RADICAL WOMEN — Abused and abandoned: Penn State opens a window onto widespread sexual violence against boys and men

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Sexual abuse is an epidemic. According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), an estimated 1 in 6 women in the U.S. is a victim of rape or attempted rape. But, despite occasional headlines and sensational stories when the molester is a celebrity or politician, denial of the extent of abuse is pervasive. So, too, is denial of its cause.

Though sexual abuse is multifaceted, its root cause is the perception of women and children as property. Although we might like to believe society has evolved past this ridiculous notion, it has not. We still live in a patriarchal, dehumanizing society that makes women and children vulnerable to exploitation and mistreatment, sexual and otherwise.

The sooner we confront this reality, the better. And part of this confrontation must be to also recognize and fight against the abuse of male victims, both children and adults, who, again according to RAINN, are believed to make up 10 percent of U.S. sexual assault victims. While the patriarchy rules, the undervaluing of women and children undervalues everyone, and no one is safe.

Assault and cover-up: the Penn State example. A recent case that gained notoriety is the accused molesting of at least 10 boys since 1994 or earlier by Jerry Sandusky, retired assistant coach of Pennsylvania State College football. Many of those abused were involved with The Second Mile, the charity Sandusky founded for “at risk” boys.

Sandusky founded The Second Mile back in 1977. He mentored the boys, bonded with them, gained their trust, and took advantage of them sexually. He created a pool of victims under the guise of charity.

Sexual abuse is generally triggered by the desire to exert control over another person. Forty-four percent of sexual violence victims are girls and boys under the age of 18. Not only was Sandusky a grown man victimizing children, however, he specifically preyed on economically disadvantaged children. Sandusky created the perfect imbalance of power between himself and his targets.

Rich and powerful while his victims were poor and disenfranchised, Sandusky believed that he could get away with his crimes. And he did. For at least fifteen years.

Sandusky was not alone in the exploitation of his young victims. Because of his prestigious position in Big Sports, his colleagues covered up his wrongdoings. The reputation and money generated by their team were more important to them than the lives of the children whom Sandusky was abusing.

You can blame the patriarchy. Unfortunately, stories like this one are not uncommon — although rarely so well publicized. And it makes sense that there are so many instances of sexual abuse in top-level sports, where the culture of patriarchy reigns supreme.

Patriarchal values, which are the values of capitalism, celebrate competition and machismo. Men are strong. They are winners. They are superior. They dominate. They bring home the bacon. This is the culture of top athletics.

However, an exaggerated cult of patriarchy is in no way limited to sports. It exists within the military, police departments, prisons, and religious institutions. Environments such as these breed a disproportionate amount of sexism, objectification and abuse.

Meanwhile, “normal” patriarchal values, like those of the traditional nuclear family, affect all of society, contributing not only to widespread abuse but also to its denial. At bottom, sexual violation is not a problem of individual molesters and individual victims, but a social problem — a symptom of a diseased system.

The abuse of men and boys. Given the refusal of those in power to acknowledge and deal with cases of sexual assault, why do any of them see the light of day at all? It is thanks to pioneering feminist work about rape and sexual violence carried out during the 1970s and ’80s.

Since then, feminist analysis has expanded to include more acknowledgment and a better understanding of male sexual abuse, informed by the insights of men who have come forward to talk about their experiences.

Although the abuse of men and boys is less frequent than the abuse of women and girls, it carries its own distinct damages.

Men and boys have to deal with the psychological effects of abuse just as women and girls do. They have to cope with shock, betrayal, mistrust, fear, anxiety, depression and trauma. But they also have to deal with the additional challenges to what is seen as their masculinity.

Males are not supposed to be victims. They are not supposed to be taken advantage of. They are supposed to be strong — not weak. Being sexually abused is bound to make anyone feel weak and helpless.

And to add insult to injury, males are also socialized not to process their emotions in a healthy manner. So not only does the socialization of boys in some ways exacerbate the emotional consequences of sexual abuse, they are not supposed to deal with their anguish.

Consequently, many male victims keep quiet about their abuse, just as many female victims do, with special reasons to fear being disbelieved or judged. The shame they feel leads in some cases to problems of repression and misery throughout their lives. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Where do we go from here? The more we talk about sexual abuse, including the abuse of men and boys, the more those who suffer it will realize that they are not alone, and will be empowered to speak up and cope with their experiences in healthy ways.

But attacking the social roots of sexual violence, and the silence about it, is even more crucial. The growing recognition of sexual abuse against men and boys could help to create a stronger feminist alliance between men and women, a bridge to understanding how the patriarchy harms us all — and how we can work together to end it.

Email Hilary Bowker, a social worker with experience with abused children, at ahilary@gmail.com.

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