance to this case.

The first accusations against Nassar came 16 months ago when Rachael Denhollander spoke out to the Indianapolis Star. She did so without knowing whether any other victims would come forward. By the end of 2017 over 150 women had joined her, including household names like Simone Biles and Gabby Douglas.

This solidarity and support surely emanates from the #MeToo movement, which gained publicity and influence over 2017, particularly in the wake of the accusations against Harvey Weinstein. The movement has helped induce a shift in how we deal with sexual assault, encouraging the public to listen those make accusations against those in seemingly infallible positions of authority and power.

However, whilst the trial against Nassar certainly gained more publicity because of #MeToo, it is not the result of a change in our society; it is in fact part of an ongoing process. This movement has started a long-needed conversation, but there are still significant structural problems to be solved to ensure lasting change.

The evidence against Nassar was undeniable… Aquilina’s sentencing fits his crimes

There are still questions about how Nassar kept his job for twenty years despite allegations first surfacing in 1997. The complicity of Michigan State University, Nassar’s former employer, and the United States Gymnastics Association in Nassar’s abhorrent crimes was a frequent subject in the victims’ testimonies. Raisman referred to how her love for gymnastics overcame the ‘evil that resides in [Nassar] and those who enabled [him] to hurt many people’.

Since Nassar’s sentencing, lawsuits have been brought against Michigan State University and against Béla and Márta Károlyi, the former coordinators of the US gymnastics team, indicating that all those involved will be held accountable. Outside the world of gymnastics, the case has led to questions about the way sport often values performance over protection. Hopefully, the testimonies of Raisman and the other victims will pave the way for other sportsmen and women to come forward and be listened to.

Whilst this case is certainly important in the context of #MeToo, there has been criticism of Judge Aquilina’s sentencing remarks. She said it was her ‘honour and privilege’ to sentence him, even declaring that if the constitution enabled her to, she ‘would allow some or many people to do to him what he did to others’. This remark has attracted criticism from some attorneys, who are concerned that it does not fit with a judge’s duty to administer impartial justice.

Nevertheless, the evidence against Nassar was undeniable and Aquilina’s sentencing certainly fits his crimes. In the current climate, her language is acceptable because it sends a message that abuse will not be tolerated, whilst also dispelling the image of the legal system as unwilling to listen to victims of sexual assault.

Whilst it is essential to ensure legal proceedings are conducted fairly, these criticisms distract from the wider societal importance of Nassar’s trial. Another important aspect of the case was that most of Nasser’s accusers were not household names who had reached elite level gymnastics.

I was struck by the bravery of the women who testified

There have been some criticisms of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements being dominated by the experiences of Hollywood actresses and politicians. This case, which received significant publicity in the US, goes some way in dispelling this impression, highlighting the fact that sexual assault can be experienced by anyone, regardless of your profession, race or class.

As a young woman, I was struck by the bravery of the women who testified in court. I hope their words will not be in vain.

Image credits: Sharon Brogan via Flickr and Creative Commons

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