Putting the Spotlight on All Forms of Abuse

By Jacquelyn W. White
December 5, 2011

The glare of the Penn State scandal has placed a much needed focus on child sexual abuse. And it has left me sad and angry. I am sad and grieve for the victims. We know all too well the scars that sexual abuse can leave, especially in those cases where the abuse has been silenced (whether because of shame, fear of being believed or threats and intimidation by the perpetrator) and victims have no opportunity to get help to heal. I am angry because unfortunately, this case is the tip of the iceberg, as the recent accusations against Bernie Fine at Syracuse University suggest. I wonder: How many other supposedly esteemed institutions are covering up acts of child sexual abuse? We know that tens of thousands of children are sexually abused each year in the U.S. These abuses remain hidden from public scrutiny—because these abuses typically occur in the home and because they very frequently involve girls rather than boys. It is so much easier to ignore what goes on behind the closed doors of the home and so much easier to blame the girl victim than the boy victim.

But this scandal is an opportunity to discuss all forms of abuse—their gendered nature, and often, the systemic practices that support them. As a timely example of systemic support and gendered violence consider a study that is about to be published in the Journal of Sports and Social Issues, entitled “The Role of High School Coaches in Helping Prevent Adolescent Sexual Aggression: Part of the Solution or Part of the Problem?” This study was conducted by a former student of mine, Amy E. Lyndon, now an assistant professor of psychology at East Carolina University, and two other colleagues at UNCG, Donna M. Duffy, Paige Hall Smith. In this qualitative study, we examined whether male high school coaches could effectively serve as advocates or educators for male-focused programs to prevent sexual aggression. Based on open-ended key informant individual and focus group interviews with high school coaches and administrators, we found several consistent themes, including endorsement of rape myths and minimization of the problem of sexual aggression. Furthermore, the coaches were resistant to the idea of their being engaged in sexual aggression prevention. We concluded that high school coaches are part of the problem because they may be transmitting values and beliefs that support and condone sexual aggression. We concluded, “…high school athletics may be one social structure in which these norms are learned and possibly even conveyed to athletes by the coaches themselves.” Such behaviors and attitudes are likely at the collegiate as well as high school level.

As feminists and as we consider the gendered implications of the issues of abuse that the Penn State scandal is highlighting, we must acknowledge the interconnectedness of all forms of violence—bullying, teen dating violence and sexual assault, domestic violence, elder abuse, and human trafficking. Now is the time for action. We have the opportunity to come together as a community to demand that the abuse of even one person is one too many. If you want to join in a national movement to demand an end to abuse, please join the campaign that the National Partnership to End Abuse across the Lifespan and Stop Abuse are launching.

We call on all adults, from all walks of life, including policy-makers, those in the criminal justice and legal systems, educators, service providers and advocates, to join in an unprecedented partnership to do all we can to prevent abuse, to never tolerate it when it does occur, and to break the cycle of violence that shatters individual lives, family, and communities.  We can use the revelation of unconscionable events of child sexual abuse and their cover-up as a rallying call to strengthen policies that ensure the safety of children by putting into place stronger legislation governing the reporting and adjudication of child abuse, providing more support for intervention programs for victims and families, increasing the number of training programs for all who can help end abuse through their various roles, including parents, and funding the research which will guide us to best practices. The time has never been more urgent.

Jackie White is a past president of SPW and expert on violence against women and children. She is professor of psychology and associate dean in the College of Arts & Sciences at University of North Carolina-Greensboro.