Kayla Harrison, Olympic champion and sexual abuse survivor

Warning: this article talks about child molestation.

Kayla Harrison is an inspiration. She has won the US its first gold medal in Olympic judo. Because she knew Olympic judo doesn’t typically lead to lots of commercial endorsements and a big sports career, she had planned to return home and train to be a firefighter. That’s also inspiring.

But then she won the gold, and suddenly the press realized they had a gold mine on their hands. Harrison had previously talked about her survival of child molestation, and now they had an “abuse survivor triumphs to become gold medalist” story – in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky debacle. Maybe that’s cynical of the press, but for once their interests are aligning with those of other victims.

Because we need to hear more stories of victims getting justice, and that’s Harrison’s story. She was abused by a previous judo coach for three years before telling a friend who went straight to Harrison’s mother. Her mother called the police, the FBI got involved, and the molester is serving 10 years in prison.

For those wondering why Harrison didn’t go straight to her own mom immediately: when a child tells a parent she’s been victimized in some way, she’s putting a huge burden onto that parent, and kids are sensitive to this. Kids frequently overestimate their ability to handle something on their own, or underestimate their parents’ willingness or ability to help. And it gets worse when kids become teens (Harrison was 13 when the abuse started), because they feel the need to take on more responsibility and independence – they also tend to assume they’re at fault. The fact that she kept this to herself does not indicate family shortcomings. If you’re a parent wondering how to make sure your child will come to you with anything like this, you need to tell them in clear language: “If anyone ever touches you in a way that makes you uncomfortable, I want to hear about it so I can help you, even if you’re embarrassed or think it might be your fault somehow.”

Many victims – most, I would guess, going by anecdotal stories – don’t get this kind of justice. Molesters take steps to ensure they won’t:

  • They often target kids who lack support at home (not in every case, as evidenced by Harrison’s story)
  • They use psychology to convince the kids they’re at fault, so they will keep it to themselves
  • They threaten to hurt someone the kid loves if the kid tells anyone (this can include pets)
  • They work hard to get themselves into positions of respect so people will be stunned to think this lovely pillar of the community could be a pervert. (If only human beings were intelligent enough to realize bad people don’t have “Evil” conveniently tattooed across their forehead.)
  • They make a point of not abusing certain kids, usually privileged ones, so the important parents of those kids can honestly tell the community:”We left out child alone with X for ages, and s/he never tried anything.” If only people realized that how someone treats you may not be how they treat someone else.

The justice for Sandusky’s victims came way too late, and it was way too little as well. He was aided and abetted by who knows how many people at Penn State who preferred covering up for him (or cowering to Paterno?) to preventing child rapes. It’s nice to hear a story about things getting done properly in one of these cases.

If only these recent events would inspire people to wonder what they can to do prevent child sexual abuse. Because there is so much we can do! It’s not a freak of nature. It’s a problem of culture, and culture can be changed on a dime.


  1. Gabbie says

    Yay! What an inspiriing story.

    The point about not abusing certain kids from a degree of privlidge reminded me of something I heard about Arnold Schwarzenegger when the remous of his sexual harassing women on-set were circulating. Rita Wilson (Tom Hanks’s wife) and Rosie O’Donnell both came out to say he was the sweetest guyand had never treated them disrespectfully, blah, blah, blah. And I was thinking, ‘what, the guy isn’t smart enough to traget women who don’t have some kind of clout?’ It was perfectly feasible to me that he was going after women who had no power of their own (or at least through their spouses) and Wilson and O’Donnell were seeing the side of him that he kept for women who could actually do something about harrassment. But no, no sexual predator was EVER that subtle :p

  2. says


    I sometimes ask people why they reckon no one ever tries to leap out of the bushes, grab the First Lady and rape her? Rapists are obviously not completely out of control – they are able to contemplate their actions and make strategic plans and compromises. Which is why they are entirely responsible for their actions – if they can realize it would be unwise as all hell to target the First Lady, they could realize it was also unwise to target anyone else… if only we would actually MAKE it unwise. Instead, society makes it easy.

  3. firebird says

    Jennifer Kesler,
    I have found with my father, whose clinical diagnosis is bipolar but whose moods are mean, sad, and lonely, that keeping him at arm’s length where he doesn’t feel like I am safe to dump on means he does not abuse me. He knows who will enforce consequences if he abuses them and who won’t. He doesn’t seem capable of treating people well when he is in a mean place, but he is capable of not picking up the phone then, and he practices that restraint at least with me – so I know it can be done. I imagine that translates to other abuses as well.

  4. SunlessNick says

    Jennifer Kesler,

    During the latest shitstorm surrounding harassment policies at skeptic and geek cons, someone made a very cogent point about the harasser-as-socially-awkward meme – that it actually takes considerable social skill to engage in behaviour that’s threatening to the person you want to threaten, but seemingly innocuous to everyone else.

    That’s the counterpart to the rapist-as-out-of-control meme – it takes control to confine your violence to the times, places, and victims where you can get away with it.

  5. says


    That’s actually an astoundingly good point, and one I’m going to have to think about as I work on the upcoming NPD series, since they are tops at mimicking kindness, sincerity, etc., but then when someone sees through them and points it out publicly, they claim to have been grievously and often intentionally or callously misunderstood by the person calling out their bullshit. It’s a compelling narrative, especially for men who really do struggle socially.

  6. says


    So awesome – thank you! I also like the other point it makes – that genuine social awkwardness is rare, but when someone has it, they tend to creep out all sorts of people. Harassers are lying to get sympathy when they claim to be like this, and it’s an additional layer of ugliness: it’s a lot like swearing you have a disability to get out of a responsibility you’re perfectly capable of fulfilling. It makes life harder for those who really are doing the best they can, but have a genuine limitation.

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