The sheer magnitude of disgraced doctor Larry Nassar’s sexual abuse rocked USA Gymnastics and grabbed headlines all over the world. Over the course of two decades, Nassar routinely sexually abused hundreds – perhaps even thousands – of young women under the guise of necessary medical treatment. And it all happened under the noses of parents, coaches, and higher ups at the organization.
Twenty years. Hundreds of lives affected. Dreams shattered.
As Nassar and various USAG higher-ups continue to face criminal charges, one question continues to linger on: Just how did he get away with it for so long?
Nassar did what so many predators do: He discovered his victims’ vulnerabilities, gained their trust, and then began abusing them. Nassar used grooming techniques on his victims and their families by pretending to be an advocate for the athletes, buying presents for children and their parents from his Olympic travels, and painting himself as someone the gymnasts could trust. When survivors of his abuse eventually spoke up, Nassar had already tricked those in the position to stop him into believing he was a good guy and a concerned doctor. And the cycle continued for decades.
Sexual predators like Nassar use grooming to camouflage themselves as a true friend to victims and their families and ultimately use that relationship to buy victims’ compliance – and their silence.
Anyone Can Be Groomed
While the conversation about grooming is often centered on children, the reality is that anyone can fall prey predatory behavior. Grooming has more to do with insecurities, culture, and exploiting trust than with age.
In addition to those being abused, sexual predators work hard to gain the trust of families to quell any suspicions about inappropriate behavior and reduce the likelihood that a victim would be believed if they told. By befriending parents, predators build up enough social capital that adults couldn’t fathom that someone they know, like, and trust could possibly hurt their child. In Nassar’s case, his first known victim was the daughter of his closest friends – and when she told her parents about the abuse, they believed Nassar’s denials.
Grooming Builds Over Time
Grooming is a slow process that grows over time, with abusers first building up a friendship before engaging in sexual misconduct.
Sex offenders first work to gain trust by gathering information and then using it to encourage their victim to let their guard down. Nassar would use food to groom gymnasts. As the team doctor, he was aware of the strict diets to which the gymnasts were forced to adhere. He used the one thing they couldn’t have – candy – to show them he was “one of the good guys,” an adult they could trust not to tattle on them for breaking the rules.
Once this initial trust is established, predators will then test boundaries using seemingly everyday behaviors layered with inappropriate undertones: tasteless jokes, a lingering touch on the arm, sharing secrets about their own lives. As the behavior continues, things slowly start to escalate until eventually, the methodical grooming process desensitizes victims to a point that they may not even realize it when those behaviors cross a line into sexual abuse.
Sexual offenders use the grooming process to intentionally blur the lines around inappropriate and “normal” behavior. The end result of these blurred lines is that victims may instinctively feel like something isn’t right, but their relationship to the person hurting them may cause them to question their intuition or even make excuses for the behavior.
At its core, grooming is a means for predators to protect themselves by weaponizing trust and preying on false senses of security. Victims are left questioning their own thoughts and feeling powerless to stop someone their own family may trust. But, by educating children, parents, schools, and law enforcement on how predators use grooming to exploit their victims, we can change the conversation around sexual abuse.
At the Survivors Justice Center, we fight to give power back to survivors and help them get the justice they deserve.