The Penn State Scandal and Rape Culture

The most surprising thing about the cover-up and riots over the Penn State child rape scandal is how surprised we are. If you've been paying attention, you might notice that our society has a habit of not taking sexual violence seriously. 

The country is still reeling—and I expect will be reeling for a long time—not only at the news of a cover-up of child sexual assault at Penn State that had gone on for years, but the growing awareness of how many men knew about the assault and did not call the police and the outrageous riots at the school by students who support Joe Paterno despite the role he played in the cover-up. It seems incredibly hard to believe that so many people could display such indifference to the presence of a child predator in their midst, and that so many more could find the problem not significant enough to take seriously by firing those engaged in the cover-up.

Now is the time to point out that feminists have been describing this problem for decades, and while it’s always going to be a shock on some level to see how much social support rapists and those who cover up for them get, it’s entirely predictable if you’ve been paying attention. In fact, excuse-making for sexual harassment, intimidation, and assault is so common that feminists created a phrase to describe it: rape culture. For once when it comes to feminist terminology, Wikipedia is accurate, so I’ll refer to its definition

Rape culture is a term which originated in women’s studies and feminist theory, and describes a culture in which rape and sexual violence against women are common and in which prevalent attitudes, norms, practices, and media all condone, normalize, excuse, or tolerate sexual violence against women. Examples of behaviors commonly associated with rape culture include victim blaming, sexual objectification and rape apologism.

The only part which I would correct is to suggest that it’s not just rape and sexual violence against women that is excused in a rape culture. As the Penn State situation demonstrates—and as did the Catholic Church scandal before it and as does the ongoing inability of our society to take prison rape seriously—rape of men and children is also papered over, blamed on victims, or even condoned in our society. The form rape culture takes is tweaked slightly depending on the victim, of course. You don’t see young boys being told they brought this on themselves by dressing sexy, as female victims of various ages generally hear, but the general idea is still there. When it comes to rape, much of society thinks that the problem isn’t that rapists rape. They believe the problem is those who try to stop rape. When a rapist is outed, far too many people in our society think the person to blame for the chaos that ensues is not the person who started it all by raping, but those who blew the whistle. Even and especially when it’s the victims who blow the whistle.

For all the attention that SlutWalk has been getting, it’s surprising how few people in the mainstream media have made the connection between the situation at Penn State and the long history of rape apologism that the SlutWalkers have been protesting. The past decade has been a series high profile rape or sex abuse cases, with more than enough taking place in the world of athletics, so really the pattern is undeniable. From Kobe Bryant to Dominique Strauss-Kahn, from the NYPD cops who managed to scratch out an astonishing “not guilty” verdict to the University of Colorado rape and sex abuse scandal, we as a country have seen more than our fair share of evidence to support the thesis that we live in a rape culture where justice is difficult to achieve and predators tend to work for years without much resistance.  Penn State is just another in a long, tiring series of examples. Are we that easily distracted by the gender differences in the victims? We shouldn’t be. All this shows is that one reason rape culture flourishes is that most rapists are capable of taking advantage of their relative privilege over their victims and a culture that looks askance at those who rock the boat by complaining about abuse.

We can expect this scandal to drag on for a long time, not just because trying Sandusky will take awhile, but also because the already-extensive list of people who knew and didn’t call the police demonstrates that there’s a lot of cover-up to uncover. With revelations and developments sure to continue into the future, now is the time to start asking hard questions, not just of how child rapists can work while people look the other way, but why predators in general do so.

Athletic programs, from school level to pro level, need to be examined especially closely, because the macho culture plus the tribal mentality is a breeding ground for protectiveness of predators and those who cover up for them, as the riots at Penn State have shown. But at the end of the day, this isn’t about sports, not really. Sports is just an extreme manifestation of a widespread problem. As it stands, our culture is genuinely two-faced about sexual violence. Collectively, we claim to take it very seriously, so much so that we put it close to the top of the list of terrible crimes a person can commit. But when the rubber hits the road and we’re expected to act like we take it seriously? Not so much. In fact, many of us riot at the very idea that sexual violence should be treated like the serious crime it is.

Until we’re willing to admit that there’s a problem—that we have a rape culture—we can’t even begin to fix it.