Penn State and the Culture of Silenced Violence

Although I originally abstained from blogging about the breaking Penn State scandal, I did lend my story to CBS Morning News to raise awareness that this scandal was merely part of a larger culture of silence. I was waiting for when the truth finally surfaced to blog and it doesn't surprise me one bit that the proof of a Penn State cover up is not nearly as heralded as the conviction of Sandusky. I believe this is due to the widespread support for Joe Paterno (which may be diminishing) and Penn State's football program (which rightfully faces some serious review).

Former Penn State Football coaches Jerry Sandusky and Joe Paterno
Source: http://themoderatevoice.com

For those who need a refresher, the first incident that raised eyebrows was brought to Penn State's attention in 1998 when a mother complained about Sandusky showering nude with her young son. At that time, President Dr. Graham Spanier, Athletic Director Tim Curley and Vice President Gary Schultz avoided inquiry into the matter. Then in 2001, Assistant Coach Mike McQueary was an eye-witness to the sodomy of a young boy at the hands of Jerry Sandusky. This incident occurred in the locker room showers at Penn State. McQueary did not intervene, but made a noise to alert Sandusky someone was present - hardly a hero moment. After seeking counsel from his father, McQueary went first to the then head coach, Joe Paterno, to report what he witnessed. 
<Side note: Both McQueary and Paterno are what the Clery Act refers to as Campus Security Authority (see pg. 74), meaning they had a federally-mandated legal obligation to report sexual violence that comes to their attention. As someone who has personally provided training on Clery Act requirements through the Clery Center for Security on Campus, I am confident that a Big 10 college like Penn State provided training to its staff on their obligations. >
McQueary then went on to report to Curley and Schultz what had happened later that week. Besides the lack of reporting to police by any official notified, it is interesting to note that the action Penn State did take was to forbid Sandusky to bring children onto the campus any longer, sending the obvious message of, "just don't do that here."

Source: The Matador Sports

The scandal was made possible by many staff at Penn State, but also by the local district attorney. Evidence about the sexual abuse was present back in 1998, but no charges were brought and no reasoning given for the lack of interest in stopping a pedophile. Thankfully Sandusky eventually received life for his crimes, though not so appreciated by those who were left to be victimized from 1998 to 2011(at least 8 boys). So how could something so horrible be allowed to continue for so long when so many people with power could have intervened? The same could be asked regarding the Catholic church sexual abuse scandal (see documentary "Deliver us from Evil" for background; free on netflix) that covered up many more individuals committing a multitude of sexual abuses. The answer to both questions is faith.

Source: AP Photo - Matt Slocum

When I speak about faith, I am most certainly not speaking about believing in God, rather I mean the belief in our social institutions and in iconic figures given god-like status. It's difficult to bring up Joe Paterno for many since he has an amazing football legacy (third most winningest coach of all time). Also, he died before being interviewed about his involvement in the scandal, allowing the faithful to remain willfully ignorant (though the Freeh Report has significant evidence of his awareness and participation in the cover up). Additionally, he coached the sport that our nation reveres, if not worships: football. 

Here is where I admit I am not a football fan. This is not because I don't enjoy the sport - my father use to teach me pass routes in my backyard as a child - it is due to my intimate knowledge of the culture in college sports. In particular, unacceptable violence by football players and teams is condoned routinely on college campuses. I knew it before I became a victim, and I certainly will never doubt it now.

Source: Center for Public Integrity

Having been a NCAA Division I college athlete, I am directly aware that male athlete are more valuable (literally) in a college's eyes than any other student. I know this for a fact because of the year long "investigation" the University of Wisconsin (UW) took into the two male athletes that sexually assaulted me that resulted in nothing. I am not alone in being a female athlete denied justice for the sake of preserving another sports team, the case of Beckett Brennan highlights the same issue. The university knew in her case that she was not the only victim, but allowed the other woman to leave their campus without taking action (something universities will no longer be able to do according the the Title IX Guidance released by OCR in 2011). Despite the fact that my attack was by crew team members, I was always warned about the football team at the UW. One of my high school friends was even raped and abused by a football player, Booker Stanley, while I attended. Apparently, after his release from jail he was still allowed to play football for one of the lesser University of Wisconsin teams. 

There is a culture, both on campuses and in our society at large, that worships sports teams and the athletes or coaches that make them successful. The Penn State scandal should be a wake up call to such fans - sports is not the ultimate - people's lives, health and safety should matter more than a winning season.

I truly appreciated Rick Reilly's piece on ESPN admitting that he too formerly admired Paterno to his current chargin. Reilly however is more conscientious than the mass of Penn State sports fans since he had also supported Penn State's firing of Paterno. I also am impressed that Nike took a stance and removed Paterno's name from its child development center. What I am not impressed with are the many who still want to praise Paterno and preserve the football culture at Penn State. To you I say:
-Anyone who has knowledge of child molestation being facilitated under his nose by a member of his staff does not deserve to be honored. You can still think he's a great coach, but don't hold him up as a great man. 
- Continue being a football fan and cheering for Penn State, but accept any consequences that the program will suffer as a result of over a decade of sexual abuse being covered up. Realize your entertainment is not truly worthy of preservation in the face of the greater social message against sexual abuse and in particular, against college acceptance of sexual violence.


Is Rape Funny?

Very recently I was introduced to Tosh.0, a comedy central show where a white male comedian finds clips around the internet and provides humorous commentary. I point out that he is a white male because his jokes about women and minorities seemed more tasteless than clever. I found myself wanting to change the channel, but being a guest at someone's house I decided just to comment that I didn't find his comedy very funny. Having watched with someone who doesn't have a background in advocacy or privilege awareness, I wasn't surprised to get the response that I shouldn't take it wrong since they were just jokes. Thankfully the show is not that long . . . .

Daniel Tosh of Comedy Central Show Tosh.0

It didn't surprise me to recently discover that Daniel Tosh crossed the "comedy" line when it came to stand up involving rape jokes. After stating rape was funny, a woman in the crowd called out that it wasn't. His reply was that it would be funny if she in fact were gang raped right there at the show. Read more about the incident here. Even if you're very liberal about what constitutes comedy, that crosses a line similarly to Michael Richard's rant.

It wouldn't be surprising to think that maybe, just maybe, that woman might actually be a rape survivor making such a retort tasteless at the least. The reality is that rape and gang rape are tragedies that happen every day (as you read this, someone will be raped in the U.S. and several others across the world, especially in war zones). Having been raped by two men on my sports team in college, I have a particular interest in understanding and responding to gang rapes. In reading Tosh's retort my immediate thought was that such a scenario of a gang rape in a public place as people watched on is not that rare of an occurrence:

Mukhtar Mai, survivor of Pakistan gang rape

For those of you who don't follow such tragedies:
   - Correspondent Lara Logan gang raped during coverage of the Egyptian riots, followed by remarks blaming her for the brutal assault (read more here)
   - 11 year old girl is gang raped by several boys and men in Texas, followed by a New York Times article blaming the child
   - 15 year old is gang raped outside a school dance as several students look on an even take pictures
   - Pakistan gang rape ordered by a tribal council as atonement for her brother's alleged crime, followed by a Supreme Court acquittal of 5 of the 6 men
   - High school student is gang raped while unconscious by a college baseball team until 3 female soccer players break into the room to rescue the girl, but despite the eye witnesses no criminal charges were brought
   - 18 year old dies after brutal gang rape and attempted cover up in Ukraine, protests across the country cause the police to take real action
   - 21 year old gang raped in a bar by several men as a crowd cheers them on, two brothers save her and received death threats for their involvement in her case

Still from The Accused (1986)

I think the last case is worthy of highlighting, despite the fact that it occurred in 1983. This case was such a classic example of victim blaming and so shocking that it warranted being made into a movie, The Accused. Not only were there men taking turns and assisting each other rape the woman, but there was a crowd watching and cheering them on, and others in the bar who did not get involved at all. The final scene of the movie is a reenactment of the gang rape in all its vileness and makes you question how such an attack could go on without intervention. 

Having set the tone for discussing rape, lets now turn to the lighter side - comedy.

Comedian Joan Rivers

"Should there be jokes that are off limits?" I actually don't think this is the right question to start off with, instead I think we should be asking, "what is the point of comedy?" I think that Joan River's interview on NPR is enlightening on this issue (I highly recommend listening to the first few minutes to appreciate the following commentary). Comedy is about making people face their issues and deal with it. The key to her philosophy however is that she jokes about what has challenged her in her personal life, so she has intimate knowledge when she creates her comments. I think this is a key aspect to a great comedian, having experienced the taboo topic that you are commenting upon. Without this you are enabling ignorance and aspects about our society that are distasteful (racism, sexism, etc). 

To speak personally as a rape survivor, I have been to a comedy show where all three sketches revolved around rape and child molestation. If I had not been stuck in the front row I would have walked out. I had come specifically to laugh and avoid the senior thesis on rape law that was causing me to have nightmares on a nightly basis. Epic fail. But I have also found a rape joke acceptable, such as Sarah Silverman's joke about being raped by a doctor "which is bittersweet for a Jewish girl." I felt it poked at rape culture in a way I could appreciate. 

To be realistic, there will always be some comedians who attempt a taboo topic without any real connection to or understanding of the issue. These are not the great comedians, so I would not recommend spending your money. The likelihood of those comedians offending others and exacerbating tense social issues is fairly high. (Thankfully, Tosh will be sparing society by pulling rape jokes out of a pilot episode for his new show.) But that doesn't mean that we should declare any topic off limits since there are some comedians out there using laughter to help people face tough issues and perhaps even creating some awareness in our society. Comedy doesn't deserve censorship, but it does require talent to be effective.