LANSING, MICH. - As dozens of women and girls this week told Larry Nassar directly how he'd hurt them, a silver lining — if there can be such a thing in such a case — could be that the self-described "army of survivors" inspire other victims to speak out, activists and experts said.
Over a four-day sentencing hearing in a downtown Lansing courtroom, Nassar was forced to listen to victim impact statements from roughly 100 women and girls who have accused him of using his role as a doctor at Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics to sexually abuse them.
As more and more survivors spoke, saying their names for the throng of reporters in the room and for the court record, more and more women who hadn't wanted to speak decided to do so. Others who wanted to speak anonymously decided to name themselves, too.
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"As of yesterday, I was identified as Victim 118," one woman said Wednesday in court. "Now, I am not afraid to say that my name is Chelsea Williams ... And I’m a survivor."
Hearing others tell their story can help victims overcome the shame and guilt that is often associated with sexual assault, several advocates said this week.
"This is such an isolating crime in some ways and I think survivors seek each other out to find strength in one another," Rebecca O'Connor, vice president of public policy at the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, or RAINN, a national victim advocacy group.
It can be especially true when the perpetrators are powerful individuals in esteemed positions, O'Connor added.
"I won't say it's unique, but it is definitely powerful … people coming together, saying enough with this individual, and you're not going to discredit all of us," she said.
"Far too often perpetrators convince victims that no one will believe them, that the assault was somehow their fault, and that they are essentially alone," Gail Krieger, staff attorney for the Michigan Domestic & Sexual Violence Prevention & Treatment Board, said in an email to the State Journal on Thursday. "Hearing another victim who had the same experience at the hands of the same perpetrator can break this isolation for victims and help everyone, including the victim, see how truly predatory and manipulative the perpetrator’s actions were."
Happening amid the #MeToo social media campaign in which women around the world are sharing their stories of assault, the speeches and statements of Nassar's victims — live streamed on the Internet and widely reported in national media — may resonate beyond the courtroom and beyond the Nassar case, the advocates said. People assaulted by other perpetrators who haven't come forward may be inspired to do so.
"Anything we can do to tell people, you know, this isn't just you, it affects literally every facet of society and people are going to believe you when you come forward, that can only lead to good things at the end of the day," O'Connor said. "We're getting to folks who might not otherwise come out of the shadows."
Erin Roberts, executive director of Lansing treatment center End Violent Encounters, cautioned, however, that each victim's situation is unique. Just because one survivor speaks out, another shouldn't be expected or pressured to do so.
"They're all experts in their own experience," Roberts said. "And so they know best if it's not safe, no matter who spoke out, no matter what the situation is, and so we have to trust them in that."
Advocates, meanwhile, were hopeful that the Nassar victims' impassioned statements — and the #MeToo campaign that has already ended the careers of powerful men in media, business and politics over the last few months — could cause a different shift that is perhaps more important: That not only will more victims feel empowered to step forward, but the rest of us will know better to listen.
"Nothing is more powerful than the voices of and bravery of victims who are able to talk about their experience," Krieger said. "I am hopeful that we are in the middle of a real culture shift, but it relies on all of us believing victims, holding perpetrators accountable, and meaningfully answering some hard questions about who we, as a society, choose to protect and why."
Instead of the nodding heads and platitudes she would receive from policymakers in the past, O'Connor said she's now seeing real changes happening nationwide. Laws are being updated, policies changed to make it easier for survivors to speak up and for abusers to be held accountable, she said.
"People are starting to take ownership of their role in this conversation," she said.
Roberts, of EVE, said she hopes the #MeToo movement can outlast today's fast-paced news cycles, and that the issue remains in the spotlight.
"A movement is only a movement as long as it has continued movement," she said, "so we need to keep the conversation going and moving forward in order for it to have the ultimate impact."
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