It’s been weeks since the Penn State child molestation scandal broke and most of my fellow alums are ready to move on. They’re done condemning the riot and commending the candlelight vigil, finished with the Facebook trolling and the self-congratulatory donations to RAINN. They flip the dial when NPR moves from Egypt to Happy Valley, and Tweet “WE ARE” on Saturday afternoons from Beaver Stadium. Their allegiances are clear, their moral obligations met.
I’m still struggling to understand why it is I can’t sleep at night.
Yes, there’s inconsolable sadness for the children who will never again trust themselves or others in quite the same way; there’s inexhaustible wrath toward sociopathic predator Jerry Sandusky; and there’s righteous rage against those whose silence enabled the serial rapist to terrorize young boys for, oh, decades.
These emotions are simple. Venomous in their clarity.
But the unshakable murkiness? That comes from my initial reaction to the heinous crimes—horror, yes, but also a total and complete lack of surprise.
I read the headlines about the administrative cover-up, the myopic half-actions of those in power to keep their power, and I thought, “This sounds like the Penn State I know.”
Finally, I felt, the world now sees the Penn State I have long seen. Exposed, at last.
I felt a sick, twisted vindication.
The world now knows. But knows what, exactly? What do I know, what did I learn as a student on that campus between 2001 and 2005?
The world knows that when we idolize mortals, the community-at-large loses to the individual-at-top’s best interests. Knows that unchecked power is toxic and ultimately unsustainable. Knows that Penn State is not the “Happy Valley” haven of blissful oblivion it’s been made out to be. Knows that all-male hierarchies more often than not majorly mess up when it comes to preventing and dealing with sexual violence. Knows that big-money college sports disturb priorities. Knows that Penn State’s macho jock hegemony institutionally empowers bros at every level—from Old Main to frat houses—to create a culture of silence, a culture of fear, a culture of acceptance around rape.
I was a rape and violence educator at Penn State one summer. A group of women’s studies students looking for something to do between coffee on the HUB lawn and happy hour, we talked with incoming freshmen as part of their general orientation about making “smart choices.” The rape stuff was snuck into a larger discussion about safe drinking practices. There was certainly some discussion about “date rape,” (a term I despise), but University-mandated materials required us to give suggestions along the lines of, “Always check your drink,” “Never go out alone,” and “Call Campus Escort Service so you don’t have to walk home by yourself after dark.”
These tips were no better than instructing students not to wear short skirts, or not to be a woman in public, or a woman at all for that matter. These “tips” emphasized stranger rape, that terrible though far less common cousin to the kinds of sexual assault much more endemic to college campuses and, well, everywhere. Most rapists are not that dude in the trench coat behind the library’s bushes. They are people who are known and trusted by their victims. About 2/3 of assaults are committed by someone known to the victim, and 38% of rapists are a “friend” or acquaintance.
As Jerry Sandusky has shown us, instructing Penn State’s incoming freshmen to, “Avoid being in a vulnerable situation with someone you don’t know well,” is about as useful as instructing kids to avoid cavities by washing their face.
I can’t say I ever felt totally safe as a woman at Penn State. I felt vulnerable, I guess. Despite coming from a Penn State family—my father, big sister, and little brother are all grads, too—I’ve never been completely at ease with the smiley, brochure-ready Penn State community everyone knows and supposedly loves. It’s a myth evangelized around a few particular collective memories. Football games. JoePa worship. THON. Frat parties.
But that’s not my story, nor the story of so many other students.
I remember consent being ill defined and misunderstood and exploited. Parties where girls blacked out and guys looked on. Skimming the Daily Collegian and the Centre Daily Times police blotter, and seeing rape almost as often as drunken public urination (which is to say, often). I remember victims feeling shame. I remember victims not being sure if they were victims. After all, he was a friend of a friend. He was a boyfriend. He was a mentor. Someone they trusted. I remember victims feeling powerless. I remember the system turning deaf ears. I remember learning that rape is among the most underreported of crimes—that nearly 60% of victims do not report their experience to the police, for a number of reasons including humiliation and fear. I remember finally mustering the courage to attend Take Back the Night my senior year. I remember the stories told in that circle, but they are not my stories to tell.
A number of journalists have recently asked, “What if Sandusky’s victims had been girls rather than boys?” Would Mike McQueary have walked out of that locker room where he witnessed Sandusky raping a boy in the shower? My former colleague Liz Spikol wrote a fine piece on the subject (Spikol’s answer: McQueary would’ve shut that down), and my former grad school classmate Nicole Rodgers wrote a fairly nuanced analysis bringing the “good ol’ boys club” into the equation. The New York Times’ Daniel Mendelsohn is now asking similar questions and concluding—I think correctly—that homophobia has a lot to do with the administrative silence.
So apparently, we are to believe that if Sandusky had been caught raping a girl, everyone—all 15 adults who turned a blind eye, from McQueary to now former-president Graham Spanier—would have intervened and dashingly rescued the princess from the dragon.
Now, I don’t necessarily believe this. But a lot of people do. And I don’t think it’s entirely unfounded, ’cause homophobia is a tricky and dangerous disease. But my question is: when would these same, hypothetical Prince Charmings have turned a blind eye to that little girl?
We all agree a child—any child, male or female—is not capable of consenting to a sexual act. But at what point would these men—men who apparently would have saved a girl and put an end to Sandusky for good—have questioned what the girl was wearing, if she had anything to drink, if she verbally declared, “No,” or simply implied indifference? When? When she turns 18? Pays tuition? Moves into East Halls? Feels pressured by her first boyfriend? Attends her first all-night kegger?
The general consensus to this tragedy is that a few rogue monsters are to blame. That the “many” are guilt-free. That the “few”—if you can call 15 a few—are the exceptions to the goodness and integrity that is the strength of the Penn State brand.
But these are not rare monsters who enabled Sandusky to repeatedly rape young boys.
Those in power set the tone for the entire institution.
This is not a story about Penn State, or even college athletics.
It is a story about America and maleness, about power in this country and world. Who doesn’t have it. Who has it. And what they’ll do, at any cost, to maintain that power.
Caralyn Green graduated from Penn State in 2005. She holds her Master’s in Communication from UPenn, and writes from Pittsburgh, Pa. You can contact her at caralyng [at] gmail [dot] com or follow her on Twitter @caralyngreen.
Photo credit Joe Shlabotnik/Flickr