How Can We Support Sex Abuse Victims? A SOC 119 Perspective

November 30, 2011 at 12:45 pm 5 comments

Early in the second class he devoted to the Sandusky scandal and its aftermath, Sam Richards asked his SOC 119 students to react to this statement: I am feeling exhausted talking about this issue.

This was Nov. 15, only 12 days after the grand jury presentation was released. Less than a week after Joe Paterno had been fired and Graham Spanier had resigned, and nine days since the national media began to arrive on campus. Almost all of the 700 students, voting anonymously with clickers, chose “strongly agree” or “agree.” Imagine what the percentage would be now, with the TV trucks no longer parked on College Avenue and the football team’s regular season over.

Richards then asked students to pair off and kick around solutions to this question: What would it mean to support the victims of sexual assault and sexual abuse? The most common answers: donating money to organizations that support victims, and listening to anyone who wanted to talk about a similar experience.

And then Richards tied the two questions together: “What would it mean to support the victims? No. 1, it would probably not mean being tired of talking about it. After nine days. What is that? We have done a whole semester on race, and we’re not really tired of talking about race, but we’re tired talking about this issue after nine days.”

The way Richards sees it, the problem is that our society doesn’t have the “tools” to talk about the issue of child sexual abuse. “How often—compared to race, compared to gender, compared to issues related to homosexuality—do you have conversations about sexual assault? The difficult conversations. About incest. Adult-child unwanted sexual behavior. Adults having sex with children. How often do you put it out there?”

Not often, of course. But Richards and his wife, fellow sociologist Laurie Mulvey ’94g, spent the next hour putting the issue—and all of its messy corollaries—up front and center in their Race and Ethnic Relations class. It was an intense, provocative lesson; as I mentioned previously, I wasn’t ready to write about it right away. And it isn’t as though they could wrap up by providing a 10-point plan to fix the problem; Richards and Mulvey used the time to raise questions and force everyone in the room to examine their preconceptions. As usual.

First, Richards talked about the numbers. The statistics shocked me: Between 5 and 30 percent of boys, and 17 and 50 percent of girls, have been subjected to unwanted sexual contact with an adult. Richards made the numbers more visceral.

“If the data are true—and I believe they are true—what we are talking about is this front section,” he said. Then he gestured at the front, center section in 100 Thomas. A lot of students were sitting there. And that, he said, is how many people in the classroom had endured such an experience.

Dead silence.

“Feel the silence here,” Richards said. “We don’t know what to say. We say it’s horrifying. So it’s horrifying. So what? Now what? It’s horrifying. How’s that support the victims of sexual abuse?”

Several students in the class, Richards said, had emailed him and offered to share their stories. Richards declined. “Because that doesn’t move us forward. The recognition that there is a silencing in this that naturally happens is what moves us forward.”

Why the silence? Richards pushed on, asking with whom victims had likely had unwanted sexual contact. “Strangers, or family members? People you know, or people you have no idea? Your next-door neighbor? Your father’s best friend? Your mother’s best friend? Your brother? Your cousin? It’s very unlikely to be a stranger. It’s someone you know, someone you looked up to. It just leads to a silence. Because if you speak out, something is going to fall. Something in your lives is going to break apart.”

As if that weren’t enough to think about, Richards plowed on. “I’m going to take a big risk here,” he said, “and that’s why you need to listen to exactly what it is that I’m saying.” And then Richards turned the focus to the perpetrators.

Do the adults who want to have sexual contact with children think they are doing something immoral, he asked. The class wasn’t sure. Richards said most do.

“Now, some people are animals. Some people are predators. And what we know in the research is that they’re never going to stop. But what we also know is that this stuff happens on a continuum. Most people who victimize young people, they start with a fantasy. That idea stays in their head, and do they tell someone about it? No.

“If you went to a therapist and said, ‘It’s really weird, but I’m having these bizarre fantasies of my 7-year-old next-door neighbor. He’s a young boy, and I don’t know what to do about that,’ what would happen?”

The students hoped the person would get help. But too often, Richards said, nothing happens. Much of society doesn’t think such a person deserves help, or thinks such a person is beyond help. Society’s solutions—borne out by students’ response to a couple of clicker questions—are generally to jail, monitor, or kill. That view, he said, is part of the problem. What if, he asked, society decided that the people who have these thoughts should be not jailed, but counseled?

“This takes the courage to change and shift the way we’re thinking,” he said. “The vast, vast majority of people who commit these crimes, it starts with a very innocent thought. And that innocent thought turns to another innocent thought, and if it’s not addressed it turns to another thought, and maybe it turns into an action of some sort, and then maybe another action.

“A society that takes this seriously would take a risk. Denouncing people, waiting until they do something and acting on the basis of a crisis, is not going to make it go away. What’s going to make it go away is to find the people who have the initial thoughts, and put those thoughts out into the room and deal with it at that point. Not wait until they become predators. But we don’t do that.”

Richards pushed the idea really far. He suggested that sitting in the classroom, right then, were people who fantasize about having sex with 10-year-old boys, and that they weren’t animals—they were Penn State students, who needed help. The students got restless, and I understood why. It’s so uncomfortable to think about. It’s so much to process. And these aren’t the issues—not at all—that anyone is talking about.

Then Richards brought it back to where he and Mulvey had started: the victims. Could acknowledging the perpetrators—counseling the potential perpetrators—be a form of support for victims? What would happen, he wondered, if they saw that society was making that kind of effort to move forward? “You’d feel, I could start to tell my story. That matters—as opposed to the silencing. But what happens [instead] is, ‘We’re going to do something for the victims.’ What? Not talk about it some more? No, talk about what’s really going on with all of us.”

Since the class, I’ve noticed more stories about child sex abuse than ever before. There’s the Bernie Fine situation at Syracuse. A similar case at The Citadel. A brief in the local paper about a child pornography ring. An entire Dear Abby column in response to a letter about a girl who was uncomfortable with how her father was touching her. This story about a sports radio host doing a program about how he was sexually abused, which showed up in my Twitter feed while I was writing this piece. Skimming Slate magazine between revisions, I read this question to its advice columnist.

It’s made me think back to the way Mulvey opened the class. She framed Richards’ lecture like this:

From the victims’ perspective: “One of the things that is so necessary, and why it takes so long, often, for victims to speak, is because they have to take the risk of being misunderstood,” she said. “Over and over again, people tell their stories of being victimized in different ways and are not understood.”

And for the rest of us: “What is it for you? It’s willing to be transformed by what you hear. If you go through life and you learn the stories of people around you, they’ll change you. And a lot of us don’t like to change. And I think the danger of us right now at Penn State is to have this moment where we’re saying, ‘We’re not them. We’re not those people responsible. We’re Penn State.’ Hmmm. There’s a danger in that. How are we a part of this?”

I don’t know yet, not fully. But I am listening.

Lori Shontz, senior editor

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5 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Cathy  |  November 30, 2011 at 3:04 pm

    Great article Lori. I wish I had been in that class. Your writing made me feel as if I were.

  • 2. Beth  |  November 30, 2011 at 6:08 pm


  • 3. Anonymous  |  December 1, 2011 at 11:34 am

    Wow. Powerful article and the information is so very important. This can generate real impact and wouldn’t it be healing for Penn State to take the lead in bringing it to the forefront.

  • […] Richards and Laurie Mulvey ’94g, sociology faculty (and husband and wife) who have addressed the scandal repeatedly in class—noted how difficult it is to have a conversation with so many people. (About 450 […]

  • […] to Sam’s SOC 119 class on Nov. 10, when he tweeted that he’d be talking about the scandal, then showing up invited a few times, then reporting on a story about World in Conversation for an upcoming issue of the […]

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