Monday, November 07, 2011

Contemplating the Unthinkable. Responsibly Addressing Childhood Sexual Abuse

The on-going scandal regarding former Penn State defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky, his alleged abuse of young boys, and the potential cover-up by university officials has affected me deeply. And yet, it is not the only story current on the radar screens concerns sexual improprieties. First two, now four accusers have stepped forward against Republican Presidential candidate Herman Cain, accusing him of, at minimum, sexual harassment.

Returning to the Sandusky case, I can barely even scan through the long list of specific abuse allegations, all documenting years of unthinkable behavior towards young boys. Even so, I know I must not avoid these details, since I would otherwise have a tendency to bury them or obscure the truth myself. Though I might find them triggering, I know I must attain some sense, some understanding of the forthcoming case. Some subjects, even in this age of perhaps excessive candor, are awful enough that we routinely adopt cultural, corporate amnesia as a means of coping. In that regard, we might all be victims, as we are all enablers. In the spirit of full disclosure, I know this more extensively than I wish I did.

I was sexually abused, beginning when I was eight years old. The perpetrator was an older man, the father of two boys in the neighborhood. His two sons and I regularly played together, being that they lived three houses down. I remember being invited over to their house frequently. With my father at work and my mother raising an infant, my youngest sibling, I had the freedom and the ability to roam around more or less unsupervised. While the actual details of what happened are important, they are not necessary in this context. To be honest without seeming evasive, I will say only that I was made to feel as though I was participating in a strange sort of game.

Before asking any questions or making any judgments, I have learned that one has to put oneself in the mindset of a child to begin to understand. At that age, kids are taught to follow whatever instructions adults ask of them. Trusting by nature, they rarely reject requests or demands that seem to be perfectly acceptable, at least when framed to appear that way. The perpetrator was also someone in the neighborhood I knew, who was known by others, which is often the case, another reason why I kept the events to myself until many years later.

Now, in my adult life, I have spent years piecing together the details. The memories are scattered, which in time I have learned is very common. I speak on this painful subject to emphasize the unacceptable prevalence of child sexual abuse. We can (and do) talk regularly about epidemics of autism, handgun violence, or violence in movies or videos games. Where we do not go, nor wish to linger is the subject of pedophilia. Combine our societal squeamishness with rape along with the tender age of the victim and we’d just as soon shut our eyes. A code of silence, in addition to a subtle complicity, keeps criminal acts like these from even being reported in the first place. This is what we’ve seen in the Roman Catholic Church for years and it is what we are observing here, now, on a smaller scale.

Even in this era of ghoulish violence and increased bullying, I think there are still places we dare not to tread. On matter of sexual assault, especially when they involve children, we have an unfortunate tendency to normalize or to even deny outright. Should they be brought to the attention of a mass audience, an uncomfortable public doesn’t know how to process the details. The emotional distress is palpable but before long we’ve changed the subject, again. Some have asked me over time why I didn’t speak out. Now, more than twenty years later, I will reply again that I was simply too scared and, young as I was, had no clue that what I was being repeatedly asked to do was abnormal and wrong.

Our conception of gender, particularly the idea of masculinity also makes us complicit in silence. I recall that at the time I was still too young to really understand all the things that men are taught about being male. I did, however, even at that age, absorb the idea that men were not supposed to exhibit certain behaviors to other men. It would be years before I learned the word “homophobia” and could assign my feelings to a particular vocabulary term. But here I was, clearly participating in an act that went against all I had learned and taken in from my environment. Because another man was involved, this only complicated my perception of what I was doing. And again, as a child, I didn’t have the developed reasoning skills of an adult. This created a massive amount of confusion and cognitive dissonance, much of which I am still unpacking. I will probably be unpacking it for years to come.

We’re still not entirely comfortable with the idea of homosexuality, regardless of where it falls on the spectrum of sexual orientation. It’s tempting for some, usually on the right, to use these sorts of incidents to reinforce the idea that all gay or queer men are really pedophiles at heart. And on the left, few ask the really pithy, pertinent questions that might lead to greater understanding and comprehension. We might ask what we can do to loosen the blanketing stigma so that child molestation is promptly reported. It shouldn’t take years and repeated incidents to finally reach the tipping point. The first allegation should be the last, regardless of circumstance or degree.

We might also ask each other the really difficult questions over which we usually, nervously skirt. Why do some people feel a need to sexually abuse children? Were they abused themselves and, if they were, how do we take their past into account? Aside from a few tactics and strategies that have been in practice for a long time, we would do well to develop new methods that proceed directly to the root cause. And as we do, we should be willing to remain in disquieting, uncomfortable spaces long enough to see that justice is served and healing proceeds.

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