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Larry Nassar and the limits of #MeToo

Ninety eight women and girls are scheduled to give victim impact statements during this week’s sentencing of Larry Nassar, the former sports doctor who molested them. The sentencing comes after a deluge of over one hundred accusations, mostly from women whom he molested as young gymnasts. These victim impact statements come after Nassar pled guilty to seven counts of sexual assault. Leading up to Nassar’s day in court, he was planning to plead innocent, arguing the molestation was valid physical therapy. Immediately after Olympian McKayla Maroney came forward as a victim, however, he changed his plea.

In addition to McKayla Maroney, Olympic gold medalists Aly Raisman, Gabby Douglas and Simone Biles came forward as survivors of Nassar’s abuse. Before these famous Olympians came forward, the Nassar story featured primarily in local news, with little coverage from national media outlets. Many prominent figures within the gymnastics community defended Nassar, claiming the survivors simply misunderstood his medical treatments and that they had not been molested but instead had received an unconventional form of physical therapy. Once famous survivors came forward, however, the tone of the Nassar investigation changed dramatically. The national news media picked up the story, pushing Nassar to plead guilty and encouraging prominent employees of USA Gymnastics—who had previously stayed silent—to speak out.

The bravery it took for famous gymnasts like Aly Raisman and McKayla Maroney to come forward is admirable, but the fact that they had to speak out for the gymnastics community and the national media to take the case seriously speaks volumes about the way our society addresses sexual assault. If only Nassar’s lesser-known victims spoke out, he might have continued to maintain his innocence, and there might still be people who did not believe the survivors.

For the many celebrities who came forward as sexual assault survivors as part of the #MeToo movement, the situation is similar. The more famous the accused and the victim are, the more likely the story is to get press attention, and the more likely the accuser is to get investigated or punished.

That said, sexual assault survivors whose traumas are unrelated to anyone well known have no recourse within the #MeToo movement.The #MeToo movement centralizes social media as a means for sexual assault survivors to speak up. This means that any survivor who wishes to come forward must not only be willing to discuss their trauma publicly, but also must have enough Twitter followers for their #MeToo post to generate attention. Although the #MeToo movement has inspired many sexual assault survivors to come forward in less public ways, the public focus of the movement centers the testimony of celebrities over the testimony of those without massive followings.

The reason that this burgeoning movement is so social media-centric is because survivors feel using a public platform is the only way they can hold their assailants accountable. In the Larry Nassar case, survivor Aly Raisman came forward on Twitter to explain that USA Gymnastics, the organization that governs competitive gymnastics, originally did nothing to protect athletes or hold Nassar accountable, forcing her to go to the public for help.

In a more just world, no one would have to come forward as a sexual assault survivor on social media. Instead, the institutions around them, whether it’s the office where they work or their local police station, will be prepared to take their accusations seriously. Until assailants reliably face consequences for accusations that are not publicized on social media, people without a large social media following might not find justice in #MeToo.

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