Rape Culture and Penn State

A man sexually assaults children. Witnesses are appalled. But no one tells anyone outside their tight circle. The assailant is eventually accused of attacking eight boys. Yet members of the community rally around the perpetrator and those who protected him.

I’m talking, of course, of community support for Penn State’s coaching staff, particularly Head Football Coach, Joe Paterno, who was fired for protecting Defensive Coordinator Jerry Sandusky, who now stands accused of 40 counts of sexual abuse.

Shockingly, it’s not especially unusual for communities to rally around perpetrators over victims.

At least when the perps are powerful.

And it all reflects what’s typical of rape culture.

In 2008 a 16-year-old high school cheerleader said she was raped at a post-game party by Rakheem Bolton, a member of the basketball team. He and two friends forced her into a room to commit the assault. When others tried to get into the room the men fled. Bolton left clothing behind and threatened the homeowner when he refused to return them. Bolton eventually pled guilty to a lesser charge.

School officials responded by asking the cheerleader to avoid the school cafeteria and homecoming activities. And then they kicked her off the cheerleading squad for refusing to root for her rapist. She sued the district attorney, the school district and the principal, but an appeals court ruled against her.

In the summer of 2004 three varsity members of the Mepham High School football team were sexually abused at training camp. The young men were sodomized with pine cones, broom handles and golf balls which had all been coated with a mineral ice that causes severe pain.

Many of the witnesses felt terrible about what had happened. Yet they kept silent.

When the national press broke the story, the community defended the players and coaches. Parents of the abused boys were threatened with death if they pressed charges. Campus rallies were held for the team. When the school administration cancelled football season, Mepham students felt that they had been victimized.

A culture of entitlement, silence, and protection lies behind all of the above, says Michael Kimmel, one of the nation’s leading researchers and writers on men and masculinity.

Sports stars are prone to feeling entitled with schools, coaches, professors, and even the police covering for their mishaps and crimes. After all, if the team is damaged, so is the school. And people’s identities are closely tied to their teams, so just hush up about it.

Who cares if a few lives are damaged? It’s all about me! And how I look!

And so when the Penn State Board of Trustees announced Coach Paterno’s firing, fans became incensed:

  • You said Coach Paterno was fired “in the best interests of the university.” Can you define in the best interests of the university?
  • Why was Coach Paterno informed about his firing over the phone?
  • Was any consideration given as to how this would affect the football program?

Allen Barra over at Salon has an answer:

The football program? The football program?? Are you serious? A former assistant coach was just indicted for over 40 counts related to sexual assault on a child… crimes against humanity — against children — took place in the university’s athletic facilities…

So don’t worry about the football team. Worry about the fact that from now on, whenever the name of Penn State is mentioned, people all over the country — make that all over the world — will be sneering, snickering or spitting. Worry that a long period of penance and healing must begin, and that your actions are delaying this process.

Here we have selfish and shortsighted people who can only think about themselves, and not the pain of others, but who actually work against their own interests in the process — both in terms of how they look and the state of their souls.

So long as we continue our culture of entitlement, silence, and protection, we continue our culture of rape.

Cross-posted @ Ms. Magazine, Daily Kos and Political Mosaic

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About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State. And I have blogged for Feminispire, Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos. Also been picked up by The Alternet.

Posted on November 16, 2011, in feminism, psychology, rape and sexual assault and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 16 Comments.

  1. Alshemah Mohamed

    Reading this article on Penn state made me very angry. How could anybody keep silent on these innocent young people? They were raped sexual assaulted and the family of the victims were threatened to keep their mouth shut while Jerry Sandusky kept on working in this school. It is very sad that people did not want to speak up because of their reputation of the school and the football team. People’s lives are damaged and ruined for the rest of their lives because of Sandusky. I hope this man realizes what he has done and regrets what he has done to these people and gets prosecuted to the fullest extent.

  2. Reading this information angers me. What’s wrong with the world? People are going to worry about a school athletic department instead of an innocent child who was defenseless and hurt by an adult? That is saddening. I try and place myself in the shoes of those people who worry about the athletic department and what will be of it because the coaches were fired, but I simply cant. Those people need to realize it could have been their niece, nephew, daughter or son. Now 8 kids are a scarred for life with having been raped and who knows how they will turn out to be. Society as a whole needs to start holding people accountable for the negative decisions they’ve made, regardless of who they are, because making acceptations for anyone is basically like making exceptions for everyone, and this I definitely do believe to be wrong.

  3. People shouldn’t be silent for the sake of “reputation”. The victim’s families should have gone to higher authority. Having their child sexually abused and then doing nothing, are they real parents? I am angry at the school for keeping a rape perpetrator at a school where is he accessible to any students he wants. It is like keeping murderers out of jail letting them run loose, letting them kill whoever they want and it is OK. Just because he’s someone “valuable” I will not stand up for people who are like this. I hope that Penn State will realize what they are doing to their “reputation” because to me their reputation is zero stars for keeping a perp.

  4. There comes a time when you need to speak up. When things are not right, when someone is getting hurt nothing should be more important than to get that person the help and justice they deserve. The silence is almost as horrible as the crime, how can Penn State let those foul things happen to young children who looked up to their attacker? Reputation “is an opinion about that entity, typically a result of social evaluation on a set of criteria.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reputation) So how awful does it look when you get caught keeping this awful crime a secret? Reputation? Yeah you can throw that out the window. If people were less self centered, and ignorant these crimes would not happen as often or even at all.

  5. Has anyone ever told you that you have a way with words?

    It’s true, people, collectively, would rather turn a blind eye than address the issues at hand. It’s the reason why abuse is so often perpetuated beyond imagination. On some level, I think that abuse is culturally supported because the “keep quiet” mentality is what we’ve been taught all this time, and it continues to be taught instead of addressed.

  6. The crimes that Sandusky committed are terrible…..I and the rest of the Penn State student body think about the victims every day; and we have indeed begun our healing process. We understand that the few individuals above us did something terrible, protecting this horrible man and allowing him to remain outside of prison. However it’s a shame that the “riots” after Paterno’s firing are being used as sources that “we support pedaphiles” as a university. The “riots” consisted mostly of students coming outside just to see what was going on, and to speculate the small portion of individuals who decided to be destructive – which of course is the only thing that made it to the media for the entire world to see. It is estimated that 1,000 students were in this rally (there are 40,000 Penn state students at this university). The weekend after this rally, a vigil was held for the victims of Sandusky, in which at least 20,000 students showed up for the victims and their families. My point is that you cannot speculate an entire student body by the decisions of a select few. We do not support pedaphilia. The victims are our main concern as a student body, not Joe Paterno, Spanier or any other individual that lost his job, and I want anyone who reads this article to please believe me when I say this.

  7. Who cares if a few lives are damaged? It’s all about me! And how I look!

    On a larger scale schools often cover up these crimes because they are far more concerned with maintaining a good name. Universities are aware of how they look, and will go as far as hiding illegal crimes to protect the image of the school. I find it pathetic that the potential loss of money in new admissions far outweighs the well-being and justice of students.

  8. I couldn’t agree more. The coaching staff at Penn State did NOT do enough. This should also be a wake up call to the world. If you see something disturbing, wrong, and illegal, don’t just tell another individual and move on with you life. Do something about it to ensure that the situation doesn’t escalate. Paterno did what he was obligated to do, which was tell his supervisor. However, if knowledge of child molestation is brought to you, you should do more than just tell a person. You should go to the authorities yourself and report the incident. Ensure that it will never happen again. On the other hand, I also feel sorry for Paterno because of his contributions to Penn State. Tarnished legacy or not, no one will be able to deny that he was generally an individual who prioritized Penn State’s success as one of his most important duties in life.

  9. If someone is hurt in this way, keeping silent would only let the assaulter go on hurting other people. We need to prevent these situations from happening again and that is by speaking out about it. When somebody is hurt, we need to speak up for them, because they won’t do so themselves and they need help that they’re afraid to ask for. It is terrible that they would rather uphold their outer image than to get to the bottom of the issue because that is the worst decision to make. What does that say to the society? It implies and teaches others to keep silent whenever this type of tragedy happens again, and that is not what we want to learn; that we have to tolerate rape and accept it as our culture. Our society should not conform to that notion at all.

  10. After reading this article, I really felt sad, because while some are hurting others, some are trying to cover it instead of exposing those causing pain to others. Its really unfortunate that the rape culture even exists in a country like ours that is well developed and advanced. I hope that the football coach at Penn state gets the punishment he deserves and that he would serve as an Staples to other rapists or perpetrators out there that have not yet been exposed.

    It’s so scary that one can’t even trust the schools anymore into which they entrust their children. It’s bothersome how they care more for the reputation of certain individuals and their school that they don’t care if people get damaged in the process. I hope that the system could severely punish people who conceal rape instead of reporting it when they are well aware, this goes as well to the head football coach of Penn state who protected Sandusky for his shameful acts. If such are punished, I believe that it would help decrease the rape culture which protects perpetrators.

  11. This was a very disturbing reading. The fact that society and media along with those who know, are willing to cover up and silence important bad news to not blemish the face of someone more important. Football coach Joe Paterno didn’t decide not to allow leakage of this news because he doesnt like kids or because he wanted to really keep his cordinater, but he did it to not ruin his image which was the Penn State Football Team. News like that would have made the Penn State Football team less respectable, but the fact that Joe Patterno covered up the issue and let it grow into almost 40 assualts before the bag burst was what innately lead to his firing.

    The issue on the other rape cases in sports culture was disturbing as well. The chearleader and basketball player one is pretty common as well if it were a football player and cheerleader. The football player themselves being the victim is an ussual case in highschool varsity. The fact that the were players themselves were sodomizing the other players with the objects meant the players were either just cruel and homo or it was some kind of homoerotic initiation.

  12. I don’t feel sorry for Joe Paterno at all. He prioritized Penn States success above everything else. Football is big business and big money. He was protecting his interests and the football program. Joe Paterno is ultimately responsible for each of those boys who were brutally sexually assaulted. Paterno only did what he was obligated to do and in a sense condoned Sanduskys behavior. The victims should be our primary concern and those involved in the cover up should be fired and do jail time. We need to make examples of these men and they should be fully prosecuted.

  1. Pingback: Penn State Teaches Rape Culture 101 : Ms Magazine Blog

  2. Pingback: Penn State Teaches Rape Culture 101 | POLITICAL MOSAIC

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