This past Friday, Olympic Gold medalist Aly Raisman delivered a powerful victim impact statement at the sentencing portion of convicted sexual abuser Larry Nassar, former doctor to the USA Gymnastics team. Nassar pled guilty to 7 counts of sexually abusing minors, but he has been accused by over 150 athletes of manipulating his position as their doctor by sexually abusing them under the guise of providing medical treatment. The depth and scope of his abusive practices are horrific, but as with many of the abusers who have been exposed over the past year and half, he had a network of people behind him helping to cover up his abuses and discredit or silence his accusers. Raisman made clear in her statement that victims everywhere are fed up with being silenced and dismissed by saying “You do realize now the women you so heartlessly abused over such a long period of time are now a force, and you are nothing.”
I have spent much of my career working with survivors of sexual abuse, both as a victim advocate and as a therapist. The criminal justice system has long been a source of frustration for me and my clients, both because of its re-victimization of survivors who do come forward, and the difficulty that victims have with receiving any kind of justice at all. Specifically, I find myself infuriated when cases are dismissed outright because “there is no evidence”. The message this sends to everyone is that a victim’s testimony is not evidence. It is only when dozens and dozens of women come forward with the same stories that their word can be trusted and used in a court of law. It takes a powerful army of survivors to put away 1 single abuser. This is the broken system that victims are forced to contend with if they want any measure of justice for the crimes against them. We don’t do this with other types of crimes.
Raisman spoke forcefully against her abuser in court, questioning the system that allowed his abuse to continue for years and calling him out directly for being a manipulative predator of the worst kind. It can be difficult for a survivor to see Raisman, who is a successful, high profile woman, speak out in court and think “I couldn’t do that, she has more security, money, and support than I do; I have too much to lose by speaking out”. Yet one of the first things Raisman acknowledged when she began to speak was that she was scared, and she didn’t want to come to deliver her victim impact statement. Even strong, powerful women can feel scared and small when facing the prospect of speaking out against an abuser. No one is protected from criticism when speaking out about their own abuse, because our culture has ingrained an atmosphere of victim blaming and doubt into our collective response to crimes of sexual abuse. I have personally borne witness to enough horror stories of how victims have been treated to know that we have a serious, serious problem. Policies have gotten better over the past 40 years or so, but in practice, much of the shame and blame continues.
Sexual abuse survivors need first and foremost to feel safe again, which means being believed and supported when they come forward. When their experiences are minimized and dismissed, or when they are blamed for the actions of their abusers, the healing process is damaged and it may take years or decades before they are able to seek help again. Healing after sexual trauma is possible, but we can all contribute to making this process more accessible to survivors by believing and supporting victims and taking their claims seriously. However, until the criminal justice system undergoes reforms that will enable more victims to confront their abusers in court, countless victims will go without justice and countless abusers will remain free to continue to perpetuate their crimes. The problem of sexual abuse, harassment, and exploitation continues daily. Anyone who cares about this issue must continue to speak out in support of survivors and demand changes in the systems that perpetuate the abuse if real change is to be made.
If you have been a victim of abuse, please know that while your circumstances may be unique to your particular experience, there is a lot of support available to survivors these days. It is important to know who, in your personal network of people, you may be able to trust and confide in for support. Yet even if you do not have a supportive group of family or friends around you, you can find support by reaching out for help from your community and from online resources. Finding an individual therapist or support group is one way to start the healing process. However, there are also many other online resources and forums where you can receive information and support if you are not ready to seek support in person or if you have difficulty finding resources in your area. If you have not been victimized, but know someone who has, you can be a supportive presence to them by believing them, listening, and providing reassurance that that abuse was not their fault, and that you are willing to stand by them as they heal and seek help in whatever form they need. Do not try to force the person to go to the police if they are not ready or do not want to report. As discussed, the criminal justice system sometimes serves to re-victimize and cause more pain to survivors. However, if a survivor does want to report, you can encourage and support them through that process, or help them to find a victim advocate. For more information about support and resources, visit www.rainn.org, or call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.