Most of the commentary about the sex abuse scandal at Penn State University is what one would expect. Penn State football fans debate the fairness of the abrupt firing of their beloved coach; the Penn State board of directors talks about its need to hastily handle this public relations nightmare and restore the university’s storied reputation. The pundits on TV and radio pontificate while pointing their fingers and shaking their fists, questioning how Jerry Sandusky could get away with so much abuse of so many boys for so long.
Certainly, this makes good fodder for the 24-hour news cycle. And it may even assuage our collective need to understand what happened. However, this sexual abuse scandal confirms a much broader problem that has become increasingly evident to me. One that says less about Penn State than it does about our culture.
We don’t care about the sexual abuse of boys.
Consider just a few of the allegations in the Sandusky situation:
- A janitor observed Sandusky the showers at the Penn State football building with a young boy pinned up against the wall, preforming oral sex on the boy. The janitor immediately tells others on the janitorial staff, including his supervisor. In fact, another janitor also sees Sandusky with the boy. Despite all of this, no one makes a report of the incident.
- A 28-year-old Penn State graduate assistant enters the locker room at the football building. In the shower, he sees a naked boy, who he estimates to be about 10 years old, being sodomized by a naked Sandusky. Although he tells Paterno the next day, at the time, he does nothing to stop Sandusky.
And, consider how differently the Penn State administrators, who were told by Paterno about Sandusky’s behavior, would have responded if the victims were girls. Would they have stood idly by for years? No. They would have taken immediate action rather than risk being on the receiving end of the wrath of celebrity attorney Gloria Allred, NOW, and numerous women’s groups on campus. They would have reasoned that Penn State getting a reputation as a university that did not protect girls and women would have deeply negative consequences for years to come.
Not only that, they would probably take proactive steps to show the public that Penn State is dedicated to becoming a place that is safe for girls and women. They would start a new research center, and host forums, events, and marches to show their solidarity with the community of women. What will Penn State do to show it is a safe place for boys?
Boys have no advocacy groups to fight for them. Baby seals, pit bulls, and trees do, it seems. No matter how young and vulnerable, boys are expected to fend for themselves.
According to Prevent Child Abuse America, the sexual abuse of boys is under-reported and under-treated. Although the sexual abuse of girls has been widely studied, little research has been done on the abuse of boys. Accordingly, we don’t know nearly as much about it as we should. But, what we do know is quite troubling.
First, boys at the highest risk are younger than thirteen years of age, nonwhite, of lower socioeconomic status, and live in father-absent homes. (Alas, it is no surprise that Sandusky founded an agency that would provide him easy access to troubled boys from broken homes.) Second, sexually abused boys seem to experience more severe and complex consequences than girls in respect to emotional and behavioral problems. Yet, as a culture, much like the Penn State janitors and the graduate assistant, we see what is happening, have the ability to help, but we do nothing.
As is typical with all sex scandals, in time they move from the front page to the back page; from being the lead story to a minor mention; we move on and we forget. But our boys need our help to protect them from the Jerry Sandusky’s of the world and, when they become prey, to help them heal.
But first of all, they need us to care.