Penn State and Violence Against Men





12-5-11

Jim Loewen is an HNN blogger, a sociologist, and historian. He is the author of "Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong", "Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism", and "Teaching What Really Happened: How To Avoid the Tyranny of Textbooks and Get Students Excited About Doing History," among other books.

The Penn State scandal brought forth a thoughtful commentary by Daniel Mendelsohn, Charles Ranlett Flint Professor of Humanities at Bard College.  Mendelsohn begins his recent New York Times op-ed, “What if it had been a 10-year-old girl in the Penn State locker room that Friday night in 2002?”

He concludes that then Mike McQueary, the graduate assistant to the football team, would surely have intervened or at least called the police.  "But the victim in this case was a boy," Mendelsohn notes.  He goes on to speculate that the university, too, would have taken the crime more seriously, had the victim been female.

Even though we cannot know for sure without at least interviewing McQueary and Joe Paterno, Graham Spanier, and other Penn State officials, surely Mendelsohn is right.  As he puts it,

Does anyone believe that if a burly graduate student had walked in on a 58-year-old man raping a naked little girl in the shower, he would have left without calling the police and without trying to rescue the girl?

However, Mendelsohn mistakes the source of this inequity.  He locates it in the shame associated with homosexuality.  Since the rape was male on male, he opines, the victims were “somehow untouchable, so fully tainted they couldn't, or shouldn't, be rescued.”  He notes that athletics is “the last redoubt of unapologetic anti-gay sentiment.”  Of course, he has overlooked many other redoubts, such as religious organizations from Muslims and Orthodox Jews through Mormons and Southern Baptists.  But this is a quibble:  male athletics is an anti-gay redoubt, if hardly the last one.  Mendelsohn goes on to speculate that somehow this anti-gay sentiment prompted denial, converting anal penetration into mere "horsing around," in the now-notorious words of Penn State's athletic director. 
Such reasoning falls short.  Of course, loyalty to a coach, to a friend, can prompt police avoidance, regardless of the sex of the victim.  However, to claim that prejudice against homosexuality promotes winking at homosexual behavior is not logical.

Besides, there's a simpler explanation.  Our society does not take violence against males as seriously as violence against females.

Look at what happens in domestic abuse cases.  Research shows that, although women are more likely to be killed, men are the victims of domestic violence about half the time.  (See, inter alia, Straus and Gelles, The National Family Violence Survey, Philip W. Cook's Abused Men, and copious studies by David Finklehor.)  Yet most cities provide many shelters for abused women and none for abused men.  The federal government passed a “Violence Against Women Act” but no “Violence Against Men Act.”  Imagine a federal law designed to protect white victims of criminal acts while ignoring black victims!

Outside the family, the pattern continues:  in the workplace, men are more than a dozen times more likely than women to be killed.  To be sure, men also commit more than their share of workplace murders, but 90 percent of deaths on the job are accidental, not purposeful, and women's jobs are statistically much safer than men's.  Even God seems to have it in for men:  lightning strikes males seven times as often as females. 

Lightning, of course, is random, but men are much more likely to be working outside in inclement weather.  They are “supposed to”—terms like “telephone lineman” convey this expectation.  Men are also more likely to be playing outside in bad weather.  It's “not manly” to give up football or even golf just ‘cause of a little thunderstorm.  It’s also not manly to seek shelter from domestic violence.

For that matter, it's not manly to see a doctor for “just a little ache or pain.”  So it happens that women make 70 percent of all visits to doctors while men die five years earlier than women.  This difference is slightly greater than the difference race makes.  Like the racial difference, the male/female difference in lifespan largely derives from our culture, not our genes.  It has changed over time; a century ago, men lived longer than women.  Yet the discipline of sociology, which has taught us that most gender differences stem more from social causes than biological, has mainly ignored perhaps the most basic gender difference of all:  in length of life itself. 

Mendelsohn's piece about Penn State, reinterpreted, prompts us to notice what we otherwise take for granted:  folkways and mores embedded in our culture that make it all right in many families to hit boys, but not girls.  All right to require young men to register for military service, but not young women.  All right to execute male murderers while female murderers get prison terms.  If the Penn State scandal helps us take violence against males more seriously than before, perhaps that is the one good thing that can come of it.


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