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At Penn State, ‘Abuse’ Is Not Synonymous With ‘Disappointed’


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The NCAA announced its sanctions against Penn State’s football program last month, in the wake of an investigative report led by former FBI director Louis Freeh that brought new information to light regarding the extent to which senior administrators and Coach Joe Paterno were involved in covering up child abuse perpetrated by former Assistant Coach Jerry Sandusky.  These sanctions include a four-year ban from post-season bowl games, reduced football scholarships, a $60 million fine, and the erasure of Joe Paterno’s wins between 1998-2011 from the official record book.

To counter what they see as an unfair and destructive characterization of the Penn State community, students and alumni have referred to themselves as victims to talk about how upset they are about the sanctions. The trend of students and community members adopting the language of abuse to complain about NCAA actions – which, essentially, sentence Penn State to having a bad football team for the next five or six years, rather than shutting the program down entirely – is troubling on a number of levels.

Community members argue that some dictionary definitions of abuse – to injure, harm, or treat offensively – can be applied to what’s been done to the Penn State football team. From some perspectives that might be true, but using dictionary definitions in conversations about abuse and victimization comes with its own host of problems. Dictionary definitions rarely account for power dynamics and the existence of structural violence – and arguing that the word “abuse” carries no more meaning or weight than “to harm” ignores the severity of the power imbalance between a well-respected and adult assistant coach and the young, “at-risk” boy he is abusing – as well as the unique psychological trauma endured by survivors of sexual violence when this power imbalance is used to deny them credibility.

Adopting this language fails to take into account that this power imbalance means that the average victim/survivor has to tell an average of nine adults in their community before they are believed. It erases the regional and economic power dynamics that led law enforcement officials to dismiss Matt Sandusky’s biological mother when she told them in 1994 that she had reason to believe her son was being raped by his foster father.

Penn State was one of the institutions that gave Jerry Sandusky the enormous authority and power he had in this community, power that set the boys he abused and their families at a severe disadvantage when they tried to speak out. And falling back on simplistic definitions side-steps the fact that we all know what the word abuse means, and we know it carries more weight than can be found in a dictionary.

“No student is a victim here just because they can't deal with hearing their school being spoken of in unflattering terms,” says Matt Bodenschatz, a child abuse survivor, advocate, and Penn State student who founded Voices for Victims as a way for community members to express their support to Sandusky’s victims.  “The victims here were raped and molested, sometimes on this very ground.  To use the word "victim" as an equalizing term, as though the burden is shared equally across the board here, as though the words "disappointed" or "inconvenienced" are synonymous with the words "assaulted" or "victimized," is sincerely offensive and needs to be called out.”

For Bodenschatz, language isn’t the root of the problem, but one more sign of a lack of understanding and respect on the part of the Penn State community. “It's a reality that has simply always existed since day one of this tragedy.  The language factor is just one of the newest-evolving tools in the arsenal of denial,” he says.

One of the things language does is point to one of the underlying issues at Penn State – the insistence on foregrounding Penn State itself in attempts to move forward. By placing the attention on what Penn State can do to restore its image or give students reason for school pride, most initiatives have missed the point by miles. In an interview with the Town & Gown in June, Penn State President Rodney Erickson pointed out that this was a time for humility rather than pride, a sentiment that has been seemingly absent from the campus at large. “This remains to be a hostile campus for the victim/survivor community, because the emphasis, despite cosmetic protestations otherwise ("Blue Outs," vigils, etc.,) is constantly on restoring Penn State's image, is all about desperate efforts to recapture blue and white pride, as if the loss of that is the truly lamentable tragedy here,” says Bodenschatz.

Many initiatives, despite their intention to create positive change in how the Penn State community reacts to child abuse have opted for vague, feel-good language about being kind to one’s neighbors, language which runs the risk of distracting from the real issues. One such organization, OneHeart, suggests the following solutions to the crisis at Penn State – “smile at a person on the street” and “call a long-lost friend.” But this doesn't recognize that many of the survivors in their midst are people who need more than a friendly smile – they need to have the culture that covered up and trivialized abuse addressed, Bodenschatz points out.

“If you look at what amounts to the goal, or the mission statement, the barometer that OneHeart (and, subsequently, the student body) wants to use as a measure of their success…. It doesn't say, 'Together we will do whatever is necessary to create a safe environment for the survivors in our midst'….nor anything even remotely like that.  No, it says, 'Together we will show the world what Penn State truly represents.' So, success doesn’t have anything to do with saving lives or comforting the afflicted, nor with humility and quiet, long-term commitment to caring for those who suffer around us.  No, it's a Penn State pride metric,” says Bodenschatz. And it’s pride that’s being heard loud and clear on the Penn State campus, where despite efforts by some administrators and students to spark cultural change, many still insist that the football program – and the university as a whole – can do no wrong. 

Since November, students have tweeted under the hashtag #westillare, expressing their continued commitment to Penn State pride. One of the problems with focusing on reasons to be proud is that it frames what happened at Penn State as an isolated event, as well as something that happened in the past, rather than something which continues to be replicated and perpetuated through a culture which just doesn’t think Joe Paterno covering up child abuse was noteworthy enough to merit the removal of his statue. It’s a culture which continues to valorize pride rather than examining the ways in which that pride acted as a smokescreen that delayed justice for years, and now delays cultural change. Foregrounding pride also lends unwarranted legitimacy to people’s frustrations with negative media coverage of Penn State – it gives members of the Penn State community the excuse to treat criticisms of their culture as a form of assault, rather than considering the ways in which a culture of pride was complicit in covering up the real assaults that occurred there.

Roxine Behrens, a survivor and advocate, covered the Sandusky case for Daily Kos. She’s also the co-founder of Tree Climbers, Inc., a charity organization dedicated to preventing child abuse and providing a safe space for survivors. In one statement, she runs through the various arguments that can be made to cast different people in the role of victims, arriving at the conclusion that all of us are made victims by this tragedy – though maybe in a different way than some think. She writes, “That’s the insidiousness of child sexual abuse – no one gets away unscathed.  It rips apart families, makes people take sides, forces people to face unspeakable truths.  It puts us in the uncomfortable position of questioning ourselves – what did we miss?  How could we miss the signs?  Should we have known? Why didn’t we know? It changes the landscape of everything that we knew, leaving behind a devastation seemingly unrecoverable."

Questioning ourselves and the role we played as a community in failing to see the warning signs is an undeniably fraught and emotionally complicated process, but it’s a necessary one. It’s also one that will most likely be effective if it’s undertaken with a sincere and humble commitment to making Penn State and State College a safer space for victims and survivors of abuse, rather than an interest in giving Penn State better PR in the eyes of the nation.

To use “abuse” as a word which can be simplified to mean “harm” or “unfair treatment” alone, without recognizing the gravity of the word, disregards – and disrespects – the fact that child abuse victims are over six times more likely to commit suicide, at an increased risk for experiencing PTSD, anxiety, and depression, and likely to be re-victimized in the media or in their communities by stigma and lack of understanding about sexual abuse. In that context, we need to develop a new and survivor-centric framework for reporting on child abuse and reacting to it when it occurs in our communities. And that begins with holding ourselves accountable for the language we use and for whatever we may have said or done, intentional or not, to trigger the survivors in our communities and make these discussions inaccessible and unsafe for them to engage in.

This is a crisis which has changed the landscape of our community, and that’s something which many people are emotionally invested in for many different reasons – but it’s worth bearing in mind that it’s been eighteen years since Matt Sandusky’s biological mother tried to bring attention to Jerry Sandusky’s crimes. This is not a recent change, and for the countless other survivors of abuse in our community, the knowledge that abuse happens and is covered up in Happy Valley is nothing new.

Examining this landscape with the aim of restoring a “truer picture” of State College ignores the tragic reality that child abuse is a part of all landscapes. Any argument that casts State College as an otherwise perfect place which was unlucky enough to gain national attention for an isolated crime is concerned with optics instead of substantive change – and disrespectful optics at that. In the wake of Jerry Sandusky’s crimes, what’s needed is a quiet and respectful commitment to the long-term project of making our communities safer for children and child abuse victims, not more posters in blue and white.

Pauline Holdsworth is a reporter for Campus Progress. Follow her on Twitter at @holdswo.

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