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Protecting Male Privilege: The Penn State scandal & media coverage

November 21, 2011

Considering how much media attention has been given to the Penn State sexual assault case, one would be hard pressed to say they didn’t know anything about this.

However, the amount of news coverage surrounding this story is a double-edged sword. In one sense the amount of coverage provides an opportunity for greater public awareness and dialogue around sexual assault. On the other hand, the quality of coverage has been fairly weak and in some cases misleading.

According to the Project for Excellence in Journalism, the Penn State sex abuse scandal was one of the two stories that dominated national news coverage the week of Nov. 7 – 13. The other story dealt with sexual harassment charges from several women directed at Presidential candidate Herman Cain. The major difference in the coverage was the fact that the women who charged Cain with sexual harassment were not taken as seriously as the victims in the Penn State sexual assault cases.

Another major difference in these two stories is that in the Penn State case there were numerous high officials on campus that knew of the abuse that was taking place, yet remained silent. It should be stated that those who remained silent were men, which forces us to come to terms with the fact that this was not just about crimes committed, as awful as they are, it is also about how male privilege is protected.

Over the weekend, there was an interesting article on Counter Punch, where the writer is comparing the child sex abuse history of the Catholic Church to that of Penn State. The writer makes the point that in both institutions there was knowledge of the abuses for years, yet the official position was to do nothing. However, the article falls short on one major point, in that they fail to name male privilege as the institutional problem.

This gets us back to the issue of how much coverage there has been of the Penn State sex abuse scandal. Even sports writers have been forced to give some attention to the issue, like the leading online sports entity ESPN, which has reported repeatedly on this issue. However, the coverage has been limited in the area of what happened and why, with more coverage being devoted to what this means to the legacy of Penn State coach Joe Paterno.

Few sports writers have actually asked the hard questions and shed light on the ugly reality of male privilege within institutions like Penn State. Left sports writer Dave Zirin is one of those who has challenged male privilege and called out what really happened.

In a recent column Zirin points out that the child sex abuses cases are not the only examples of protecting male privilege at Penn State:

The signs of this malignancy did not emerge overnight. Looking backward, there are moments that speak of the scandals to come. In 2003, less than one year after Paterno was told that Sandusky was raping children, he allowed a player accused of rape to suit up and play in a bowl game. Widespread criticism of this move was ignored. In 2006, Penn State’s Orange Bowl opponent Florida State, sent home linebacker A.J. Nicholson, after accusations of sexual assault. Paterno’s response, in light of recent events, is jaw-dropping. He said, “There’s so many people gravitating to these kids. He may not have even known what he was getting into, Nicholson. They knock on the door; somebody may knock on the door; a cute girl knocks on the door. What do you do? Geez. I hope — thank God they don’t knock on my door because I’d refer them to a couple of other rooms.”

At Penn State there is both a student and community effort to protect Paterno and his coaching legacy, but there are also people who are challenging the institutionalized male privilege. If we want to avoid future sexual assault cases like the ones at Penn State, then we have a to talk about how pervasive male privilege is in this society and we have to confront institutionalized male privilege in all its manifestations. If we don’t, then we are ultimately complicit in these crimes.


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