It is hard to ignore the subset of college students from the self-described “world-class learning community” of Pennsylvania State University who took to the streets in strident and, at times, violent protest. It wasn’t the wars or the economy that drove some students into the night to demand justice and ultimately to overturn a van and several streetlights. Rather, the intolerable event in question was the firing of their football coach.
Some, particularly those who have witnessed student activity surrounding such significant social issues as the Vietnam War, civil rights, or apartheid, expressed surprise at such activity. Many observed in dismay the stark contrast between the rowdy protest and the deafening silence on campus for the children who were allegedly sexually assaulted on the hallowed grounds of the athletic facility.
Sadly, however, there are two main reasons that we should not find ourselves surprised by this juxtaposition of silent indifference for the child victims of sexual assault, on the one hand, and massive support for those whose reputations have been sullied by the subsequent allegations, on the other. This disturbing outcry is consistent with how we approach child sexual abuse.
First, this reaction of societal indifference to the reality of child sexual assault is not new. As any child abuse prosecutor will tell you, similar community reaction is par for the course. Often, community support is placed with the alleged perpetrator, a phenomenon whose roots are analogous to those of the Penn State protesters’ support for an allegedly complicit supervisor. Once a child has bravely disclosed sexual abuse by a public figure, the challenge for him or her is often not the trial, but the collateral public fallout; community members often respond hostilely to those who reveal the true nature of a socially integrated sexual offender, one who has gained the community’s trust in order to gain access to and assault children. Prosecutors find themselves preparing families for threats, bullying at school, protests in the media, public rallies in favor of the accused, and courtrooms packed with citizens who vouch for their accused pillar and ignore evidence that supports the accusation. In the face of such a societal reaction, the victim is lost, if not targeted.
Why does this occur? Perhaps it is public denial, fueled by the desire to believe that this could not take place in one’s community, that one could not so egregiously have misjudged the perpetrator. Perhaps it is the scheming of the offenders, who count on this indifference and often select and groom victims who are at-risk, more vulnerable, and unlikely to be believed or valued. It could be fear, incited by the personalization of what before were just numbers: some studies report that 25 percent of girls and 16 percent of boys experience sexual abuse during childhood. It also could be the attempt of ordinary people to distance themselves from the horror and insidiousness of child sexual abuse, modeling the diverting eyes of adults who suspect—or, in this case, witness—and ignore inappropriate contact between adults and children.
The second reason we should not be surprised by the callousness of Penn State’s protesting students may be a new one: they have been raised in a culture that has normalized children’s sexual objectification, defined by the American Psychological Association as “being made into a thing for others’ sexual use.”
This generation has so regularly witnessed the sexualization of children that they have become numb to it. This is not a general complaint on the place of sexuality in media today. This is a more refined concern about the unhealthy messaging portraying children “as commodity” available for the consumption of adults. As a society, we have bombarded them with so many images and messages through the internet and various media platforms that they are not shocked by it. They have developed in a society where the average age at which girls and boys become involved in prostitution is between 11 and 14, and where a multibillion-dollar child pornography industry thrives. They have attended schools where their objectification is omnipresent: recently, the American Association of University Women released a study indicating that 48 percent of 7th- through 12th-graders surveyed experienced sexual harassment in the 2010–2011 school year. We subject them to media that label cases of adults sending sexual pictures to children, or asking them to do the same, as “sexting” rather than calling it what it is: solicitation, luring, or grooming. We glorify the concept of adult-child sexual relations by using titles such as “barely legal” or by selling child-size “pimp” and “prostitute” costumes at Halloween.
This disturbing trend has developed despite alarms being sounded by organizations such as the American Psychological Association, which has warned of the many negative consequences of the sexual objectification of girls; the National Coalition to Prevent Child Sexual Abuse and Exploitation, which has issued a National Plan of Prevention calling for an end to the normalization of this behavior; and numerous researchers and authors who have written extensively on the negative effects of our “culture’s” shortening childhood and endorsing the sexual objectification of our children at younger and younger ages.
Having created and perpetuated this cultural climate, are we now surprised that some of the young adults it produced do not understand the true nature and gravity of the sexual abuse of children? Are we now surprised that some of these young adults express indifference to the kind of abuse that increases victims’ risk for short-term and long-term physical and psychological damage? How can we be? Not only have we groomed the victims for these offenders, we have groomed the generation for indifference.
There is much to be learned from the events unfolding at Penn State, regarding not the offense but the response to it. Some of the students at Penn State are missing the real story: that, at its core, this is not a case about personnel decisions or a game; this is a case about rape, about a young, groomed, weak, and vulnerable boy possibly being anally penetrated by a trusted adult against a shower wall; and about an allegedly indifferent community of professionals, lawyers, staff, and other officials, who found it easier to divert their attention from the abuse than to face its ugliness.
However, these college students are not the only ones missing the real story. The rest of us are, as well. The other real story is about responsibility and accountability, and not just of the individuals and institutions who considered these children expendable. We must acknowledge our collective responsibility for having created a society filled with negative, unhealthy sexual images that foster the sexual commoditization of children.
There is hope, however. It can be found in the students who held candlelight vigils to support victims of child abuse and in the courage of Penn State’s trustees to take dramatic steps to increase accountability, despite the expected resistance to this countercultural approach. More broadly, it can be seen in the Declaration of Rome, an action plan arising out of the recent international Forum on the Abuse of Children’s Rights, which recommends, among other things, that “citizens in every country be made more . . . aware regarding the abuse and sexual exploitation of children, and that they be urged to report.” Hope also can be found in the revival of long-dormant statutes to penalize adults for failing to report their suspicions of sexual abuse to the authorities.
If these students want a cause to get behind, let me suggest this one: raising awareness of the despicable reality of child sexual abuse. More tangibly, they can focus on the law, which reflects the values of a society. Demand that these mandated reporting statutes, which exist across the country, actually be enforced. Demand that such laws be paired with penalties to deter the indifference. Most importantly, demand to live in a society that reflects the inherent dignity of children and our communal responsibility to protect them.
Mary Graw Leary is an associate professor in the Columbus School of Law at the Catholic University of America.