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The Penn State Scandal: Connect the Dots Between Child Abuse and The Sexual Assault of Women on Campus

November 10, 2011, 3:34 pm

As you absorb the news about the key people at Penn State who ought to have reported what they knew of coach Jerry Sandusky’s alleged assaults on little boys, please keep one thing in mind. Penn State’s cover-up is embedded in the interest it, and all universities, have in keeping many forms of sexual violence and sexual harassment a private, internal matter.  The mistake Penn State made was, in many ways, a simple category error:  they mistook these pubescent boys for women.  They forgot that children occupy a very different status in the law than do the female students, faculty and staff who are most frequently the object of unwanted sexual attention and/or violence. If a college woman doesn’t file a rape charge, usually very quickly, the crime doesn’t exist.  Delay the report by as little as 24 hours and the chances of even an internal judicial proceeding (much less an arrest and a trial) diminish dramatically.  Universities substitute private hearings, counseling and mediation for legal proceedings: while women often choose this route, rather than filing felony charges against their assailants, it doesn’t always serve their interest to do so.  But it always serves the interests of the institution not to have such cases go to court.

Penn State seems, to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, not to have known what they did not know: society and the law have much stricter rules when child abuse is finally uncovered. Since most people don’t believe that ten year olds want to be anally penetrated by grown men, once there is credible evidence that the sex happened, people tend not to spin alternative scenarios about little boys like:  ”look what he was wearing;” “he’s probably just mad that Coach Sandusky wouldn’t hook up with him;” “he was drunk;” or “it was just bad sex and he’s trying to get back at Coach.”

Sandusky was, to all appearances (except for a disturbingly large number of people at Penn State who had good reason to believe otherwise) a normal heterosexual person. He allegedly used this, and his position as a football coach in a football town, to force smaller, powerless human beings to give him sexual pleasure.  If those people in the athletic department and higher up in the Penn State administration who suspected, or observed, his sexual abuse of boys did not do anything to stop it, what they did do was actually worse.  They allowed him to continue to employ one of his primary lures, the football team, as a method for attracting little boys and persuading their parents to trust him with their safety.  Penn State overlooked the evidence of this repeatedly in order to protect — the football team.

According to Steve Wieberg and Jack Carey of USA Today, although suspicions had circulated about Sandusky for over a decade, it was this incident that ought to had triggered a report from everyone, including the initial whistle-blower:

The former grad assistant told the grand jury that he’d caught Sandusky subjecting the boy to anal intercourse and said he reported what he’d seen to Paterno during a meeting at Paterno’s home the next day. Paterno then met with Curley and, according to the grand jury summary, told the AD that the assistant had seen Sandusky “fondling or doing something of a sexual nature to a young boy.”

Anyone who is not clear why this ought to have been reported, regardless of the consequences to the reporter, should have his or her head examined.  But they should also look at the guidelines issued by Health and Human Services, which dictate what ought to have happened next.  These guidelines and most state laws state make adults who have regular contact with children what are called “mandated reporters.” In other words, someone who has knowledge of child sexual abuse is legally obligated to report it to the police, not to the Nationally Famous Head Coach or the Athletic Director. Mandated reporters include teachers, coaches and health care providers, and once the athletic department permitted Sandusky to conduct his “child mentoring activities” on university property, every employee in the football facility became responsible for reporting misconduct against those children. Many states also have laws that make people who fail to report a felony, much less an ongoing crime, prosecutable as accessories after the fact.  Indeed, in many states these mandated reporter laws apply to college teachers and coaches in relation to sexual harassment and sexual assault, even though, unlike the boys Sandusky is alleged to have harmed, the students are of legal age to have sex.

One of the most persistently asked questions is why the graduate assistant — who is said to have observed the anal rape of a child, or something that looked like it (can you think of anything that looks like anal rape that could be explained away as benign?  I can’t) — viewed the decision to report to Paterno, and not the police, as his only reasonable option if he wanted to have a career in football. While it was an ethically wrong decision for that young person to have made, because I am a feminist, have been dealing with sexual assault for years, and see young and old people make terrible decisions all the time when a woman is raped, it doesn’t surprise me.   And look at the ethical atmosphere in State College more generally. Penn State students rioted last night to protest Paterno having been being fired for his role in failing to report several incidents of child abuse by this valued member of his coaching staff that may have occurred over the course of a decade. Why? Because these students apparently care more about being connected to a nationally ranked football team more than they care about the well-being of some kid, or kids, they don’t know.

Given what we know about all the adults who failed to act at Penn State, and the coarse indifference of a large number of Penn State students to their university throwing children under the bus in exchange for a major Bowl bid, we can speculate that sexual assault of all kinds is way down the list of administrative priorities at many universities. This isn’t just Penn State.  At Yale, women decided that DKE pledges chanting “No means yes, Yes means anal” was the last straw and filed a Title IX discrimination suit.  Only then did Yale close a fraternity that has been notorious on campus for decades. At my very own Zenith, charges of rape filed after an assault at a Beta fraternity last year have been followed up by that fraternity — and Zenith’s DKE chapter — inviting a speaker to campus to raise the topic of why fraternities — not women — are under assault.  And many of us on the faculty were shocked, following the accusations of rape at Beta last fall, as we followed a comments on a campus wiki where numerous students, male and female, asserted their entirely unfounded opinions that the accuser was a liar and had filed a police report out of spite; and that the men who ran the frat were “good guys” so clearly no rape could have occurred.

Every time one of these things happens, what it exposes is the way social power is expressed through sexual power, and it requires a feminist response. Let’s move this from the sports page to our classrooms and start connecting the dots.

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