At least one positive development has emerged from the Penn State sexual abuse scandal. In news and commentary about that tragic case, the victims are actually being referred to as "victims." While it's easy to find references to "Jerry Sandusky's accusers," it is perhaps equally as likely to read and hear about "Sandusky's victims."
This marks a significant break with journalistic convention in several high-profile alleged sex crime spectacles in recent years, such as the ones involving Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, former International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, or the current sexual harassment scandal surrounding Republican presidential primary candidate Herman Cain.
In each of these (in)famous cases the alleged victims of powerful men were labeled almost exclusively as "accusers." According to sexual assault victim advocates, the Kobe Bryant rape trial in 2004 was a pivotal moment in this emergent journalistic practice. From that point on, media accounts of sex crime reports and prosecutions began referring to alleged victims as accusers, and their behavior and motives have come increasingly under the glare of media scrutiny and public skepticism. The alleged victims of Roethlisberger, Strauss-Kahn, Cain and many others have been pilloried on TV and in the blogosphere. Unlike in the Penn State case, where the alleged victims are presumed to be telling the truth, in these other cases doubts about the honesty and integrity of the "accusers" became central to the story.
Of course there are critical differences between the Penn State situation and these other events. The chief one is that in the State College tragedy, Jerry Sandusky's victims were boys at the time of the alleged abuse, so there can be no ambiguity about the notion of "consenting adults." By contrast, the aforementioned scandals all involved adult women as the complaining witnesses. This difference in the social position and gender of the victims is largely responsible for the qualitative difference in the tone and tenor of media coverage and commentary about the Penn State case.
For one thing, few people are willing to publicly defend the alleged perpetrator's character in the face of these appalling charges. In previous high-profile sexual violence cases that involved adult men as alleged perps and women as their victims -- perhaps most poignant among them the recent case involving DSK and an African immigrant hotel maid in New York City -- friends and associates of the accused man have been quick to declare that the man they know is incapable of acting in the way he was alleged to have acted. This implicitly -- and explicitly -- casts aspersions on the credibility of the alleged victim. If he is incapable of it, she must be making it up. And so in the court of public opinion if not in the actual courtroom, she's the one who is put on trial. It is important to note that these testimonials of confidence in the alleged perpetrator are typically offered even in the face of criminal indictments that were brought on the basis of specific and credible evidence of a crime.
Another key difference between the Penn State case and previous ones is that at Penn State there were eyewitness accounts that a crime occurred. Most sexual abuse takes place in private, without witnesses. But in the case of Sandusky's alleged crimes, at least two men reported that they observed the prominent football coach sexually assaulting young boys on school property. This precluded predictable dismissals from people blindly supporting the perpetrator that this was another "he said-she said" (or "he said-he said") case, where it's impossible to know the truth -- and where as a result there can never be any accountability.
But in spite of these important differences, it is surely worth noting that the gender of the Penn State victims has affected the way the story has been framed in media and the court of public opinion. As this case makes clear, boys as well as girls are too often the victims of sexually predatory men (and sometimes women) who exploit their vulnerability, violate their trust, and shatter their innocence. Like girls who have been sexually abused, boys and men can and do sometimes suffer lifelong negative consequences. They are at increased risk of suffering from depression, developing eating disorders, alcohol and other drug addictions, and a range of other problems. In addition to the shame of being violated that causes pain in victims of both sexes, boys also have to struggle with the added shame of not having been "man enough" to protect themselves.
But generally speaking boys do not have to contend -- as do girls -- with the sexist presumption that their sex somehow causes them to entice or invite men to sexually abuse them. To be sure, many boys who are sexually abused by men do indeed struggle with issues of sexual identity. But in public discourse, boys/men who are victimized are less likely than girls to face criticism for bringing it on themselves. Our cultural landscape is littered with examples where young girls -- not women -- have been blamed for men's sexual violence against them. One notable example of this phenomenon: the case in Cleveland, Texas in early 2011 where an 11-year-old girl was brutally gang-raped by a group of young men and boys and community members, defending the boys, explained that she had "dressed provocatively."
In a blog entry entitled The Penn State Scandal: Connect the Dots Between Child Abuse and the Sexual Assault of Women on Campus, Claire Potter, professor of history and American studies at Wesleyan University, argued that:
"As you absorb the news about the key people at Penn State who ought to have reported what they knew of Coach Jerry Sandusky's alleged assaults on little boys, please keep one thing in mind. Penn State's cover-up is embedded in the interest it, and all universities, have in keeping many forms of sexual violence and sexual harassment a private, internal matter. The mistake Penn State made was, in many ways, a simple category error: they mistook these pubescent boys for women. They forgot that children occupy a very different status in the law than do the female students, faculty and staff who are most frequently the object of unwanted sexual attention and/or violence... Since most people don't believe that ten-year-olds want to be anally penetrated by grown men, once there is credible evidence that the sex happened, people tend not to spin alternative scenarios about little boys like: 'look what he was wearing;' 'he's probably just mad that Coach Sandusky wouldn't hook up with him;' 'he was drunk;' or 'it was just bad sex and he's trying to get back at Coach.'"
In other words, the cynicism and deep mistrust of women that is woven into the DNA of patriarchal cultures is not a big factor in a case where a powerful adult man was alleged to have sexually assaulted vulnerable boys.
One of the ways this sexist cynicism is operationalized linguistically is in the journalistic convention of referring to female victims as "accusers." Male victims are sometimes tagged with that label as well. There were many "accusers" in the Catholic Church sexual abuse scandal, or in the Georgia sexual abuse scandal involving the popular Baptist Minister Bishop Eddie Long. But in sheer numbers the references to women as "accusers" clearly predominates.
This language usage plays a powerful ideological function. Consider: the public is inclined to sympathize -- even empathize -- with female and male victims of rape, or prior to a finding of guilt of the accused/defendant, "alleged victims." Unless our psyches have been hopelessly distorted by misogyny or desensitization we not only feel badly about what has happened to them; we identify with them. Victim-blaming often distorts this sympathetic identification, but the sentiment derives in part from an understanding that "the victim could just as easily have been someone I love -- or me."
Referring to the victim as the "accuser" reverses this process. She is no longer the victim of his (alleged) attack. She is the one doing something -- to him. She is accusing him. In other words, she is now the perpetrator of an accusation against him. At the same time, he is transformed from the alleged perpetrator of sexual assault to the actual victim of her accusation. The public is thus positioned to identify sympathetically with him -- to feel sorry for him - as the true victim.
Every time a well-meaning journalist or commentator refers to sexual assault victims as "accusers" they contribute to this dynamic. They tilt the scales of justice away from victims and toward alleged perpetrators. The presumption of innocence for accused men -- and women -- is a critical feature of our judicial system. It represents a basic commitment to equal justice and fairness that is well worth fighting to preserve.
But this presumption of innocence for defendants in the court of public opinion -- if not always in the formal legal system -- should not come at the expense of the rights of victims. In media coverage of these cases it should be possible to respect both the presumption of innocence for the accused and the integrity of victims. This is a standard to which we should hold ourselves -- as well as the media we consume and help to sustain.
Finally, the sad events unfolding at Penn State demonstrate clearly that the tide is turning. The voices of sexual abuse victims -- girls and boys, women and men -- are breaking through the walls of silence that powerful men have built to advance their interests and protect their privilege. Look at the institutions that have been rocked to their core in just the past decade. The Catholic Church. The U.S. military. And now Joe Paterno and Penn State football.
The redemptive potential of these sad scandals is that because they are so high-profile, they have provided an opening for men to talk about their experiences of sexual violence, a subject long shrouded in secrecy and shame. They have also created an opportunity for powerful, male-dominated institutions finally to live up to their stated values. Maybe then, when the dust of the current debacle settles, the Nittany Lions of Penn State and their legions of fans will be able to say with integrity that they truly aspire to "success with honor."