The state says it is trying to rehabilitate 200 men, but only a small handful have been released in two and one-half years. Their lawyers say the civil commitment program is unconstitutional.
In 2015, guards fanned out across Texas with orders to round up 200 men who had completed lengthy prison sentences for sex crimes. The state calls them “sexually violent predators,” men required to register their whereabouts and to participate in a court-ordered monitoring and treatment programs meant to cure them of “behavior abnormalities” and integrate them back into society. At the time of the roundup, most were living in boarding homes and halfway houses, reports the Texas Observer. The men were frisked and driven hundreds of miles to Littlefield, a remote corner of the Texas Panhandle. They live in the Bill W. Clayton Detention Center, a prison that had been empty for six years. They went from living in halfway houses that looked like motels to windowless cells with cinderblock walls, hard steel bunks and metal toilets. Officials at the detention center said this wasn’t a prison. They instructed the men to call their living quarters “rooms,” not cells.
Unlike at the halfway houses, the inmates couldn’t come and go. It wasn’t clear when their sentences would end, if ever. Two and a half years after the Texas Civil Commitment Center opened its doors, only five men have been released, four of them to medical facilities where they later died. Officials claim Texas’ civil commitment program is designed to rehabilitate the men. Families and friends argue the state has stashed them in a for-profit prison far from the support services they’ll need if there’s any hope of transitioning back into society. Lawyers consider the program an unconstitutional extension of the sentences the men have already served. As state and federal inmate populations have leveled off, private prison spinoffs have led to what watchdogs call a growing “treatment industrial complex,” a move by for-profit prison contractors to take over public facilities that lie somewhere at the intersection of incarceration and therapy.
As the campaign against sex trafficking emerges as a $47 million cottage industry, it has also spurred a “moral panic” that sex workers say has made them increasingly vulnerable to police abuse, and turns them into targets for those with religious or moral objections to prostitution.
At the height of national outrage over what government officials and activists call a human trafficking “epidemic,” sex workers are challenging what they say are misleading and harmful efforts to link prostitution to sex trafficking.
“People have used this moral panic, this idea that there is a trafficking epidemic, to create so much funding and so much policy that now that they’re being pressured to show the evidence—to show the sex trafficking arrests,” said Tara Burns, researcher and founding member of the Community United for Safety and Protection (CUSP), a group of former and current Alaska sex workers allied with sex trafficking victims.
“That’s where we see police arresting [prostitutes] for sex trafficking themselves, just so they can get those sex trafficking numbers up, and match the moral panic they’ve created.”
CUSP is lobbying for the passage of companion bills (HB 112/SB 73) in the Alaska Senate and House which would expand sexual assault laws to explicitly prohibit law enforcement from sexual contact with trafficking or domestic violence victims—as part of its continuing campaign to protect sex workers from laws that make them “vulnerable to violence and exploitation.”
In California, another group is challenging a state law that criminalizes prostitution, and asking a federal court to allow for a closer examination of studies that link consensual sex work to sex trafficking.
In January, a three-judge panel in the 9th circuit dismissed a suit by the Sex Workers and Erotic Service Providers Legal, Educational and Research Project (ESPLERP) to declare unconstitutional state laws that make prostitution a crime. The panel sided with 13 state and national organizations that wrote in to oppose ESPLERP, arguing that prostitution needs to remain criminalized in order to combat the “attendant evils” of violence against women, drug abuse—and above all, sex-trafficking.
ESPLERP filed for a rehearing before the full 9th circuit on January 31, wanting the court to subject the studies it cited to a higher standard of review. But in an era when pornography has been declared a “public health crisis” linked to modern-day slavery, researchers who do not openly condemn prostitution are fighting an uphill battle—and sex workers themselves find it hard to be heard over the din of victims’ advocates who would speak for them.
ESPLERP members and their legal team in court on Oct 2, 2017. Photo courtesy of Maxine Doogan
Maxine Doogan, founder of ESPLERP, says that denying sex workers equal protection under the law has led directly to abuse by police and other authorities, and that she and other people in the industry cannot report actual cases of forced trafficking without fearing arrest themselves.
“There are many people, many women, that I know who are prostitutes, who have been caught up in these prostitution sting operations; and have been sexually assaulted by the police, and raped,” she said in an interview with The Crime Report.
“Our activity is illegal. and so that just gives license for anybody to do anything to us that they want at any time, and get away with it.”
In the document submitted to the California court, opposition groups argued that “prostitution is sexual coercion, and closely related to sex trafficking,” and that “decriminalization of prostitution will legitimize sex trafficking.”
The authors of the opposition brief cited numerous “authorities” for their argument, identifying in particular eight publications by Melissa Farley, a clinical psychologist and anti-pornography activist well known for her view that sex work is “a particularly lethal form of male violence against women,” and an expression of “male hatred of the female body.”
But according to independent scholars in the field, the majority of the publications cited in the opposition brief have not only been debunked, but also discredited in the Canadian Supreme Court during cross-examination. The court subsequently struck down Canada’s anti-prostitution laws, finding them unconstitutional because of the negative impact they had on the safety and lives of sex workers.
Doogan notes that victim advocates are “not challenging the men who really have control over our world.”
She added: “They want to dismiss the sexual violence that we’re talking about that goes on with police.”
Doogan and other sex-worker advocates argue that the majority of people being rounded up and arrested during anti-sex-trafficking sweeps such as Operation Cross Country are not slaves held in bondage, but women working together, or as independent prostitutes– a claim supported by investigative journalists following this arrest data.
CUSP’s Terra Burns, who has analyzed thousands of charging documents from several states over the past five years, said that the most serious cases of child sex trafficking “are for the most part not cases that are being found in prostitution stings, [but] cases that are being found because somebody came forward and made a report.”
And in jurisdictions that aren’t aggressively charging people for prostitution, more sex workers are coming to police with tips, she added.
Burns, who herself was sex trafficked as a child, has lobbied extensively for legislative amendments in Alaska. She helped push through bills at the state and county level to allow immunity for sex workers reporting a crime, and hopes Alaska legislators will place priority on the proposed measure to make it illegal for police to sexually penetrate someone they were investigating.
“When an officer coerces you into having sex with him under the threat of arrest, or another kind of threat, that is an act of violence,” Burns said.
Police don’t need to have sex with someone in order to charge them with prostitution, but it happens. She describes one charging document where a police officer paid for a hand job at a massage parlor. “They could have arrested her right there, but instead he waited and got a hand job. and then he put her in handcuffs. And when that happens, it’s really traumatic.”
Doogan (left) and Burns, introducing their first bills. Photo courtesy of Terra Burns
In addition to government task forces, the anti-trafficking movement has also created a $47 million cottage industry of victim advocacy.
Significantly, in order to receive funding, organizations are still being asked to sign a Bush-era anti-prostitution pledge (also known as the “global gag rule”), even though it was ruled unconstitutional in a 2013 Supreme Court decision.
The same goes for researchers, according to George Washington University sociologist Ronald Weitzer, who has studied the sex industry and human trafficking for over three decades, and who served as an expert witness in the case before Canada’s Supreme Court. Before the gag rule was overturned, he was asked to sign the pledge in order to conduct an academic literature review for the National Institute of Justice.
“It’s shocking that even something as mundane as a literature review in this area becomes politicized,” he told The Crime Report.
More recent examples include University of Nevada researcher Barbara Brent, who was part of a 2014 task force developing a trafficking education program for first responders in Nevada.
In an email to The Crime Report, she wrote: “Participants, including Las Vegas Metropolitan Police, who receive federal trafficking funds, indicated that I could not include sex worker rights organizations on the team to develop programs because that violated their grant agreement. The task force eventually fizzled out, and I don’t know what happened to those efforts.”
Last year, the New Hampshire Human Trafficking Collaborative Task Force broke ties with its grants manager, Kate D’Amato, for apparently supporting decriminalization during a public event. The Manchester Police Department said D’Amato’s opinions violated a federal grant, though it is unclear whether that claim was ever challenged.
“What it means is often you’ll get religious or evangelical organizations, both in the US and internationally, to get funding for anti-trafficking work but have very little expertise in the area,” said Weitzer.
“And this was a major criticism of the bush administration funding for many of these anti-trafficking organizations during that period.”
For example: Priceless Alaska, a Christian anti- trafficking organization that works closely with law enforcement, engages a team of volunteer mentors to work with trafficking victims. By way of preparation, mentors receive a three-day training. According to its website, the training “focuses on the mentor’s personal spiritual development first and sex trafficking-specific training second.”
Among the organizations that signed on to the ESPLERP opposition brief was Covenant House, the largest privately funded agency in the US that provides services to homeless and runaway youth. Last year, Covenant House worked with Loyola University to produce a multi-city report on forced labor and sex trafficking. The report claims that one in every 5 homeless youth are victims of human trafficking.
But Burns, who has been collecting state and county arrest records for over five years, says that the data don’t add up, and that the report is intentionally misleading.
“Nobody’s been charged with trafficking a minor in Alaska since 2008,” she told The Crime Report.
In 2014, following the national trend, Alaska created the Special Crimes Investigation Unit, which is devoted to finding and rescuing juveniles who are being trafficked for commercial sex.
“They’ve existed with that mission for four years now,” said Burns, “and have yet to charge anybody with trafficking a minor.”
The problem with the Loyola report, according to Burns, is the way it switches between various definitions of a sex trafficking victim; from youth that are not involved in the commercial sex industry at all, “youths that are underage and just trading sex for survival means,” and youths who are being coerced or held in bondage and commercially trafficked.
“If [Loyola researchers] had talked to a youth who actively had a violent pimp, they would have had to report that to police and the police would have gone in— because they’ve been looking to charge somebody with trafficking a minor, obviously, to support all this rhetoric. We would see some charges if it were actually going on in that way,” Burns said.
But when “you’re not being honest about what you’re actually talking about, and then you’re turning around and saying ‘oh these kids are being kidnapped by pimps and forced into prostitution’— then the policy that ends up being created is not going to serve those actually kids that really exist–that are out there having survival sex right now.”
Fundamentally, Burns believes that this study—and others like it—are compromised by the “religious agenda” underlying the moral campaign.
“Covenant House and Loyola University are both religious organizations who have a religious agenda to prevent other people from having sex that they disapprove of,” she said.
What Burns has found by looking at thousands of charging documents is that the majority of people arrested in “sex trafficking” stings are women working together as prostitutes, or with a driver—both things that increase safety in the sex industry, she says.
Just three people were charged with sex trafficking in the first two years of Alaska’s new sex-trafficking law. One was a dancer charged with sex trafficking herself, according records Burns obtained.
Another was Amber Batts, the owner of the online escort service Sensual Alaska. Prosecutors were unable to charge her with force, fraud, or coercion, since people were working for the service of their own free will– but they still convicted her on charges of 2nd degree sex trafficking. She was sentenced to five years in prison.
“When you think of sex trafficking, you think of people that are held against their will and made to do things that they don’t want to do,” Batts’ sister, Tiana Escalante, told The Crime Report.
Escalante described being shocked to learn that a woman can be charged with sex trafficking in Alaska for a consensual act—even when she is working independently.
“I think it’s kind of outrageous. It’s her body, her right to choose.”
Meanwhile, despite the funding for sex trafficking “rescue” operations, Burns says that as a first responder she has been unable to get law enforcement to investigate two recent cases where victims were held against their will and sold for sex. In the first case, she said the FBI told her there was not enough evidence.
“I’ve been involved in or around criminal investigations for quite a bit,” she said. “There was so much evidence, there were text messages.”
In the second case, she said, despite having an admission from a violent pimp on social media, “the FBI told me they didn’t have time.”
A year ago, Burns helped one victim who was violently trafficked make a report to the FBI, and managed to get her money from the state Victims of Violent Crimes Compensation Fund.
“But the people from the violent crime compensation board actually called me up and let me know, ‘you won’t be able to receive this money on her behalf because we can’t give money to organizations that don’t oppose prostitution,’” she said.
Describing people who have illegal sex as being incapable of making a choice, or too corrupted to understand their own victimhood, isn’t a new strategy.
“It’s very similar if you look at the history of the laws against gay sex and the stigma around gay people… you look back and remember [people said] ‘well, there’s only gay because they were abused as children. And so the gay people are going to go out and they’re going to rape our children,’” Burns said.
“That’s the same kind of stigma that we see around the sex work. Well, prostitutes are all either victims, or they started out as victims and now they’re going to go and victimize somebody else.
“Imagine if you saw the same kind of rhetoric around domestic violence victims. Saying that domestic violence victims need to be arrested because they’re too morally damaged to know what’s good for them.”
This is precisely what Doogan and her cohort are trying to face down in court. As a sex worker and founder of ESPLERP, she insists that she is not a victim.
“If you were a victim advocate, I wouldn’t even bother talking to you,” she told The Crime Report. She calls them the “Anti’s.” “I think that they’re extremely tone deaf.”
“They’re treating us like the sex slaves that they think that we are. That’s the problem with their approach. I stopped talking to them because they don’t want to hear, and take responsibility for their own exploitative behavior.”
Members of the media are some of the worst perpetrators of this narrative violence, says Doogan, “renaming us, reclassifying us, stripping us of our agency.
“We have been barred from our own authority on these issues.”
Those interested in watching oral arguments in ESPLERP v. Gascon can view them here. Victoria Mckenzie is Deputy Editor of The Crime Report. She welcomes readers’ comments.
President Trump’s words and actions, including his campaign-trail reference to Mexican “rapists,” his administration’s travel ban and his comment about people from “shithole countries” have filled many noncitizens with dread, and they’re more reluctant to report any sort of crime to authorities.
The Justice Department says that U.S. government’s efforts to fight human trafficking are stronger than ever, but people working with victims say President Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric is posing a problem, McClatchy Newspapers reports. “We used to tell immigrant communities that if you’re a victim of a crime, you should not fear coming forward. We can no longer say that,” said Jean Bruggeman of Freedom Network USA, an alliance of 32 organizations that work to prevent trafficking. Eighty-two percent of respondents in a survey sent out by advocacy organizations said they had clients who worried about contacting the police or going to court against their abusers. Sixty-two percent said immigration-related anxiety expressed by survivors had increased under Trump.
“Survivors are concerned that they will be detained if they make a police report or call 911,” one survey respondent wrote. “A 16-year-old survivor attempted suicide because she was concerned that her offender would report her and her family to [Immigration and Customs Enforcement.” Trump’s words and actions, including his campaign-trail reference to Mexican “rapists,” his administration’s travel ban and his comment about people from “shithole countries” have filled many noncitizens with dread, and they’re more reluctant to report any sort of crime to the authorities. “Before Trump, if a migrant was caught for speeding they might just get a ticket, now they’re calling in ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement),” said Denise Brennan of Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of International Migration. “That’s been carefully noted in these communities, and victims of exploitation are not going to go to those same law enforcement officers for help.”
Former sports doctor Larry Nassar was sentenced Monday to 40 to 125 years in prison, ending a remarkable three weeks of court hearings that dramatically personalized the pain and suffering that he caused for hundreds of women over many years. At his sentencing hearing in Eaton County, Mi., Nassar apologized for his crimes.
Former sports doctor Larry Nassar was sentenced Monday to 40 to 125 years in prison, ending a remarkable three weeks of court hearings that dramatically personalized the pain and suffering that he caused for hundreds of women for many years, CNN reports. At his sentencing hearing in Eaton County, Mi., Nassar apologized for his sexual abuse, saying victim statements had “impacted me to my innermost core.” Nassar added, “I understand and acknowledge that it pales in comparison to the pain, trauma and emotions that you all are feeling.”
Judge Janice Cunningham, citing Nassar’s earlier claims of no wrongdoing, sentenced him to a lengthy stay in prison and said that he was in “denial.” She said, “I am not convinced that you truly understand that what you did was wrong and the devastating impact you’ve had on the victims, family and friends.” Nassar had pleaded guilty to three counts of criminal sexual conduct in Eaton County. The sentence was the third in as many months for Nassar, the once-renowned doctor for USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University. He admitted to using his position as a trusted doctor to sexually abuse young girls under the guise of providing medical treatment. This Eaton County sentence will run concurrently with the 40-to-175-year sentence in Ingham County, Mi. He will serve those sentences after a separate 60-year sentence in federal prison for child pornography, meaning Nassar will serve at least 100 years in prison, an effective life sentence.
Two Pulitzer Prize-winning reporters uncovered the trail of a serial rapist and two very different police investigations. TCR talks with one of the journalists who followed the story.
In 2008, 18-year-old “Marie” was raped in her apartment near Seattle, Washington. But within a few days of reporting the assault to police, Marie, whose full name remains unidentified, became the subject of the police investigation.
As Pulitzer Prize winning reporters T. Christian Miller and Ken Armstrong recount in in their book A False Report: A True Story of Rape, she didn’t act according to police preconceptions of how rape victims should behave. And when they received a phone call casting even more doubts, they dropped the investigation.
Then Marie’s attacker went on to rape several more women in Colorado.
Armstrong and Miller argue the story is an example of how preconceived notions influence police investigations and raise questions about the fairness of the justice system. In a conversation with TCR staff writer Megan Hadley, Ken Armstrong explains how reporters working in two different cities came together on the investigation, what it taught them about the media’s influence on sexual assault cases, and whether the gender of investigating officers makes a difference in such cases.
The Crime Report:How did you first become interested in the case of a possible serial rapist out in Colorado?
Ken Armstrong: I lived in Seattle, so I had seen coverage in the Seattle Times of the rapists’ arrest and it turned out he had also raped a woman in Washington [named Marie], who had reported the crime and not been believed. What was missing from the coverage was Marie’s personal account. She had not spoken to the media about what she had gone through. What I was hoping to get were details on how the police investigation in Washington went off the rails. I was hoping to be able to reconstruct how the investigators first began to doubt the woman’s account, and how those doubts spread.
TCR: Where did you and your co-author, T. Christian Miller, find each other in the story?
Armstrong: It was a really unusual set of circumstances. I was working for The Marshall Project when I began working on the story in 2015, and T was working for ProPublica. He was interested in reporting on the investigation in Colorado because he heard about the outstanding work that the detectives there had done. So he wanted to profile an investigation done well–done spectacularly well. I was looking at the other half of this story, in Washington, in terms of what went wrong. Both of us intended to fill out our reporting by figuring out what was happening in the other state.
T crossed state lines first. He placed a call to Marie’s attorney in Washington and found out there was another reporter working on the same story. So he told his editor, and they decided, instead of rushing the story into print in order to beat us, they would reach out and see if we wanted to work on it together. So that’s what we did. It was pretty serendipitous. I had half the story based on what happened in Washington and he had the other half based on what happened in Colorado, so we were able to walk those two paths together.
TCR: Early in the book, you mention that cops take different approaches to investigating a rape because there is no universal consensus for the best way to solve it. Should there be necessary steps that police officers must take when investigating rape claims?
Armstrong: I do think there can be best practices. There needs to be a consensus that the most important aspect of any investigation is the evidence. Evidence trumps assumptions. You can’t be swayed by pre-conceptions or assumptions about what someone should act like when they get hurt. That’s what happened here. A lot of people around Marie had pre-conceptions about how she should act because she had been raped. And when she didn’t meet those expectations, they began doubting her. And one of the people who doubted her called the police, and then the police began doubting her.
That didn’t happen in Colorado. Detectives (there) investigated each of the reports thoroughly and they let evidence guide them towards what was the proper conclusion. So to me, it’s the idea that you have to investigate thoroughly and completely, and you can’t be blinded by your assumptions about what every victim should be doing.
TCR: You note that most of the police force is male-dominated, with a macho, hierarchical and militaristic mindset. Is that why so many rape cases go unsolved?
Armstrong: I don’t know if you can attribute it to gender- it did happen to be the case here though. The cases that were solved in Colorado, two of the lead detectives there were women. And the case that was so mishandled in Washington, the lead detective was a man. But I think what is most important is competence, compassion, patience and understanding and those qualities are not limited to either gender.
There have been studies showing that female police officers can be more patient and understanding, particularly in the case of domestic violence, and it’s possible that you might see a carry-over to rape cases. But I think that it’s the qualities I just described rather than the gender of the detective or the officer.
TCR: You also mention the public’s influence on police investigations, quoting a retired police sergeant, who said “people outside of law enforcement didn’t want to talk about sexual assault.” Is that changing, in light of the recent cases involving Larry Nassar, Harvey Weinstein and others?
Armstrong: That is changing. We’re seeing that with the #MeToo movement. There is a real realization about how prevalent this problem is and how it needs to be dealt with directly and in a public fashion. The examples you just mentioned with Weinstein and all kinds of cases that have been written about in the past year.
TCR: In the book, you include multiple chapters from the perspective of the rapist, detailing the “monster within” that he struggled with for many years. Did you want readers to sympathize with the serial rapist?
Armstrong: No we did not want readers to sympathize with him. We wanted to interview him for the same reason the FBI wanted to interview him after he was caught, to gain a better understanding of what drove him and to get a better understanding of how he avoided being caught for so long. The FBI agent spent four hours with him afterwards, trying to gain an understanding of what steps he had taken to avoid being caught, so that the police could benefit from that knowledge, and hopefully incorporate some of that knowledge towards how to investigate cases going forward.
TCR: Do you think, generally, someone convicted of a crime can go back and help police catch other perpetrators?
Armstrong: They can. This is why you often see police officers wanting to go and interview people after they have been caught. The more you understand about a criminal, the better your chances of catching other people going forward.
TCR: You also include chapters from the perspective of Marie, the rape victim who police officers refused to believe. What are some of the issues that stem from pre-conceived notions about how a rape victim should act?
Armstrong: I think some people have an expectation that a rape victim would be crying, would be hysterical, and some are. But some aren’t. Some have almost no affect, their voice is flat, their appearance is flat. When you look at what happened with Marie, the people around her expected her to be hysterical and crying and they were taken back when she spoke with so little emotion. When she didn’t make eye contact, some people found that to be unusual. When she didn’t hug someone she would usually hug, people found that to be unusual. At one point she was giggling and people thought that was unusual.
People were constantly looking for behavior from her to align with what they expected, and when they didn’t see it they became suspicious, and that extended to both the people who were friends and family, and to police officers investigating the case.
TCR: What can police departments do to ensure that survivors are not re-victimized by the very institutions that are sworn to protect them?
Armstrong: One big element is to listen. Also, how you speak to someone who has been hurt and how you question them is important. The big problem in a number of cases we looked at is the police officers didn’t interview people as victims. Instead they interrogated them as suspects and treated them as though they were someone who committed a robbery. They used interrogation techniques that are grossly inappropriate in a setting like this.
Those interrogation techniques put an extraordinary amount of pressure on people, and when you see rape victims who were raped recant their story, you have to understand the interrogation techniques and how powerful they are.
TCR: You also note the layers of doubt that afflict every stage of a rape prosecution including the victim doubting themselves, police doubting, prosecutors and juries doubting. So, what needs to change in order for victims who are telling the truth to receive justice for the crimes committed against them?
Armstrong: I think it’s important to not start by doubting. When someone reports being raped, listen and investigate and let the evidence take you to the right conclusion.
Megan Hadley is a staff writer for The Crime Report. She welcomes comments from readers.
The Times identified at least 27 girls and women who say that sports doctor Larry Nassar molested them between July 2015, when he first fell under FBI scrutiny, and September 2016, when he was exposed by an Indianapolis Star investigation. Some are among the youngest of the now-convicted predator’s 265 accusers.
For more than a year, an FBI inquiry into allegations that sports doctor Larry Nassar had molested three elite teenage gymnasts moved at a plodding pace as it went back and forth among agents in three cities, the New York Times reports. The information included instructional videos of the doctor’s unusual treatment methods, showing his ungloved hands working about the private areas of girls lying facedown on tables. The Times identified at least 27 girls and women who say that Nassar molested them between July 2015, when he first fell under FBI scrutiny, and September 2016, when he was exposed by an Indianapolis Star investigation. Some are among the youngest of the now-convicted predator’s 265 accusers.
The three alleged victims then at the center of the FBI inquiry were world-class athletes; two were Olympic gold medalists. Nearly a year passed before agents interviewed two of the young women. Gina Nichols, the mother of gymnast Maggie Nichols, was not contacted by the FBI for nearly 11 months after the information she provided sparked the federal inquiry. The FBI declined to answer detailed questions about the investigation, saying that the many allegations against Nassar “transcended jurisdictions.” The agency left unaddressed the oft-repeated claim by U.S.A. Gymnastics officials that after initially presenting the sexual assault allegations to the FBI in July 2015, they came away with the impression that federal agents had advised them not to discuss the case with anyone. The ensuing silence had dire consequences, as the many girls and young women still seeing Nassar received no warning.
Larry Nassar, the osteopath convicted of abusing young female gymnasts, has been compared to convicted serial child molester Jerry Sandusky. But an author who believes Sandusky may be innocent rejects the comparison, arguing that critics should focus attention on the widespread use of a therapy that can be misused in the wrong hands—and may have little scientific validity.
Larry Nassar, the gymnastics osteopath convicted of sexually abusing young female gymnasts and other patients under the guise of medical care, has been called a monster by many of the victims and by the judge in the case. New York Times op-ed writer Frank Bruni, who wrote that Nassar was a “familiar monster,” compared him to Jerry Sandusky, the former Penn State football coach who was also convicted of serial child molestation. Sandusky himself has also been called a monster frequently.
. Yet the two cases are actually quite different. As I argued in The Most Hated Man in America, my book about the Sandusky case, the utterly demonized former Penn State icon may actually be innocent. In distinction from the Nassar case, none of the alleged Sandusky victims ever told anyone at the time that Sandusky was molesting them. Most of the alleged Sandusky victims initially denied that he had abused them. Unlike Nassar, Sandusky has a supportive wife, possessed no pornography, and has consistently maintained his innocence.
In their classic 1994 critique of repressed memory therapy, Making Monsters, Richard Ofshe and Ethan Watters dissected the process by which innocent people were falsely accused of grotesque child sexual abuse. In my 2017 book, Memory Warp, I did the same, delving into the science of human memory and the unlikelihood of “repressed memories.”
But I don’t like labeling anyone a “monster,” even when, as in Nassar’s case, they are clearly guilty of serial sexual abuse. Calling people monsters provides a convenient stereotypical compartment to make them the “other,” different from us, the good guys, the upstanding, moral, normal people. Most people, in all likelihood even Larry Nassar, believe at the time of their horrendous behavior that they are doing the right thing.
Jerry Sandusky. Photo by Andrewstern2 via Flickr
That is, in fact, the more frightening reality.
So let us examine how Nassar got away with this abuse of so many for so long. Why did most of these young women acquiesce in the abuse and return repeatedly for more “treatments” by Nassar? And why did some parents go along with it, even as he did it in their presence? (Some victims assert that their parents couldn’t see what he was doing because of the way he positioned himself, but I presume that many parents had a good idea what he was doing as he “treated” their daughters, and that he had “explained” it to them.)
Nassar practiced “myofascial release” to help alleviate lower back, hamstring, and “pelvic floor pain,” a treatment during which many osteopaths, physical therapists, and others insert their fingers into women’s vaginas and/or anuses to palpate allegedly restricted, misaligned connective tissue.
…a whole body, hands-on form of manual therapy that helps to restore the necessary elasticity to the connective tissue web. The therapist using myofascialrelease applies sustained pressure into areas of restriction allowing the tissue to elongate and reduce the crushing forces on pain-sensitive structures.
Vaginal manipulation is only one aspect of the method, in other words.
Presumably, when Nassar massaged young girls’ breasts, that too was rationalized as part of the myofascial treatment.
A quick search on the internet turns up plenty of vaginal/anal practitioners, both male and female, touting the “advantages of manual internal treatment of the pelvic floor.” Even the federal website of the National Institutes of Health hosts a 2012 article asserting: “The hallmark diagnostic indicator of MFPP [myofascial pelvic pain] is myofascial trigger points in the pelvic floor musculature that refer pain to adjacent sites. Effective treatments are available to reduce MFPP, including myofascial trigger point release” through internal vaginal manipulation.
Practitioners claim that these internal fingerings can cure far-flung bodily pains and even migraine headaches.
In a sympathetic 2010 feature article on the method, headlined “You Want to Do What? Where?” one journalist wrote: “In its most basic sense, internal pelvic floor therapy involves a physical therapist using his/her finger to examine trigger points inside a person’s body that are affecting the bladder, tailbone, urethra, prostate (in men), and other organs. Through this physical examination and treatment, therapists can identify tightness and tenderness and gently stretch the connecting muscle.”
Pelvic floor treatment has been (and still is) recommended for female athletes in particular. A 2013 article on the ATI Physical Therapy site asserts: “It is imperative that women are aware of the importance in [sic] optimal pelvic floor health and function…. If dysfunction is present, skilled physical therapy can help decrease symptoms and improve function.” The Herman and Wallace Pelvic Rehabilitation Institute is offering a $475 course this summer for the “Athlete and the Pelvic Floor,” for instance. There is no mention of internal vaginal treatment on either website, but it is likely that the treatment includes such ministrations.
One practitioner, Casie Danenhauer, wrote in a blog condemning Nassar: “I want to take this opportunity to educate the public about internal pelvic floor assessment and treatment, because in the conversations I’ve been having with my patients and the public about this there seems to be a misconception that internal work is inherently on the line of abuse.
“The media doesn’t seem to be explaining that there are indeed times when this type of ‘rare intravaginal treatment’ is actually indicated. In fact, it’s not rare, it can be totally legitimate, and it’s the basis of what my colleagues and I do all day and how we help hundreds of people every year.”
This background helps to explain why, even when one of Nassar’s patients reported him for sexual abuse, a Title IX internal investigation at Michigan State University in 2014 cleared him, concluding that there was a “nuanced difference” between sexual assault and legitimate medical treatment.
Nassar had treated 24-year-old Amanda Thomashow, the complainant, for hip pain, during which he touched her breast and vaginal area for several minutes, purportedly to adjust her shoulder and pelvic bone. In this case, he apparently did not insert his fingers but rubbed nearby. Nassar told an investigator that he was “known for this type of pelvic floor work” and that he included information about it in his presentations because the practice was “ignored by too many physicians.”
He included a Star Trek image in his PowerPoint presentation with a caption: “Pelvic floor: Where no man has gone before.” The MSU investigation concluded that Nassar’s treatment of Thomashow was “medically appropriate,” but an internal report (not given to Thomashow) noted that such treatment might inflict “unnecessary trauma.”
Larry Nassar may have practiced a form of myofascial release, but he did not get informed consent before sticking his ungloved, unlubricated finger into girls’ vaginas or anuses, nor did he usually have a third party present, all of which is part of the recommended protocol. Add to that the fact that he also collected child pornography, and it would appear that Nassar was probably getting sexual pleasure from these myofascial treatment sessions.
In a seven-day sentencing hearing for Nassar, Judge Rosemarie Aquilina allowed 156 Nassar victims to speak about what he had done to them and how it had impacted them. The stories were emotional and compelling, but they were also revealing in other ways. Many of the women had not thought of themselves as sexual abuse victims until the massive Nassar media coverage. They may have been uncomfortable, enduring sharp pain, or they may have even experienced pleasure during his internal probes, but they assumed that his treatments were legitimate.
I suspect that many of them thought that the manipulations had actually helped relieve their pain. Many of them had not, in other words, felt traumatized at the time.
In retrospect, however, they were enraged, and many now blamed any subsequent problems in life on the Nassar abuse. Nicole Reeb, for instance, had dealt with depression, anxiety, and alcoholism. As a reporter noted, when she “realized she had been sexually abused, she finally had the answer to her ‘why.’”
From my research on repressed memories, I am familiar with this retrospective searching for the answer to life’s problems. Aha, now I understand why I have been unhappy in my relationships, why I have an eating disorder, why I am depressed, or the like. We all tend to grasp at simple answers to complex problems.
In repressed memory cases, newly self-identified victims had not in fact been abused but had developed illusory memories, as I suspect at least one of those who testified at the Nassar sentencing had done. Annette Hill, who went to Nassar for treatment of her knee pain, said that she had “suppressed memories of the abuse for years.” But other Nassar victims had no problem in always remembering what had occurred.
Coaches in highly competitive sports can sometimes be emotionally abusive towards their athletes. (Ironically, Jerry Sandusky was a clear exception: he treated his players well, by all accounts.) Many gymnastics coaches are notorious for over-controlling their young competitors and putting their bodies through excessive dieting and strain, through which gymnasts often develop tendonitis, sprained ankles, back soreness, rotator cuff tears, shin splints, stress fractures, pinched nerves, and early arthritis. Gymnasts seeking answers for why they developed mental or physical problems might search for explanations, at least in part, in that history.
Jamie Dantzscher, an Olympic bronze medalist, recalled recently how abusive the gymnastics environment was. In an interview last month with ABC’s 20/20, she said:
They controlled what we ate. They controlled how we stood, how they wanted our hair, how we should talk, when we could talk. There were times we got in trouble for just smiling. That’s not even including the injuries that we had to work through. Like, I competed on a fractured back….I mean, I don’t even know how I did it. When I think about it now, I don’t know how any of us did, but it was like that’s all we knew.
For Dantzscher, her treatment time with Larry Nassar served as a refuge.
Going to Dr. Nassar was like a bright light. Larry was my buddy. Larry would make me laugh. Larry would say, “Oh, they’re all horrible. I get it.” It’s hard for me to say now, but I looked forward to treatment because at least I was allowed to laugh and have…some downtime…. Larry was the only adult that I can remember that I trusted right away. I thought he was there to help me, and not only that, I actually thought he might be the only adult around me that actually cared about my health and well-being.
She thought the myofascial treatments were normal medical procedures. But now she regards them as sexually abusive, and she is extremely bitter towards Nassar, and says that she hopes he himself is sexually abused in prison “until the day he dies.”
I do not excuse anything Nassar did, and it is clear that he really did sexually abuse the girls and young women he was supposed to be helping, and that they suffered because of it. But it is not quite the story of unmitigated monstrous evil that the media has portrayed.
There are apparently many other bad actors in the gymnastics world, for whom winning is everything, who are not incarcerated.
During Nassar’s sentencing hearing, Judge Rosemarie Aquilina took a strong advocacy position for the victims, whom she called “superheroes.” She relished telling Nassar, “I have signed your death warrant” by giving him 40 to 175 years in prison, in addition to the 60 years he had already received for possessing child pornography. The judge told one victim that “the monster who took advantage of you is going to wither” like the Wicked Witch of the West.
Rachel Marshall, a California public defender, complained that “it is simply unfitting for a judge to broadcast such personal contempt for a defendant in her court,” but the judge has otherwise been widely praised.
Marshall’s complaint is reasonable, but it is not just judges who should refrain from calling Nassar a monster. In a media-fueled moral panic, it has become de rigueur for commentators to heap opprobrium on Nassar.
Yes, he is guilty. He is in prison. But he is also a human being, and the media would do well to examine the possible pseudoscience that apparently made this long-term abuse possible.
Mark Pendergrast is a science writer and independent scholar, the author of The Most Hated Man in America and Memory Warp, among other books. He can be reached through his website, www.markpendergrast.com. Readers’ comments are welcome.
“Distraught father” Randall Margraves called Nassar a profanity and approached him after a judge declined his request to spend five minutes with Nassar in a locked room.
A father of three victims of Larry Nassar tried to attack the disgraced former sports doctor during a sentencing hearing Friday, after the judge declined his request for “five minutes” alone with Nassar in a locked room. He was quickly tackled by bailiffs, the Associated Press reports. Two of the man’s daughters had just addressed the court, saying they and another sister had been sexually abused by Nassar under the guise of medical treatment. Their father, Randall Margraves, told the judge he was a “distraught father.”
He looked at Nassar, shook his head and called him a profanity while speaking at the courtroom podium. The judge cautioned Margraves against using profanity. He then asked for “five minutes” alone with Nassar. When the judge said she couldn’t allow that, Margraves asked for one minute. The judge again declined. The father then lunged at Nassar, who was sitting nearby. Assistant Attorney General Angela Povilaitis told families in the courtroom to “use your words,” not violence. “This is letting him have this power over us,” she said. “We cannot behave like this. I understand this is a remarkable situation. But you cannot do this. This is not helping your children. This is not helping your community. This is not helping us.” More than 30 victims have given statements so far. During a similar hearing that ended last week, more than 150 girls and women came forward to say Nassar abused them under the guise of medical treatment. The proceedings are likely to extend into next week.
Meridian Township, Mi., is apologizing to a victim of sports doctor Larry Nassar for dropping her case against Nassar. “We missed it. We’re not going to hide it. We were deceived,” says township manager Frank Walsh.
A police department near Lansing, Michigan, missed a chance to pursue criminal charges in 2004 against Larry Nassar and will publicly apologize to the victim who accused the doctor of molesting her during treatment for an abnormal spine, reports the Associated Press. Meridian Township is making the apology Thursday to Brianne Randall-Gay and will announce changes in how it handles sexual misconduct investigations, township manager Frank Walsh said. Nassar, then a sports doctor at Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics, convinced police he had performed a legitimate procedure with his hands and provided a PowerPoint presentation to explain. The case was dropped, allowing him to continue to molest girls and young women, including Olympians, for years until his arrest in 2016. A total of 265 women and girls have said they were assaulted. “We missed it. We’re not going to hide it. We were deceived,” Walsh said.
In 2004, Randall-Gay was 17 when she and her mother visited Nassar to discuss treatment for scoliosis, a curvature of the spine. He sent her to physical therapy but saw her again, this time alone. Randall-Gay had a back problem. She told police that Nassar had removed her underwear, forcibly cupped her genitals with his hand and rubbed her breasts — all without gloves. “She thought it was ‘weird’ and it ‘freaked her out,’” the police report says. Nassar told police he applied pressure to the “perineum,” using a formal word for an area between the legs, and said it was done to manipulate a ligament.
Former sports doctor Larry Nassar, who will again be confronted by scores of victims in Michigan as he faces another prison sentence for molesting gymnasts at an elite club run by an Olympic coach. Some question the practice of allowing accusers to speak even if they are not tied directly to a case.
The final sentencing hearing began Wednesday for disgraced former sports doctor Larry Nassar, who will again be confronted by scores of victims as he faces another prison sentence for molesting gymnasts at an elite Michigan club run by an Olympic coach, reports the Associated Press. Judge Janice Cunningham has set aside several days for about 60 people who want to confront Nassar or have their statement read in court. The hearing could unfold as did a hearing last week in another county where a different judge allowed more than 150 women and girls to confront Nassar. That hearing ended with Nassar getting sentenced to 40 to 175 years in prison, with the judge describing it as Nassar’s “death warrant.”
The practice of allowing accusers to speak even if they are not tied directly to a case has raised questions about fairness. Attorneys say the victim statements probably pose little risk on appeal, because Nassar pleaded guilty, agreed to allow the statements and is expected to get another long prison sentence as part of his deal with prosecutors. It’s not uncommon for prosecutors to introduce “aggravating” evidence at sentencing to support their request for a severe punishment. The parade of victims offering emotional accounts of their abuse to the face of an abuser went well beyond the typical hearing. A fellow Ingham County judge, William Collette, said Judge Rosemarie Aquilina’s handling of last week’s hearing was “outrageous.” Others, however, have praised her treatment of victims and their parents.