Power Is at the Core of Sexual Harassment

No matter their age or gender, teachers, coaches, and supervisors have a potentially crushing influence over their subordinates.

The Penn State scandal, along with accusations against GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain, not only reveals sexual corruption in high places but also illustrates how vulnerable subordinates can often be in school and workplace situations.

Most of us want to please the people we work, serve or train under, whether we’re in class, in an office, or on the playing field. The young boys victimized by Penn State’s Jerry Sandusky were not morally malleable but more likely intimidated by the immense power the mature Mr. Sandusky exerted over them.

It was a long time ago, but I myself remember a high school, track-star classmate, who said rather baldly—and shockingly, too—of the coach who’d helped him achieve great heights of athletic performance, “Hell, I’d eat his shit!”

An exaggeration? Of course. But what it suggests is that a particular faculty figure held enormous sway over at least one of the boys he coached. I wondered then, as I wonder now, where parents fit into the equation. I think it’s up to them to keep their impressionable (and, yes, vulnerable) youngsters balanced and on their mettle—so that if an unseemly incident is even hinted at, they have the innate ability to deflect or defuse it immediately.

Regarding recurring revelations of sexual misconduct among errant priests, a magazine publisher I once worked for told me how, in his youth, he and his fellow choir boys managed to evade sexual harassment, not only through their own staunch behavior but also by making sure they were never left alone with or cornered by their particular parish priest or choir master.

They didn’t quit the church or file complaints. But despite their youth, they did succeed in making sure that errant adult behavior, though possible, never occurred to compromise their own goals or objectives.

Where Mr. Cain is concerned, I wonder if his alleged victims had become so fearful of losing his influence that they suppressed their outrage—until now. Or are their graphic allegations overstated and way out of line?

We’ll know, in time, of course. But I think that long after Mr. Sandusky’s name fades from the headlines and recedes from the Internet, the possible sins of Herman Cain will likely cling to that man like sticky flypaper. Shame, shame.


The GMP on Penn State:

We Are?

Paterno and Pedestals, Julie Gillis

When the Game Becomes Religion, Gary Percesepe

Male Lust Arrives in Happy Valley, Tom Matlack

Destroying a Young Boy’s Soul, Ken Solin

The Tragic Lionization of Joe Paterno, Tom Ley

Men, Monsters, and the Media, Nicole Johnson

Loyalty and Responsibility at Penn State, Andrew Smiler

Jerry Sandusky and Penn State: A Familiar Story, Sophia Sadinsky

Beware the Legacy You Are Protecting: Winning Isn’t Everything, Eli Kaplan

Institutional Injustice: Why Rooting For Universities Breeds Immorality, Aaron Gordon

I Failed, Rick Morris

Sandusky-ed, Tim Green


—Photo Andy Colwell/The Patriot-News/AP

About Mervyn Kaufman

Mervyn Kaufman became an essayist and short-story writer after a long career as a writer and editor in the field of consumer magazine publishing. Merv is the author most recently of The Shamrock Way, the history of Arizona's biggest and most enduring food-service company, and coauthor of the Gary Stevens memoir, The Perfect Ride.

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