What Is a Girl Worth?: Abuse Doesn’t Get there Final Word
In What is a Girl Worth?, Rachel Denhollander exposes the truth about her perpetrator, Larry Nassar, and the institution that covered it up, USA Gymnastic.
While it takes lots of courage, strength, and vulnerability for a survivor to tell their story of sexual assault, it takes even more to report that crime and sin to the legal authorities and the church. Rachel’s story reveals why so many sexual assault survivors do not report the sin and crime perpetrated against them.
With regard to the reporting or sexual assault, there are two major issues to consider—false-reporting and under-reporting. While under-reporting is a major concern, false reporting is not. Actually, false reports are quite rare. The figure often used by sexual violence experts for estimating falsified reports is two percent, which is a lower rate than other crimes.
Given the horrific nature of sexual assault and the shame it brings to survivors, it is not shocking that it is one of most underreported crime. The fear of intrusive and re-victimizing court procedures prevents many survivors from reporting their assaults. Most survivors choose not to report their assaults. According to the FBI, sexual assault is “one of the most under-reported cries due primarily to fear and/or embarrassment on the part of the victim.”
Under-reporting is because of the unique shame, fear, and embarrassment that sexual assault victims experience. All of this is then compounded by a victim-blaming culture in which survivors are often said to be “allowing it” (by not resisting strongly enough) or “asking for it” (by dressing too provocatively, going out alone too late at night, or drinking). The victim-blaming impulse shows up frequently when a story of sexual assault appear in the news or is disclosed in a church.
Rachels tells about the victim-blaming she experienced directly and sometimes more subtly. This takes place in numerous ways. A major way this can be done is by asking suspicious questions: “Why did you wait so long to tell anyone” or “How did you let them happen to you?” or “Couldn’t you have done something to avoid it?”
Rachel’s story is very familiar to other survivors who have been asked suspicious questions or have been ignored or avoided once they’ve dared to report what had been done to them.
Social psychology research on attitudes toward sexual assault demonstrates that our culture holds prejudices and negative views of survivors. Thus, survivors suffer from the trauma of the assault itself as well as the effects of negative stereotypes. The result is that after an assault, victims feel socially derogated and blamed, which can prolong and intensify the psychological and emotions distress of survivors.
Because sexual assault victimization is stigmatized in American society, many suffer silently, which intensifies a victim’s distress and disgrace. There appears to be a societal impulse to blame traumatized individuals for their suffering. One rationale is that this provides nonvictims with a false sense of security if they can place blame on victims, rather than on perpetrators. Negative reactions to sexual assault victims, such as attributing blame or responsibility to the victim, generally have been found to be greater for assaults by an acquaintance and supposedly “non-resisting” victims.
Blaming victims for post-traumatic symptoms is not only erroneous, but also contributes to the vicious cycle of traumatization. Research has proven that victims who are believed and listened to by others adjust better than those who are not. Victims that experience negative social reactions have poorer adjustment.
Many survivors know how unlikely they will succeed in their quest for justice if they do report sexual assault. The statistics from the Department of Justice are staggering. Only 4.6% of reports lead to an arrest and less than 1% of cases are referred to prosecutors. Only .5% of reported sexual assaults will lead to a felony conviction or incarceration. Perpetrators of sexual violence are less likely to go to jail or prison than other criminals. Even if a perpetrator serves jail time, the frequently serve ridiculously short sentences. Therefore, survivors feel little incentive to report from the criminal justice system and feel every reason not to report from this same system and victim-blaming culture. For many survivors, corruption, laziness, and/or lack of investigative ability makes reporting not worth the trauma.
In addition to being grateful for Rachel’s description of the difficulty of reporting, I appreciate What is a Girl Worth?because it serves as a testimony to trauma, tells the truth about perpetrators, and serves as a warning to institutions.
An important part of Rachel’s story is the trauma she suffered. It is very difficult to read about the heart-wrenching evil that Nassar and others perpetrated against Rachel. Seeing darkness that up-close will affect most readers. It should. I recommend that survivors be attentive to their own emotions, healing, and trauma if they consider reading the book.
The only thing more staggering than the number of occurrences of sexual assault is the acute damage done to the survivor. The effects are physical, social, emotional, psychological, and spiritual. Sexual assault causes harmful psychological effects that are more severe than effects of other crimes. Abuse survivors experience the second highest prevalence rate for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)—only exceeded by survivors of war. The best word to describe abuse is “traumatic.” “Trauma” is a state of being negatively overwhelmed. It is the experience of terror, loss of control, of helplessness during a stressful event.
Rachel describes well the intentionality and manipulation of Larry Nassar as he perpetrated against young girls under his medical care. These girls and families trusted him and his response was to reinforce their trust only to violate it and assume the benefit of the doubt when accusations mounted against him. Perpetrators devastate lives, sin against God and their victims, commit crimes, violate trust, deceive, and blame their victims.
Like Larry Nassar, most child sexual offenders, are known by their victims. Only 10% of child sexual offenders abuse children they do not know. Like Larry Nassar, most offenders have many victims. Those who sexually victimize children likely have victimized dozens of even hundreds of other children during their lifetime. Like Larry Nassar, many offenders offend with other child and even adults in the room. According to one study, 54.9% of child molesters offended when another child was present and 23.9% offended when another adult was present.
Rachel tells how USA Gymnastics protected Larry Nassar and covered-up the abuse done to her and many other girls. It was systematic institutional suppression of anything that might threatened to derail them from their goals. And this is done at the expense of young girls’ lives—bodies, minds, and souls.
Regardless of the institution—USA Gymnastic, churches, schools, business, families, tend to rally around the accused, minimize the offense or cover it up completely, blame the victims, avoid transparency, mock justice, and cause survivors to feel that their only option is to suffer alone in silence and shame because nobody will believe them.
For churches, consider what Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” Churches must recognize that they need to be proactive in keeping children safe and to be communities of hope, healing, and good news to those that have suffered sexual assault. Failure to do so will result in additional cases of abuse, and in lifetimes of agonizing physical, emotional, and spiritual damage. God calls his people to be agents of good news and tell people that Jesus responds to their pain and past. We get to remind survivors that their story does not end with the assault; that their life was intended for more than shame, guilt, despair, pain, and denial; that the assault does not define them or have the last word on their identity.
Not the Final Word
Sexual assault is part of Rachel’s story, and it is an important part of her story, but she is very clear that it is not the final word of her story and it does not define her.
Evil and abuse are not the final word. They are not capable of creating or ultimately defining reality. That is only God’s prerogative. However, evil and violence can pervert, distort and destroy. They are parasitic on the original good of God’s creation. In this way evil serves as the backdrop on the stage where God’s redemption shines with even greater brilliance and pronounced drama. What evil uses to destroy, God uses to expose, excise, and then heal.
Both What is a Girls Worth? and How Much Is a Little Girl With?, the children’s book she also wrote, offer hope, healing, and worth as our individual stories are brought into God’s larger story of dignity, value, rescue, healing, wholeness, redemption, and shalom. God redeems what has been destroyed and to their sense of disgrace, God joyfully applies his mercy and grace. Rachael captures this message well in How Much Is a Little Girl Worth?:
“No one has the power to change what God’s done,
And He says you’re worth everything, even His Son.
Worth all the pain, worth great sacrifice,
Worth leaving heaven, worth giving His life.”
This review essay first appeared at The Gospel Coalition.