Two words (and a symbol) have unfortunately come to unify women’s experiences of sexual assault: #MeToo. In response to the expose of Hollywood executive producer Harvey Weinstein’s well-known, tolerated and extended sexual abuse, actress Alyssa Milano’s tweet encouraging women who have “been sexually harassed or assaulted” to post “Me too,” the movement would depict the magnitude and prevalence of the issues. Milano’s original tweet received more than 40,000 responses, more than 825,000 posts tagged #MeToo afterwards, and Facebook reported that more than 4.7 million users engaged in posts, comments, or reactions about #MeToo posts.
Other numbers crudely depict the unfortunate physical and emotional vulnerability of women living in the United States: there are an average of 321,500 victims of rape and sexual assault each year in the United States, with one out of every six women having been a victim of an attempted or contemplated rape, and about 70 percent of rape or sexual assault victims experience “moderate to severe distress.”
The bravery of women has expanded exponentially past the hashtag, from Hollywood actress Lupita Nyong’o sharing her survival in the New York Times, to the accusations and investigations against ministers in British parliament to the recent acknowledgement of vulnerability of women in professional athletics by 2012 Olympics “Fierce Five” gymnastics competitor McKayla Maroney.
In her description of the molestation from former USA gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar, Maroney emphasized that the abuse “(is) not just happening in Hollywood.” For Maroney, it began when she was an Olympic hopeful at age 13 and goes far beyond her. Nassar now faces 22 state charges in Michigan relating to allegations of sexually assaulting children.
“This is happening everywhere,” Maroney said. “Wherever there is a position of power, there seems to be potential for abuse. I had a dream to go to the Olympics and the things that I had to endure to get there were unnecessary and disgusting.”
Women, especially young girls preparing for professional athletics in high school and college, are especially vulnerable to sexual abuse. A joint study between University of Winnipeg and Cheltenham & Gloucester College found that “athletes may be more susceptible to the grooming process which precedes actual sexual abuse when they have most at stake in terms of their sporting careers.” The same study stated that 21.8 percent of responding athletes had sex with an authority figure and 8.6 percent reported being raped by someone within their sport.
Maroney’s witness unfortunately reflects the sentiments of the study, as the molestation continued under force of threat throughout her gymnastics career, and in the moments before she took home two medals in the 2012 games. Under the guise of thoughtful care and professional authority, the exploitation defined a narrative of submission and advantage, now courageously rewritten by Maroney and Nassar’s other victims.
Maroney is not the only female athlete to survive sexual assault. FIFA Women’s World Cup Champion Abby Wambach, professional golfer Paige Spiranac, and WNBA stars Layshia Clarendon and Breanna Stewart have all posted #MeToo narratives.
The misogynistic culture of American sports combined with a pathetic legacy of letting sexual abusers in professional and collegiate sports go unpunished leaves little to be gained from the media circus that would follow a victim after reporting sexual abuse. A report by the Trades Union Congress states that 80 percent of victims reported that nothing changed, while 16 percent reported the situation became worse after revealing abuse.
Stanford swimmer Brock Turner raped an unconscious woman behind a dumpster and spent only three months in jail. Nassar worked for Team USA gymnastics for almost 30 years before he was arrested. Donald Trump cited sports culture “locker room talk” when he boasted about using his celebrity as a method of sexual assault and became president of the United States.
It is important to remember that there are survivors who did not participate in #MeToo. It is important to remember that women of color and trans women are more likely to be sexually assaulted. It is important to remember about 3 percent of American men have been victims of attempted or completed rape. It is important to remember to stay vigilant to abuses of power.
Women shouldn’t have to post #MeToo for men to recognize predatory abuses of power. If a man needs to see a hashtag from every woman on his newsfeed to realize the relevance of sexaul abuse, a fundamental problem of ignorance and complicity first needs to be addressed. In an environment focused on the superficialities of wins and losses, skills, and physical exertion, it is not surprising that sexual abuse goes unchecked; it is up to fans to hold their sports accountable.
Two words (and a societal shift) can describe how to prevent sexual abuse in professional sports, if men can become #DecentHumans.
Alicia Sadowski is a Daily Cal Sports staffer. Contact her at [email protected]