Author’s note: This post speaks of gender in a binary way, to illustrate the marked difference in media coverage between cases involving cis male-dominated sports and cis female-dominated sports. It is not my intention to overlook or deny that abuse of nonbinary, trans, and genderqueer children and adults occurs. Rather, it is my contention that such abuses are occurring against members of these demographics at an alarming rate. Nonbinary/trans/genderqueer folks are marginalized and silenced even more greatly than cis females, and while this piece is intended to analyze one particular (binary) gender dichotomy, it is not a comprehensive discussion of marginalization among gender groups. Perhaps that greater discussion deserves its own post. /
Me: Know what really bothers me about this whole thing with Larry Nassar?
Person I’m talking to: Who?
Me: Yes. That. That’s what really bothers me.
Let’s talk about Larry Nassar, USA Gymnastics, and Michigan State University — and how this case compares to Jerry Sandusky and Penn State’s own child sex abuse scandal.
The magnitude of this child sex abuse case is staggering. It’s the BIGGEST case of its kind, in recent sports history… but seemingly, no one’s heard of it.
Over 150 victims have come forward to speak about the abuse they suffered, as children, at the hands of Larry Nassar. That’s around ten times more victims than spoke about Jerry Sandusky at Penn State.
Larry Nassar created and kept video footage of him molesting some of his victims, giving definitive proof of at least some of his crimes, while Jerry Sandusky’s conviction relied most heavily on the testimony of his victims, and a scant few eyewitnesses.
Unlike Jerry Sandusky — who still professes his innocence — Larry Nassar has pled guilty to at least some of the charges and counts against him
While Jerry Sandusky used the prestige of his position and connections at Penn State to groom and abuse his victims (and their families), Larry Nassar often sexually abused the children in his care during the course of what he called “legitimate medical care.” He was a respected and trusted athletic physician, in the eyes of gymnast families, having worked with more than one Olympic gymnast, and being affiliated with successful gymnastics programs and organizations.
And yet… many people haven’t heard about the many victims of Larry Nassar or, at least, haven’t really followed the story.
But… we were Penn State scandal-obsessed when the news finally broke about Sandusky. EVERYONE was talking about it.
I have some theories:
1. Who cares about gymnastics?
Everyone, it seems, cares about college football. Football seems to be one of those “untouchable,” deified entities. When college football is tarnished, America itself is tarnished.
Gymnastics remains, largely, a world and culture which exists off the radar of those who aren’t personally entrenched in it — except once every four years, when we breathlessly watch the Olympic Games.
2. It’s a girls’ sport.
Gymnastics is, largely, considered a “female” sport. While male gymnasts are greatly talented, ask the average person to name as many notable male gymnasts as they can, and they might give you… one or two? Ask that same person to name notable female gymnasts, and they’ll likely produce many more names.
And the truth is, we still largely see athletics — as a whole — as “masculine.” Therefore, we diminish the physicality, discipline, and value of female athletes. After all, sports are for males, right?
Women’s sports receive less coverage, less funding, and less attention. Female professional athletes are paid far less than their male counterparts.
So, when a women’s sport becomes news, it’s not likely to make media waves as large as when a men’s sport does — whether it’s being noted for victory, or scandal.
3. We expect girls to be victims.
Our society still holds a double-standard when it comes to sexual abuse and our boys, and I think it has a lot to do with how we view masculinity, femininity, and gender roles.
We expect girls to be submissive (“Be a good little girl, and __________.”). We expect them to be compliant.
We expect them to hold back from asserting their body autonomy (“Remember to smile!” “Keep your ankles crossed when you sit.”). We expect them to be demure, and in control of their bodies at all times (“Don’t fidget.” “Act like a lady.”).
We expect boys to develop a sense of authority. We expect them to be tough. We expect them to be assertive, and self-confident. And, it seems, all the rules for girls don’t apply to boys. We don’t tell them a smile is their greatest accessory. We don’t tell them how to sit with grace. And, when we do tell them how to act, we tell them to “Act like a man,” meaning, “Don’t be weak. Don’t be soft. Don’t be emotional.” Anything else, we sweep under the rug with a shrug, a laugh, and a “Boys will be boys!”
And so, it rocks us in a way we don’t know how to deal with when our boys become victims, because they aren’t expected to become victims. They’re supposed to be stronger. They’re supposed to be powerful in a way we don’t expect of girls.
A man preying on young girls isn’t good. It’s not okay. It’s not excusable. But… maybe we can kind of, in a long, roundabout way, understand how a sick man might end up there, in a society which conflates femininity, youth, and sex appeal. In a society where content searches for barely-legal “teen” porn top every other genre on top porn sites.
In the course of his position as a doctor for various gymnast organizations, Larry Nassar would — even under legitimate circumstances — have close physical contact with his patients, who were young girls. We can see him taking advantage of that close physical contact. It’s not palatable. It’s not excusable, but we can see it.
But a man who preys on young boys? We just can’t, even! We’ve been conditioned to think men like that only exist in the loner, outlier, grotesque form of Jeffrey Dahmer, or the possibly sexually frustrated or repressed, like some priests in the Catholic Church child sex abuse scandal.
Society isn’t as willing to accept that a man who is revered by his community, long-married to a supportive wife, and seemingly an advocate for youth can also be a pedophile and serial (male) child abuser, so when a man like Jerry Sandusky is exposed, it’s a huge shock, and it gets everyone talking, while a man who serially abuses female children is almost yawn-worthy.
4. We don’t teach girls to use their voices, so it makes us uncomfortable when they do.
This study is eye-opening, as regards the way females and males are conditioned to operate with classroom settings. It finds, among other things, female students may be:
- less likely to raise their hands immediately in response to initial questions than their male counterparts
- less likely to call out and demand the teacher’s attention
- less likely to receive peers’ approval if they do “break rules” and speak out in class frequently without being called on
- less likely to receive feedback, whether praise, help, or criticism
- less likely to have their comments credited, developed, adopted, or even remembered by the group
- more likely to be interrupted when they speak or to have other students answer questions directed to them.
Such patterns continue past elementary, high school, and college classes to business meetings and boardrooms. Recognizing such patterns and working to counteract them can help make women and men more effective speakers and listeners.
The study also found that females are more likely than their male counterparts to:
- make shorter and quieter statements
- present their statements in a more hesitant, indirect, or “polite” manner or use “I” statements (“I guess . . .,” “I was wondering if . . .”)
- qualify their statements (“sort of,” “maybe,” “perhaps”)
- add “tag” questions (“. . . isn’t it?,”. . . don’t you think?”)
- ask questions rather than give statements, even if they know an answer
- use intonations that turn a statement into a question, or accompany their statements with smiles or averted eyes rather than more assertive gestures, such as pointing
- apologize for their statements (“I may be wrong, but . . .”).
These discrepancies aren’t solely the product of the general environs of academia. They are, in fact, the product of societal and generational conditioning of gender roles and expectations.
If the Larry Nassar case is any indication, it appears we’re not only failing to teach our girls to use their voices, but we’re also failing to listen, when — against the odds — they actually do.