Earlier today, I wrote about the firing of Penn State football coach Joe Paterno in the aftermath of the sexual abuse allegations against his former assistant coach, Jerry Sandusky. It is an utterly tragic case for obvious reasons; Sandusky is accused of molesting and raping eight boys over a period of 15 years and when a witness to one of his assaults reported it to his superiors, they didn’t go to the police. The case has illuminated just how far people will go to protect their “reputations” and to adhere to a chain of command rather than their own moral compass. The student protest/riot in State College, PA, following Paterno’s firing further emphasized that hero worship leaves otherwise decent people blind. The more I read, the more depressed I feel.
But I also came across one article that left me incredibly annoyed. Over at Jezebel, Erin Gloria Ryan has written a piece which asks the question, “What if Penn State’s coach had victimized girls?” and tries to make the point that if Sandusky’s victims had been female, the public, private, and media response to the allegations would be very different. While I wholeheartedly agree that female sexual assault victims are very often not taken seriously, and that they are somehow blamed, at least in part, for the crimes against them, etc., I have a serious problem with the Penn State scandal being used as an example of how male sexual assault victims are treated somehow “better” than female sexual assault victims.
For starters, Ryan’s thesis threatens to lose me at the onset because although these sexual assault allegations are being taken seriously now, they were swept under the rug for 10 years. This is simply not a case where response was “swift and certain.” A man victimized little boys, other grown men knew about it, and they chose to take minimal action. It was only after one of the victims told his parents, years later, that the police were finally called and action was taken. It took two more years for Sandusky to be arrested and charged.
But, okay, let’s go with Ryan’s line of thinking for a bit. What if Sandusky’s victims had been little girls? (Note: Further along in the piece, she also more briefly looks at how the case would have been viewed had the perpetrator been a woman as well.) She writes:
If Jerry Sandusky had victimized little girls, right now discussion of the case would be decidedly different. There would undoubtedly be a vocal public contingent that placed some of the blame on the victims. What were they wearing? Did they, like the 11-year-old who was gang raped in Texas, “dress older” than their age and try to “talk ghetto?” Did the victims act “slutty”? Were they virgins? Maybe the rapes of young sexually advanced tweens was actually just poor hapless Sandusky misreading cues, maybe the rapist was actually not a rapist at all, but a “Clumsy Don Juan” just trying to find some romance when “sex was in the air.”
If Sandusky’s victims were girls, people might doubt the assaults took place at all, as many female victims of sexual abuse are doubted. Whispers would suggest that the girls were being paid by a rival school to sabotage Penn State’s recruitment efforts by seducing the coach. Intrepid sports bloggers would dig relentlessly to uncover the identities of the girls and attempt to find something, anything, that would validate their theory that they somehow tempted their beloved defensive wizard. There’s be a horrible nickname for one of the victims involving the word “honeypot.” If a young girl were victimized by a giant in the world of college football, would she even have the courage to come forward, knowing what sort of scrutiny and character assassination awaited her?
The case of 11-year-old female rape victim that Ryan references is indeed a tragic one, but I don’t believe it accurately makes her point. In that case, an 11-year-old girl, in Texas, was gang raped by 18 boys and young men, the majority of which were teenagers, with the eldest being 26. They were her classmates, peers, and neighbors. In contrast, Sandusky, now 67, was in his 50s when the earliest of these alleged assaults occured. His victims were tweens and teens. I am not saying that I take either case more or less seriously based on the age differences, I am just saying the difference makes these cases difficult to compare.
Sandusky was also in a substantial position of power over his victims, all of whom he met and preyed upon via his charitable organization, The Second Mile, which focused on “at-risk” youth. I sincerely doubt it’s an accident that Sandusky preyed upon children who either came from troubled backgrounds, had behavior problems, etc. — these are children that are less likely to have a person they trust to turn to, and, should Sandusky’s abuses come to light, would be “easier” to discredit. If there is a larger issue surrounding this case that is worth analyzing, it’s one of class, not gender.
I think what bothers me the most about this Jezebel piece is that it’s a misguided attempt to conduct some sort of “feminist” analysis of a high-profile case — which, in fairness, is what Jezebel generally aims to do as part of its mission — but in this instance, it’s like fitting a square peg into a round hole. The Penn State scandal is a feminist issue in as far as it’s a human issue — an adult in a position of power victimized children. Other adult males in positions of power let him get away with it; the victims may have been boys and justice may be theirs soon, but the justification, the reasoning behind the coverup — Reputations at stake! Protocol! The chain of command! Fucking football! — is one that can be and has been used against sexual assault victims of both genders. To see students rioting over this — not because they are appalled that one of their school’s respected former coaches raped children on school grounds and/or that school officials didn’t turn him into police, but because their hero’s legacy has been “unfairly” tarnished — sends a disturbing message. Look at all the trouble coming forward and speaking up has caused. And that is a message we should collectively be very worried that male and female victims, of any age, will hear and conclude that it’s better to just keep quiet.