Trigger warning: sexual assault
It’s been one year since the night I saw my favorite sport destroyed. Or at least the illusion of the sport I knew.
I received word that John Coughlin had taken his own life just a few weeks after he was suspended from the United States Figure Skating Association. SafeSport, the governing body that had removed him from his position, had not released any details about what had led up to this. I, foolishly, told myself it couldn’t be that bad. Maybe there had been an argument in one of the team meetings, maybe he’d gotten angry and shoved one of the officials, maybe he had shown up drunk at an event and said something offensive about the president of USFSA.
By now, this story has been discussed at length by major news outlets (largely thanks to Christine Brennan of USA Today), but at the time, it was a shock to me. I certainly didn’t expect to learn that several women had accused him of sexual assault, including some who were minors at the time. I didn’t expect one of them to be Ashley Wagner, a three-time national champion and World silver medalist I had adored since I was 11. And I certainly didn’t expect that this was just the tip of the iceberg, and the cases that came out in the days to come would send the sport further spiraling into chaos by the minute.
Morgan Cipres. Richard Callaghan. Andrew Lavrik. Gordon McKellen. Lloyd Eisler. Matthew Gregory Shepard. This week, three more names were added to the list – Gilles Beyer, Jean-Roland Rocle, Michel Lotz. And I’m sure there are many, many more.
It’s enough to make you doubt every person you see – not only in the skating world, but anyone walking down the street. Athletes I’ve loved and admired have been involved in these situations on both sides. I was one of the many people awed by Vanessa James and Morgan Cipres and their innovative, modern style of pair skating. I also celebrated the night Ashley Wagner earned her World silver medal on home ice in 2016 and cried the night she missed the Olympic team in 2018. I saw one of my heroes fall from grace with no one but himself to blame, and I saw one of my other heroes speak against the people who wronged her. Over the past year, I’ve listened to many stories from survivors – both close friends and strangers – and learned of the long-term impact these crimes can have. And I’ve learned how the people defending an abuser are often as complicit as the abuser themselves. I’ve learned that sex offenders, like most criminals, are like ants: for every one you catch, there are fifty more crawling in the wall that you can’t see.
And the worst part, the part that kept me up at night, was the fact that I had been part of the problem. I was out there on Instagram liking tributes to John Coughlin. I was supporting skaters who had defended him. Even after the allegations had started to creep in, I was still trying to remember him by all the great things he had done, as if it would wash away the horrors of everything else. I was reluctant to believe or accept the allegations because I wanted to remember John as that polite, encouraging commentator from Icenetwork. In doing that, I failed every one of his survivors and every sexual assault survivor in this world. I will not deny it. I was young, naïve, and had a lot to learn, but that doesn’t excuse or erase how I reacted. I can’t sit up here on my high horse and call out people who defended abusers if I don’t acknowledge the fact that I at one point did the same. To every single victim, I apologize for my part in this horrible culture that tries to silence you. From now on, I stand with you and support you every step of the way.
I wrote a piece several months ago about this feeling that the sport I once loved no longer existed. As a little girl watching competitive figure skating for the first time at 7 years old, I had an idealized, childlike idea of what the sport was really like, and that initial pixie-dust-covered image stayed in my mind for years to come. The world of figure skating used to be a magical place where I could take whatever I needed and give nothing back. But I don’t want to live like that anymore. I want to rise, to speak, to fight. I want to stand up for my friends who have experienced various degrees of sexual assault. I want to be a constant pain in the neck of anyone who tries to sweep these stories under the rug. And I want to gather all of you to fight with me.
At the end of nearly every blog post I write, I include a phrase from one of my favorite books – The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins: “Happy skating, and may the odds be ever in your favor.” Right now, President Snow is making havoc in the districts and trying to crush any flicker of rebellion, and it’s up to us to raise our three-finger salute and affect change. We need to advocate for change, support the skating community, and protect the athletes where governing bodies have failed.
Thankfully, I’ve seen an outpouring of solidarity from the figure skating fandom. Many people changed their profile pictures on Twitter to a teal circle with the words “Support Skating Survivors”, and the amount of tweets and Instagram posts about the topic have been both heartwarming and eye-opening. Even 13- and 14-year-olds have been showing their support. I think the Powers that Be feel the pressure of public opinion, and nothing makes me prouder than seeing hundreds of people standing together for justice. As time goes on, I hope more people will join the cause, and I believe we can make a difference. Gandhi left for the Salt March with 80 friends and arrived at the beach with thousands.
However, in the midst of this fight, I’ve also seen a small batch of people who seem to practice “slacktivism”. At first, these folks seem like the loudest voices for the cause. They’ve got their Support Survivors profile pic, they’re retweeting articles about why most cases go unreported, and they’ll crush anyone who questions the accusations. But sometimes, people get so caught up in “fighting the good fight” that they actually forget who they’re fighting for. For some, it becomes a petty game rather than a duty of protecting victims. They get so hung up on the fact that Skater X hasn’t publicly commented on Skater Y’s sexual assault story that they decide to go harass Skater X about it instead of sending a message of support to Skater Y. It’s as if they’ve joined the fight to ease their own conscience about completely unrelated things. I appreciate support for the cause in any way possible, but if you’re only supporting Ashley because it makes you feel better about the mean tweets you post about Nathan, then maybe you need to take a good look at your own character before you go off on a skater who didn’t apologize for posting an Instagram story in memory of Coughlin before they even knew about the allegations.
The whole point of the sexual assault awareness community is to provide a safe place for survivors and offer support to heal the trauma of their experiences. Only then, when we have love in our hearts for the victims can we take down the abuser. It’s natural and right to feel angry towards that person; in fact, loving the victim can intensify that anger exponentially. But we cannot let the anger run untamed and chaotic. It is not enough to simply scream furiously on Twitter about how abusers can go to hell. We must forge that anger into a strong, unbreakable blade and send the abuser to hell ourselves. To clarify – I’m not talking about vigilante justice. I’m talking about nonviolent protest, visibility, and most of all, support.
Finger-pointing and bullying won’t change a thing. Of course we need to hold people accountable for their actions, but they aren’t going to listen to us if all they hear is “**** you, apologist.” At the end of the day, is the goal to get majority of the community in support of survivors, or is it to shut out anyone who doesn’t immediately risk their comfortable, happy lives to storm the castle of the fire-breathing dragon? Of course I would love a world where every single person would walk the streets wearing teal ribbons for sexual assault awareness, and I will bring together as many voices as I can. But to expect everyone – especially people who have a personal stake in the situation – to instantly join the fight is unrealistic.
I could talk about supporting survivors for another ten pages and barely scratch the surface of the many subtopics that need to be addressed. But instead, I’m going to focus on what anyone – no matter where you are or how many Twitter followers you have – can do to make a difference. Here are 10 things you can do to show support for survivors and advocate for change, especially in the figure skating community:
1. Put the well-being of survivors first.
When people learn that someone has experienced sexual assault, their first reaction is usually anger towards the person who committed it. This is totally justified, but your first priority should always be supporting the survivor. If they post on Instagram about it, you should not spam the comment section with hate messages towards the offender. You should not get into arguments with people who are doubtful about the allegations (even if they have it coming).
Why not? Because the survivor is taking a huge leap of faith by coming forward with their story. Nine times out of ten, they hesitate to tell the truth because they’re afraid it will rock the boat and cause conflict. There’s going to be enough backlash from the people who don’t believe them. If you start picking fights in the comment section, you’re reinforcing the message they’ve fought so hard to get past: “See, I knew I shouldn’t have come forward. Now it’s just creating more drama.”
This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t stand up for survivors when people try to deny their experiences. But there’s a tactful way of doing it. If you’re going to call someone out for being unsupportive or insensitive, send them a DM. If you’re on Twitter, quote the person’s tweet so the victim isn’t tagged in it. And most of all, send messages of support to the victim so they know that the majority of people believe them.
2. Label any posts you make about the situation with “trigger warning”.
You aren’t helping anyone if you’re digging up trauma for any survivor who sees it. I know many people who are enthusiastic Twitter warriors. They retweet every tweet about the situation, publicly tell everyone who doesn’t believe the survivor to go to hell, post long threads of legit facts, and genuinely think they’re doing the right thing. But for a survivor, seeing a nonstop flood of information about the topic can be overwhelming, particularly if there’s no warning label. They might just want to log into social media to look at funny cat memes and get away from the stress of the situation. Putting “trigger warning: sexual assault” at the top of every tweet, Instagram post, or Facebook post about the topic helps survivors know what they’re reading before they take in the information. If they’re feeling okay enough to read the message below, they can choose to keep reading, and if they aren’t, they can scroll past and look at cat memes. You don’t give someone an unlabeled bottle and let them drink the whole thing before you tell them it was full of vodka.
For example, as someone who nearly attempted suicide a few years ago, I am easily triggered by seeing suicide hotlines or even Instagram stories saying “you are not alone”, even though I know the people posting them mean well. I can be buzzing around on Twitter, chatting with 5 friends at once and gushing over cute photos of celebrities, when suddenly I see that hotline show up on my timeline and the world just seems to stop. It’s a reminder of a dark time in my life that I am still trying to put behind me, and no matter how many times I try to tell myself this row of numbers is not going to hurt me, I still feel a rush of guilt and anxiety every time I see it. I’m thankfully in a much better place right now, but the point of this story is that your good intentions might inadvertently cause more harm than good. You never know what might trigger someone, so it’s best to label things clearly.
3. Share survivors’ stories, as long as they’ve given permission.
If a victim publicly comes forward – on social media, in a news article, in a YouTube video – share it. Retweet, repost, share links (using trigger warnings as necessary). Share their stories on all your social media platforms. If you have an account for figure skating content, post it there. If you have a personal Facebook, post it there. If you have an Instagram account you haven’t used since 2012 with two followers (your mom and your brother), post it there. It doesn’t matter if the people who see the story have ever heard of the victim. It matters that humans are hearing the story. Rape culture tries to silence victims, so it’s our job to make sure the whole world hears their stories.
However, if the post is on a site not open to the general public (such as a private Facebook page or a protected Twitter account), always ask permission before you share. If a survivor feels ready to share the story with the world, applaud them. But it’s their choice and their choice only. They didn’t get to choose what happened to them; the least you can do is respect their choice to share or not share their story.
4. Acknowledge when other people speak out in support.
When names of people who have no regard for survivors start piling up, it’s easy to forget the people who are trying to do the right thing. It takes courage to speak out against a corrupt system. Although many of Team USA’s figure skaters aren’t victims of sexual assault, their careers are still linked to the United States Figure Skating Association, and speaking out against the governing body could cost them international assignments, medals, and prize money. Choosing to put the greater good above your own interests is admirable. Ashley Wagner, Adam Rippon, Kiira Korpi, Karina Manta, Tai Babilonia, Bill Fauver, Javier Fernandez, Gabriella Papadakis, Jessica Pfund, and Joshua Santillan have all spoken up in support of survivors, and I hope more will follow.
5. Become a teal cheerleader.
Teal is the color for sexual assault awareness, so you can show support by wearing teal to skating competitions. During the Grand Prix, I saw several teal banners in honor of the survivors, and it made me so happy to know that fans were using their voices for something truly important. It doesn’t have to be big – even a teal pin or hat is a meaningful symbol of solidarity. (Tip: If you plan to attend any elite gymnastics competitions, you can wear teal in support of Nassar’s survivors).
6. Contact the Powers That Be.
It’s easy to feel powerless in these situations, especially when you hear about prominent coaches and even the governing bodies in the sport trying to cover up the truth. However, there are things you can do. Currently, skating fans are working to get John Zimmerman, Silvia Fontana, and Vinny Dispenza removed from their coaching positions at the AdventHealth Center Ice rink. You can join the fight by contacting the address or phone number below.
Address: 3173 Cypress Ridge Blvd, Wesley Chapel, FL 33544
Phone: (813) 803-7372
I don’t know if this will change anything, but if there’s even a chance of making progress, it’s worth the time for me.
7. Contact people who responded incorrectly before you judge them.
If someone’s out there defending an abuser and cutting down anyone who even acknowledges that the person is under investigation, don’t waste your time. But sometimes, people are simply unaware of the impact their actions may have. For example, in the John Coughlin situation, many foreign skaters (who likely would’ve had little to no contact with him) posted brief tributes to him on Instagram. More likely than not, they had seen a message saying some former US pairs champion had died and hadn’t heard about his suspension. If I see a post from someone I follow on Instagram in memory of someone who passed away, I always leave a comment or make a short post, even if it’s only “Rest in Peace”. I don’t stop to wonder if that person was fired from their job for something unforgivable. The truth is, most of mankind has an alarming lack of self-awareness. So before “canceling” someone, try sending them a polite message. More often than not, they’ll realize they were wrong and apologize. Take the time to explain why you found their actions offensive, but be compassionate towards their position even if you don’t agree with it. Sending them hate mail won’t make them more willing to change their view of events.
That said, some people are just past the point of no return. Several months after Coughlin’s death, I sent a long message to a prominent skater who had defended him, hoping he would acknowledge his error and apologize. I tried to be polite, supportive, and understanding of his side of the story. And he responded – stubbornly refusing to change his stance, delete his tribute post, or acknowledge victims in any way. I had given him the benefit of the doubt for months, but he was unwilling to bend. The next morning, I unfollowed him and promised myself not to actively wish him well again. But if you never ask, you’ll never know.
8. Stay focused on the problem.
Do you know why most pickpockets target major tourist attractions? Because there are a lot of things to distract the police. There’s nothing a criminal loves more than a diversion. If you’re busy nitpicking about how Skater X liked Skater Y’s comment on Skater Z’s post and therefore skaters X, Y, and Z are all canceled, you aren’t paying attention to the criminal who caused the situation all three skaters reacted to. While it’s important to hold everyone accountable, we can’t afford to get distracted from the main fight. No one is going to take you or your cause seriously if you sound like you just came from Regina George’s breakfast table in Mean Girls. If you want to make change, you have to be organized and focused on the big bad wolf at the center of this. Don’t get so obsessed with chasing a lone Stormtrooper across the galaxy that you let Darth Vader build a new Death Star behind your back. To quote the eternal wisdom of The Hunger Games again, “Remember who the real enemy is.”
9. No booing. This isn’t directly connected to supporting survivors, but it’s an essential thing to remember. As pointed out by @JudgeThree on Twitter, figure skating is a sport that requires perfect concentration, and booing during a skating performance can cause serious injury to a skater. You can’t say your top priority is athlete safety if you’re okay with skaters falling from lifts and splitting their skulls open. Even if these skaters were ruthless cannibals who eat the eyeballs of the flower sweepers after every competition, they would not deserve to be paralyzed because you intentionally broke their concentration. The reason why we support sexual assault survivors is because someone did something to them that can leave permanent trauma. If we wish a permanent injury on someone, we are no better than the abuser. Of course, wishing that these people would retire or even hoping they don’t skate well is perfectly acceptable to me. But if we are going to fight for human decency, we must maintain a respectable level of ethics.
10. Follow @JudgeThree on Twitter.
Through the chaos of this terrible situation, Judge Three has stood as a voice of reason and activism since day one. As an anonymous survivor, they are the loudest advocate for justice, but also the most compassionate voice on the topic to all parties involved. Rather than rehashing facts they can’t change, they focus on preventing future crimes and helping people understand the situation from multiple angles. I have yet to find someone with half as much understanding, passion, and dedication. They offer an informative look into the culture of abuse and debunk common myths surrounding it, and most of all, they are here to support every last survivor.
This has been a long, difficult post to write. As a skating blogger, I try to be as objective as possible. It’s a figure skating competition, not a contest of moral character. But to say I’m 100% unbiased is a lie, and honestly, I’m proud of that. I don’t want to see Morgan Cipres win an Olympic medal in 2022, and if he does, I don’t think I’ll be able to sit here and write a paragraph praising his performance – even if he skated the greatest performance that ever happened on God’s green earth. I can no longer support the Skater Guy on Instagram who sent me that DM, even if I still admire aspects of his skating. Personally, I have drawn a firm line between what I will and won’t tolerate. For some people it might be stricter, for others it might be more relaxed, but nothing can make me budge from that line of acceptability. It’s up to you to draw a line for yourself and stand firm. What feels right for one survivor might not feel right for others. Do what feels right to you.
I’ll end this post with a quote – I promise, not another one from The Hunger Games. It’s by Peggy Carter, one of my favorite Marvel heroines: “Compromise where you can. Where you can’t, don’t – even if everyone is telling you that something wrong is something right. Even if the whole world is telling you to move, it is your duty to plant yourself like a tree, look them in the eye, and say, ‘No. You move.’”
Happy skating, and support survivors.