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Last week, survivors of sexual abuse spoke to Congress about a new FBI report outlining the disastrous investigation into Larry Nassar, the former USA gymnastics physician.
As one survivor, Olympic gold medalist McKayla Maroney, put it, “They had legal, legitimate evidence of child abuse and did nothing.”
Beginning as early as the mid-1990s, Nassar abused dozens of girls, criminal behavior that was finally stopped in 2018 when he was sentenced to 175 years in prison. One may ask, how could this level of abuse go on for so long?
The answer is simple, and disturbing: because we let it happen.
Team doctors, coaches, university personnel, USA Gymnastics and the lead law enforcement agency in the United States all ignored the charges of these young women, many of whom represented their country in competition. As the leading physician for a premier Olympic sport, Nassar wielded immense power over the women and girls he abused under the guise of help. Although Nassar is a monster, our society is to blame for a culture that continues to permit the abuse of women and girls, and doubts them when they come forward.
The #MeToo movement has prompted change, but there’s still so much work to be done.
Related: It was only a matter of time before the #MeToo movement rocked schools
When seven-time Olympic medalist Simone Biles testified at the hearing, she pleaded with the legislators to focus now on the young women coming up in sports, and protect them.
“I don’t want another young gymnast, Olympic athlete, or any individual to experience the horror that I and hundreds of others have endured before, during, and continuing to this day, in the wake of the Larry Nassar abuse,” she said.
Media talking heads, social media trolls and fanatics called Biles, the greatest of all time in her sport, a “quitter” when she withdrew from the gymnastic team finals citing her mental health at the Tokyo games. They tried to brand tennis star Naomi Osaka the same for exiting major tournaments due to bouts of depression. This treatment furthers the abuse. The harassment defines them as mere objects for our enjoyment.
The bungled FBI investigation is just one a symptom of a culture of abuse of and contempt for girls and women that extends to our schools. If the chronic abuse of the most-decorated female athletes can be easily swept under the rug, disregarded by authorities, then school students without a public persona are even more vulnerable.
In 2015, one in five women stated they had experienced rape or attempted rape during their lifetimes, one in three reported such rape first happened between the ages of 11 and 17, while one in eight reported it happened before the age of 10, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. The CDC reports that one in four girls experience sexual abuse in childhood.
The typical discussion about gender equity in sports revolves around the fair distribution of resources. In March of this year, the NCAA was forced to apologize after it provided women athletes competing in the Division I basketball tournaments a weight room that was vastly different from and inferior to that it provided to the male athletes. But this kind of disparity should come as no surprise. When girls are not protected physically, they won’t be supported financially. Consequently, school districts, universities and other institutions must provide venues to share their accounts of abuse.
Under Title IX, all schools that receive federal funding must respond to reports of sexual assault. According to the nonprofit advocacy group Equal Rights Advocates, “If you report sexual assault or harassment, your school cannot ignore you or blame you.” ERA’s website states that schools must respond within a few days.
Schools should do more than simply not ignoring young women, however. They should provide counseling and legal assistance as part of sports programs. Protecting girl and women athletes means that schools must guard them against predators, both from outside and from within the institutions the students represent. And we must hold abusers and their enablers accountable. Nassar couldn’t possibly carry out his abuse without assistance.
When we see girls as people and not objects for our entertainment or desire, we will begin to protect our children.
This story about sexual abuse was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.
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