Luxury or Right?

Recently, I’ve been focused heavily on my forthcoming memoir, resilient. As is the case any time you are writing about personal experiences, I’ve had to relive many periods in my life in order to write them in such a way that the reader is right there with me. And if you read my last blog post of 2020 (We are the Storm), you already know what an unexpected emotional adventure it has been, though it has become easier to sit with those past experiences over the course of working on my book. Thankfully, I’ve had time to process things that happened to me as many as thirty years ago.

But not everyone has that luxury.

Luxury – a non-essential item or service that contributes to luxurious living : an indulgence in ornament or convenience beyond the indispensable minimum : extravagance

Merriam-Webster

Is time really a luxury though? In today’s society, it’s common to talk about time as a luxury because we’ve all busied ourselves to the point that we can’t afford the time to sleep in order to meet all our various commitments. I’m not sure I agree, though.

Let’s take a moment to go back a few years.

In 2000, I was a sophomore in high school. For the previous year, the varsity girls’ soccer team had been coached by the same man who was also a teacher in our high school. While he’d been inexperienced as a soccer coach, he was eager to improve in order to help us. He made us work hard during practices, was willing to have tough conversations with us when we weren’t performing up to our potential, and was also caring, compassionate, and supportive regardless of the outcome of each game. He had his moments where he was goofy and joked with us, but he was always respectful; he was part of our team.

My sophomore year, however, our beloved coach was unable to return due to difficulties in his personal life, and our school hunted down the first willing replacement. On the first day of soccer practice for the season, our new coach stood in front of us and introduced himself, an enormous, toothy grin on his face that I’d learn over the coming weeks was nearly always present, regardless of his mood or his words. I watched and listened as he spoke, my stomach roiling, a heaviness akin to the sensation I imagine the presence of a fist-sized stone would feel taking root deep in my gut.

As I did with any unwanted sensations during that period in my life, I tried to ignore them. When I felt his eyes on my body—on my butt or my breasts when I was running—I told myself I was imagining it. When I felt embarrassed by or uncomfortable with a comment or compliment on my body from him, I told myself I was overreacting and seeing something inappropriate where there was only innocence. I had a history of sexual abuse and attributed every feeling of discomfort related to the male gender to that—surely there was something wrong with me, and never something wrong with the male in question. Each day of soccer, however, left me feeling sick to my stomach and as if I was covered in a kind of slime that couldn’t be washed away, my skin crawling.

Then one day in practice, one of my teammates missed a pass. Our coach—his grin in place—said that all of us sucked at soccer, but that it wasn’t our fault. It was because we were girls and girls have “shitty” depth perception; that really, we didn’t need to try so hard because we would never be any good. At that time, I was being raised by a foster mother who was a single mom and a raging feminist, and Mr. Allen’s comment ignited a bonfire of fury within me. All my self-doubt about my feelings toward him was forgotten in an instant, cowering away in the face of my anger and disgust at what he’d just said.

Without my veil of self-doubt and confusion over sexual appropriateness, I had a new-found clarity about what was actually happening during soccer practices. I began to pay closer attention to how he behaved toward everyone else and realized I wasn’t the only girl whose butt he studied. I wasn’t the only girl he flirted with. I wasn’t the only girl he made comments to about how our breasts bounced when we ran.

His comment about our inability to play soccer well because of our gender sparked outrage with nearly every member on our team and was the catalyst for us to finally start talking to each other about how he made us feel; it turned out, I wasn’t the only one who felt slimy. I wasn’t the only one who suddenly hated the sport she’d loved for years because of him and was considering quitting. I wasn’t the only one who realized our coach had a sexual interest in teenage girls. And while I was spared, many other girls on my team were asked—repeatedly—to go on dates with him.

I discovered that one of my teammates had recognized from the beginning that our new coach was a sexual predator with an interest in underage girls, and she and her mother had met with our principal to report his behavior, but nothing was done aside from a disingenuous assurance that they would look into it. While that was infuriating, we figured that surely the school’s administrators would have to take action if they heard from all of us. And, so, we wrote a letter detailing our coach’s inappropriate behavior and asking for his removal, which nearly every person on our team signed.

The letter was delivered to the principal, a copy kept by my teammate who led the effort, and we waited. While we didn’t expect to be notified in advance of the school’s plans, we did expect to have a new face there to coach us in the next few days. After a couple of weeks, however, it was clear our letter was as impotent as the complaint filed by my teammate and her mother. Instead, our coach was asked to also be an assistant coach for the varsity volleyball team. It was one of the girls from that team he’d badgered for a date who was finally able to effect change—though only because her family was wealthy and owned much of the land in our town.

And not before my youngest teammate had been lured onto a date with him that involved sexual intercourse. A teammate whose youth, insecurity, and vulnerability were used against her by the predator in our midst. A young girl who then became the butt of jokes, the subject of rude comments, and had words like “desperate” and “slut” attached to her reputation.

I don’t know what happened behind those closed doors when our coach was finally removed from his coaching positions in my high school. What I do know is that he retained his teaching position and was transferred to an elementary gym class. My teammates and I were all relieved he was no longer our coach, but we were also sickened by the fact that he now would have an opportunity to prey on much younger children; we could only hope they were too young for his liking.

From the moment our predator coach was removed from our team until I started working on my memoir, I put a lot of energy into trying to forget about those months when he stood at the edge of the field and watched us as he made inappropriate comments. Those months during which the school sat idly by, ignoring nearly every single complaint of sexual misconduct from its students and their parents.

Twenty years later, it seems not much has changed.

Earlier this week, a news story broke in the state of Indiana regarding former high-school theater teacher Nathan Shewell (you can dive into more detail here and here). In short, though, this man took advantage of his position as a teacher to gain the trust of vulnerable teenage girls and subsequently groom them for sexual relationships with him. You may believe because this story is in the news right now that times have changed—the fact that this tale is being covered bearing proof. Sadly, that’s not the entire story.

This man was able to teach at multiple high schools, simply resigning and moving to another school when suspicion was aroused surrounding his conduct with his students. Students and their parents filed complaints with the schools’ administrators; complaints of conduct they experienced themselves or that they witnessed or in some other manner became aware of. Conduct like inappropriately touching teenage girls. Conduct like discussing sexual acts with teenage girls. Conduct like having sexual relationships with teenage girls. And yet, nothing was done for years—not until an anonymous call in February of 2020 finally led to the start of an investigation.

As the case built, young woman after young woman came forward to share her story about how this man was able to groom and sexually abuse her when she was his student, though for every woman who came forward, there are undoubtedly more who chose not to. For those women who did, they felt they would finally receive justice for what had been done to them. But the Indiana statute of limitations dictates that sexual abuse must be reported within seven years.

Seven.

When I wrote about my experience with my soccer coach above, when I even think about that man, my body still reacts. I start to sweat and my heart beats faster. My stomach clenches with a slight feeling of nausea and my hands shake. I’m experiencing all of this right now as I type these words.

And that was twenty years ago.

As I mentioned in my blog post on consent, it took me just shy of twenty-one years to say aloud for the first time that I’d been raped when I was thirteen. And nearly two and a half years after I first said it, I still struggle to talk about it out loud, still battle PTSD symptoms when I even think about it.

But the systems we have in place expect victims—survivors—to process and speak up in no more than seven years. After that? The systems say it’s simply too late, the opportunity to speak up and have something done about sexual abuse endured has expired, like any perishable good from the grocery store. Time is being treated like a luxury that is a privilege—but survivors of sexual abuse should have a right to speak up and seek justice without having a deadline to meet, a right to take the time necessary to work through what they’ve experienced.

Just as it should be a right that school administrators put the best interest of the students—their wellbeing and safety at a minimum—above all else. Would it be convenient to find another soccer coach mid-season or another theater teacher mid-year? No, of course not. But that is not an excuse for ignoring complaints of sexual misconduct, for failing to appropriately investigate and respond. Instead, this is also treated as a luxury; investigations are only conducted when the “right” type of victim complains.

As a society, we need to re-examine our expectations and the broken systems we cling to simply because that’s easier than change. More comfortable than change. Because we are failing each other, we are failing innocent children, and we are failing victims of sexual abuse until we do.


Read in her own words the experience of Victim #1 from the Nathan Shewell news story below, released to the public on February 22, 2021.

I am Victim #1.

I was groomed.

I was sexually abused.

In 2008, I was seventeen, a senior at Silver Creek High School. I was heavily involved in theater—it was my happy place, the tech side of it. I loved building sets day after day on a blank stage and watching shows come to life. I loved the family and friends it came with. I trusted it to help me cope with the difficult situations I was dealing with at home. And I trusted my teacher, Nathan Shewell, to provide much-needed guidance and help me navigate those difficult situations.

I confided in Mr. Shewell, telling him about the problems I was facing and he helped me solve them. When something in my life went wrong, he was there to console me. I appreciated that he cared and valued any advice that he offered.

He began with simple touches on my shoulder. They felt like comfort for things that felt out of my control. Small kind gestures to go along with his guidance in life and in theater. Innocent, reassuring.Then one day, he wasn’t just touching my shoulder, but also my face; before I knew it, his hands, his focus, had shifted down to feel the small of my back and then his hands would fall around my waist, holding my hips when he was speaking to me.

Suddenly he was commenting on my body, an observation about how my chest or my butt looked, how looking at those areas made him feel. Soon the offhand remarks were more frequent, more explicit, more sexual. Then he started talking to me about his sex life, describing what he liked to do with his wife as well as his other sexual partners. He spoke to me like he was confiding in me, as a way of expressing that he cared about me, about my well-being—like he was the only one who truly did.

My happiness was replaced with control. I withdrew parts of myself from my friends and gave them to him. When friends came too close that were not approved by him, they became victims of him. Verbally abused, mocked, made fun of. He would tell me my friends were wrong, and if those friends were males, he said they only wanted one thing from me.

A little over a year after I met Nathan Shewell, a year of mental, physical, and sexual control, I realized I was being used for his sexual gratification. For a brief moment, I was afraid of losing the one person who convinced he cared above all others. Deep down I knew I had to distance myself from him, and that is what I did.

A few years after I ended contact with Shewell, I was approached by someone I went to high school with. She walked up to me and asked, “Did you have sex with Shewell?” The feeling was something I can’t adequately describe. The air was stolen from my lungs and I felt sick. I thought I escaped him; I thought I left those memories behind.  But in that moment, in an instant, my entire life was reduced to that: the girl who had sex with Nathan Shewell. I told her “no” because the answer was not that simple, and that seemed less wrong than saying “Yes.” How could anyone ever understand what being coerced into a sexual relationship as a child feels like?

It was ten years after I distanced myself before I was able to understand that what had transpired was an abuse of power, that I was a victim of opportunistic and predatory behavior from a man – a teacher – I’d trusted when I was most vulnerable. That he took advantage of my vulnerability to first groom and then sexually abuse me for almost two years.

In May of 2020, I sat in my hometown’s police station and shared what had happened to me at the request of North Central High School—the school which was finally investigating allegations made against my former teacher as part of an investigation that began after I’d revealed what I’d experienced while Mr. Shewell’s student. I thought that would be it: the end of my story, the beginning of my justice.

“No,” the detective said, “too much time has passed.”

The state of Indiana says I waited too long. It had been ten years, and the state of Indiana says I only have seven years to speak up if a sexual crime has been committed.

How does a law—a piece of paper—dictate that I only have seven years to be considered a victim of sexual abuse? Why do legislators I have never met get to decide when I should be mentally prepared to take on the DARKEST parts of my life? Why does anyone have a right to tell me that I have no right to justice simply because of the passage of time?

Even though the state of Indiana is preventing me from receiving criminal justice for the abuse I experienced at the hands of Nathan Shewell, I’ve chosen to share my story now in order to help others receive the justice due to them—whether they were wronged by Nathan Shewell or a mismanaged investigation within their school system or they are facing the expiration of the statute of limitations.

I cannot run from being a victim; the truth is, though, that I am alsoa survivor. Not only that, but I can—and will—fight against the system that provides more protection for abusers than the victims of their abuse because I am also a warrior for justice. I will not be silent—I will tell my story everywhere to everyone who will listen to foster greater understanding and be an advocate for change.

And the need for change is indisputable because I am not the only victim—I am one of many women who were only girls when they became victims of both Nathan Shewell and a failed system; one of many girls who are currently victims of other predators like him and other failed systems. We cannot let what happened to me happen to anyone else, but until there is change… there will always be more.

Ashley Nation, Victim #1


Links for additional information related to this case:


Katherine Turner is a an author of contemporary literature that explores love and human resilience in the wake of trauma and abuse, as well as an editor and sensitivity reader. She blogs about mental health, trauma, and ways we can be more compassionate as a society. Sign up for her newsletter to stay up to date and get the first five chapters of her novel Finding Annie, Women’s Fiction finalist in the 2020 IAN Book of the Year Awards, free!

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