On Wednesday, gymnasts Simone Biles, McKayla Maroney, Maggie Nichols and Aly Raisman — all victims of Larry Nassar — testified during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the FBI’s botched investigation of sex abuse allegations against the former USA Gymnastics team doctor. A Justice Department inspector general report, released in July, highlighted the many failures of the bureau, including omitted information, false statements and outright lies to inspector general investigators. The report found that the mishandling of the investigation allowed Nassar to continue to abuse more than 100 victims before his eventual arrest.
The women’s testimonies were searing, heartbreaking, infuriating — the details of both what they endured and how they were treated by the people who were supposed to help them. And their testimonies were met with one singular, resounding sentiment, by both the senators on the committee and social media: “These women are brave.”
Yes, those four women who shared their stories on the public stage were brave. They’ve been brave. Over, and over, and over again. But it’s time for all of us, and especially those in positions of power who wield enough influence and capacity to actually do something to end the scourge of gender-based violence, to stop feigning over the strength and bravery of victims and survivors. Simply put, calling us “brave” or “strong” does not help us. We need — we deserve — action, not mindlessly regurgitated compliments.
In the wake of a sexual assault — be it hours, days, weeks, months or years later — survivors don’t want to be strong. We have to be. Biles pointed out as much, when, during her testimony, she said, “I am a strong individual and I will persevere, but I never should have been left alone to suffer the abuse of Larry Nassar. And the only reason I did, was because of the failures that lie at the heart of the abuse that you are now asked to investigate.”
This “strength,” this “bravery,” has consequences, as Raisman painfully articulated during her testimony. “Being here today is taking everything I have,” she said. “My main concern is, I hope I have the energy even to just walk out of here. I don’t think you realize how much it affects us, how much the PTSD, how much the trauma, impacts us. For every survivor it’s different.”
The strength required of those who testified during the hearing, and of every sexual assault victim who comes forward, is not innate, but born out of necessity. It is the result of the blatant and consistent failures of others; an inevitable result of the rape culture that is baked into the fabric of this country and permeates through every one of our institutions — including the FBI and Congress. After all, the senators who condemned the FBI for their nefarious ineptitude are part of the same Congress that had a secret “hush” fund in which, over the span of 20 years, has been used to pay $17 million in settlements.
Nearly every sitting member on the committee took the time to call out the heroism and resiliency of those who testified. They prioritized long-winded statements and grandstanding speeches; pontificating on the courage of survivors rather than promising concrete steps to make sure another miscarriage of justice does not happen again.
Commenting on the bravery of victims and survivors is tantamount to the “thoughts and prayers” response in the wake of endless school shootings — it means nothing if you’re not going to do something to make sure there are no more victims in the future.
As victims, we shouldn’t have to be strong. We shouldn’t have to stand up, time and time and time again, and share the most painful moments of our lives in order to demand action, justice and accountability. We shouldn’t have to lay claim to flawless memories that make us credible, ideal reporting timelines that make us trustworthy, and flawless backgrounds that make us perfect victims in the eyes of prosecutors and district attorneys.
We should be able to be flawed and vulnerable; to make mistakes and have the room to fail, unlike the perfection that was mandated of Nassar’s victims. We shouldn’t have to continue to persevere, to overcome, to succeed, to win gold medals, for our pain to be legitimized and worthy of people’s time and attention.
If we are strong, it’s because it’s demanded of us. If we’re brave, it’s because others have failed. And if all you have to give victims and survivors are a slew of hollow synonyms that position us as superhuman advocates and not human beings who deserve support, justice and systemic change, then you’ve failed us, too.