Masculinity and power: contextualizing Penn State

Trigger warning: rape/child sexual abuse, cultures of abuse.

As I said, I’m working on a post on how gender, and specifically ideas about masculinity, factor into the sexual abuse of boys by men, and into the cover ups of such abuse in hierarchical institutions. With Penn State and in other cases where institutions enable abuse, I think we’re seeing at work the most toxic and damaging side of notions of what it means to “be a man” or grow into manhood.

There are recurring themes about aspects of masculinity and male-dominated cultures/contexts that pop up in these cases. Fatherhood and proxy fatherhood. Teaching boys to be, act like, or grow into men. The role of relationships between adult and minor males in producing and reinforcing certain concepts of masculinity. The patronage and power of older men over younger men. And race and religion and the cult of sports are all factors here as well.

I put together some preliminary thoughts I tweeted for the post on Storify. I can’t embed it on the blog, unfortunately, but I’ve pasted it in plain text below. It’s easier to read on Storify, though. There are a few more points I want to add, but the basic points I want to make about how patriarchy enables adult male abuse of boys specifically are mostly here. I’d love some comments and feedback.

I need to write about how our ideas of masculinity inform power structures, relationships in institutions like sports teams and churches and how this contributes to an environment where abuse of various kinds is enabled and covered up. Going to tweet about this for a bit.

Part of my frustration with some responses to the #PSU case is this language of monstrosity that frames abuse as distant and rare. It’s not.

RT @rightingteacher People don’t want to think those they know, love, admire have committed this kind of crime. But they have.
RT @rightingteacher Believing it’s distant keeps kids in danger, keeps abusers free from scrutiny, facilitating further abuse.
Up to 1 in 3 girls and 1 in 6 boys have been or will be or are being sexually abused. That doesn’t include physical or emotional abuse.

That’s not rare. That’s an epidemic.

MT @rightingteacher Terrible 2 think it’s your son, husband, aunt, mom who abuses; worse 2 be child abused because some are beyond suspicion
All that to say, child abuse is incredibly common. And this matters, not because it would be less horrible if it were a rare thing…
But because when horrible things happen with that frequency, on that scale, there’s a degree of cultural complicity in it.
We really resist thinking about ways in which culture & society enable child sexual abuse. It’s true of rape in general, but esp. w/ kids.
There’s a bit of conversation now on how the culture at #PSU and the cult of personality around JoePa enabled Sandusky, but still limited.
To my mind 1 thing largely missing from mainstream coverage of #PSU is an interrogation of “masculinity,” how it enables this kind of abuse

There’s a recurring theme in #PSU case and others of ideas about fatherhood and surrogate fatherhood, specifically of boys.

Sandusky is the most obvious. He targeted boys who were being raised by single moms, gained access by presenting as a “male role model.”
He was able to package himself that way bc of assumptions (not necessarily all bad) about how boys/young men need older male mentors and because of assumptions of what that kind of relationship between older men and boys/young men should look like.

Sandusky talked a lot about discipline, structure, being a father figure who provided those things for boys who didn’t always appreciate it.
I mean, there are real challenges to growing up with only one parent, esp. a single mom, bc of classism, racism, misogyny, heteronormativity
But that’s not the message we send to boys who are being raised by single moms. Not, “this is a tough road,” but “something is wrong w/ you”

And I think we need to talk about the fact that Sandusky targeted boys who had been primed to see themselves as lacking something…
That only a man in this role of “father figure” or “mentor” could provide. That he was able to home in on that sense of loss and longing.
He took advantage of the idea that any older male who is there & “provides,” whether materially, or with “affection” or “discipline” is good
And that’s about a culture of a certain kind of masculinity, or beliefs around masculinity. It’s not just about Sandusky or others who abuse
And we can see this in defenses of Paterno, most of which are about his being a paternal figure to “his” players, “his” staff, all of #PSU
I was struck, e.g., by how the new acting head coach at #PSU said Paterno has meant more to him than anyone but his father. Hmm.
And with the students who rioted because “JoePa has done so much for this university” and “he is Penn State”
That again is about the idea of unwavering loyalty to the older male figure who “provides” and acts in this paternalistic/patron role.
.@SylkoZakur right. & those messages are *especially* targeted at black boys & young men, from folks who aren’t black and black ppl as well
The whole culture of coaching, esp. of boys’ teams, but also in general, is based on similar assumptions about male mentoring, leadership.
W/ men coaching sports, men leading churches/being spiritual fathers, men being “father figures” much of what we consider good leadership…
Is actually men trampling over boys/young men’s emotional and often physical boundaries in the name of “discipline” and “structure.”
And a supporting culture that coaches/bullies the kids on the receiving end to see it all as “for their own good” and not question it.
And that provides a context where predatory behavior by older men can be seen as “mentoring” by other adults…
And kids get the message that having a father/father figure around is inherently a good thing, with no education about patriarchal violence.
Dunno how coherent all that was, but the upshot is this idea that older men in positions of authority are there to tell us to do things…
That we don’t want to do, and there to make us do them for ‘our good’ (whether it’s coaches, priests, bio/foster/adoptive fathers)…
And that we owe them this uncritical loyalty for sacrificing by disciplining/mentoring us in these ways – this is all important context.
It’s context for why male adult abusers are able to target boys using the promise of a “father figure.”

Also context for why men in hierarchical institutions excuse, enable, cover-up abuse. “Masculine” Loyalty, discipline, doing as you’re told.


Guest post: Is feminist analysis of child sexual abuse lacking? Cont.

Trigger warning: child sexual abuse and rape, rape culture.

Following up on the first post, Toranse had some further thoughts on where critiques of rape culture fall short when it comes to child sexual abuse, which she also gave me permission to share here. I think she’s absolutely right that we talk about perpetrators of child sexual abuse as though they can’t control themselves, which is completely at odds with how feminist critique addresses rape and assault when both perpetrator and victim are adults.

What I was more wanting was the ways that we tend to focus on everything but the perpetrator and how that fits into a wider social context.

Like, when talking about rape and rape culture, we will say, “It’s all the rapists fault!” but with childhood sexual abuse, we’ll say…what could the child have done, what could others have done…not, “it’s the perpetrator’s fault!” and then looking at how we can re-examine the ways we look at children and those power dynamics and how the patriarchy enables that.

Like, not just finding ways to get involved to stop it, but also figuring out the whys behind it happening. How we view children as less than us, as a possession of the parents, etc. How to look at our family dynamics and maybe even consider that the current family model might be structured to contribute to abuse.

Like, feminists have already figured out that trying to find ways to dodge rapists just isn’t effective. But with csa, it’s like we’ve just decided that abusers will abuse, they are who they are, nothing we can do about it. And that’s really depressing, as a survivor. In feminist circles, I don’t feel like anyone cares enough to bother. Or, as I’ve said, I often feel like it requires that we figure out the ways that our own levels of power and influence have allowed this to happen. And feminism is notorious for wanting to deflect away from self-examination.

I guess that’s it. We view perpetrators of csa as “well, there’s no rehabilitation, they’ll reoffend” like it’s…something so inherent in them and is not a part of any wider social context. And that let’s us off the hook from examining how it works. I was abused because my father could get away with it. Because my father liked power and domination, just as much as he liked it when he could control my mother through submission; my brothers through physical violence. Because he was selfish and I was his possession, and he liked to make sure that was known.

And then the conflation of pedophile and abuser; as though abusers are just sexually drawn to children so overpoweringly much that they just CAN’T help it. OH MY GOD IT’S A CHILD MY AROUSAL IS TO A LEVEL I CANNOT STAND I MUST ABUSE is ridiculous, and feminism is quick to knock down that belief in rapists, while supporting it in those who sexually abuse children.

And I think we also view csa through the lens of Lolita, as though it’s not about violence and power, but is always some delusion of the abuser that it was actually a relationship. Which, while I’m sure there are abusers who have a distorted view of reality that way can I just say this – ABUSERS CAN LIE. Just because the abuser tells the kid, “oh, this is just how we love each other” doesn’t mean they actually believe it! Just because they tell the world, “But it’s just love!!” still doesn’t mean they actually believe it.

But we want to believe it. Heck, wanted to believe it…”maybe he just loved me and didn’t know how to do that right.” Which is really really hard when you’re sitting there with that harsh voice in your ear, “you get what you deserve, you sick little girl”. Hence why we use words like “molestation” no matter if it was rape or not; we want to skirt away from the belief that people could actually be so horrible as to get off on stripping the power away from a kid through sexual abuse.

I want feminism and social justice activists to look at those who sexually abuse children with the same critical eye that they look at rapists and rape culture.

Guest post: Is feminist analysis of child sexual abuse lacking?

Trigger warning: child sexual abuse, rape culture.

Over at Tumblr, Toranse raised some important questions about whether child rape and sexual abuse have been adequately addressed in feminist discussions of rape culture. As she points out, much of feminist discussion of rape centers issues of consent that don’t apply to children. Similarly, feminist critique of the relationship between patriarchy and rape culture doesn’t often look at the role of patriarchy in abusive family or domestic contexts when children are the victims (as opposed to spouses or intimate partners).

I think Toranse is absolutely right that there’s a real need for feminist analysis of child rape and sexual abuse as product of patriarchy and rape culture distinct from rape and sexual assault of adults. I know of only one book, Christianity and Incest by Annie Imbens and Ineke Jonker, that talks about the relationship between patriarchy (and Christian patriarchy specifically) and child sexual abuse. I’m sure there are other books and articles on the topic, but my impression is that there aren’t many. It’s certainly not a topic I’ve seen specifically addressed much on many mainstream feminist blogs.

Toranse has given me permission to share her thoughts here. Please read and share them.

In all of the feminist discussions surrounding rape and rape culture when is there an examination of child sexual abuse?

Heck, in feminist discussions, when is there an examination of child abuse in general?

I feel like this is still a subject that not even social justice circles pay attention to at the same critical level as other topics. And I can’t help but wonder why that is.

Think about it: in discussions of rape culture, feminism tries to center the discussion on the rapist and on society at large.

But in discussions of child abuse, there is still far too much emphasis on training children on how to avoid those situations. Hell, not even that – most of the literature I’ve seen aimed at children is about how to deal with it as and/or after it has happened.

How messed up is that? Children – with the least amount of power – somehow have to figure out how to handle child abuse all on their own.

And I wonder how much ageism – that dreaded -ism that is so well-mocked when it comes to children – is at play here. Because talking about the things that cause child abuse and the ways to prevent it – that don’t involve blaming the child – mean that we have to talk possibly about ourselves. How we contribute to it. We’re the adults, right? We’re the ones in power over children.

This will sound mean, but I’m including myself to – I wonder how much is is that children are not us. Discussions of rape and rape culture; these are things, that as a group of older teenagers/adults…we go through. These are personal and close to us. But some seven year old abused kid is probably not going to come on to an online forum or any place for discussion and talk about the abuse they’re going through.

I’ve seen discussions on child abuse as it relates to class. I’ve seen arguments on child abuse that are classiest while saying they’re not, because they argue that bringing up child abuse is inherently classiest; as though we can’t talk about child abuse for free of offending the poor people who obviously abuse their children.

I’ve seen discussions on child abuse as it relates to unemployment. Cold, clinical ones, as though it’s just something that “happens.” “Oh hey, lose your job, smack your kid, whatever.”

I’ve seen discussion on child abuse centered on how the child can prevent it. The only thing good in discussions like those is the possibility of equipping children with vocabulary to describe their experiences. But rarely is there anything out there of any worth. Most of the books I’ve seen (of course, this is only based on what I’ve shelved in the library) are walking a line between “how to tell children while still keeping them innocent” and failing miserably at telling anything of any worth.

I’ve seen discussions on adults complicit in child abuse – family members, teachers, etc. But where is the discussions on the abusers themselves? On how we structure our families, on the way that the patriarchy and ageism affect this? Where is the serious look at child abuse and the ways to combat it?

Do we not have the answers to these questions? Because I feel as though everything is structured for discussions on the aftermath of child physical and sexual abuse. Like everything out there is only places to help you patch up the wounds while we don’t even think about even just considering how we might discuss the causes and ways society needs to change to at least lessen abuse. Is all there is just fixing it up and turning a blind eye when it happens?

Are there no answers or have we just never started looking for them?

Because those are discussions I’d like there to be more of. The abuse of children – all of it, physical, mental, emotional, sexual, all of it – that’s something I think the feminist and social justice circles should focus a lot of attention on. Far, far more than there currently is.

(Child abuse and feminism)

Toranse follows up on these thoughts here:

I don’t fault feminism for focusing on rape. I just want my experiences to be included in these discussions as well.

Hell, there’s still way to much of lumping all childhood sexual abuse as “molestation.” Have you seen that? Cause I’ve seen that far too much and I think it’s an attempt to sanitize it. I wasn’t just ‘molested’ I was raped. And being raped was part of the whole experience of sexual abuse.

I feel like what’s expected of me is to just fit myself into current discussions of rape and rape culture. But sexual abuse is different, it doesn’t function in the same way and I feel like those things need to be addressed.

For instance: grooming. There is no way there is any room to discuss grooming in current feminist contexts. At all. And hell, I needed the “coercion is not consent” conversation LONG before we ever had it because seriously, “yes means yes and no means no” things just DON’T mean ANYTHING when you were a toddler when it started.

On comments, safe spaces, and free expression

Trigger warning: child sexual abuse, doctrine of divine sovereignty as it applies to child sexual abuse.

I got a comment on my post about Penn State that I’ve left in moderation for several days now, and that I think I will ultimately delete. I haven’t quite been able to get myself to click the button yet.

Let me explain. When I started this blog, one of the goals I had in mind was to foster a conversation that would be a fairly open and free exchange of ideas and experiences. My thinking at the time was that a mostly hands-off approach to comment moderation was an important part of achieving that goal, specifically only deleting comments that were outright hostile, personal attacks, or trolling. I wanted people to feel free to say what they believed as long as they were respectful of other people’s beliefs.

The comment sitting in moderation doesn’t fall under any of my original criteria for deletion. But I’m realizing that my original criteria were pretty crappy.

One big reason for this: the idea that “open and free exchange” of ideas exists doesn’t really reflect reality, any more than the notion of the “free hand of the market” leading us towards an progressively more meritocratic society reflects reality.

I mean, one of the big reasons why this blog and others like it exist is that certain perspectives are hugely privileged while others are completely erased and silenced – in the church and in society in general. It’s not as though the internet is an exception. Look at which voices online are most represented, have the most chance of being amplified and supported, have the most influence…they’re the same voices that are most represented in the offline world (and usually despite being a numerical minority – hello, white straight cis males).

Leaving a comments section largely unmoderated would really be allowing the status quo to prevail – allowing privileged voices to be dominant and underrepresented voices to continue to be drowned out. What’s actually called for is a moderation philosophy that counterbalances these tendencies and creates a space where people who are ordinarily not heard can speak as freely and safely as possible – a space where marginalized voices are not only represented, but actively supported, centered, and amplified.

The comment in question expresses a hope that the boys abused by Jerry Sandusky will come to understand that God is in control and knows our pain. I’m sure the person who left this comment (presumably a Christian) believes very sincerely in divine sovereignty and honestly thinks that such a belief would be a comfort or help to abuse survivors. Probably that belief has been something of a comfort to this person. And perhaps for some survivors it can be, too.

But for a lot of survivors, especially those coming out of environments where the doctrine of divine sovereignty was used a tool to manipulate people into not speaking out about mistreatment or abuse, “God is in control” is the opposite of comforting. It’s frightening enough to contemplate the idea of an all knowing God, who knows children are being raped and either can’t or won’t do anything to stop it. But the idea of a God who is in control even when children are being raped, who can somehow make child rape part of “his” larger plan? Is absolutely monstrous.

As somatic strength has written about related beliefs that God can reveal to Christians things that have happened in secret, these doctrines can do a lot of harm to survivors of abuse in Christian contexts – by giving false hope that their abuse will somehow magically be brought to light, that a rescue or a way out will suddenly present itself:

When I was sixteen, I begged God to tell someone at our church what I was going through. They didn’t have to specifically know about the abuse – I’m confused about what I wanted about that now. I think I wanted them to know, but not know, because I had determined to take it to the grave. In my head, talking about it was my death, talking about it ensured that something absolutely and horrifically terrible would happen, though I didn’t know what. I just knew that it would. There was no way I could tell, so I wanted someone else to know the effects of what I was going through.

I never missed a Sunday at church. I waited for the person who would come up to me and tell me, “God put you on my heart and I just wanted you to know that He says it’ll be okay. You’ll get through this.” Something like that. Something that would let me know that God was thinking about me, that he hadn’t abandoned me through all this. I wasn’t sleeping anymore. I couldn’t talk anymore. I was consumed by the most horrible feeling of dread that there was no future for me, that the only way out was to die….

In a church that contained a number of people who believed they had a “discerning power” and a girl who couldn’t talk for a few months begging God to let others know and give her hope, he did Absolutely Nothing. And to believe that he is capable of doing that, to believe that he does that for some and not for others is to say that while he is willing to help others, he looked down at me and, probably in his sweetest, most emotionally manipulative, passive aggressive way, told me the equivalent of “you’re not worth it.” (somatic strength: No one saw anything)

So this idea that God has a handle on everything that happens, no matter how horrible, can be incredibly triggering for some survivors. It’s certainly not reliable as a comfort – again, not to say that there are no survivors who find this idea comforting, because some certainly do. I can say for myself as a survivor of emotional abuse that continues to affect my life on a literally daily basis, the idea that God is in control of my being chronically depressed, living with extreme anxiety, and struggling to cope with basic responsibilities is the opposite of reassuring.

It’s comforting; to think that these things will be brought to the light. To think that something like this could never be gotten away with, because even if they commit the perfect crime, God will tell someone. (somatic strength)

Like somatic, I think when these beliefs are expressed about God’s ability to control or magically reveal abuse, it’s often more about what’s comforting for someone to cling to in the face of a horrifying crime, than what’s of actual help to abuse survivors. And while I understand that the person who left this comment probably had nothing but good intentions in mind, the intent behind a statement doesn’t determine what it’s actual effects are. For me, the comment felt like a downplaying of abuse – like it would somehow be ok because God is in control. And I suspect many of the readers here who are also survivors of various forms of abuse might feel similarly.

And really, that’s who this blog is for. People who believe God is in control in every situation have plenty of spaces where they can freely express that belief and find loads of people who will agree with them. People who are potentially triggered by that idea don’t have the luxury of many spaces where their feelings and experiences will be validated. There isn’t a proliferation of spaces where you can speak out about abuse and be believed and supported.

So in rethinking my original policy on comments, I’m realizing that I need to approach moderating with an eye to maintain a space for free expression by people who are ordinarily silenced, dismissed, and pushed out of conversation in various ways – including by comment spaces where triggering statements are allowed to stand unchallenged. That means limiting to some degree the expression of ideas and perspectives that haven’t been marginalized in the same way.

All that said, I’m not completely decided on how to deal with this comment. I could of course just delete it, and probably will. It seems particularly ill-conceived as a response to a post about how racism and classism make children of color even more vulnerable than children in general to rape. Or I could publish it, and respond to it (or just link to this post I suppose). I’d welcome thoughts on how to manage it.

Guest post: Safe spaces

Today’s guest post is by Dianna Anderson, a writer and blogger. She wrote an awesome open letter to Mark Driscoll a few months back, and runs the blog Be The Change.  ETA: And I have a guest post up today at Dianna’s blog on how the constructs of virginity and “sexual purity” completely erase queer, trans/gender nonconforming, and intersex people.

Trigger warning: sexual abuse and violence.

When I was a kid, one of my favorite places to go was underneath our back deck. I was lucky enough to grow up in a house with a pool in the backyard; it was above ground, and had a deck surrounding it. Off to one side, there were steps that led down into the un-mowed backyard, where there was a huge maple tree growing between the privacy fence around the pool and the fence bordering our property.

This little space of yard was one of my favorite places to play. In the fall, the maple leaves would gather and pile up, and I could climb up the fence and hop down into a soft pile of leaves over and over. I could play back there out of sight of both neighbors and parents (something important when you’re enacting secret missions and pretending to be a spy). It also served as headquarters for my Calvin and Hobbesinspired club – “GROSBoyS” – which didn’t work out so well because my best friend was a neighborhood boy.

Every child needs a safe space – a space where they can feel free to be whoever, do whatever, and feel safe and protected and free. These spaces hold our deep secrets – confessions of “crushes” and talking about fears and how much you actually do like school – told in confidence to friends away from the prying eyes of parents and adults. My space was a place to explore, to develop, to become more myself. I never felt more at home than I did standing, daredevil fashion, on the top rung of our rickety back fence, preparing myself to leap into the pile of leaves or snow or pillows (depending on the season).

But safe spaces aren’t just for kids. Everyone either has, or feels the lack of having, a safe space to call their own. As we grow, these spaces become communities where we can share things without judgment, where we can trust others, and where we can learn about ourselves and others with a safety net. We can take leaps into the unknown in these safe spaces, knowing that there will be a landing.

When we reach adulthood, we develop new safe spaces – they could be virtual, as my blog and Grace’s blog here demonstrate. But very often, they are still heavily rooted in the physical. For me, when I turned 18 and moved off to college, my college was that safe space, as it becomes for many other students. The college campus becomes home base – it’s supposed to be a place where students can come back at the end of the day and feel protected; one develops friendships, does a lot of work to figuring out who s/he is, and learns a lot about himself or herself and others.* The safe space of college mirrors the safe spaces of childhood.

And this is a large part of why abuse – especially abuse involving an uneven power structure, say, that of an adult to a child – is so insidiously awful. It is physically and emotionally and psychologically damaging precisely because it destroys any sense of safe space the abused person may have had. The ultimate “safe space” is one’s own bodily autonomy, and when that is violated, it becomes harder and harder to develop new safe spaces.

Safe spaces are vital for recovery: because abuse causes all sense of safety to come crashing down, developing a new place to feel safe where one can readjust and rage and cry and discuss all the effects of abuse is vitally important. This is why therapy exists. Safe spaces are also massively important to seeking justice – the abused must be made to feel safe and not re-victimized in the act of coming forward.

It is precisely for this reason that the riots at Penn State over the firing of Coach Paterno are so disheartening. Arguably, the firing itself is problematic as he is only the most visible part of the controversy surrounding the child sexual abuse, and his firing seems to speak more of a PR move than actually seeking justice (this is not to say he should not have been fired – I frankly don’t think firing is enough, considering he violated Pennsylvania’s mandatory reporting laws).

However, the reaction to the firing is disgusting. There is not a big enough “shame on you” for every single one of those students who “defended” Paterno by overturning news trucks and rioting in the street.

This riot is not an isolated problem. It is not just Penn State’s problem. It is not just Coach Paterno’s problem. It is not just the problem of Pennsylvania, or one isolated incident in the world of college sports.

Many statistics and studies confirm that college-age women are the highest risk group when it comes to sexual assault and rape. As many as 1 in 4 are victims of an attempted or completed rape. Frequently, the rapist is someone they know, someone they have to sit next to in class and see around campus. It can be very hard to regain the safe space that a college campus is supposed to be for this 1 in 4.

And the Penn State rioters just made it even harder. Not only is this a massive display of rape apologism – that a man should not be punished for failing to report and excusing a child rapist – but it makes it harder for “not perfect” victims to seek justice. The college girl who passed out drunk at a party and woke up to being raped? She just got the message that her campus is not a safe space to even try and come forward. The young co-ed who developed an inappropriate relationship with a professor, who then took advantage of her? She just got the message that, not only will the administration likely not support her, but neither will the student body. The sophomore attacked by the star of the athletic team while out for Halloween? She was just told not to come forward because her whole campus might turn against her.

By rioting, the Penn State students have participated in the abuse. They have removed the safe space not only for the children who were Sandusky’s victims, but they have damaged the safe space for sexual assault victims in their university and at campuses across the nation. Paterno was fired for being complicit in covering up child rape – a generally agreed upon “most despicable of crimes” – and students rioted. How much worse would this be if Paterno had covered up the rape of a section of the cheerleading squad and got fired? How much worse if the victim was not an “innocent child” but a “slut who was asking for it”?

The thought terrifies me. Every day, when we participate willingly in a culture that is ambivalent about charges of rape, that will rush to the defense of powerful men instead of the victim (ahem: Herman Cain? Kobe Bryant? R. Kelly? DSK? Julian Assange?). When we riot over the dismissal of a coach who helped cover up the rape of a child, we destroy the safe space that victims need. We take away the thing they most need, and we deny them justice.

And then we wonder why women don’t come forward.

*Linguistic reinforcement of the gender binary is recognized by the author. Apologies.

What can we do?

Trigger warning: discussion of sexual abuse.

When cases like Penn State become news it so often seems that public reaction is about everyone except the survivors. And in the midst of all the discussion of what was done and was could or should have been done, there’s little often little time taken to consider what we can do now, and in the future.

I include myself in this criticism. Part of me thinks that it’s some kind of ritualized catharsis, where venting outrage about abuses made public is more about managing fears and anxieties – to assert some measure of control over the terrifying reality of widespread abuse. And a lot of it also seems to be about creating distance between ourselves and people who abuse, or enable abuse – the language of monstrosity, for example, that is so often used to describe child molesters. I understand why we do it and there’s probably some kind of collective psychological utility or purpose to it, but by itself it’s not quite adequate.

Here are a few things I think we can do:

– As with any kind of violence and oppression centering the voices of people who experience it is paramount. It’s hard to speak about abuse openly. We can counter the damage done by pro rape apologism demonstrations by not silencing survivors, by listening when they speak, by believing them.

– Be informed about organizations that offer support to survivors. The National Sexual Assault hotline is free, confidential, and staffed round the clock [1.800.656.HOPE(4673)]. Let’s find out where our local rape crisis shelters or women’s shelters are. If we can, find out how we can help or support them. Let’s ask what they’re doing to provide services to trans women, queer and gender nonconforming youth, nonbinary people, and queer women, who are often underserved populations, but disproportionately at risk of assault and sexualized violence.

– Be aware of the particular stigma that’s attached to male survivors of rape and assault and prepared to point them to resources where they can speak with other male survivors and get support, like

I got to thinking about this after my twitter friend and AWH reader APBBlue tweeted urging people outraged by Penn State’s rape enabling to donate to or volunteer for RAINN (the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network). I’m grateful to her for that spur to concrete action. I signed up to volunteer with RAINN today.

What are some of your thoughts on what we can concretely do to change the culture around issues of abuse? Please share them in the comments.

About Penn State

Extreme trigger warning for details of child sexual and physical abuse and cover ups; racism. Please consider carefully before reading this post.

I hadn’t been following the Penn State child abuse cover up case closely until tonight, when the university announced that the long-time coach of the football team, Joe Paterno, and the president of the university, Graham Spanier, had been fired over the case. Paterno, Spanier, and others failed to report to to any law enforcement officials that a team assistant witnessed Jerry Sandusky, a former defensive coach who had free access to Penn State facilities, raping a 10 year old boy in the locker rooms.

Paterno and university officials above him claim to have only been informed that Sandusky had been engaging in vaguely “inappropriate contact” with a minor. But they knew or suspected enough about his behavior to decide that he should be told he could no longer bring children with him on campus. [Grand jury report – goes into specific detail about assaults and grooming of victims. Extreme trigger warning.]

Tonight hundreds of Penn State students have swarmed the campus to protest Paterno’s firing. Overturned a media truck. Chanted for “Joe Pa” to have one more game, one more year. Screamed that he “deserves to be treated better than this,” and that he’s “done so much for the university.” They’ve demanded that he remain coach for life. They’re shouting school cheers and “We are Penn State.” They’ve had to be disbanded by tear gas and riot police.

Meanwhile a brave but tiny group of 50-75 Penn State students have gathered in a vigil in support of the victims.

Think of how the victims feel tonight, how they’ll feel tomorrow, watching a crowd riot in defense of a man who did nothing to inform police that his colleague was a child rapist. Think how the victims’ families feel. Think how many other people who survived abuse were triggered last night watching this display of rape apologism.

As many people have said tonight, this is just one example of why so many survivors of abuse do not come forward with their stories. Because this is what happens. People rally in defense of those with the most power in the situation – institutional power, power to report abuse, power to stop abuse, power to prevent future abuses. And the people who have actually been abused, the ones who are the most vulnerable, are at best erased, and often attacked.

People are calling this a “sex scandal.” Talking about sad it is that such a sports legend and great man has been felled by a “sex scandal.” Because even when the people being raped are 10 year old kids, rape culture still doesn’t recognize that rape is not sex.

The athletic director and other officials who knew about the “inappropriate contact” felt it was serious enough to ban a man who ran a children’s charity from ever bringing kids on campus, but not serious enough to inform campus police, or any police at all. They only took steps needed to move the abuse off campus. That’s it. And they admit even that restriction was completely unenforceable.

It’s all so familiar. I can’t help but read that and think of SGM pastors declaring that “no abuse ever occurred on church property,” as though that’s a point in their favor. As though that’s a defense for harboring and covering up for abusers.

All they cared about was protecting their own and protecting the reputation and interests of the university.

Also familiar: the way adults who I want to feel should have known better repeatedly responded as though telling a child rapist to just stay away from children would be sufficient to address things. The police officer who HEARD Sandusky admit to showering naked with an 11 year old child and “maybe” groping him, later simply “advised Sandusky not to shower with any child again.” ADVISED him.
The Penn State officials who only told Sandusky not to bring kids on campus, as though that was the root of the problem.
The SGM pastors who tell known abusers not to be alone with kids at church events, and think that’s enough.
Who are far from the only pastors who think they can manage pedophiles by telling them to just say no to being around kids.

And then there are the racial and class aspects of this case.

Apparently most of the boys Sandusky is known to have abused are black. He found his victims through a charity he founded to serve “troubled” and “underprivileged” children, many of whom were foster kids and from single parent homes. Like most abusers he looked for opportunity and vulnerability. It’s not a coincidence that he targeted and groomed kids who were economically disadvantaged, were in rough and perhaps abusive family situations, or were being raised by single parents who probably had to work constantly and might have seen Sandusky’s organization as a safe space for their children when they couldn’t be there. He took them to NFL games. He gave them gifts. He gave them the attention and time that for various reasons they didn’t get at home, or their parents didn’t have to give.

eta (11/9): The race of Sandusky’s victims has not been confirmed. However, I’m leaving the rest of the post as written for the sake of transparency and because 1) Sandusky still targeted poor kids, kids with single parents, foster kids – demographics that are disproportionately black and brown – and “underprivileged” and “disadvantaged” youth, labels that are frequently applied as shorthand for being black or Latin@. There’s a strong likelihood that his victims were disproportionately children of color. 2) Relatedly, the point about institutional privilege and power being linked to whiteness and wealth still applies. It’s hard to imagine this going on for as long as it did if Sandusky had been a black university employee at a mostly white institution like Penn State (and a black university employee would be much less likely to have the high position and access that Sandusky did, or the capital to start a charity like The Second Mile). Original post resumes below.

eta (11/17): The New York Times reports that Sandusky “tended to choose white boys from homes where there was no father or some difficulty in the family.” As I said in my previous eta, even if Sandusky only targeted white boys (which isn’t clear from the NYT report), his own race privilege remains a factor here. It’s a factor in his being able to found a charity like The Second Mile, a  factor in his being able to present himself as a mentor and role model to children of any race (men of color are not often held up as role models for white boys), and a factor in his status and position at Penn State. Again, the original post resumes below. (thanks to John for leaving a comment that brought this to my attention).

This is how privilege works. It’s how whiteness and wealth as privileged classes work. Sandusky was a wealthy white grown man who used his socioeconomic, racial, and age privilege to procure and groom black kids to rape.

Let’s be clear on this. We understand that adults who rape children are exploiting the privilege, power, and authority they have as adults over children in our society. We need to understand that whiteness and wealth are similarly constructs invested with privilege, power, and authority. Recognizing this is no more an indictment of all white people or all rich people than recognizing the reality of adult influence over children as a factor in child molestation is an indictment of all adults.

It’s not that it’s worse that Sandusky targeted black boys. It’s that it shows who the most vulnerable youth are in our society. It shows how lines of power fall in our society.

Sandusky is not the only white person who has exercised his privilege to abuse children of color. Recall the case of Frank Lombard, a white North Carolina man who adopted two black children, apparently for the purposes of raping them:

In the chat transcript, “F.L.” is asked how he got access to a child so young. “Adopted,” he replied, and said that the process was “not so hard … esp (sic) for a black boy.”

Recall the cases of Lydia Schatz and Hana Williams, two black African girls adopted by white American fundamentalist Christian families, only to be beaten and neglected to death.

And these are very specific cases of white individuals abusing black children, just one part of a much broader pattern of the systematic devaluing of black and brown children, evidenced by the shunting of black and Latin@ (Latino+Latina) children into the juvenile and adult detention systems, the way black children are funneled into and then become stuck in the foster care system, where again, there are racial imbalances in terms of who has the power, and where abuse is endemic, the underfunding and understaffing of majority black and Latin@ schools, the willingness of society at large to believe children of color are thugs, criminals, or deviants in waiting (and therefore not worthy of investing in or helping).

Yes, it matters that someone who has the capital to create a program for underprivileged kids is more likely to be white, and the kids in such a program are more likely to be children of color.
Yes, it matters that people who have the resources to adopt interracially or transnationally are more likely to be white people adopting children of color.
Not because all white adults will abuse children of color that they have access to or authority over.

Because institutional and cultural racism makes disproportionate access by white adults to children of color or non-Western children possible (the same goes for rich adults and access to children from poor backgrounds).
Because while all children are vulnerable to abuse, racism and classism make children of color even more vulnerable and defenseless.

We get that rape and other kinds of abuse are about power. We get that we have to talk about sexism and misogyny and gender inequity to talk about rape and gendered violence. We need to start getting that racism and classism are also about power and privilege and inequity and we can’t fully speak truth about violence against poor or brown people without addressing these forces.

But I have this sinking feeling that the fact that the victims were targeted because their race and class made them more vulnerable isn’t going to be part of the public conversation about this case.