The dust from the Jerry Sandusky sexual molestation conviction is beginning to settle and, as a consequence, we are all feeling a little dirty. Some of us feel dirty enough to take a shower. Just not in the Penn State football locker room.
Sandusky’s legal team employed a typical defense in cases of sexual molestation: discredit the motives or honesty or character of the witnesses and victims while emphasizing the positive characteristics of the perpetrator himself. The jury delivered its guilty verdict--even without knowing that one of Sandusky’s own stepsons had finally stepped forward, waiting in the wings to accuse his stepfather of sexually molesting him as a boy.
During the trial, the public was confronted by words such as “grooming” and asked to think about where tickling and naked horseplay in locker rooms and basements and hotel rooms might become sexual. Or not. It was quite a spectacle: a giant of a man, white haired and hang-dog, being tried for coercing oral sex from boys and young men, performing anal sex on them, fondling, and being fondled, wrestling with pubescent and prepubescent boys during soap-slippery showers. The courtroom accounts stirred up many strong feelings, many of them contradictory, in scores of people across the country.
Courtroom accounts especially stirred up feelings of recognition and repulsion in both men and women who have been sexually molested.
Nobody likes to think of important people in their lives as sexual predators--even when they are. Like girls and women who are victims of sexual abuse, boys who are sexually abused by other boys and men often blame themselves for what has been done. They find it difficult to view those men they depended on for physical, financial and/or emotional support--a father or father-figure, a cousin, a fellow gang/team member, a coach or teacher or benefactor--as being sexual predators.
Responsible journalists took the Sandusky trial as an opportunity to highlight the particular pain of being a male victim of sexual abuse at the hands of another male. Boys and men molested and/or raped by other men face undeserved and unwanted questions and doubts about their sexual orientation. Typically, male victims (including many of Sandusky’s) are at the tender age when they are struggling to sort out their sexual identity.
As novelist John Irving aptly said in a recent Publishers Weekly interview about his new novel, In One Person, “As a boy, I was confusingly attracted to just about everyone: in lieu of having much in the way of actual sex...I imagined having sex all the time--with a disturbing variety of people....Easily two-thirds of my sexual fantasies frightened me.” So it is with many boys growing up.
Even when they know they are heterosexual or homosexual or bisexual, and accept their orientation in healthy ways, male victims of sexual abuse may be viewed as less masculine for having been “submissive” or for not “manning up” to fight back. They may be confused by being aroused or experiencing the sensate pleasure that can accompany sex with another man, even unwanted or denigrating sex.
And male victims of sexual abuse (at the hands of both men and women) face other societal assumptions. What’s the harm? It’s not like he’s going to get pregnant. Boys will be boys. He’ll get over it. I mean, aren’t guys tough enough to suck it up and move on? Don’t guys just want to get their rocks off?
A while back, one teenage boy told me he didn’t believe boys could be raped by women. “If they didn’t want sex, how was it they got erections?” he asked.
In answer, I asked this boy if a seventh grader with an unwanted erection in math class must find algebra sexually stimulating. He got it.
The fact of the matter is: boys and men can be raped even when aroused.
Another truth: the vast majority of molested boys don’t just move on. Unless they get skillful psychotherapeutic help, they go through life carrying the unbearably heavy weight of having been violated. They may develop anger and substance abuse issues that are similar to (or identical to) those suffering from war- or violence-induced post-traumatic stress disorder. Because they are hypervigilant for signs of danger, they may develop a sense of distrust that makes it difficult or impossible to be emotionally intimate with partners, or spouses, or their children. They may suffer debilitating depression.
I believe that the wounding that is often hidden under the tough guys’ guise we impose on boys in our culture is every bit as destructive as the wounding of sexually abused girls. It was this belief that inspired me to explore the vulnerability, fear, self-loathing, anger, hopes and grief of a pubescent boy, Jeremy, in my 1988 novel The Paper Knife (universal enough to have also been published in Germany). As a fifth grade teacher, I worked with sexually abused girls--one whose older sister was pregnant by her father, who had continually raped my student, also. Statistically, during the years I was a teacher, I must have had several boys in my classes who had been sexually abused. I never knew. It must have been too dangerous and shameful for the abused boys to talk about.
The research I did for The Paper Knife led me to the Santa Fe Mountain Center, whose director put me in touch with several young men who were jailed for sexually abusing other boys. Each one of them had been sexually abused by men in their lives.
Gentle or playful or rough, what Jerry Sandusky did to the boys who testified (and likely many more) was sexual violence of the worst kind--the kind described in detail by the jailed boys I interviewed. As the Sandusky trial so poignantly and powerfully showed, we must all do a better job of being vigilant for potential or actual sexual molestation of the boys and young men in our care. And, when we are too late (as in the case of Sandusky’s victims), we must all do a better job of helping these boys and young men to heal, to grow beyond the trauma of their sexual abuse.