Kyle Stephens testified in January at the sentencing hearing for Larry Nassar, who was convicted of child sex-abuse charges in a Michigan court. Her cousin Sophia Stephens contributed to the drafting of this op-ed.
Larry Nassar wasn’t my doctor. He was just a close family friend who spent a lot more time playing with children than the other adults did. When I was six, he exposed himself to me in his basement boiler room.
He later used games of hide-and-seek to masturbate in front of me and proceeded to molest me for six years. While my family watched football and cooked dinner, I was sacrificed to a public-health pandemic that remains shrouded in silence.
I was the first of 256 known victims to tell the world what Nassar had done to me and how it had affected my life. The steps I took to the lectern in a Michigan courtroom last month were the last moments I would spend in silence, while too many victims continue to live with their unmentionable truth.
Sexual abuse is hardly limited to Nassar, Michigan State University or USA Gymnastics. One in 9 girls, and 1 in 53 boys, will experience such abuse by their 18th birthday. I find the way we ignore or sugarcoat our most vile issues to be offensive and a big part of our problem. Our silence and inaction create a culture where predators can thrive.
As a survivor of sexual abuse, I can testify to the cascade of mental and physical health complications that stem from this trauma. My desperate need to regain jurisdiction over my life led me to eat myself sick and to compulsively exercise in fear of gaining weight. Constant anxiety made me hyperattentive to anything I could control — my body, my environment and the people in my life. I isolated myself. I felt too fat, too ugly or just simply not good enough to be around others.
These maladaptive behaviors kept me anchored in seemingly endless pain. While I avoided spiraling into more destructive behaviors, many victims turn to drugs and alcohol to cope. According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, those who have been sexually abused are four times as likely to misuse drugs. How many tossed-aside and forgotten addicts were victimized as children?
And the effects are not limited to individuals who were physically violated. Abuse also affects the lives of the people on the periphery. I lost my father to his guilt. He committed suicide in 2016, ending both his mental anguish and debilitating chronic pain. My mother must live with her regret every day. Our unwillingness to shatter the stigma surrounding sexual exploitation keeps us from realizing the immensity of the problem and the imminent danger to those we love. It leaves our communities undereducated about prevention, as well as deprived of the resources to treat the consequences.
When I stepped to the microphone in that Michigan courtroom, Judge Rosemarie Aquilina hadn’t yet deemed Nassar’s victims a “sisterhood” or an “army of survivors.” And many still lack this support. I have received messages from survivors all over the world detailing their abuse and isolation. They say things such as “I have never told anyone,” “I don’t think anyone will care” and “I didn’t say no.” I despair that our communities attach so much shame to sexual abuse — and offer so little support to victims — that survivors feel their best option is to reach out to me through social media. When an Instagram message is the only place where victims can speak their truth, we are failing.
Our society is conditioned to put the reputations of people and institutions above the well-being of a child or adult survivor. The Nassar scandal has done more than expose Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics for their inaction and malpractice — it has exposed each and every one of us for our contribution to this problem.
Every day we do nothing, we send a message to victims everywhere that their pain doesn’t matter, and that their lives are expendable. This cannot go on.
We must demand that every candidate running for office has a sexual-abuse and assault prevention agenda. Abusers don’t see race, religion or political affiliation. They see only vulnerability, innocence and opportunity. Our inaction protects predators, and anyone who doesn’t see remedying this problem as a priority is unfit to lead our country.
Predators rely on silence, fear and shame to keep their victims quiet. It is time to take that away from them. We must start treating sexual abuse as a public health issue. We must develop victim-centric solutions and implement them where we can. Propose sexual-abuse prevention curriculum for your school. Educate yourself and your children. Take every report seriously. And show the predators that their time is up.