Once again, America is being entertained by a series of sex scandals. One involves the erstwhile corporate showman and Republican presidential candidate, Herman Cain, and the other is engulfing Penn State’s football-team coaching staff and top university administrators.
The Cain scandal is two-fold: (i) the acts apparently committed on at least four women (the reported “evidence” seems convincing) and (ii) Cain’s confusing attempts to deny what took place that seem to only dig him deeper into the proverbial hole.
The Penn State scandal is also two-fold: (i) the pedophile acts attributed to Jerry Sandusky, a retired assistant football coach, to at least eight of boys (the reported “evidence” seems convincing), and (ii) the university’s attempt to contain the scandal by covering up evidence against the perpetrator that seems to only dig those involved deeper into the proverbial hole.
The final outcomes of both cases are still to be determined. Stay tuned.
The two episodes are fundamentally different in terms of the sex issues involved, harassment and rape. Nevertheless, the two episodes share a common attempt to deny, hide or minimize the likely consequences of the alleged actions involved. And neither involved seems to be getting away with their respective cover-ups.
Equally critical, both episodes point to deeper, more systemic issues of male sexism that all-to-often still continue to go under reported if not excused with a wink-and-a-nod acceptance by those with power and money.
We’ve been here before, many, many times. Was it just last spring that we were being entertained by the sexting scandals involving Congressmen Anthony Weiner and Chris Lee? And didn’t Weiner early on play the same fool’s game of denial until he was finally forced to resign?
And who could forget the fun the media had outing John Edwards, Elliot Spitzer and Tiger Woods? After so many scandals, it’s clear that the cover-up can be more consequential than the act(s) itself.
It’s as if our politicians and athletes (or their coaches) jump headlong into the media spotlight at scheduled intervals. Suffering their 15 minutes of fame, they add some seasoning to the hard-to-eat reality of daily life. Stay tuned as further episodes of sex scandal America play themselves out.
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The Cain and the Penn State scandals are still unraveling; their final outcomes yet to be determined. Most assuredly, they are very different offenses. One involves individuals; the other involves individuals and an institution. One involves adults; the other an adult and children. One involves sexual harassment, with passive coercion and (apparently) no overt violence; Cain seems to have known where to stop. The other involves the raping of minors; Sandusky could not stop himself from the nonconsensual sexual violation of young boys.
As the old proverb implies, unless you live in a cave you probably know a lot about the sexual misadventures of Cain and at Penn State. These two stories have become the leitmotif of daily news headlines. Set against the looming bankruptcies of Greece and Italy (and the possible collapse of the euro), the Obama/Democrats-Tea Party/Republican political duet, the growing Occupy movement, the grinding recession and daily shoot-em-ups that clutter most local news coverage, these sex scandals poke holes in the generally shared belief about “normal” sex in America.
So far, four women have come forward who have apparently suffered sexual harassment at the hands of Herman Cain. At this time, two of the apparent victims, Karen Kraushaar and Sharon Bialek, have been publicly identified. Bialek held a formal press conference at which she laid out a highly detailed account of a very uncomfortable evening with this oh-so helpful executive. Kraushaar has acknowledged receiving a payout from Cain’s-then employer, National Restaurant Association, a trade group. To date, Cain’s reply has been an assertion that he couldn’t remember Ms. Bialek and, in any case, he was a married man who could never do such dastardly deeds.
The Penn State debacle is a crisis playing out in slow motion. The very Catholic governor of Pennsylvania, Tom Corbett, linked the PSU scandal to the pedophilia scandal long engulfing the Catholic Church. Whereas the Mother Church retreated into centuries-old refusal to hide its culpability, Gov. Corbett seems to be making all of this sad story public, transparent; time will tell if he doesn’t reconfigure truth to serve private interests.
The heart of the crisis is the link between the alleged perpetrator, Sandusky, with the university’s power elite who, for more than a decade, sought to cover up the crimes. The cornerstone of this elite is PSU’s version of Rin-Tin-Tin, football coach Joe Paterno. He is a cash cow, the corporatist version of “Greatest Generation” morals, the all-American granddad. The Penn State football team, popularly know as the Nittany Lions, generates about $50 million annual in revenue to a relatively impoverished sector of central PA.
Debate within the media about Paterno’s culpability has focused on whether simply reporting to his supervisors information about an incident of locker-room pedophilia was sufficient. This is the legal question, one clearly answered in the affirmative, as Paterno did his job and, unfortunately, nothing more. [See grand jury report.]
However, the more fundamental question is whether Paterno had a deeper, moral, responsibility with regard to the unfolding scandal? He knew, and was intimately associated, with Sandusky, his wife and children for about 40 years! Sandusky served on the PSU coaching staff for 32 years, retiring at the end of the 1999 season.
The first reported pedophile incident involving Sandusky was made in 1998 after a mother of a young boy raised the issue with the university police, the state’s Department of Public Welfare and the local district attorney’s office. The DA, Ray Gricar, dropped the investigation; Gricar disappeared in 2005 and has not been seen or heard from since.
Sandusky had been in line to replace Paterno as PSU’s head coach but, in the wake of the ’98 investigation, Paterno dropped the dime on him and he was forced to retire. One can only wonder if (and, if not, why) Paterno approached Sandusky as a friend, boss, fellow jock and good Christian and asked him what was happening and if he needed help?
This points to the deeper crisis confronting the PSU leadership. The grand jury report notes that Wendell Courtney, the university’s counsel, had a thorough knowledge of the charges and also served as attorney for Sandusky’s Second Mile charity. So, what did this model citizen do in the face of this (and surely other) incidents involving Sandusky? Does his failure to act, if not his apparent role halting a criminal investigation, constitute grounds for disbarment?
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The modern culture industry effectively obliterates meaning and history from the present. Thus, the sex scandal involving Herman Cain serves the same social function as the latest gossip about Lady Gaga. Such coverage is interchangeable, equally distracting and titillating.
But sex scandals have a history that illuminates not only a peculiar past, but also the formation of an equally unique present. Scandals mark out the boundaries of acceptable conduct, and especially sexual conduct.
Sex scandals have a peculiar social function that has changed since America’s founding four centuries ago. Since the nation’s founding, sex scandals have been morality tales intended to punish and/or shame the perpetrator. They are rituals setting the boundaries of acceptable sexual practice.
Public shaming, especially directed toward political and cultural figures, has been a powerful force used to impose and maintain social control. As evident in the unraveling scandals involving Cain and Sandusky, the scandals point to deeper issues that the media only passingly focuses on.
The Cain scandal, however it plays out for the Republican candidate, raises the deeper specter of sexual harassment widespread in the workplace. Most disturbing is the business-as-usual policies practiced by the National Restaurant Association to pay-off at least two women who brought charges against Cain.
Who knows how many other women Cain harassed and from whom he bought their silence through “legal” pay-offs? And if this is but one case in one industry sector, how many more such deals like this one are struck annually or charges simply not reported throughout the country as part of ongoing business-as-usual?
The Sandusky scandal, however it plays out for Penn State and its football team, raises the deeper specter of sexual crimes (e.g., pedophilia, rape) committed within an institutional setting. One of the most revealing episodes in the sordid story involves the PSU assistant coach Mike McQueary who discovered Sandusky raping a 10-year-old boy in 2002 and, instead of directly attempted to halt the rape or calling the police, he left the football building and reported the incident to his father who had him meet with Paterno the following morning.
This is the trouble with institutional thinking: personal moral judgment is subordinated to the “good” of the institution, be it football team or local power relations. Another example of compromised institutional allegiance is evident in the local judge, Leslie Dutchcot, who imposed an unsecured $100,000 bail on Sandusky; Sandusky didn’t have to post any money and walked out of jail. Oh, by the way, the good judge was a volunteer to Sandusky charity, the Next Mile.
David Rosen is author of Sex Scandal America: Politics & the Ritual of Public Shaming; he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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