On Friday, the world celebrated as Jerry Sandusky was convicted on 45 of 48 counts related to the sexual abuse of minor children. Mr. Sandusky will almost certainly spend his remaining years behind bars. Justice was served.
But, when this news became public, a new discourse emerged – one in which we put forth a narrative in which we somehow won. Most concerning, a narrative emerged that indicated Mr. Sandusky will now get what he deserves.
Nancy Lublin – though certainly not the only voice speaking along these lines – provides an example of the type of comment regularly being made in recent days. On Friday, Ms. Lublin tweeted, “I hope Sandusky’s prison sentence includes a large, angry cellmate named Bubba with a love for old man butt.” Ms. Lublin’s comment is particularly alarming because she is the CEO of DoSomething.org, a national organization empowering teenagers to create change in their communities.
Comments made by Ms. Lublin and many others in recent days serve an important role – they make it significantly more difficult to combat sexual abuse in our communities.
Some of you may wonder why I’m writing about this topic on Reach’s blog. The answer is simple: This issue belongs to all of us who serve children. In my career, I have worked with children who have been bought and sold for drug money. I have worked with kids that have been violated by family members and strangers. I also have the unique experience of having worked with juvenile sexual offenders – a population that overlaps significantly with those we would call victims (in my work with over 100 sexual offenders, I only ever worked with two who did not report prior victimization). Though Reach has only existed for two years, we have already been faced with the sexual assault, by a family member, of one of our tutors – a fact only discovered once the tutor became a risk to his/her own safety.
The way we talk about sexual abuse promotes only one thing: Shame. But, in trying to shame perpetrators of sexual abuse and violence, we do something else as well. We shame the victims. This happens due to three distinct narratives:
Their lives are destroyed: This phrase is common when discussing the most significant cases of sexual abuse. The offender ruined lives. Not only does this stigmatize the experience of being abused, but it ignores that strength of thousands of abuse victims who live powerfully positive lives today. While a significant trauma, sexual abuse does not permanently ruin lives – this comment does nothing but limit the possible future envisioned by victims of sexual violence.
The offender and the act are evil: We live most comfortably in the good versus evil realm. Unfortunately, this is overly simplistic and, ultimately, harmful. Predatory behavior is the result of mental illness, sometimes caused by previous traumatic experiences. Refusing to see it as such results in two major challenges. First, it further stigmatizes the victim by promoting the idea that their experience was the absolute depth of darkness and disgust. Second, it makes it far less likely that a peer or colleague would voice suspicion about possible illegal behavior.
We saw this play out at Penn State. When we imagine a world of good and evil, we also imagine our own ability to see and understand the difference between the two. In retrospect, we blame Penn State officials for failing to voice concerns. However, in the moment, their behavior actually makes sense. Having known Mr. Sandusky for years – and not thinking him to be an easily identifiable evil person – the suspicion simply didn’t fit with the reality. From their experience, they felt they knew Mr. Sandusky was not evil. Our societal dialogue made it difficult for them to consider that he was very, very sick. They simply could not consider the possibility of this criminal behavior given their relationship with the man.
I hope he gets what he gave: This is what we’re hearing right now. Mr. Sandusky violated children. Mr. Sandusky is going to jail. It would be just if Mr. Sandusky were violated in jail. I’ll start by saying I do not think anyone deserves to be violated sexually. Beyond that, it again stigmatizes the experience of victim. If being violated is the ultimate punishment – brutal and disgusting in its execution – why would any victim want to admit to the experience? We proudly talk about our vengeful feelings while thousands remain silent due to our words.
Also, a note to Ms. Lublin: You say you love young people – it’s at the core of your organization. Well, in this country, you know who are, by far, the most likely to be raped in prison? Teenagers. As we increasingly incarcerate them in adult prisons, they are being violated at an alarming rate, adding to their likely experience of trauma and making re-offending more likely.
Sexual violence is an issue that all of us must confront, but we must also be cognizant of the way we discuss these sensitive issues. The current discourse further stigmatizes the experience of victims while encouraging silence.
Some statistics indicate that less than 30% of sexual crimes are reported. While threats and manipulation likely play a role, we must recognize that the stigma we create muzzles those we are trying to help.
To end sexual violence, two things must occur. First, potential perpetrators must become comfortable seeking help before an offense occurs. We want these potential offenders to seek mental health counseling for thoughts involving the violation of children, but right now, the stigma is far too strong. Second, we want victims to report the event after the first occurrence. For this to occur, they must feel that they will be treated with respect, not discussed with disgust.
Like many of you, I am pleased that Mr. Sandusky will spend his remaining years in jail. I hope the experience is entirely uneventful. Additionally, I’m extraordinarily proud of the victims that testified and those who shared their stories with law enforcement officials. But, most of all, I hope that we can use this opportunity to shift our discussion about sexual violence.
If the three narratives above continue, we will have little success in our fight against the sexual victimization of our children. Many of our children, shamed by the stigma, will remain silent.