While the media spent last week forensically dissecting one evening between Aziz Ansari and a then-22-year-old photographer – an indisputably important conversation – 140 women have been having another conversation.
One hundred and forty mostly former and current American gymnasts, including gold Olympian Simone Biles, have accused the ex-USA Gymnastics and University of Michigan State University doctor, Larry Nassar, of sexual abuse. Some victims were as young as six at the time of the abuse, one had their mother in the same room while the abuse took place, one victim was his children’s babysitter and some victims were abused hundreds of times. Nassar’s sexual abuse was on a devastatingly vast scale. As HuffPost pointed out: “That’s nearly as many victims as the Jerry Sandusky [American football coach], Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein scandals combined.”
Yet, these accusations have been largely under-reported. The think pieces and hot takes weren’t coming; the Twitter outrage was more trickle than tsunami. In the conversations about #MeToo, Nassar’s name rarely features.
The interest in the story began to swell, however, when some of those 140 began to testify in court last week. These young women stood like giants. Some had tears streaming down their faces, some emitted a red-hot rage, all with a quivering voice and outstanding bravery, facing their abuser, in courtroom, on camera. A victim’s mother marked the upcoming 10th anniversary of her daughter's suicide. She would have been 33. A victim reminded the court of her father’s suicide on learning that his daughter had, after all, been telling the truth when she told him his friend Nassar has sexually abused her. Some told of how their lives were full of feelings of shame, self-loathing, fear and thoughts of death.
There are others who should be also face questions, too. MSU and USA Gymnastics paid to silence some of the victims who reported Nassar’s behaviour. (Chrissy Teigen offered to pay the fine for breaking the NDA one victim had signed when she came forward.)
Last week, in court, she told him: "Little girls don’t stay little for ever. They grow into strong women that return to destroy your world"
Is it so awful that we’ve all collectively looked away and kept talking about Ansari? I find that hard to believe in our #MeToo movement – or maybe it’s something I don’t want to believe. After all, this doesn’t have the glamour of Hollywood or the scandal of Westminster; it has the heinous chill of of paedophilia – a crime many of us don’t want to acknowledge, arguably coated with a sexist indifference to women’s sport.
But, last week, those young women forced us to acknowledge it. With their graceful courage, their words pierced through our ignorance. Kyle Stephens was six years old when Nassar began to abuse her, and Nassar was a family friend. Last week, in court, she told him: “Little girls don’t stay little for ever. They grow into strong women that return to destroy your world.”
Her words brought to mind another high-profile case of assault. When Brock Turner was tried and convicted for sexually assaulting a young woman on a college campus, the survivor's statement went viral – displaying a similar pognant mix of devastation yet determination. She said in her testimony: “…to girls everywhere, I am with you. On nights when you feel alone, I am with you. When people doubt you or dismiss you, I am with you. I fought every day for you.” There are more examples, although not many, of women somehow finding the strength to speak out with such elegance, despite the horror they’ve been through. Most famously, lawyer Anita Hill simply told a panel of all-white men in her landmark testimony in 1991 of sexual harassment in the workplace: “I could not keep silent.” And Rotherham abuse-ring survivor Sammy Woodhouse has spoken openly about her experiences. With her voice – and her decision to waive her anonymity – has come empowerment. The Guardian reported: “As Jessica [the name used in court], she still felt cowed and hidden; as Sammy, she is a survivor. The decision to come out, she says, has given her ‘a sense of freedom’.”
Perhaps these acts of courage feel rare because they are – we know that sexual assault and rape cases are unreported and, even of those that are reported, not enough make it to court and, even if they do, the impact of the crime is overwhelming, often making it difficult for victims to testify. We know that women have been undermined when taking the stand – something that was pointed out in the Rotherham case and eventually led to a change in the law. We know that women’s voices, even at their loudest, are mocked and undermined or spoken over. We know women’s natural starting place is to feel unbelieved – to feel disenfranchised and written off before they’ve even begun – something that the #MeToo movement is trying to rectify. But, even in this moment, just take Grace and her “bad date” with Ansari – the world and his wife have torn to shreds her own testimony to the point that, for many, her experience simply isn’t valid and, worse than that, her own experience of a situation is just plain wrong.
And while we have pored over Gwyneth's testimony and Grace’s testimony and Salma Hayek’s testimony, we must pay the same attention to the survivors of Larry Nassar. They don’t come with the clout of The New York Times publishing countless op-eds; they are just young women who were working hard to pursue a dream – exploited, manipulated and abused by the man they should have been able to trust the most. But they have a phenomenal strength – they have dug deep and found the words to describe the indescribable. They have looked their Weinstein in the eye and said, “Never again.”
Women's testimony is swelling around us and it is a radical act of empowerment. As a society, we must keep listening – to it all.