Sometimes you don’t know how deep shame runs until you meet its opposite. Over the last few days, in a courtroom in Michigan, a parade of women – more than 100 of them now – have made statements at the sentencing hearing of the man who abused them as girls. When he was team doctor for USA Gymnastics and a medic at Michigan State University, Larry Nassar had access to their bodies. He had their trust. He had their parents’ trust. If the girls ever spoke up, which a few of them did, he told their parents that they were lying. Now, having admitted the sexual assault charges against him, he has to listen.
Nassar has already received a separate 60-year sentence for possession of child pornography. Whatever term he’s given at the end of this hearing, Nassar, 54, is probably going to die in prison; but however he’s punished, this forced encounter with the unsilenced is perhaps the worst thing that could happen to him. Good. On Thursday, he presented a letter to the court in which he complained that “Aquilina [the judge] is allowing them all to talk”. Apparently, he’d still believed that he could stop his accusers’ mouths, even when he was sitting in the dock. The judge dismissed him sharply: “I didn’t want even one victim to lose their voice,” she said.
And how they are using their voices; on Twitter and through the media as well as in the courtroom. “Little girls don’t stay little for ever,” said Kyle Stephens, the first woman to give her testimony (she described how she was six when Nassar, a family friend, began abusing her). “They grow into strong women that destroy your world.” Simone Biles: “No, it was not my fault. No, I will not and should not carry the guilt that belongs to Larry Nassar, USAG, and others.” Aly Raisman: “I will not rest until every last trace of the influence you had on this sport has been destroyed like the cancer it is.”
Many women talked about how they’d been unable to talk – or weren’t listened to. “How was I supposed to know at the age of 13 what was medically acceptable and what the boundaries were?” said Kara Johnson, a runner who saw him for back and hip treatment (Nassar, she said, had told her to let him know if she ever had her period during their appointments). When Amanda Thomashow filed a complaint with Michigan State University over her treatment by Nassar, it was dismissed: “the school I loved and trusted had the audacity to tell me I didn’t understand the difference between sexual assault and a medical procedure,” she said.
Chelsea Markham couldn’t speak so her mother spoke for her: “She said that everyone will know, and everyone will judge me, and the judges will know as I compete.” Markham quit gymnastics soon after, suffered from drug addiction and depression, and killed herself in her early 20s. Shame was Nassar’s shield. Shame is a deadly weapon, eating these girls from the inside. Shame at what was done to them. Shame at the bodies they were punished for having. Nassar exploited shame and enforced it, but he didn’t invent it: shame is a default state for women when it comes to our bodies.
The charity Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust this week released a survey showing that a third of young women delayed their smear test because of embarrassment. They were worried that their vulva was ugly, or smelly, or too hairy. They were appalled at the idea of revealing their imperfect bodies to medical professionals. They feared that nurses would read – and judge – their sexual history in their genitals. Maybe this sounds silly, like young women are risking their deaths from porn-addled vanity. It’s not: what women are scared of is that their bodies will be used against them. And this is a rational thing to be scared of, because women’s bodies are constantly being used against us.
Telling women and girls not to feel embarrassed is very little help. Women don’t need more instructions: women need the authority to say what they do and don’t want done to them, and who they do and don’t want it done by. After all, Nassar is hardly alone in being a medic who exploited his position to assault women; yet a woman who objects to intimate medical treatment by a male practitioner must run the gauntlet of being told she’s confused about what medicine is, or is a fantasist, or even risk accusations of bigotry.
In a courtroom in Michigan, a judge gave women a place to be heard, and as their voices resounded and their stories were believed, their shame has died. Stephens had initially asked for anonymity before giving her testimony: “I’m addressing you publicly today as a final step and statement to myself that I have nothing to be ashamed of,” she told Nassar. He looks down. He suffers. He wants to make the torrent of female speech stop. The mortification that should always have been his has finally found its home. The opposite of shame is power.