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Revisiting Rape Culture, Penn State and Herman Cain

November 14, 2011

From Mary Beth Marklein and Haley Bum’s USA Today article: Abuse scandal casts shadow over Penn State

“Time heals all wounds, and this is a very gaping wound right now,” says senior Alex Braunbeck, 22. “I feel like there’s going to be some type of cloud hanging over (Penn State), for a little bit at least.”

In the paragraph above, “Penn State” is in parentheses, in case we mistake Sandusky’s victims as the people who might have a “cloud hanging over” them. With a perfunctory nod to child sexual abuse survivors, the article goes on to describe how this effects university fund-raising and prospective student applications.

And in case, during our outrage at children being raped and the crimes subsequently being covered up, we also worry about the value of Penn State college degrees, Professor John Thelin from University of Kentucky reassures those worries away.

“It’s awkward, it’s embarrassing, but this is not going to jeopardize Penn State. It’s not going to hurt the value of a Penn State degree.”

It’s not all about football, though. There’s dance.

Some students here have fretted that the scandal might hurt fundraising efforts for THON, a 46-hour dance marathon that is among the campus’s signature events. Last year, students raised a record $9.5 million to a fund that supports families with children who have pediatric cancer.

Several commentators have blamed youth idealism and naivete for the reaction from the Penn State student rioters. To which I want to say, callous and self-centered (adult) college students do not get to speak for young people. It’s not age that led to such lack of empathy and decency, it’s privilege.

It’s the privilege of belief that the pain they feel over the shattered image of their fetishized ideal matters at all next to the wounds of child abuse survivors. It’s the privilege of having the media, college professors and the university public relations machine validate and reassure their worries, while the fear of child rape survivors are simply out of everyone’s hands. Somehow explicitly stating that child rape is a horrific tragedy becomes so obvious or passe that it skips a mention.

Earlier this year, Roxane Gay wrote a wonderful essay about the careless narratives that we build around sexual violence.

The overall tone of the article was what a shame it all was, how so many lives were affected by this one terrible event. Little addressed the girl, the child. It was an eleven-year-old girl whose body was ripped apart, not a town. It was an eleven-year-old girl whose life was ripped apart, not the lives of the men who raped her. It is difficult for me to make sense of how anyone could lose sight of that and yet it isn’t.

She was referring to the horrific gang rape of a 11-yr-old girl by 18 men in Texas earlier this year. The entire article is well worth reading. It speaks to the specific narrative around sexual violence, called the rape culture.

We live in a culture that is very permissive where rape is concerned. While there are certainly many people who understand rape and the damage of rape, we also live in a time that necessitates the phrase “rape culture.” This phrase denotes a culture where we are inundated, in different ways, by the idea that male aggression and violence toward women is acceptable and often inevitable.

It’s this social culture that permits us to talk about Herman Cain’s sexual harassment victims in the way that we do. It’s rape culture that allows us to itemize qualities that strengthen a woman’s claim (she’s white, Republican, holds a job) and qualities that invalidate her experiences (she’s poor).

There is something particularly despicable about ignoring deep social, individual and systematic inequalities that permit and excuse abuses of power to the ones most vulnerable to it. (And nowhere is that vulnerability more stark, more universal than in a child).

I suppose there can be something nice about tuning our moral compass to someone else more powerful than us (whether it is Joe Paterno or Hermane Cain or anyone else less or more worthy). We all have our heroes. I think our need for heroes at least partially comes from our own sense of powerlessness. It comes from our relief that while we cannot change the world, that there is someone out there who can and did. But that’s a lie. Our powerlessness is a lie. A lie we tell ourselves so that we need not test our own power in changing anything.

But hope and courage are real. Not stories we tell ourselves.

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