Tuesday, November 15, 2011

What the Penn State Scandal Tells Us: We Don’t Care About the Sexual Abuse of Boys

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.
Now, replace the word “boy” in the above instances with “girl.” Do you think that two janitors would fail to stop Sandusky from sexually assaulting a little girl? I think not. What about the graduate assistant? He was a former Penn State football player. No doubt, he would have used his best form tackling technique on Sandusky to stop him from raping a little girl.

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.


  1. While I strongly agree that we need to do more to protect our boys, I disagree with, what seemed to me, the derisive tone used in reference to groups that protect "girls, pit bulls, and trees" Also, it seems misguided to try compare and contrast abuse of boys and girls to prove which has more severe consequences. The abuse of either is horrific.

  2. Anonymous, I don't believe you should read derision into the tone of "girls, pit bulls, and trees do." Instead, and particularly when it comes to nonwhite boys, it is better to read it simply as a factual description of the state of our culture. An honest acceptance on all our parts of the accuracy of that description should then cause us to work to close the gap. And in closing help make the world safer for boys, girls, pit bulls, trees, dolphins, women, men...etc.

  3. Anonymous (the 1st) missed the point, as to the author's feelings that indeed neither has more severe consequences. Abuse of either boys or girls is horrific and both sexes should be protected equally for the consequences are equally terribly damaging to the childs' psyche. If his tone seemed derisive, I guess the truth hurts.

  4. Following up on my original post, I don't think I missed the point. I think boys do need to be much more protected. I think we should do everything in our power to protect them. The author said "boys seem to experience more severe and more complex" problems than girl survivors of abuse. This, to me, seems to indicate that one is more serious than the other. I think this is the wrong tone to strike. We certainly should do more for everyone. Advocacy groups should be everywhere. A good first step would be a larger percent of adult male survivors speaking up and helping to end the stigma of being a victim.

  5. A quick note that there are Advocate Groups out there specifically for male survivors: http://1in6.org/get-help/

  6. I agree with the statement that boys are expected to fend for themselves. I was a recipient of this type of sexual behavior by an older man when I was between the ages of 11-12 years old but did not come out with it until I was 16 years old. I went to a government social worker/physcologist and the only advice that came from them is maybe I was attracted to men and should consider homosexuality as the result of this incident. Needless to say I was more confused and alone than I was before I spoke out. 25 years have passed and would like to believe our society is more in touch with the real issue. Unwelcomed advances with someone under aged is not permissive to the outcome.

  7. I find your blog both interesting and eye-opening:

    It seems that people agree that 'girl abuse' would and usually does spawn a greater response. Do people feel that this is not acceptable? Do they know why this could be? Are people interested in recognizing that boys may suffer worse effects of abuse than girls-do people reflect on this in respect to the insufficient response to boy abuse cases or in terms of the implication that boys abuse should have a rather greater response?...

    How we respond to these questions points to an aspect of culture-the assumptions and beliefs on gender: Has the female sex or feminine gender been profiled as the 'vulnerable one' and the masculine gender or male sex profiled as the 'aggressor'? Is it time to question certain stereotypes? Isn't it? All questions for us to think about!

  8. Great post. Thank you. I was a victim of this kind of abuse when I was 12 and felt utterly and completely alone when it happened. It has taken me half my life to come to grips with it and I didn't even get into therapy until I was in my early 30s. At the time, I just didn't think this sort of thing happened to boys. You never heard about it. As a result, my whole world imploded and I started using drugs and alcohol as a way to hide the abuse. I did finally get on the road to recovery and things are better today. Public awareness of this issue is key. Parents need to know that their sons are just as vulnerable to pedophiles as their daughters are.

  9. I agree with the author(s) that this incident reveals much about our society's view that boys are not deserving of protection. I missed this point in my own discussions on PSU. I found myself wondering why so much attention was focused on Paterno and the PSU Board (who I agree should be fired), and why there hasn't been as much discussion about why a 28 year old man, highly educated, could not figure out on his own that he should interrupt a rape. Who the heck needs to report this to higher authority?? I used to think that any reasonably capable man would automatically respond and intervene. Now I see that both a blue collar worker and an educated white collar academic are equally incapable of taking action to protect a 10 year old during an obvious and ugly crime. To me this is an indictment on our entire culture of masculinity, and that the norm of manhood is America is incapable of doing an obviously decent thing without getting permission from a person above them.
    In my confusion and discouragement over this realization, I missed the point that it would have been different if the victim had been a young girl. Frankly, I am not convinced the grad student or janitor would have intervened then either. I do believe however that PSU would have not kept it quiet, that they would have instituted outreach and conferences and marches and workshops and programs. To be fair, this is somewhat because the men aren't demanding it. Where is the organization that we as men gather together where we demand the protection of children? I am going to answer my own question. We do it within the auspices of church organizations, and then the media and academia ignore us because we are labeled as intolerant.
    In the meantime men continue to become incapable of carrying out their obligations as men, and boys continue to be vulnerable, and all males have it reinforced, again, that they are on their own.

    Anonymous 85


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