Covering up abuse – We are all gymnasts


Rachel Denhollander at the trial of Larry Nasser

Nancy Lindisfarne and Jonathan Neale write: In the wake of Metoo, collective movements are now exposing cover-ups from the top. The target is no longer just one individual, a Strauss-Kahn, a Bill Clinton or a Clarence Thomas. These movements are shouting: it’s a whole system. The class inequalities that protect abuse are being exposed. This is a cause for joy, and hope.

The Larry Nasser case provides a brutal example. At Nasser’s trial last month more than 160 survivors of abuse testified about what he had done to them. Nasser was a doctor for the athletics department at Michigan State University, and for the United States national Olympic team in gymnastics. The stories the survivors told were moving, and horrific. Nasser abused thousands of girls, some as young as six, by fingering them vaginally and anally for his own pleasure, over a period of more than twenty years.

Nasser was only able to do what he did because dozens of people  covered up for him. This fits with what we have seen in the many cases the Metoo movement has begun to expose. Only a minority of men abuse. Most men do not do those things. But the men who do it, do it over and over again, so almost every woman suffers.

But though only a minority of men are perpetrators, almost all senior managers, men and women, have covered up abuse, and thus enabled it to continue. All humans relations departments, and almost all women’s officers, deans, heads of departments and senior professionals have silenced complaints. All law firms of any size have arranged many ‘non-disclosure agreements’, one of the central ways of covering up abuse. All lawyers, men and women, know this.

Rachel Denhollander is the leader of the movement of abused gymnasts. She was 15 when Larry Nasser abused her, and she waited 15 more years for her chance to do something. She became a lawyer, so she had the skills she would need. Then the Indianapolis Star ran a story about the routine cover-ups by U.S.A. gymnastics of sexual abuse by coaches. Denhollander emailed the Star that morning to say she had a related story to tell. She agreed they could use her name, and told her story on video. Over a hundred women and girls contacted her and the Star with similar stories.

At the trial Denhollander said that when she was 15:

‘I did not know that … MSU’s head gymnastics coach, Kathie Klages, had waved a report form in front of Larrissa Boyce after being told by two separate gymansts of what Larry was doing and told Larissa that there would be consequences for her if she reported.

‘I did not know tht Tiffany Thomas Lopez had reported the penetration and sexual assault to athletic trainer Destiny Teachnor-Hauk and to other athletic trainers and supervisors two years before I walked into Larry’s door.

‘I did not know that Christie Achenbach had reported the penetration and sexual assault to her track coach and her athletic traines and has also been silenced a full year before I walked into Larry’s door. I did not know that Jennifer Bedofrd had also reported to Destiny Teachnor-Hauk and asked if she could file a report that Larry’s treatment made her feel uncomfortable and that she had also been silenced.

‘I did not know that at the same time Larry was penetrating me, [USA Gymnatics] was systematically burying reports of sexual assault against member coaches … creating a culture where predators like Larry and so many others in the organization, up the highest-level coaches were able to sexually abuse children, including our Olympians, without any fear of being caught.’

‘[Michigan State University] did not listen in 1997 or 1998 or 2000 or 2004 or 2014… Victims were silenced, intimidated, repeatedly told it was medical treatment and even forced to go back for continued abuse.

‘When Kyle Stevens’ parents reported Larry’s abuse of their daughter to a MSU psychiatrist. … he brought Larry in to talk to her parent instead of reporting, as he was mandated to do by law.’

ABC News ran a segment where their reporter interviewed twenty gymnasts who had been abused by Nasser. One of the women said that Nasser had abused her with her coach in the room. The reporter, surprised, asked how many of them had been abused with their coaches in the room. Every one of them put their hand up.

Women’s gymnastics is ripe for abuse. No one who has watched it can miss the sexualisation of girls’ bodies – not just what they look like but how they move. The young ages of the girls are crucial to their sexiness, and their beauty – what one witness at Nasser’s trial called the ‘cuteness factor’. Men’s gymnastics are different, and there it is men’s bodies, not boys, who are rewarded.

These girls are also athletes. The team doctors in American collegiate and professions sports routinely betray their patients. Look at football players, sent to the locker room or concealed in a pup-up tent on the sidelines so the team doctor can give an injection to numb the pain and send the injured player back onto the field. One witness at Nasser’s trial said USA Gymastics like Larry because he always said that injured girls could still compete.

These girls were also workers. They were not paid, but they were working their little hearts out, under a competitive, bullying, ruthless regime. They were producing value and profits for the coaches, the colleges, the Olympics and the television companies.

Maybe all that made it worse. But it is not just athletics, and not just Michigan State, and not just America. We have been arguing for some time at Anne Bonny that all systems of class rule rely on the idea that men and women are naturally different and unequal. Moreover, violence is central to both class rule and gendered inequality. We first made these arguments in detail in Sexual Violence and Class Inequality.


protestors at Michigan State University trustees meeting

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