What Do We See?


They’re starting to run together in my mind. Jerry Sandusky. Silvio Berlusconi. Herman Cain. U.N. peacekeepers. Arnold Schwarzenegger. USA Swimming coaches. Roman Catholic priests. Here’s the shared story line: A powerful man—or a man in a powerful hierarchy—preys sexually on those in weaker positions. Folks around him have seen

him swooping down on vulnerable or naïve young women. Or half-noticed that he always travels with troubled boys who share his hotel room. But because he doesn’t look like a monster, because he’s brilliant at his job, because if he’s doing anything wrong it would embarrass the group, their minds back away from the insight. That’s just Jack being Jack, they think. He’s basically a good guy; he couldn’t really be hurting those kids. What are you gonna do?

Institutions and families are powerful things; we need them to survive. It’s frightening to rock the boat—especially if you want to keep your job or care deeply about the football program. No one likes the person who called the cops on Uncle Jack, or on their buddy Jack, or on Jack who runs the company. If the group is more committed to protecting itself than an unknown victim, turning in Jack can ruin your life. It’s not so hard to understand Mike McQueary, who told Penn State higher-ups that he witnessed a rape in 2002 and then shut up. What’s sickening is that those in charge—Coach Joe Paterno as well as Penn State’s athletic director and a vice president—had already heard two other reports of Sandusky’s sexually victimizing children. Yet they never reported him to law--enforcement or child-protective services, as was their legal duty. They mentally elided “anal rape” into “horseplay,” which better fit their concept of the upstanding Penn State football organization. Sometimes, we can’t see what’s in front of our eyes if it’s at odds with what we believe about ourselves and our group. Nor, all too often, do we feel free to say it even if we can see it.

“There is no free speech in football,” Jane Leavy wrote at the sports website Grantland. “Information is parsed by monosyllabic head coaches, who dictate who gets to speak to whom and when.” Well, sure. But there’s no free speech in most workplaces; how often do you tell the boss she’s wrong? Abuses happen in every kind of work environment. Sports and politics are just more likely to get news coverage. It’s a good thing they do.

You might be surprised to learn—I was—that substantiated cases of sexual victimization have been dropping. Rape and sexual-assault reports fell by 24 percent from 2001 to 2010, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Between 1990 and 2007, substantiated cases of child sexual abuse declined 53 percent. No one knows exactly why, but researchers point to “increased awareness”—media storms like Penn State—and advances in treating both offenders and victims, interrupting the cycles of abuse. The intertwined women’s and children’s rights movements succeeded in persuading Americans to treat sexual violations as, first, mentionable; second, as human-rights transgressions; and third, as crimes in which the perpetrator, not the victim, should bear the stigma.

Surely Bernie Fine, the longtime assistant coach at Syracuse University, was fired so quickly—despite Coach Jim Boeheim’s initial support for him and attacks on his accusers—precisely because Penn State’s hierarchy had just been indicted, criminally and morally. Surely other organizations are now huddling to root out any potential liabilities they might have overlooked.

That’s the good news. But child sexual abuse, sexual harassment, and sexual assault are still appallingly widespread. Twenty-one percent of all girls and 3 percent of boys are sexually victimized by age 17, according to the authoritative National Survey of Children Exposed to Violence. The study’s author, David Finkelhor, believes that boys underreport and estimates that it’s really 5 percent to 10 percent. Which means we either are or know adult survivors—and that we know men who inflicted the abuse or are inflicting it still.

The poet Muriel Rukeyser wrote: “What do we see? What do we not see?” Seeing requires courage. Once you let yourself know what you know, you are obligated to act, which can have painful personal and organizational consequences. Institutions must overhaul their internal systems to reward reporting and announce that the goal is always to protect the victims, no matter who the perpetrators might be. It can be painful to think that our beloved group—which we dearly hope is above reproach—includes a predator. But it’s worse to keep pimping for Uncle Jack.

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