We Have to Talk about S-E-X Before We Can Change

Image via iStock Photo/Amarphoto

As I watch the Penn State interim president give a press conference live on CNN, I’m struck by the interesting parallels of two current stories. 

* Penn State’s president to victims of abuse: We encourage you to come forward. 

* Herman Cain’s attorney to victims of abuse: We encourage you to think twice about coming forward.

It took a while for Penn State to get it right. There’s still time for Cain to do likewise.

I posted the above two days ago as my Facebook status, and it engendered a number of comments. Regarding the Penn State story, my friend Donna wrote, “But there were many years that went by, Linda, that parents of victims were told to go away. Their repentance came only after Sandusky’s arrest.”

On the Cain situation, my friend Bill posted, “Two GOP WOMEN from South Carolina on CBS News this morning asked about whether the allegation’s of Cain’s character have any influence on them: ‘If there was anything to it, it should have come out in the open 15 to 18 years ago.'”

Granted, the two circumstances are very different. One centers around child rape and the other involves unwanted advances but no physical harm. Like other commentators and pundits, I might not be comparing and contrasting the two if not for the fact that both have fallen within the same news cycle.

Yet what they share goes beyond the always titillating issue of S-E-X. More specifically, they both involve:

  • alleged actions that are deemed too graphic for many media outlets
  • victims that were forced into situations that made them feel uncomfortable and/or violated
  • an initial lack of support when these individuals came forward
  • powerful and influential perpetrators who headed up significant institutions
  • a statute of limitations long past
  • strong resistance to the idea that the accused were capable of such acts.

Let’s be clear — all concerned are innocent until proven guilty, and what we’re talking about are allegations. But the simple act of even making that allegation becomes an irrevocable turning point when the victim realizes that she or he will be viewed differently once the story gets out.

Whenever sex is involved, even if the victim did nothing to bring it upon herself/himself, we become uncomfortable with that person and with the circumstances. Consciously or subconsciously, we begin to distance ourselves. Individually and collectively, our behavior tells the victim, “Whoa, wait, we really don’t want to hear about that.”

When Sharon Bialek initially told her story in a news conference set up by her attorney Gloria Allred, she stated that Herman Cain “put his hand on my leg under my skirt and reached for my genitals. He also grabbed my head and brought it toward his crotch.” But later versions featured a clip in which “reached for my genitals” was edited out. His crotch is okay, but her genitals aren’t? Which term is slang, and which shows up in medical literature?

When the Second Mile/Jerry Sandusky/Penn State scandal broke, news media were reporting that an unnamed graduate assistant said he saw Sandusky having anal sex with a boy in the showers. Once the observer was identified by name, the actual act was subsequently described with much less specificity; it was tamed by language such as “inappropriate behavior.”

When we edit in this manner, we blunt the sharp and ugly edge of forcible sex. This in turn reduces the impact of what happened.

When we don’t edit, here’s what it sounds like, and it’s a description that many would call graphic although it’s unemotionally clinical:  An adult male forcibly inserted his penis into a child’s anus. An adult male extended his hand toward a female’s genitals with the intent of placing his fingers on her clitoris and/or inside her vagina.

These are exact and straightforward terms, but for some reason we get squeamish and fearful about naming specific actions and parts. And when we choose other terms and alter the language to avoid graphic, crude or slang descriptions, we inadvertently insert bias into the situation and weaken the victim’s credibility.

Joanne Archambault, a former detective with the San Diego Police Department and a leading authority on the criminal justice response to sexual assault crimes, once told me in a phone interview:

Our society remains uncomfortable in dealing with issues of rape and sexual assault, and those who come forward and say they’ve been victimized continue to be stigmatized….

Sexual assault is all about what you don’t see, what victims are ashamed to tell you, what they bury inside themselves for decades….

Part of it is that we have a lot of shame about it and when victims say ‘He forced me to give him head’ people don’t write those things down because it’s not flattering to the victim.

What I train other professionals to do is to write down what is the victim saying and not paraphrase. I tell them, ‘You should be very clear that it’s the victim’s words and it’s first person and in quotes.’

We do all this translation and half the time we create the inconsistent testimony – it’s not the victims, it’s ours….

We do a lot of trying to soften it up and make it more palatable – it’s not by accident that that’s done. It’s how professionals dissociate.

When the Penn State story broke, some news outlets reported that Joe Paterno’s initial reaction to his graduate assistant’s description of what happened in a shower in the Penn State locker room went something like this: “Now wait a minute, I don’t want to or need to hear about the specifics, you should report them to _____.”

Paterno is a grown man who certainly should have had the stomach to handle a graphic account of what transpired. He never should have expressed a “hey I don’t want to hear the dirty details” attitude since this involved his former employee, his college’s athletic facilities, and his graduate assistant. But if this happened, it’s indicative of the larger problem that our society faces. We don’t want to hear about it.

So is it any wonder that victims of a lesser offense — sexual harassment — might not have come forward when the incident originally occurred?

Thankfully in the Penn State situation, compassion for — and focus on — the victims and their families is now the primary concern. Outing them or trying to disprove their allegations is not the focus of the story. They remain anonymous because several victims are still minors and the policy of news organizations has always been to withhold the names of rape and assault victims. No one is going around saying, “Well, if it really happened, why didn’t they come forward at the time?”

Yet as my friend Bill’s comment indicates, that attitude continues to prevail in sexual harassment cases, particularly the one involving GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain. Why didn’t these women come forward when it happened? The reasons would be the same ones that the children who were violated by Jerry Sandusky would give — because of the overwhelming conviction that no one would believe their story. When you are victimized, you feel alone, isolated, ashamed and afraid. All you want to do is put it behind you and make sure it never happens again.

But when you hear of the victimization of others, it validates your own experience by letting you know that you weren’t alone and isolated and you shouldn’t have felt ashamed and afraid. It wasn’t you who “asked for it” — it was the perpetrator who was at fault. It gives you the courage to say, “That happened to me too.”

We protect minors and rape and assault victims, and rightly so. But we don’t offer similar protections to women who’ve been sexually harassed. Until we do, any woman who comes forward faces a threefold risk: the judgment and disbelief of others, the inability to continue working with that boss and that company, and the negative impact on her career as she attempts to move elsewhere without positive recommendations from her previous employer.

Four women have accused Herman Cain of sexual harassment, but only two — Sharon Bialek and Karen Kraushaar — have gone public. Considering that those two have been called everything from whores and sluts to lying bitches and ugly, do you think the other two will step forward and take the same beating? Can you blame them?

As Donna commented on my Facebook page, “There were many years that went by…that parents of victims were told to go away.” Yet enough of them spoke out and created a sufficient paper trail to enable a grand jury to move forward on the case.

Similarly, Cain’s accusers are being told by his newly-hired attorney Lin Wood to “think twice” about bringing accusations of wrongdoing. Yet the paper trail is limited, there were no legal proceedings but simply in-house investigations, and there will likely never be physical proof to back up their claims.

Responding to Wood’s “think twice” admonishment, Karen Kraushaar’s attorney Joel Bennett told reporters, “Statements of that nature could intimidate or discourage women from reporting sexual harassment.”

Joe Paterno and Penn State may be to child sexual abuse and molestation what Anita Hill is to sexual harassment — a watershed moment that increases awareness of a long-neglected issue. But while we may move forward in the reporting of child sexual abuse with this one incident, it’s going to take a lot more Anita Hills, Sharon Bialeks, Karen Kraushaars and other as-yet unnamed women sacrificing themselves to the cause of ending sexual harassment to move us substantially forward.

Twenty years ago I bounced a newborn daughter on my lap as I watched the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill events unfold. Last month that baby girl called me up from college to tell me about her own recent experience with workplace sexual harassment. Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. The question is, should our children be the victims of our own failure to progress?

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