So, Michigan State’s investigation into how in the world could an employee have sexually abused athletes for multiple decades? turned up a not-so-stunning fact. Abuser Larry Nassar’s one-time supervisor and later dean of the university for 15 fucking years, a man named William Strampel, turns out to be a rape-y jerk. Multiple people have come forward to tell their stories of sexual harassment in the workplace, naming Strampel as a perp. Despite how hard these cases are to criminally prosecute, the evidence is, in fact, good enough that a local District Attorney has filed charges. In this case, the charges are for “forcible sexual contact”.
Gee, the man ultimately responsible for the failure to discipline (read: fire and turn over evidence to the cops) an abusive employee and to protect not-yet-adult athletes, the man who ignored (or, I suppose, downplayed to insignificance) clear evidence of sexual abuse … that man is guilty of sexualizing the workplace and probably guilty of criminal sexual conduct?
“Big surprise,” I can hear you thinking. But actually, yes. Yes it is a surprise.
As we talk about this case, and I’m sure there will be other posts up at FtB and friendly sites soon, I want us to remember that the vast majority of sexual assaults are carried out by a small percentage of adults who victimize far more than one person. Rape culture isn’t the idea that a rapist will protect another rapist, as some might characterize this situation. No, in rape culture, people who aren’t rapists decline to step in and help where appropriate. Remember Steubenville? The sexual assault of that one young woman took place in front of tens of people who did not actually participate in any assault. And statistics tell us that most of those who were at that party will not sexually assault anyone.
Yes, culture matters. Yes, people for whom these assaults are normalized are almost certainly more likely to commit assaults of their own. But when the number of men who participate in sexual assault is almost certainly less than 10%, then even tripling the likelihood still leaves three quarters of men choosing not to sexually assault others. For women the numbers are less reliable, and for trans folk the numbers are non-existent, but probably women and trans folk assault others at no higher rate than men, and there are some (as yet unreliable) indications that women who assault one person are less likely to become serial predators. So even if Steubenville’s culture was so bad as to turn out triple the number of sexual predators, some three quarters of the people in that room are not expected to assault even one person, and about 9 in 10 will not become serial predators.
Yet 0% of the people in that room acted to stop the assault.
If we turn the Michigan State story into one of rapists-protecting-rapists, we will miss the larger and more important message: our culture, broadly, protects rapists. A huge part of this is because we demonize rapists and people who sexually assault others. However, if we portray such people as demons, then any person who seems complex and human, even if violent or selfish or entitled or fallible, cannot possibly be a rapist or sexual assaulter.
At MSU and USA Gymnastics literally dozens of people who were not themselves victims had information that should have been enough to start a serious investigation of Nassar, and though the story isn’t as fully developed yet, probably quite a few (and maybe as many as in the Nassar case) had enough information to prompt a serious investigation of Strampel.
NOT ALL OF THESE PERSONS ARE RAPISTS.
While it’s not a victim’s responsibility to come forward, and while I don’t encourage people to whom victims disclose to try and persuade filing complaints, as people who aren’t serial predators we still have to do better. When you hear on the whisper network that so-and-so isn’t safe (or even if you don’t), you can choose to protect yourself by limiting time with a person, but you can also choose to watch that person a little more carefully. If you do happen to see something inappropriate to a workplace (or other setting), you can report that! Just because you haven’t witnessed an unconscious person get peed on in the middle of a crowd of dozens doesn’t mean you have to hold your tongue. If there is a policy against sexual behavior where the behavior takes place, then every person is responsible for obeying that part of a policy to the exact same degree that they are responsible for obeying any other part of the policy.
Persons who don’t sexually assault others, persons who don’t rape, they can still violate those policies and enforcing those policies with consequences appropriate to the violation are still worthwhile even when they don’t catch rapists. But in addition to that, rapists and those who sexually assault others tend to push boundaries in many different small ways. They do this for a number of reasons, but it is likely that the primary purpose of repeatedly pushing the boundaries in small ways is the investigation of where hard limits might be (for both an individual victim and for the environment in which these violations take place) and how people react to those violations. Uncomfortable laughter and changing the subject embolden such predators. Calling out the behavior forcefully and labelling it as clearly unacceptable tells a predator that the risks of proceeding are likely too high and that a different victim or more friendly hunting ground are necessary.
Whether investigators can articulate this in so many words is less important than the fact that they are very likely to have a good sense of this, subconsciously or not. When a person is reported for one violation and investigation turns up multiple, repeated violations, investigators then have a legitimate reason to dig deeper.
This is the work that wasn’t done at MSU and USA Gymnastics. Workplace rapists can’t rely on having other rapists as supervisors. But they can and do rely on the vast majority of persons keeping their mouths shut for fear of demonizing someone for a small violation of policy.
Appropriate responses to policy violations – not demonization, not instant firing – will better allow reporting, which in turn will allow much quicker identification of people who routinely push boundaries. Choosing not to demonize even the rapists in our societies means that serial predators like Nassar and Strampel can’t get away with victimizing others merely because they’re also charming over lunch or intelligent innovators in their fields.
Let’s not learn the wrong lesson from MSU. It wasn’t Strampel that let Nassar get away with serial victimization of child and young-adult athletes who deserved our protection.
It was all of us.