When someone commits sexual abuse over a long period of time, our first instinct may be to question how they were able to keep their crimes hidden. For many of us, it can be difficult to comprehend how red flags could go unnoticed, be explained away, or even be ignored. This can be especially true if there are multiple victims or witnesses and when the abuse takes place over years. Still, this pattern is not uncommon — it’s time to ask ourselves what we are missing.
Perhaps there is no greater example of this than USA Gymnastics national team doctor Larry Nassar, who was found guilty of sexually abusing at least 250 girls and young women over the course of three decades. While this case is unique in the large number of victims and its association to USA Gymnastics and Olympic gold medalists, the reasons why Nassar’s crimes remained in the shadows are not. When we take a close look at some of these reasons one by one, we can begin to understand why Nassar, and others who commit sexual abuse, are able to remain above suspicion for so long.
Before we jump in, it’s important to remember that the vast majority of adults that work with children — from teachers, to coaches, to doctors, and mentors — are safe people who have good intentions and want to protect children from harm. However, just because someone seems like a safe, reputable, and trusted figure, doesn’t always mean they are. By becoming aware of the following tactics, we can feel empowered to take red flags seriously and challenge problematic behaviors.
They have a position of respect and trust in their community
People who commit sexual abuse are often people the victim knows, including acquaintances, family members, friends, caregivers, those in positions of power, and community leaders. In other words — people we trust. This trust is often strategically developed by the person who commits the abuse, and they count on their reputation to place them above suspicion in the eyes of those closest to them. A person can be well-respected for their good work and contributions to the community, but this does not mean they aren’t capable of committing abuse. Larry Nassar was not only considered one of the foremost medical experts in the niche sport of women’s gymnastics; he was also well liked and trusted by parents, coaches, trainers, and medical professionals. His wholesome, reportedly “nerdy,” and overall helpful image duped parents, coaches, trainers, and medical professionals into placing their implicit trust in his methods and intentions.
They target people who have less power than them
People who sexually offend make strategic choices about who they abuse, and Nassar was no different. He had a position of power over the young gymnasts he was grooming and abusing, not only because of his age and experience, but also due to his authority as a medical professional. People of any age may feel unable to speak up when their doctor does something that makes them uncomfortable, as they may presume the doctor knows more than them about the best course of treatment. There are many ways people who sexually abuse use their power and position to their advantage. Nassar used his reputation as an expert to manipulate his victims into silence with the assumption that no one — let alone a child or young teenager — would question his methods.
Institutions cover up the abuse
Sexual abuse and assault do not happen in a vacuum, and in this case, Nassar’s abuse took place within several institutions — USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University, to name two. Several survivors came forward years ago about what was happening to them, and in the course of the investigation, it was revealed that individuals within the Olympics Committee, USA Gymnastics, and even the university administration were aware of the abuse. But instead of working to stop Nassar’s abuse and hold him accountable, these institutions covered it up. When institutions disregard sexual assault allegations, they are giving the person who is offending further license to abuse.
They strategically groom their targets
It might be hard to understand how Larry Nassar could engage in these behaviors from the get-go without fear of detection. It’s important to remember that Nassar, and those like him, test boundaries before committing outright sexual abuse, in what is sometimes called “grooming.” Grooming is a way for perpetrators to judge how far they can push boundaries and exploit trust. They will judge how potential victims react to suggestive comments, unnecessary physical touch, or offers to spend time in private. Grooming is a way they manipulate a victim’s trust by passing off inappropriate behavior as normal or “no big deal.” Of course, Nassar didn’t just groom the victims — he also groomed parents, coaches, trainers, and medical professionals over the years.
They defy the stereotype of “predator” and “monster”
There are a lot of stereotypes about people who sexually offend, and sometimes our expectations of how an “unsafe” person looks and acts protects those who don’t fit that description. Often our assumptions about people who sexually offend come from the stories we see in the news or even on TV, and it’s important to remember that’s not the full picture. People who sexually offend come from all walks of life and backgrounds — and that’s why it’s important for us to look at people’s behaviors directly, not just how they present themselves and their accomplishments. Individuals who offend can be married with stable relationships, successful careers, and no prior criminal history. In Nassar’s case, in addition to his accomplished career, he was also a family man, married for over twenty years and the father of three children. Not exactly what you might conjure to mind when you think the type of person who would commit abuse. Which is exactly why we need to pay attention to a person’s conduct and behavior regardless of “appearances,” which can be very misleading.
They leverage misconceptions and misinformation
Although the vast majority of survivors who come forward are telling the truth, people who commit sexual violence and abuse count on others doubting their victims. The barriers victims face in coming forward are tremendous. They fear not being believed and being blamed in addition to the shame and trauma of their experience. It is common for people who sexually offend to capitalize on this doubt by telling their victims they won’t be believed or that no one is going to take them seriously or do anything. When victims of Nassar came forward initially, their claims were dismissed, and they were told that they misunderstood what had taken place — and that the treatments had been medically sound. This way of responding to victims is extremely silencing and sends a message that what they experienced didn’t matter or was “no big deal.”
These six reasons often show up in instances of sexual abuse, and being aware of them can help us identify and prevent further abuse. To learn more specifically about this case and how Larry Nassar worked to conceal his crimes, read the following: