Five years ago, the first reports of ex-USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar’s heinous crimes laid bare one of the largest sexual abuse scandals in American history. Fast-forward to this week, when more than 500 survivors, including Olympic gymnastic champions Simone Biles and Aly Raisman, reached a $380 million settlement that includes long overdue institutional reforms.
But this is only the beginning. While the historic payout ends a landmark legal battle that went as far as Capitol Hill, it also fuels an ongoing reckoning led by Jon Vaughn, Trinea Gonczar, and Rocky Ratliff. Once strangers to each other, today they’re the faces of a fight against institutional sexual abuse that transcends race, gender, and generation. For decades, their athletic doctors sexually assaulted them and countless other young athletes, grooming and abusing them under the guise of routine medical treatments: Nassar at Michigan State University, the late Richard Strauss at Ohio State University, and the late Robert Anderson at the University of Michigan.
Their collective fight was sparked on the University of Michigan campus, where former NFL player Vaughn has been protesting outside of the president’s home since last October. A survivor of Anderson’s abuse, he demands that the school takes accountability for the harm committed during Anderson’s tenure and protects students moving forward.
Gonczar has also become a vocal advocate for survivors of sexual assault in her home state of Michigan. Years of abuse from Nassar, who molested Gonczar over 800 times at a local gymnastics club, ultimately led to the survivor delivering a now-viral victim impact statement against the former trainer.
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Ratliff, an attorney who was abused by Strauss as a wrestler at Ohio State University, currently represents himself and other survivors in a case against the late doctor. He and Vaughn have leveraged the longtime, high-profile rivalry at their respective universities to highlight the sexual abuse scandals at both campuses.
“I think Jon got to a point where he was done waiting, and I was like, ‘I’ll go with you. I will not let you stand alone,’” Gonczar told Cosmopolitan. “At this stage, the only way to make change is by force.” Bonded by trauma and determined to change their once beloved alma maters, they recently met with journalist and Ohio State University alum Audra Heinrichs via Zoom to unpack the complex intersection of shame, gender, and allyship that accompanies their increasingly visible fight for justice.
Cosmopolitan: Is there anything you’ve learned from watching each other’s cases play out in the public?
Ratliff: The survivors of the Nassar case were our superheroes. I would not be sitting here if it weren’t for the bravery of the Michigan State survivors and the women from the Team USA Gymnastics team. Trinea, Aly [Raisman] and Simone [Biles], and all the survivors were who we watched before we came forward with the abuse at Ohio State. Guys were calling each other as their case and trial went public like, ‘Are you seeing what’s happening with these girls? This is us.’ It was then that we started sharing our own stories.
Vaughn: Trinea, whenever I don’t want to get up, whenever I’m tired of living in a camper, I watch your impact statement, which is one of the bravest things I’ve ever watched in my life. We break the cycle of abuse by standing tall and strong in the face of our abuser and all the people that don’t believe.
How has support shown up for you? When it comes to the gender of the person supporting you, have you noticed any patterns? What about from survivors versus non-survivors?
Gonczar: For me as a former women’s gymnast, it was obviously an army of girls. I think more than anything I received a lot of “Me too.” Men would say things like, “I’m sorry that that happened to you” and “I’m so proud to know you and I want my daughters to follow your footsteps.” They would also sometimes say, “If you ever get a chance, I’d like to talk to you about some things.” I felt that maybe they had a “Me too,” but they weren’t quite ready to say.
Ratliff: My biggest support has been from my teammates, but I still have a hard time. Between them and my family, we really don’t talk about what happened too much. At the Big 10 [the oldest Division I collegiate athletic conference in the U.S.] level, you’re taught not to complain about anything and internalize your problems.
Gonczar: The only thing beautiful about sexual assault for survivors is that when you’re with other survivors, you don’t have to say a word. It’s peaceful. With these men, I don’t have to grin and bear my surroundings. And that is so not the norm, for women to have men as public allies.
Shame is something that the majority of survivors struggle to parse through when reckoning with their abuse. In each of your cases, your abuse was under the guise of medical treatment. What are some observations you have about shame personally and generally speaking?
Gonczar: The thing about assault is that it’s primarily considered an issue for women. There’s a different shame associated with sexual assault against boys and men because there’s confusion around masculinity and sometimes, their sexuality.
Vaughn: I’m seeing that out here on [the University of Michigan] campus. I’ve heard hundreds of stories from young women and only about 25 stories from young men.
Ratliff: There are days I wish I had never done or said anything and just kept it in forever. Then there are days I see survivors struggling and am motivated to do something. It’s really tough. Society is not ready for male wrestlers, football players, and hockey players to come out and say it happens to us too. No one’s ready for that because if it can happen to us, it can happen to anybody.
Society wants it to be one narrative, that girls and women brought on their abuse by dressing a certain way or that there are just a few bad dudes. We refuse to think that religious leaders, doctors, the people we trust, are abusing anyone. But if a UFC Hall of Famer, a heavyweight champion, an Olympian, and an NCAA champion wrestler can get abused, then anybody can get abused.
You’re all embodying allyship right now but in your own words, what does allyship look like for each of you?
Vaughn: One-hundred percent unconditional love and trust in what a survivor is telling you. Also, allowing survivors to set the speed in which they want to come to you and tell you what happened.
Gonczar: First and foremost, believe survivors. And if you are a survivor and the first person you tell doesn’t believe you, tell a second. Because if I would have stopped at the first person I told, I would not be here today. I think about the gymnasts who testified at the Senate committee against Nassar and the FBI didn’t believe them.
For men seeking to be allies to female or femme survivors, my advice is to hold each other accountable for inappropriate behavior. Those are uncomfortable conversations to have, but the more you practice that, the better you’re going to get at it. People will realize that you don’t accept that kind of behavior and expect respect.
To best support survivors of any gender, ask survivors what they want you to do as opposed to telling them what you think they should do or how you think that they should do it. Ask them things like, “Do you want me to just sit here right now, hold you and cry together? Do we need to blare some music? Do you want to talk to an advocate? Do we want to do nothing at all?” But it’s also important to know that it’s not your job to fix this for them.
Ratliff: When someone’s coming to you with a sexual assault or sexual abuse story, they’re not necessarily coming to you for advice. They’re coming to you because they want to tell someone who is non-judgmental and compassionate, someone who will just listen. No matter how crazy the story is or how many parts may be missing or how little it makes sense. Sometimes with trauma, you have to work to piece it together.
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