LEXINGTON, Va. – The focus surrounding this year’s Leadership and Ethics Conference at the Virginia Military Institute was ‘principled dissent.’
It was about teaching cadets from around the world when and how to speak up, especially those who feel like they don’t have a voice.
There was no better way to wrap up the conference than a speech by Rachael Denhollander.
Denhollander was the first woman to pursue criminal charges against former U.S.A. Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar.
After sharing her story, Denhollander paved the way for more than 300 women to also tell their stories of their similar experiences with Nassar.
“I think the word that comes to mind is gratitude. Just incredibly grateful so many women found their voice and were able to say this was my story too and it’s not my fault,” Denhollander said.
Denhollander was a 15-year-old gymnast who visited Nassar’s office. It took her 16 years to finally speak out about what happened to her.
Since then, Denhollander has continued to talk with other survivors of sexual assault.
“Most of the time in my experience with survivors, it’s not that they lack the motivation or the desire to speak up it’s that there are no systems and structures to speak up, where they have any hope of being able to succeed,” Denhollander said. “And so the question really is how do we create cultures and societies and systems and structures that give survivors a voice and a place to speak up.”
Denhollander said there were women before her that were assaulted by Nassar. An article in the Indianapolis Star finally gave her the courage and the hope that people would listen to her.
“Abuse in gymnastics was not an open secret, it wasn’t a secret at all. There have been literal books written on the abusive culture of gymnastics and how ramped sexual abuse was in that sport and nobody cared,” Denhollander said.
Since sharing her story, Denhollander has been featured in Time Magazine’s list of the world’s 100 Most Influential People in 2018. That same year, the survivors of the abuse scandal would be awarded the Arthur Ashe Courage Award.
One thing Denhollander said is crucial is for survivors to hold on to their truth.
“Because when you know what is true you can grieve that in a way that’s non-destructive and be freed from the societal pressure to minimize or mitigate or pretend like it didn’t happen,” Denhollander said.
She will continue to use her story to advocate for and educate survivors of sexual assault. She also is very passionate about helping legislative issues regarding sexual assault.