Two issues of sexuality have received a great deal of prominence in the media in the last weeks-the Penn State child sex abuse grand jury indictment and former charges of sexual harassment aimed at the Republican front runner Herman Cain. The accused behaviors are not comparable but they focus our attention on issues of sexuality and how they are covered in the media. I am always surprised by the level of suspicion which is focused on those who make charges of sexual misconduct. We look at people and can’t conceive that they would behave in these inappropriate ways and yet, uncomfortably, we realize that the behavior does occur. Large scale anonymous surveys conducted give statistics of up to 25% of women and 15% of men were sexually violated as children. Even anonymously men are less likely to come forward so I suspect the numbers may be even higher. Statistics on sexual harassment are even harder to come by although about 15,000 complaints are filed to federal authorities each year. Many more complaints are never revealed as retaliation and public humiliation are frequently the result. Most people report trying to change jobs as quickly as possible rather than taking legal action against sexual harassment. Sexual misbehavior occurs often BECAUSE it is so easy to hide and enormously difficult to prove. There are rarely any witnesses.
It is often easier for us to believe that the accusers have insidious motives (publicity, money, revenge,attention) rather than accept that people we view favorably have behaved in unconscionable ways. We were more comfortable thinking that sexual predators were bogeymen, the lowest rungs of society preying on innocent children. Now we know that they can be our doctor, our clergy, often a relative-older siblings, uncles, step-fathers our ability to ignore and deny the problem becomes more difficult. Sexual abuse didn’t become widely recognized or publicized until the 70’s as part of the women’s movement. Before those social upheavals there was no concept of domestic violence (“a man’s home is his castle”), stalking, workplace sexual harassment, marital rape. Those things always occurred. I have heard about them over a 35 year career as a psychologist from women in their 70’s, older men, people of all ages. Yet before survivors were willing to come forward and face public rejection and scorn, we didn’t talk about these things and certainly laws did not exist to protect victims.
Laws are not sufficient to protect people because, as mentioned at the beginning, proof is very difficult. Concrete evidence is often lacking due to the very nature of the crimes. These behaviors don’t occur with witnesses and the victims whether children or lower level employees in the work environment are always people with less power. Public awareness, recognition and acceptance is critical. Many sexual predators have multiple victims so that when several people come out with similar complaints and without any connection to each other their testimony carries more weight. The scandals within the Catholic church made it more likely that male survivors of child sexual abuse will come forward. Crimes against men and boys have been even more deeply closeted due to the greater shame experienced by men due to homophobia. To admit you were a male victim of sexual harassment or abuse is to admit being powerless, a harder behavior for men in a society that is reluctant to accept signs of male “weakness”.
I suggest that our anxiety and conflict about these crimes can lead us to blame the victim. It is easier to accept a publicity seeking woman or man than to face the reality that sexual crimes can be committed by those we hold in high esteem.