BY SUSAN GRETTENBERGER
I am a Michigan State University alum. Currently, I am a faculty member at Central Michigan University, where I and my colleagues are entrusted with thousands of young adults beginning to negotiate the world on their own. I am a former female college athlete, I am a social worker whose clients who include young victims of sexual abuse and women who have experienced violence at the hands of men, I am personally connected to many young adults who have experienced sexual assault and, finally, I am the adoptive mom to four kids — including a daughter — who all went to college. From these many perspectives, I keep trying to untangle the MSU/Nassar scandal.
For me — living as I do at Ground Zero of this crisis, Lansing, Michigan — the headlines and the commentaries were non-stop. I have been horrified at the harm done to hundreds of young female athletes who trusted a doctor to help them compete, and trusted their mentors to keep them safe. These women deserve every effort possible to make things better, even though things can never be made fully right. Yet, each time I read another story or was asked by another person if former MSU President Lou Anna Simon should have resigned, I stumbled on my response. I started to wonder what was wrong with me, a passionate advocate for women, fumbling for a clean answer and being annoyed as politicians and others called for heads to roll, called for accountability. I think I know now.
This is what’s wrong: Michigan State University and Nassar are not The Problem. The understandably fierce attention being paid to this scandal, to this egregious incidence of abuse by a particularly smooth and convincing physician who used his status to harm his patients and deceive even his medical colleagues is only a single situation. This is a problem. It isn’t the problem. Sexual assault of women, including young women, is an epidemic that touches every single campus in our country. It is fueled by a long-accepted social culture which devalues women and denies them the right to decide how they want their bodies touched. The MSU/Nassar scandal absolutely must be addressed, but I almost hear sighs of relief as the focus of the national discussion of #MeToo has shifted to a discussion of a sports problem, of one university’s problem. The sighs are from all those people and institutions which might otherwise be on the hot seat in MSU’s place. This is not a sports problem. This is not specifically a higher education problem. It is a society-wide problem.
This is what’s wrong: there are many thousands more young women — and although fewer in number, young men — who are struggling to hang on due to the sexual assaults they have experienced during the time they were, or perhaps still are, in college. The situation at MSU should be awakening demands for increased efforts to create a culture of consent on campus, and demands for services to help the victims when the culture of consent is violated.
This is what’s wrong: These sexual assaults are more common — a date gone very bad, a roommate’s friend who stayed at their apartment, a trusted friend from home who this time decided he wanted sex, a boyfriend who is violent and doesn’t care if he has consent, someone changes their mind but it doesn’t matter. The results are devastating for each of these victims. Some are so shaken and distraught they fail their classes, and even attempt suicide. Many, maybe most, keep silent for various reasons. Nassar is the tiny tip of the iceberg for sexual assault on campuses, and campuses are but a reflection of a broader culture. When will people start asking what we need to do to make things better for all the victims on college campuses? Where are the politicians stepping up to offer funding so universities so that they can provide adequate counseling for victims of any sexual assault?
The exposure of Nassar’s assaults should be prompting soul searching at every university in the country. Officials and politicians should also be asking how we change the broader culture and until we do, asking what we can do help the thousands of young adults on college campuses who have been sexually assaulted.
Susan Grettenberger, PhD, MSW is Director/Professor in the Social Work Program at Central Michigan University. She and her wife Nicole are committed to ending sexual violence. (No last name used as she works for MSU).