If we can’t talk about male lust honestly, argues Tom Matlack, how can we deal with the consequences?
Not long ago I wrote a column about male lust that caused quite a stir. I wasn’t trying to define masculine sexuality, only ask that perhaps coming clean about the topic of male lust would help both genders. I pointed out simple examples where I observed men hiding their true desires and the unfortunate consequences that followed. I said, as I have many times before, that a population of men secretly jerking off to porn or frequenting strip clubs really doesn’t accomplish much for men or women.
Well, the news this week conspired to take my point and magnify it about a billion times over. I really never thought I would get in my car to drive my son to 1st grade, turn on sports radio, and then quickly have to turn it off because the non-stop discussion had turned to pedophilia.
I was proud of our story “We Are?” by a Penn State professor heartbroken by the first shot across the bow of his fabled sports program. But that was the first day. Now we are on day three and the thing has spiraled completely out of control. Paterno is stepping down. The talk is of dozens if not hundreds of children who were abused. The guys on the sports talk radio are saying no other sports scandal—not the Black Sox, not Miami hookers, not O.J. Simpson—comes close to the magnitude of this one.
That may or may not be true. But my question is: what does the scandal say about us as men and our inability to get honest about lust?
Pedophilia is obviously male lust turned completely inside out in the most vile and destructive manner possible. I don’t pretend to understand it. I can only report what I have learned by talking to those who have been involved first hand in those situations and the works of art that attempt to get at what it is all about.
The most profound of those experiences was spending countless hours with a close friend who came forward early on as a victim naming names to the Boston Globe spotlight team that was the first to report the pattern of pedophilia in the Catholic Church. (“The First to Come Forward”).
Here is a recent conversation I had with my friend, who I affectionately call “Princess”:
What is a good man?
A good man is compassionate, strong, empathetic, smart, non-judgmental.
What inspired you at the very beginning to confront this?
Anger. I was really tired of carrying it; it felt really heavy. And anger at the institution that protected my perpetrator. Anger at him. Anger at myself, maybe, that I had allowed it to go on for so long. Anger that I had never done anything about it. The other reason was that this is continuing today with other children. I think that every time one person speaks up, it’s more difficult for that crime to happen and for someone to get away with it. So I think every voice counts.
In terms of your capacity to love and connect? Do you feel like that’s been repaired?
No. I don’t. (Laughter.) Since you asked. I think it’s better. I don’t think I’m fixed. (Laughter.) I think that I have good days and bad days, more good days. It’s a process. I certainly don’t feel like I’m falling apart like I did when I started doing the work on this. I certainly don’t feel like I’ve got this big secret weighing me down that I’m carrying around like I did for so many years before I dealt with it.
As far as my ability to trust or love, it’s better. But it’s not perfect, and I’m not as afraid of being hurt, exploited. I don’t see myself as a victim. I think—and I never thought this consciously, but—I think I saw myself as this scared kid my whole life, or I was a scared kid. And I don’t see myself that way.
How has all this changed how you view men’s capacity for evil? Do you think you’re more critical of human nature at this point, or more hopeful?
Sometimes I think of the man who exploited me and divorce myself from the situation and think of all the different things he did to all these different children. And I’m amazed that one person could do so many evil actions. But now I feel much more hopeful because I did something. I also saw a lot of good things in my journey—people who helped me, people who did kind things for other people going through this. I feel more hopeful about the human race.
The other experience which informs whatever limited view I have on pedophilia is the book and film Little Children. I happened to be fortunate enough to see the film prior to its general release and attend a talk by author Tom Perrotta. The film is about a stay-at-home dad who ends up cheating on his wife with a mom from the playground. But it is also is at its heart about pedophilia.
Ronnie, played by Jackie Earle Haley, returns to the neighborhood to live with his mom and try to “be good.” That struggle was the most riveting part of the film to me, for the brutal honesty of the portrayal. When I asked Perrotta about the actor who played Ronnie, he explained that Haley had made a name for himself in Breaking Away and Bad News Bears and then gotten sick with Chromes Disease (which accounts for his strange appearance) and struggled with addiction before they tracked him down for the role. A few months later he was nominated for the Oscar for best supporting actor.
What was so chilling to me was the abject fear in the parents upon realizing there is a pedophile in their midst, and the abject fear in Ronnie himself as he struggles with his own demons. It’s hard to feel any compassion for a pedophile but the film makes the viewer at least consider the possibility.
In light of what has happened at Penn State, I can’t help but wonder if this horrible case isn’t somehow connected to our inability to tell the truth about male lust. The male urge to have sex is suppose to be put in a box and hidden in a closet somewhere—whether you are gay or straight. There is a cost to pay for that dishonesty.
A man in his 70s–who been married three times and divorced three times and had taken to frequenting massage parlors—once told me with regard to male sexuality, “Nature abhors of a vacuum.”
By that I think he meant that you can try to deny who you really are sexually but it will end up coming out sideways in some perverse and unintended way. Maybe if you can’t talk openly to your wife about sex, you end up at a strip club. Maybe if your faith requires you to remain celibate, you end up raping boys. Or maybe if you run a football program steeped in tradition, when someone tells you a kid has been raped in your locker room shower by a retired coach you look the other way.