Rape Culture Datapoint

Quite a few feminist bloggers in the US have already made this connection, so I’m just repeating it for emphasis: the outrage which has erupted over Joe Paterno, legendarily successful head football coach at Penn State, being sacked (finally) after tolerating a known/witnessed paedophile on his coaching staff for over a decade?  the outrage which says that it’s “unfair” to expect Paterno to have done more than just kick it upstairs with one report to a college administrator and then feel he’d done enough even when he saw that no action was being taken against the child-abuser for years and years afterwards?  the outrage which had people abusing and spitting on a man outside their football stadium who held up signs reminding the spectators that children had been raped, that the whole college administration had decided to cover it up, and that the victims deserved prioritising over football?

That reaction (prioritising the accused) is exactly what feminists mean by rape culture: a societal tendency to excuse and/or collude with those accused of rape whenever the rapist is deemed too important or too nice (or just too much like one of us).  Instead of meaningful acknowledgement of the damage done by the accused, it is the whistleblowers who are demonised as having axes to grind/ just wanting to ruin a reputation, while the victims are painted as unreliable witnesses (too slutty/nutty etc) and the experience of rape itself is trivialised as “not that bad”.  Besides, Everybody Knows™ that Rapists Are Monsters™, and just look at how nice/decent/ordinary this person we all like and/or respect is! Not A Monster = Not A Rapist – QED!

This, no doubt, is what the colluders at Penn State thought about assistant coach Sandusky and the accusations that he was molesting or raping young boys.  He didn’t seem to be a monster, and therefore it couldn’t really be true, and by damn he’s a good assistant coach so let’s just forget about it and pretend no accusations have ever been made.  After all, it’s not our kids who will be in any danger even if it is true, is it?

Despite what many people like to think about themselves and their communities, the truth is that the normative human response to bad things happening to people whose social spheres hardly intersect with their own is not usually compassionate generosity and support, the normative response tends to be indifference.  For the Trustees of Penn State, it took an arrest, a huge media scandal and the threat of losing millions of dollars of endowment money before they decided to stop being indifferent about the rape of poor people’s children by one of their employees under the aegis of a charity he set up that traded on Penn State’s reputation.

This indifference regarding actual incidents of sexual abuse/exploitation/coercion is not an exception to the rule.  People prioritise their existing relationships over justice for victims time after time after time after time, all over the world. This indifference towards the victims and the “standing by” the accused is actually the status quo.

Joe Paterno knowingly looked the other way when he could have gone to the police to get justice for raped children. Thousands of people are defending him. It’s a large scale example of patterns of looking-away-from-rapists and deeming rape-as-not-rape that play out in smaller communities every year. It’s rape culture.

Categories: culture wars, education, ethics & philosophy, gender & feminism, language, law & order, social justice, violence

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19 replies

  1. Great article as always Tigtog. These people have literally prioritised football over rape victims. This is such a textbook example of rape culture, it almost couldn’t have been concocted by anyone writing about rape culture.

  2. …the threat of losing millions of dollars of endowment money…
    This is the first I’ve heard that there was danger of loss of endowment money if Paterno wasn’t fired. I tried googling for a news report of it, and didn’t find one. (Your link is to a blog article which simply has the line you quoted in the OP.) Some articles assumed that contributions would drop, but no indication that the drop would be contingent upon his going or staying.
    Does anyone have a reference?

  3. @AMM, you’re correct that I took that claim from another blogger’s article – I don’t have any other source.
    Nice comment I just read on Pharyngula (thread about threats to women bloggers, but plenty of general rape culture discussion as well:

    7 November 2011 at 5:57 pm
    SallyStrange says:

    So remember dudes, when your bro cracks a rape joke, it might just be because he sincerely hates women.
    If you don’t speak up to say that it’s not OK, you are doing two things:
    1. Sending the message to Mr. Misogynist that you approve of his misogyny and
    2. Making it impossible for women to tell you, Mr. Good Intentions, apart from Mr. Misogyny.
    Do us a favor. Make it harder for the assholes to blend in with the decent men. Remember that being a man is not synonymous with being an asshole.

  4. TW: Abuse.
    I read the grand jury report. It is wall-to-wall horrifying. The idea that people felt like they were doing something by “denying” Sandusky* access to the changerooms when he was running a charity he had set up which gave him an enormous degree of access to vulnerable young children is horrifying.
    There was a janitor who witnessed Sandusky abusing a child. My reading of his testimony is that he was talked out of reporting it, or feared for his livelihood if he spoke ill of someone with so much power and sway within the uni. It doesn’t excuse his decisions at all, but it adds another layer to the inaction shitpile. There was also a mother of one of the boys who tried to get someone to take action against Sandusky. Her efforts were in vain.
    *Grand jury report indicated that he would have still had access to facilities.

  5. Firstly, I need to say that I worked at Penn State (in a completely unrelated capacity) while, apparently, young boys were being sexually abused at the football end of campus. Even ignorant of that disgusting underside, I found the football worship, and particularly Joe Paterno worship there, fascinating to observe. The university bookstore sold life-size cardboard cutouts of JoePa. I have quite simply never been in a place where one person was placed on so high a pedestal by so many others, and the only sorts of comparisons I can think of are to religious figures and political dictators.
    (I’ll also say that everything I’ve read by Australians on this was clearly written by people who have less sense of what Penn State/State College is actually like than I do. I am happy to be the Hoydens’ source on background flavour if needed.)
    Secondly, I’d like to note that JoePa has in the past been called out by feminists for rape apologetics towards young women in relation to football players. I’m not the only one wondering if it’s only because young boys are involved that his attitudes are finally getting examined.
    Thirdly, I want to nominate Sara Ganim as Hoyden of the Week. She’s the young journalist who has been chasing this story the longest, someone who apparently was not afraid of digging up dirt on her university. And I’m afraid, because she is a woman, that she is going to be subjected to more mudslinging over this than if she were a man.

  6. Just noting I left some links off the previous comment because it wouldn’t let me post otherwise. I’ll put it up on my dreamwidth with links soonish.
    (And I forgot to mention in my list of disclosures I was peripherally aware of a sorta similar case previously, but I’ll also put that link in my dreamwidth post. In the meantime, Carleton Gajdusek is the name.)

    • AotQ, great to have someone with more familiarity with the campus culture posting, thanks. It’s very hard for Aussies generally to get their heads around this football-worshipping-at-uni stuff, because we just don’t have the same sort of student athletic programs, especially not football programs, as you have in the States. Sure, our unis do have student football/hockey/rowing teams, and the jocks are often admired (especially when they’re also hot stuff academically, as many are) but I doubt most students would know the name of any coaches unless they were closely involved with the sport themselves. We also don’t have university football or basketball scholarships (although getting a University Blue means that you”ve ticked one essential box if you want a Rhodes scholarship).

  7. Tigtog: I should make it clear I’m (mostly) Australian, and certainly spent some of my time in State College learning about American college culture as much as any other Aussie might. Aussies who’ve lived in State College are rare enough that I’m sure I’d be identifiable if I publish details of my job there.

    • Sorry Aqua – I’d thought that you were Aussie-ish, and then your comments about Penn State had me doubting that I was correct, so glad that I wasn’t totally wrong about that.
      No wonder you were befuddled by the football worship then – it strikes me as a real culture shock thing.

  8. This is a good example of why mandatory reporting laws are good. It creates legal consequences for those who cover up abuse as well as creates a defence for those who do want to report them as legally they have no other choice.

  9. Chris: There’s been a lot of discussion about what Pennsylvania’s mandatory reporting laws are/were, and who they might have applied to, so they don’t guarantee reporting. For example, Mike McQueary (who witnessed the alleged anal rape) first told his father, who is apparently a doctor and may thus be subject to mandatory reporting laws. Additionally, University Park (the main Penn State campus) has its own police with equivalent powers to the municipal police in the surrounding town (State College), and there’s a suggestion that because the witnessed rapes were on campus, they had to be reported to university police, not municipal police.
    Now one of the people arrested for perjury (and implicitly, covering up the alleged crimes) was the deputy president (equivalent of deputy vice chancellor) overseeing campus police. I don’t know if he’d have the power to conceal reports made to those police officers, but I do wonder.

  10. Aqua – yea no guarantee of reporting, but at least they can prosecute them for not doing so (assuming the laws adequately cover this case) and it will be a very high profile example to others. So hopefully in the future people will be more likely to report.

  11. “and there’s a suggestion that because the witnessed rapes were on campus, they had to be reported to university police, not municipal police.”
    Just for the record, in case someone brings this up and actually believes this: it’s not ever legal for the university to say that. Not when the crime is against someone other than the university itself (and I’m pretty sure not even then, possibly depending on the type of crime).
    The university can certainly make it a condition of staying at the university (in whatever capacity one is currently associated with the university) that one tell the university police as well but it is always illegal for them to require that you tell them instead or even first. Although they try the “first” a lot, especially for stuff that will make the university look bad. Also, the “as well” can sometimes be challenged depending on who is committing the crime and what the relevant whistleblower laws say.
    Plus, this is one of those things that actually has to do with civil liberties and the sovereignty of the various levels of government, so it’s true everywhere (in the US and most other countries). Unless the university police are the municipal police, they cannot act like they are the police and claim to override actual state/State/municipal authority and laws.
    (and I’m sure you all knew that, I just also know it helps sometimes to have that spelled out for the next time you run into someone that doesn’t)
    As far as I know it isn’t necessarily illegal for the witness to only tell the university police, because there may be practical reasons for doing that – like if you think the victim will be safer if you tell the university police first, or tell them and let them handle telling the police. However, I don’t think that this situation meets that criteria for all the witnesses and confidants involved. Also, while, technically, it’s not generally illegal to not report a crime – it seems to me that this situation might include several instances of obstruction of justice and aiding and abetting.

  12. Jennygadget: are you familiar with University Park/State College and the police situation there? From the University police web site (http://www.police.psu.edu/aboutus/)

    The Penn State University Police provides all law enforcement and security services to the University Park campus. We employ:
    46 full-time armed officers
    Six traffic and parking officers
    Five police dispatcher/recorders
    Approximately 200 students as auxiliary officers and escorts
    The department provides 24-hour patrol services to the campus and University-owned properties year round. The University Police is governed by a state statute that gives our officers the same authority as municipal police officers.

    which links to http://www.police.psu.edu/statestatutes/
    As far as I can tell, they are the municipal police on campus.

  13. Aqua, interesting.
    Then the issue is not that it’s supposed to be reported to university police instead of municipal police – because that’s a false dichotomy – but that it’s usually best to report crimes to the police that have jurisdiction in that area.
    It’s still not illegal to report crimes to a different enforcement agency, however, as long as it’s a state agency and not a private one. Which is what the people I’ve seen making that claim seem to be implying. It’s also still not entirely legal to require (as in, punish people who do) report crimes to the wrong agency.
    Also, if I go and report something to [city] police and it turns out it happened in an unincorporated area, while they may tell me that I have to report it to [county] sherrif’s office myself, if the issue is serious enough and/or there is a clear and present danger, it’s part of their job to contact that agency with or for me,* rather than just sending me in that direction. Sadly, I can certainly see officers wanting to wash their hands of the matter and telling any witnesses to report it to the correct agency, but that isn’t really how it’s supposed to happen.
    Sorry for the derail, I just know that this “you have to report it to University police! not the other police” is something universities and colleges try to convince rape victims of all ages of. And it’s just not true. No matter the situation. Neither is it always in the best interest of the rape victim to do so. Being raped on university property by an employee (or former employee with unusual access) is definitely one of those cases where victims would have legitimate reasons to want to NOT report the crime to the agency that is most closely affiliated with the university, even if they are also municipal police.
    *City, County, and State police end up having to do this all the time in CA when it comes to traffic accidents. Because sometimes it’s not just that the wrong agency has been called, but that it takes a bit of map digging to figure out if it’s a city, county, or state right of way. This is according to the county employee who taught the Safe Driving course I was required to take as a county employee who sometimes drives for work.

  14. Another rape culture datapoint: Occupy Wall Street: How About We Occupy Rape Culture? – great article on the Safer Spaces committees in the various #occupy zones and how there’s the usual backlash along the lines of “the movement is bigger than all of us (especially your petty gender concerns about your personal autonomy/respect/safety)”.
    And another datapoint: how #occupy attracting a statistically predictable share of sexual predators (who have got away with it before and know that the camp environment is one in which they can get away with it again) is being presented as if the lefty protestors are somehow uniquely rapey just because they are lefty protestors.

  15. I found the football worship, and particularly Joe Paterno worship there, fascinating to observe. The university bookstore sold life-size cardboard cutouts of JoePa. I have quite simply never been in a place where one person was placed on so high a pedestal by so many others,…
    For the benefit of those who are not familiar with USA culture, I should note that it is not just Penn State, or even colleges and universities, where football is worshiped and successful coaches are God.
    It also pretty much the rule at the high-school (grades 10-12) level in most communities in the USA. When the local high-school football team wins a championship (or even just a game against a traditional rival school), the entire town celebrates, and if a player misses a critical pass, everybody lets him know he’s let down the entire town. Enormous amounts of (tax!) money are spent on football fields, field houses, gymnasiums, and, of course, successful coaches, even as the same communities say they can’t afford to pay for teachers, books, or even building repairs. Athletic accomplishments of the local schools (and of big colleges) are reported every day in the newspapers and on television, while the only other way a school makes the papers is when a crime is committed at one.
    I’m told that the football worship is even more extreme in the southeast USA, especially Texas.
    Also: training to become a football player starts very young. There are football leagues for children as young as 5 (that’s 5 years old, not grade 5), and I see them training in the afternoon on my way home from work. That’s for boys, of course — the girls 5 and up are training to be cheerleaders.
    The main exceptions I know of are poor urban areas that don’t have enough open space for a football field (in which case it’s basketball that’s God), or very small districts that can’t hope to field a team that can win even one game.
    As one famous football coach once said, “winning isn’t the most important thing, it’s the only thing.”

  16. This article is very interesting. For one, Michael Berube has been in the blogosphere forever and is well known as a witty and entertaining writer with a strong ethical compass. For another, he’s the Paterno Family Professor in Literature and director of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities at Penn State.

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