Caring For Survivors of Boyhood Sexual Abuse Is The Next Step In The Penn State Case
“Penn State: A Familiar Dark Cloud, a Silver Lining”
By Richard B. Gartner, PhD
Childhood sexual abuse has a long history, going back long before Penn State, even before the Catholic Church scandals which forced the sexual betrayal of children by adults into our national conversation. Many, especially those who treat survivors of abuse, know that sexual abuse was widespread well before it was talked about. What seems to be new today, and might prove the silver lining in the dark Penn State cloud, is the possibility that due to some new found openness we will finally value children more highly than the needs of institutions, however difficult that may be; only then will we truly be addressing the nightmares of childhood sexual trauma.
The statistics are horrifying: In the United States by the age of sixteen one in six boys and one in three girls have had unwanted sexual contact with an adult or more powerful minor involving touch or penetration. That means when you watch a local little league game the chances are that someone on the field has been, or is being, sexually abused by an adult. Like Mickey Mantle, it might even be the preternaturally gifted athlete gracing the game.
Let’s look more closely at the horrendous scandals of the last decade: the Catholic Church. The Boy Scouts. Boarding schools, yeshivas, public schools.
In virtually every case the situation unfolded similarly: The shocking news leaked out. The institution denied knowledge and culpability. The abuser, a beloved member of the community, had his or her supporters and detractors. Demonstrations, sometimes leading to violence, took place supporting the alleged abuser and attacking the victims, or speaking up for victims’ rights and attacking the alleged abusers. Many pooh-poohed the significance of the abuse. Victims’ suffering, especially the suffering of male victims, was nearly always ignored, or at best dealt with as an afterthought.
An important step towards recognizing the prevalence of male sexual victimization took place when the Catholic Church scandals forced our public discourse to include the sexual abuse of boys. Until then, I met with disbelieving comments and rolling of eyes, even from mental health professionals, when I spoke out about boyhood sexual abuse. I do not get those looks any more. Mental health professionals, the public, and the media have finally caught on to the reality that male children can be sexually victimized.
The events at Penn State initially sounded familiar. Children were known to have been assaulted; reports were made to authorities (but not the police); authorities did not do their moral duty. Time went by. There was a media leak and then a rush of media coverage. Attention concentrated on the possible fall of a sports idol and its effects on a great institution. As usual, male children’s suffering initially got little notice.
But then something different happened. The current scandal took another step towards recognizing the sexual betrayal of boys by adults. It occurred when, within a week of the disclosure of sexual assault and cover-up in its athletic program, Penn State did the right thing. The Board stepped in and fired the idol: Joe Paterno was out. Plus, they fired the University President. No more cover-up. It was as though the Church fired the Pope.
While the story itself is horrifying, with events unfolding in one sickening detail after another — and we do not yet know what full disclosure will reveal — we know we will learn about it because the Penn State Board did the right thing.
Penn State did not react perfectly, but its Trustees acknowledged the problem and swiftly handled it in a creditable way. This is in marked contrast to how the Catholic Church, several Orthodox Jewish yeshivas, the Boy Scouts, and numerous boarding schools, public schools, orphanages, and other institutions have reacted when it became clear that male children were abused under their care. Their stonewalling continued for years and in some cases even for decades.
These two forward-moving steps — the public disclosure of male sexual victimization and an institution adopting a stance of openness rather than stonewalling — result from incremental changes in our perception of childhood sexual abuse, especially the abuse of boys. As with other social changes involving race, gender, sexual orientation, the status of women, and abortion, change happens slowly, then all of a sudden we realize we are living in a different social world than before. It is no longer a given that races should be segregated, or women underpaid or unable to determine what happens to their bodies, or gays be closeted. Similarly, it is no longer a given that victims of sexual abuse are liars, or that they are female, or that sexually abused boys are whining sissies who just need to get over it.
But more change is still needed. Even though it is not anywhere near as sensational and it requires us all to appreciate the darkness of the human heart, the media needs to pay full attention to abused children’s trauma rather than focusing on the motives of predators, on the people who cover for them, and on the institutions that try so desperately to protect their reputations. These children’s needs are great, as are the needs of the men they become. But one thing is clear: they deserve to be believed, understood, and helped.
It is difficult for any of us to think clearly about a young child being anally raped in a public shower by an adult he trusted, maybe even revered. I know it is difficult for me to do so and such thoughts are thoughts I encounter daily in my work. It is equally difficult to focus on such aftereffects of betrayals as flashbacks, depression, anxiety, sexual dysfunction, addiction and compulsion, and painful interpersonal relationships.
And so, as in recent days, the media and the public often look away from these boys’ pain. We’re human, how could we do otherwise than want to look away?
But even though it requires us to encounter difficult-to-think-about pain and trauma, the needs of children need to be valued more highly than either the needs of institutions or the demands of social comfort. Only then, when the children come first, will we truly have started to address the nightmare of childhood sexual trauma.