Rep. Jim Jordan's "locker room talk" denial: Waving off sex abuse complaints shows limits of #MeToo

We need to break down the wall of silence and shaming that surrounds the abuse and harassment of boys and men

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published July 9, 2018 5:14PM (EDT)

Jim Jordan (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)
Jim Jordan (AP/J. Scott Applewhite)

Why does Jim Jordan have a job today? Why is working? Why aren't his colleagues demanding he answer accusations that he was aware of alleged sexual abuse at Ohio State University when he worked there as an assistant coach from 1986 to 1994? And where, at a groundswell period in history where individuals who claim they've been abused and assaulted are more united and mobilized than ever, are the claims of boys and men still given only secondary consideration? Why is the male component of #MeToo still so neglected?

Ohio Rep. and founding member of the conservative Freedom Caucus Jim Jordan is considered a rising star in the Republican party. A solid supporter of the current administration who's sponsored an Ultrasound Informed Consent Act and believes in "traditional marriage," he's been viewed as a potential front runner to replace Paul Ryan as Speaker if the House remains red in November. But a potential torpedo to his plans first began to emerge in April, when Ohio State announced it was investigating claims of "sexual misconduct" involving former wrestling team doctor Richard Strauss. Strauss, who was the team physician for over twenty years, died by suicide in 2005.

Then early last week, three former team members told NBC News that "It would have been impossible for Jordan to be unaware" that Strauss "showered regularly with the students and inappropriately touched them during appointments."

Ex-student Mike DiSabato said, "I considered Jim Jordan a friend. But at the end of the day, he is absolutely lying if he says he doesn't know what was going on."

DiSabato also claimed he got in touch with Jordan earlier this year, and that Jordan advised him to "please leave me out of it."

Another former team member, Dunyasha Yetts, said he spoke to Jordan "numerous times" about Strauss. "For God’s sake, Strauss’s locker was right next to Jordan’s and Jordan even said he’d kill him if he tried anything with him," Yetts said.

On Tuesday, Jordan's spokesman released a statement that "Congressman Jordan never saw any abuse, never heard about any abuse, and never had any abuse reported to him during his time as a coach at Ohio State."

Later in the week, two other men came forward with stories to DiSabato and Yetts. Calling Jordan "a close friend" and "a good guy," former wrestler Shawn Dailey said, “What happened drove me out of the sport. So I was surprised to hear Jim say that he knew nothing about it…. To say that he had no knowledge of it, I would say that’s kind of hurtful."

Jordan then pivoted to hinting that well, maybe he'd heard something, telling Fox News, "Conversations in a locker room are a lot different than allegations of abuse. . . No one ever reported abuse to me."

And the White House threw its support behind Jordan, saying of the allegations, "I don’t believe them at all. I believe him. Jim Jordan is one of the most outstanding people I’ve met since I’ve been in Washington. I believe him 100 percent. No question in my mind. I believe Jim Jordan 100 percent. He’s an outstanding man.”

It's pretty wild — if not at all surprising — that a Republican-led Congress, a governing body that had no trouble at all with hastening Al Franken's exit from politics, would find itself dragging its heels over a growing group of men who say that one of their own was complicit in long term sexual abuse. It's also not entirely surprising that, as is often the case when women come forward, the first defensive response has been a litany of reasons why the accusers are liars who want attention and were also asking for it.

On Monday, Rep. Louie Gomhert issued a statement: "Jim Jordan is a fine and decent person who has a lifetime history of being honorable and honest, unlike his accusers whose extremely troubled backgrounds and ongoing legal and financial troubles place the veracity of their allegations into the realm of the ridiculous."

"Unlike the Olympians who were minor children at the time they were abused, these former wrestlers were a adults at the time they clam they were sexually abused by the Ohio state team doctor," he added. "This has every appearance of greed trying to gain twice from the same smear . . . There seems to be an absence of people vouching of the upstanding character of his accusers."

In summation: Did this really happen? Weren't the guys who say this happened over 18 at the time? Are these guys as respectable as my guy? Case closed!

It's true that Yetts served time beginning in 2007 for mail fraud as part of an investment scheme. DiSabato was also recently accused of telephone harassment of a sports agent and a former OSU football player. Yet if you want to make the case that someone wasn't a victim of abuse or misconduct, pointing out other things they've done is not evidence. People who've done wrong also can have wrong done to them. This isn't hard.

It took decades for the whispers against men like Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby to become too loud to ignore. By the time Olympic gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar was convicted of sexually assaulting minors, 265 women had accused him of misconduct. It took lifetimes. It took scores of women who left their fields in frustration or who were blacklisted out of them. It also took a tipping point number of women willing to stand together to tell their stories in public.

But for men, that moment has been difficult to get to. Part of it, clearly, is the same old culture of undermining and accusations of ulterior motives that women have long endured. Part of it, no doubt, is also the unique silence and shaming that surrounds the abuse and harassment of boys and men. You can be a burly guy like Terry Crews and still have someone like 50 Cent treat your experience like a punchline. "As I shared my story, I was told over and over that this was not abuse," Crews said last month. "This was just a joke. This was just horseplay. But I can say one man’s horseplay is another man’s humiliation."

Though accurate statistics are hard to come by because of under-reporting, it's estimated nearly ten percent of rape and sexual assault victims are male. And boys are sexually abused nearly as often as girls are. A report from the Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness of Center of the University of Michigan notes that while male and female victims of sexual assault have several post-assault reactions in common, "Men, are more likely than women to initially respond with anger, or to try to minimize the importance or severity of the assault. Male survivors are also more likely to use or abuse alcohol or other drugs as a means to try and cope with the experience and its after affects." They may also feel shame and confusion based on their physical responses, even though "erections and ejaculations may be purely physiological responses, sometimes caused by intense fear or pain. . . . A physical reaction of an erection or ejaculation during a sexual assault in no way indicates that the man enjoyed the experience or that he did something to cause it or permit it."

Yet the abuse of boys and men by females is often laughed off, or reported in the media with softer language than is reserved when the roles are reversed. (Headlines will say that a female teacher "had a sexual relationship" with a middle schooler, instead of calling her an accused rapist.) Meanwhile, when the allegations are about a male authority figure, potshots about the alleged victim's masculinity or sexual orientation are often seen as fair game. Real men, so the bogus argument goes, don't get abused. Assault, a form of domination over a vulnerable individual, becomes a lasting tool for demanding his silence. And where better for a predator to assert his domination than within a trusted institution? Within the seemingly safe all-male spaces of church, or sports?

The past several years have eroded some of the myths of male abuse, thanks to overwhelming — and worldwide — evidence of sexual misconduct within the Catholic churchMore recently, former coach of the Brazilian national gymnastics team Fernando de Carvalho Lopes was fired from his job at a community center after forty former and current gymnasts came forward to say he'd abused them. Back here in the U.S., the Penn State abuse case that culminated in the conviction of former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky in 2012 was the result of three years of investigation and the sustained efforts of the victims. In the aftermath, several other figures, including once beloved coach Joe Paterno, were dismissed or resigned. Turning a blind eye to abuse is being complicit in it.

On Monday, Democracy 21 President Fred Wertheimer and former White House chief ethics lawyer Norman Eisen filed a request with the Office of Congressional Ethics to launch a preliminary investigation into Jordan's alleged knowledge of sexual abuse on his watch. But the death of the accused perpetrator makes the burden of proof extremely difficult. The nature of Jordan's alleged unwillingness to intervene for the students is even harder to prove. Yet the vocal, knee-jerk refusal of Jordan's supporters to consider that the seven men who say he was aware of wrongdoing could be telling the truth is inexcusable. The eagerness to smear the men, the simultaneous confidence that the guy they know could not possibly be involved in something bad, perpetuate the stigmas that other men face when they talk about their experiences.

While the walls of silence that have long protected men who abuse women are incrementally starting to crumble, the ones surrounding those accused of abusing boys and men are mighty. And just as women have learned, when the men say the words "Me too" they are waved off with the excuse of "locker room talk."

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By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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