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.
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RT @rightingteacher Believing it’s distant keeps kids in danger, keeps abusers free from scrutiny, facilitating further abuse.
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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
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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…
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But because when horrible things happen with that frequency, on that scale, there’s a degree of cultural complicity in it.
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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.
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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.
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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.”
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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.
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I mean, there are real challenges to growing up with only one parent, esp. a single mom, bc of classism, racism, misogyny, heteronormativity
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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…
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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.
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He took advantage of the idea that any older male who is there & “provides,” whether materially, or with “affection” or “discipline” is good
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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
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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
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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.
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And with the students who rioted because “JoePa has done so much for this university” and “he is Penn State”
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That again is about the idea of unwavering loyalty to the older male figure who “provides” and acts in this paternalistic/patron role.
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.@SylkoZakur right. & those messages are *especially* targeted at black boys & young men, from folks who aren’t black and black ppl as well
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The whole culture of coaching, esp. of boys’ teams, but also in general, is based on similar assumptions about male mentoring, leadership.
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W/ men coaching sports, men leading churches/being spiritual fathers, men being “father figures” much of what we consider good leadership…
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Is actually men trampling over boys/young men’s emotional and often physical boundaries in the name of “discipline” and “structure.”
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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.
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And that provides a context where predatory behavior by older men can be seen as “mentoring” by other adults…
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And kids get the message that having a father/father figure around is inherently a good thing, with no education about patriarchal violence.
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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…
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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)…
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And that we owe them this uncritical loyalty for sacrificing by disciplining/mentoring us in these ways – this is all important context.
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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.

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NaBloPoMo so far

Day 15 of NaBloPoMo: All of my post drafts are still in fairly drafty form, so I don’t have anything topical to post today. Instead, you get to read (or skip, hah!) my thoughts on how NaBloPoMo is going and future posts I’m working on.

One of my goals for doing NaBloPoMo was to get myself to loosen up a bit about the writing process and what I share on the blog. I’ve tended towards long, article or essay type posts here, and while there are things I like about that blogging style (in part because it reflects the way I think), it takes a really. long. time. for me to get posts of that sort fully drafted, edited, and ready to go up on the blog. I was hoping that committing to blog every day would be a good way to make myself post pieces that haven’t touched on every single possible point I think I could make, and to trick myself into writing shorter and more manageable posts.

So far, it’s working. I’m still posting a few fairly long pieces, but for the most part I’m writing posts under (or not too far over) 1,000 words that either stand alone or are concrete chunks of larger series.

I’m also finding that it’s making me agonize less over the wording of posts being perfect, or every point being as completely clear or articulated as possible. I have a lot of perfectionistic tendencies (not helped by growing up Calvinist, let me tell you) that can really slow down my writing, especially when I’m in a particularly self-loathing mood (cf the whole Calvinist thing). I have to constantly battle the voices in my head that are never satisfied with what I write – it could always be more clear, more elegant, more concise or more comprehensive, more exciting, more funny, more insightful….on and on and on.

Those are all good things in writing, but being obsessed with everything being as perfect as it can be is a surefire way to get no actual writing done. And in the end, writing that you want other people to read has to be just done at some point. Not perfect – it will never be that – but done.

Agonizing less over elusive perfection also means that I’m writing posts a lot faster than I ordinarily do. Or perhaps that goes without saying since I don’t usually post every day. In any case I think there is some trade off in terms of the quality of the writing I’m doing, but not so much that it’s a really obvious drop, and posts are still readable. And writing more in over a certain period of time is better practice for improving one’s prose (and one’s speed at writing good prose) than producing less content that’s as polished as it can possibly be.

I guess the thing is that I’m a pretty risk-averse person. I don’t like to be wrong. I don’t like to have things missing or out of place. And I have to consciously fight off the idea that posts need to have every conceivable base to go up on the blog. And really…a blog full of perfect writing doesn’t sound all that interesting – not that I could produce such a thing in the first place! The best discussions often come out of points that aren’t completely articulated, or out of silences or thin spots that people fill out by thinking through a piece of writing together, once it’s done.

I certainly don’t want to get in the habit of sloppy writing. But I do want to train myself to not let the perfect the enemy of good enough when it comes to writing. To recognize that in the end, good writing is as much about knowing when to stop and just put it out there as it is about polished prose.

So I think I’m learning a lot, and getting a lot more on the blog in the process, so it’s a win all around.

What I’m working on:

– I have some more thoughts on Penn State that are still in pretty chaotic form, writing-wise. Before I read Toranse’s posts about the gaps in feminist writing on child sexual abuse, I’d been thinking about how patriarchy and specifically ideas about masculinity factor into the sexual abuse of male minors by male adults. There are really strong parallels here between the male-dominated hierarchies of the sports world and much of American Christianity, particularly in terms of what’s considered to be “manly” behavior, and how relationships between older men and boys or young men are seen as instrumental in shaping “real” masculinity. Both sports and religion set up male authority figures set up as proxy fathers to the boys and men under them – coaches, priests/pastors, etc. And there’s this idea that these kinds of figures, whether actual fathers or men who serve in similar roles, are absolutely necessary for strong or healthy male identity to coalesce in boys. There’s a recurring pattern where this role as father-figure and the trust invested in it are either exploited by child predators who use it to get access to boys and young men and youth of all genders in general (like Sandusky, like Eddie Long, like so many other predators in churches and sports teams and other institutions), or they’re built up into an extreme, uncritical devotion and loyalty to paternal figures and institutions that produces a culture of silence around problematic or abusive behavior.

– I’ve still got a lot more to say about race and class in the cult of true womanhood. I have a post halfway drafted about more of the gender and race implications of Michael Emerson’s findings in Divided by Faith. I also have a rough idea for a post sharing my and a few other black women’s personal experiences of dealing with misogynist, racist stereotypes about our sexuality and reproduction.

– More on the Duggars and the question of choice: specifically, my frustration with how the rhetoric about how they’ve chosen their lifestyle erases the fact that the Duggar children are being raised in an environment rife with spiritual abuse, have almost certainly been subjected to severe corporal punishment that would qualify as physical abuse (and if they haven’t been, are very much an exception for Quiverfull families), and that the girls especially are being deliberately denied an education and any vocational training for work outside of domestic duties, and having their unpaid time and labor systematically exploited all so that their parents can keep having more kids. This is not ok.


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 1in6.org.

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.