Given the avalanche of sexual abuse cases in different areas of society Lisa Ingarfield questions how sport will rise to the challenge and make systematic changes that are long overdue
Lisa Ingarfield, PhD, @tritodefi is a runner, triathlete, and Road Runners Club of America—RRCA certified coach. She owns Tri to Defi Coaching and Consulting and provides organizational communication evaluation and consulting services. She is a freelance writer specializing in issues affecting women—particularly in sport and education, and is a member of Boulder, Colorado’s Vixxen Racing’s 2017 women’s triathlon team. Lisa also hosts the Talking Point podcast.
These last few months have been both mesmerizing and horrifying to watch and experience. These feelings are perhaps strange bedfellows at first glance, but let me explain. As 2017 drew to a close, every sunrise brought to light another accusation of sexual harassment or assault by a high profile man. This reality made me want to scream and cry in frustration and hurt. The pace was relentless. The swell of victims coming forward was so great, no political rhetoric could quell the tide. It was, simply put, horrifying.
In spite of this horror, I also found myself mesmerized by the force with which women stories garnered widespread media attention. This just doesn’t generally happen. In my short lifetime, I have not witnessed a time where women have had such a sustained platform to share their experiences of sexual harassment and assault. Every day, I wait for the spell to break; for women’s voices to once again be dismissed en masse. The persistent reality for women, in particular women of color, trans women, disabled women, and lesbian women, is they are rarely heard in any meaningful way. They are dismissed, gaslighted, or just explicitly degraded. Not only has the re-emergence of the #MeToo movement on social media fueled a firestorm of disclosures, it has established an unprecedented environment for women to feel safe(r) coming forward, to be heard, and most importantly, believed.
Sexual harassment and assault are not new, and men have been perpetrating these acts for generations. Yet, from Roy Moore, to Larry Nassar, to Matt Laurer, we are now seeing real consequences–not just a slap on the wrist or wag of the finger in feigned disapproval. One after another, sexual harassers and predators are being held accountable for their behavior. This moment is different than any other I have seen. I would be remiss in not highlighting the role wealth, power, and privilege has played in this resurgence or elevation of the movement. Celebrity involvement has facilitated, in part, the increased attention to women’s daily reality of sexual harassment and assault. The hashtag #MeToo existed long before 2017.
Women have been working to end sexual harassment and assault generally, and in particular, for farmworkers, immigrant women, and women in the service industry for years with little mainstream exposure. These women have little power as compared to Hollywood stars, and yet, across all cases, men in power have exploited women (and folks of all genders) they perceive to be less powerful than them. While we can stay united as women against all forms of sexual harassment and assault, we must also not forget that the category of ‘woman’ is not monolithic. We each experience sexual harassment and assault differently. The material losses of coming forward for a woman working in the service industry are just not the same as those for a Hollywood actress.
What this current movement really highlights for me is just how easily women’s stories and experiences of sexual harassment and assault were dismissed, perpetrators protected, and behaviors covered up. In addition to the stories of repeated and daily sexual harassment and assault, were the stories of the bystanders. I understand why victims don’t come forward–it isn’t safe, they are blamed, shunned, threatened, and rarely are their abusers held accountable. But what about all the people who knew it was and is happening? There are a handful who likely believe there is nothing wrong with Weinstein, Laurer, or Frankin’s behavior. I am not sure what to do with those people. But there are those who probably had an uncomfortable feeling about what they saw or heard. And yet, despite the discomfort in their belly, they looked the other way. They told women not to worry about it or to be less sensitive. In short, their inaction and silence enabled abusers who had no worry about being caught.
The USA Gymnastics nightmare is a perfect example of this. Young gymnasts reported episodes of abuse by Nassar to Michigan State officials and instead of investigating, or reporting externally, he was protected. A Title IX panel in 2014 actually concluded that the student reporting an assault didn’t know the difference between sexual assault and a medical exam. USA Gymnastics did nothing in light of allegations early on, before the story broke in the news in September 2016. The number of bystanders who could have done something, who could have prevented so many girls from being assaulted, is staggering. Will they be held to account?
As I survey everything that’s happening, and after watching Oprah’s speech on the Golden Globes, I have to ask myself what the sports world is doing to stand together with our gymnast sisters and brothers who have been so deeply harmed and betrayed? How are we joining in solidarity like the women of Alianza Nacional de Campesinas, representing current and former women farmworkers, and the women of Hollywood with the Time’s Up campaign? How are women, men, and trans athletes forming widespread, cross discipline coalitions to shout from the playing fields and gymnasiums, we will accept this no more? Are we as a group universally standing behind the 140+ gymnasts abused by Nassar in ways that take us beyond verbal condemnation of his behavior?
The entire USA Gymnastics Olympic competition system (maybe machine is a better word choice?) allowed Nassar to perpetrate with impunity. We must remember, it was not just his failing; but the failing of a whole network of people and policies. The problems are systemic, and enable a culture of silence and acceptance above all else, lest medal prospects be jeopardized. There are many organizations doing great and important work to elevate the voices of athletes who are marginalized, and we must work together and take our response and advocacy to the next level. We need to get our hands dirty.
Time’s up in Hollywood, on the farm, in the hotel, in banking, in IT, and a thousand other industries. Time has to be up in sport, too. How will we rise to the call?