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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“Christian Privilege: Not Being Allowed to Dominate Others Doesn’t Mean You’re Being Oppressed.”

I loved this post on Christian privilege and marriage equality by Mike Gillis. It’s a very succinct explanation of the problem with religious arguments against civil recognition of same gender marriages: i.e., limiting the rights of others based on the tenets of one faith (really one interpretation of a faith out of many, in this case) unjustly privileges that faith and its members over all other members of society. And as Gillis notes, Christians who believe their religious opposition to marriage equality should be enshrined as law are also discriminating against other Christians who support marriage equality – insisting that only their interpretation of Christianity can be the basis of general laws. That’s some kind of privilege.

If your religious beliefs condemn marriage between two people of the same gender, then you shouldn’t marry people of the same gender. While you have the freedom to limit your own behavior in matters of sexuality, diet or religious observance, you don’t have any power to limit the rights of other people, particularly those in other religions or with no religion.

If someone else is allowed to marry their same-sex partner, the anti-gay marriage advocate is affected in no way, oppressed in no way, their right to hold those beliefs is violated in no way.

Just as orthodox Jews aren’t victims of oppression when other people are allowed to legally watch television and use electric appliances on Saturday. Just as Muslims aren’t victims of oppression when other people are allowed to legally purchase alcohol. Just as Hindus aren’t victims of oppression when other people are legally allowed to eat beef.

You are expecting a level of cultural dominance that is completely unreasonable. You are expecting the right to to demand that your religious practices be taken as civil law and that the prohibitions of (I assume) Christianity be enforced on everybody — including non-Christians and Christians of denominations that accept equality in gay rights.

Read more here.


At MOMocrats: White male privilege and the daughter test

I’m very excited to share that I’m now a contributor to MOMocrats, a great blog dedicated to writing about politics from a variety of parents’ perspectives. My first post for MOMocrats has just been posted; please check it out, and the rest of the blog, too! An excerpt:

Steven Levitt of Freakonomics fame recently wrote that he bases his decisions on whether to support government prohibitions on what he calls the “daughter test”:

It wasn’t until the U.S. government’s crackdown on internet poker last week that I came to realize that the primary determinant of where I stand with respect to government interference in activities comes down to the answer to a simple question: How would I feel if my daughter were engaged in that activity? If the answer is that I wouldn’t want my daughter to do it, then I don’t mind the government passing a law against it. I wouldn’t want my daughter to be a cocaine addict or a prostitute, so in spite of the fact that it would probably be more economically efficient to legalize drugs and prostitution subject to heavy regulation/taxation, I don’t mind these activities being illegal. On the other hand, if my daughter had good reasons to want an abortion, I would want her to be able to have one, so I’m weakly in favor of abortion to be legal, even though I put a lot of value on unborn fetuses.

That this is utterly ridiculous ought to be so obvious as to need no elaborating. Do we want legislators making laws based on what they would personally want for us as parents, or based on respect for people as human beings with equal rights and autonomy? This shouldn’t be a difficult question to answer. Yet a bunch more white dudes similarly privileged as Levitt have since weighed in to debate whether or not his test is reasonable.

Read the rest of the post at MOMocrats

ETA: I just realized this is the 100th post at Are Women Human. Hurrah!


“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”

Happy Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, everyone!

These days, MLK Jr. is popularly seen as a romanticized, everyman’s hero. His message is presented as a call for “colorblindness,” and appropriated by the likes of Glenn Beck and other extreme conservatives in support of their arguments against the so called “reverse racism” of affirmative action and other institutionalized attempts to address racial disparities. His activism has been sanitized and romanticized in the public consciousness, stripped of any real controversy or challenge to the status quo. As a result, a lot of people buy into the argument that Dr. King would have championed a radically individualistic understanding of issues of social justice – including the “if everyone just stopped noticing race, racism would go away” argument, a pretense that everyone has equal rights and opportunities, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Dr. King’s work was much more radical and complex than the simplistic, trite sentiment about everyone getting along we’ve reduced it to. We’ve forgotten – chosen to forget – that at the time of his death Dr. King wasn’t a nationally admired visionary, but rather a deeply divisive and, for some, very threatening figure. This was a man who was spied on and threatened by his own government, because he was seen as dangerous. And he was, in fact, a danger to a society in which white supremacy and other forms of injustice were enshrined in law and endorsed by the government.

He was not only an activist for racial justice, but also for economic justice, and against the Vietnam War, nuclear proliferation, and American militarism and imperialism. He didn’t see these issues as a distraction from the struggle for black civil rights, but rather as interconnected parts of the same larger struggle to create a more just world. And he made quite a lot of enemies as he spoke out against all forms of oppression. Edited to add: Socialist Worker has an excellent article on the Martin Luther King we don’t celebrate.

Martin Luther King, Jr. passionately believed in the common responsibility of all of us to fight all forms of injustice and suffering, and to be in solidarity with all who are denied their rights and their dignity. We can’t know for certain what he would say today about trans liberation, about gay liberation, about ethical consumerism, environmentalism, or any number of social justice issues that continue to face fierce opposition and oppression today. But what we can say for certain is that if we take up his clarion call to see all humans as our family, if we take seriously the call to stand against any injustice or suffering, we’ll care about trans rights, and LGB rights. We’ll care about the poor, and those without access to basic health care. We’ll care about literacy and the rights of all people to a decent education. Because injustice and inequality anywhere are a threat to justice and equality everywhere.

“I still hear people say that I should not be talking about the rights of lesbian and gay people and I should stick to the issue of racial justice… But I hasten to remind them that Martin Luther King, Jr., said, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere’ … I appeal to everyone who believes in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream to make room at the table of brotherhood and sisterhood for lesbian and gay people.”

“We are all tied together in a single garment of destiny… I can never be what I ought to be until you are allowed to be what you ought to be,” she said, quoting from her husband.

Coretta Scott King

I am in Birmingham because injustice is here . . . I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly . . .

Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This “Wait” has almost always meant “Never.” We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail


Slavery and submission: Historical revisionism and authoritarianism

To continue the slavery discussion for a bit – it might not be immediately clear, but I think there are a couple connections to complementarian theology here.  One is the common tendency of complementarians and other conservative evangelicals to insist on their own versions of reality and history.  They insist both that racism doesn’t exist anymore and that it was never that bad to begin with.  They also insist that their retrograde beliefs about gender liberate women and LGBT people, and that feminism has been terrible for women.  All of these beliefs are supported by distorted or fabricated versions of statistics and the historical record.

The other common thread between between complementarianism and conservative evangelical views of slavery (and other forms of injustice and discrimination) is the appeal to authoritarianism.  Such evangelicals insist that:
– marginalized people should submit to whatever the majority or the patriarchy dish out
– the authority of the majority and patriarchy is for the good of oppressed people and the good of society
– oppressed people should endure discrimination and ill-treatment quietly and be happy with what they have until their oppressors decide that they can have the same rights as everyone else.

As I’ve been looking into how complementarians deal with the issue of slavery, I’ve come across a number of examples of both historical revisionism and appeals to authoritarianism.

Apparently Glenn Beck decided to “educate” his viewers on slavery today with useful “facts” such as Christians ended slavery, “Religious White people woke up the rest of the country” to the evils of slavery, and a bunch of other lies and half truths. (I’ll post the transcript when Fox has it up.)

Beck has a history of making spurious and offensive arguments and citing racist, made-up shit as the “real history” of slavery:

Frantz Kebreau of the National Association for Conservative People of All Colors (NAACPC) reimagined an American history in which slavery was not initially raced-based and the “Christian” founders were anti-slavery. Republicans, in this narrative, have led the fights for abolition, emancipation, voting rights, civil rights, and even integration, while Democrats have fostered racism for political gain.

I’m not terribly surprised by any of this.  I heard similar things all the time growing up in mostly white, conservative churches.  These are the things white traditionalist Christians often tell themselves, and teach their children, so they don’t have to think too hard about the role people like them have played in the history of slavery and anti-black racism.

As a kid, I heard lots about evangelicals like William Wilberforce, a staunch opponent of the slave trade and abolitionist activist in the UK, but nothing about more representative evangelicals like R. L. Dabney, a lifelong defender of Southern slavery and the inferiority of black people.  Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson were held up as great heroes of faith who just happened to be on the wrong side of history on slavery.  The evils of slavery and the role of white Christians in maintaining and championing it were minimized: black people owned slaves too, most slave owners were very kind and paternal to their slaves, most slaves loved their owners like family, and the few slave owners who were truly cruel to their slaves weren’t really Christians, anyway.*

This is stuff I picked up on mostly from the pulpit, bible study, and listening to adults talk history and politics, and less from a Christian fundamentalist education (though I did have a little bit of that, outside SGM).  So I asked Josh Stieber, who also grew up in Sovereign Grace Ministries, what he was taught at the SGM school he attended.  His response:

When learning about abolitionists, it was implied, if not outright stated, that they were rash, demanding, and irresponsible. The markets would figure themselves out in a way that could eliminate slavery while a wise government could solve the “problem” in their own time. We learned that slaves were so used to living out their indentured role that it would have been cruel for owners to simply turn them loose, they wouldn’t have known how to handle their freedom; the compassionate approach was to kindly continue to rule.
Reminds me of Joshua Harris’s implication that slavery was an institution ordained out of God’s kindness and care to provide necessary leadership.  Someone had to lead, and clearly black slaves weren’t capable of governing or taking care of themselves.  And just like these folks argue that slave owners protected black slaves from themselves, they also argue, against overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that patriarchal marriage and family structures protect women and children.
And despite the fact that there’s not a single shred of historical evidence to support the idea that any form of institutionalized discrimination ever dies without a serious fight, I know many conservative evangelicals who believe, and teach their children, that the invisible hand of the market takes care of discrimination with time.  Guess black slaves should just have “endured” suffering like Jesus until the markets and “wise government” saw fit to recognize their humanity.  But we shouldn’t be surprised.  These are the same folks who supported the Apartheid regime and opposed Nelson Mandela’s release because he was a dirty commie.

* Not incidentally, this rhetoric goes hand in hand with the lie that the “‘Founding Fathers’ “founded the nation on Christian principles” (except Jefferson, the cat’s out of the bag on that one) – and also goes with idea that the racist beliefs of the Founding Fathers and the fact that many of them were slave owners were irrelevant (they too were just misguided, helpless victims of their times, you see).