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The Very Existence of Non-Disclosure Agreements in Sexual Abuse Cases Is Despicable

mckayla maroney gymnasts abuse nassar

Olympic gymnasts McKayla Maroney, Aly Raisman, Jordyn Wieber and Gabby Douglas. Maroney, Raisman, and Douglas have all accused USA Gymnastic’s Dr. Larry Nassar of sexual abuse and child molestation.

Last month, Olympic gymnast McKayla Maroney opened up about being sexually abused for years by her team’s doctor, and she’s nowhere close to being the only victim. More than 140 women and girls have accused the same doctor, Larry Nassar, of abuse disguised as medical treatment. Some of those accusers include recent gold medal winners Aly Raisman, Gabby Douglas, and, sharing her story just yesterday, Simone Biles. Nassar has already been sentenced to 60 years in prison after being found in possession of 37,000 images of child pornography, and is currently awaiting sentencing for the separate abuse charges.

Nassar pled guilty to seven counts of criminal sexual conduct, but all of his victims have the opportunity to testify against him, either in person, in writing, or an audio or video recording.

Testimony hearings began today and nearly a hundred victims are expected to participate, but it was being reported that Maroney (and presumably many others) may not be able to testify because of the nondisclosure agreement she signed as part of her settlement with USA Gymnastics. That caught the attention of Chrissy Teigen, who offered to cover the fine Maroney would possibly be forced to pay if she broke her NDA.

Kristen Bell and Michael Schur also offered to split the cost.

Many, many other non-celebrities have also offered to chip in small amounts. Fortunately, USA Gymnastics has announced that they will not seek money from Maroney for, as they state, “her brave statements made in describing her victimization and abuse by Larry Nassar, nor for any victim impact statements she wants to make to Larry Nassar at this hearing or at any subsequent hearings related to his sentencing.” They say that the organization “encourages McKayla and anyone who has been abused to speak out.”

That’s a smart move on the part of USA Gymnastics and the only decent thing to do. But the fact that there was a nondisclosure agreement to begin with is despicable. It’s also potentially illegal.

Maroney filed a lawsuit against the organization for failing to “properly investigate, discipline or remove Olympic Team doctor Larry Nassar” as well as their “illegal and immoral attempt to silence a victim of child sexual abuse.”

Maroney’s attorney said in a press release, “The US Olympic Committee had to know that the victim of child sexual abuse in California cannot be forced to sign a nondisclosure agreement as a condition of a settlement. Such agreements are illegal for very good reasons, they silence victims and allow perpetrators to continue committing their crimes. That is exactly what happened in this case.”

I am very grateful that the silencing of victims of child abuse is illegal in California (I’m not sure about Michigan, where Nassar is being tried, or any other state), and it sure seems like it’s about time that this extends to the victims of all sexual crimes. Far too often, we hear of women who have been silenced by NDAs as part of settlements. We only know of them because many women are choosing to break those agreements and share their stories anyway in the wake of the #MeToo movement.

When that happens, when women accuse men like Harvey Weinstein or Matt Lauer or members of Congress and end up reaching settlement agreements, the women regularly end up being blamed for the actions of their accusers. They are told that if they’d spoken out or gone to court or do any of the things victims are “supposed” to do, then their abusers would never have hurt anyone else. And you know what? In a perfect world, where women share their stories, are believed, and justice is actually, you know, just—then sure, I’m onboard with that sentiment.

But the overlap between the people who blame women for signing settlement agreements, accusing them of exploiting men for money, and those who attack or simply refuse to believe women when they do speak out, is large. That this attitude is also applied to children is abhorrent.

Women have a lot to navigate when it comes to recovering from assault. In addition to the actual trauma of the event (or, in many cases, events), there are often issues of shame, power imbalances, fears for one’s career, concerns over public opinion, and so much more. There’s the knowledge—not just a worry, but a certainty—that when speaking out about any man, let alone a powerful or beloved or trusted man, a woman will receive blame and even vicious attacks.

Women have to overcome so much if they choose to speak out against their abusers. Many victims don’t even get as far as a settlement agreement because even that takes a huge leap and a decision to take action. But if someone does choose to take a settlement fee rather than go public and expose themselves to all that entails, and then if they ever do want to speak out in the future, either for their own steps towards closure or to amplify others’ voices, or to add to the testimony being given against one specific abuser, they have overcome enough. There sure as hell shouldn’t be legal recourse in place to protect those abusers.

As we see over and over and over again, there are always plenty of people ready and eager to blame women for signing NDAs that vow to stay silent about the abuse they’ve suffered. Why is there not even a small fraction of that outrage aimed at the very idea of NDAs that cover sexual abuse? Rather than blaming women for staying silent, why not blame the systems that make sure they stay that way?

Sure, in theory, they are there to protect the innocent. It’s easier for rich men to pay large sums of money than to go to court. But as we’ve seen with the outing of so many serial abusers—both alleged (there are those NDAs) and convicted—these agreements are, time and again, not used to protect innocent men. They are used to silence women who have suffered assault and harassment for the specific purpose of allowing these men to continue their patterns of abuse. And if a victim wants to speak up one, five, ten, fifty, or however many years later, no amount of settlement money should prevent that.

(image: Shutterstock)

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Vivian Kane (she/her) is the Senior News Editor at The Mary Sue, where she's been writing about politics and entertainment (and all the ways in which the two overlap) since the dark days of late 2016. Born in San Francisco and radicalized in Los Angeles, she now lives in Kansas City, Missouri, where she gets to put her MFA to use covering the local theatre scene. She is the co-owner of The Pitch, Kansas City’s alt news and culture magazine, alongside her husband, Brock Wilbur, with whom she also shares many cats.