Hugo Schwyzer agrees we should be talking more. But let it be about what healthy, joy-filled, life-enhancing male sexuality looks like.
It’s always risky for a writer to disagree with a magazine’s founder, but I want to take slight issue with Tom Matlack’s Look in the Mirror: the Hypocrisy of PSU Rage. As we start to gain at least a little more information and perspective on the Happy Valley cover-up, it’s understandable that we’re all eager to talk about the lessons this disturbing episode has taught. And I think that Tom paints far too dismal a picture of what those lessons ought to be.
For Tom, the lesson is our hypocrisy. As he sees it, we’re spending all our time talking about JoePa and the Old Boy Network in college sports rather than our collective culpability. Tom writes:
We thought we knew what it meant to be male and good, and we have now found out the exact opposite is true.
What really fucking pisses us off isn’t the badness itself; as part of the great wave of men buying pornography and sex overtakes our country, we have been perfectly willing to look the other way as sex crimes accelerate.
The truth is that sex crimes are dramatically decreasing. In his sensational new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Steven Pinker makes the compelling, data-driven case that we live in a less bloody – and less brutally transgressive – world than ever before. As the Huffington Post reported in their review of his book, rapes in the USA have declined by a staggering 80% since 1973. Though we are far more aware of the danger of sex crimes against children than we were when Tom and I were boys, there is no clear evidence that molestations are on the rise.
It’s easy to confuse a greater awareness of sexual abuse with an assumption that the cases of such abuse are on the rise. The widespread belief that internet pornography has led to an increase in sexual violence simply isn’t supported by the evidence. While I’m not prepared to go to the opposite extreme, and declare that cybererotica is making the world safer, there’s a growing body of research that suggests just that. (See The Sunny Side of Smut from this past summer’s Scientific American.) If there is a “great wave” of men buying sex and pornography, it’s just not clear that this sexual tsunami constitutes the social disaster that many fear.
My take-away from the Penn State tragedy is one of wonder and optimism. I marvel that the university’s trustees were willing to fire an octogenarian living legend for the grave lapse of not having done more to protect children and to do so by phone. I expected far more voices to be raised in defense of those whose commitment to the reputation of an institution trumped their moral obligation to kids. That Paterno’s firing has proved so popular nationwide (the stupid antics of a handful of PSU students notwithstanding) is indicative that we’re more willing than ever to confront the atrocity that is child sexual abuse. There have always been Jerry Sanduskys, and there have always been Joe Paternos to cover for them. Though we might wish that each faced a stiffer penalty still, what’s been done so far is more than would have been done just a few decades ago.
But progress is not perfection. And when it comes to rape and molestation, we can’t settle for the comforting reassurance that these crimes are becoming slowly rarer. Far too many women are still raped, and far too many boys and girls abused for us to be self-congratulatory. We need to continue to push for more protection for children, and we need to do more to teach men to end their own complicity in the culture of silence and tacit approval that makes rape still so common.
Tom concludes his piece with a reminder: The real problem is that until now we haven’t wanted to look at sexual misconduct in our own communities. And it’s about time we did.
That’s absolutely true. But we also need to remember that while pedophilia and related disorders are genuine mental illnesses, they are aided and abetted by sexual shame. In a world where the hefty majority of rapists and abusers are men, that means that helping men–all men–overcome that shame is a critical part of the “solution.” What Tom calls “misconduct” flourishes where frank talk about sex and desire is off-limits. Ignorance, silence, and the distrust of pleasure facilitate that misconduct.
We end what Tom rightly calls our hypocrisy not by asking men to give up porn, but by asking for more examples of men who don’t compartmentalize their sexuality, hiding it away in fear and embarrassment. We need reminders that male lust can be exuberant, intense, and still safe. To identify the genuine pedophiles in our midst, we need to be better able to distinguish them from the mass of good men whose sexual attraction is only to their fellow adults. That doesn’t require that every man give detailed public explanations of his private practices and masturbatory fantasies. But it does require that we start talking and sharing about what healthy, joy-filled, life-enhancing male sexuality looks like. That’s a job for each and every one of us.
The more of that happy and challenging work we do, the better equipped we’ll be to discern the predators who still lurk among us.
Read Tom Matlack’s Post– Look in the Mirror: The Hypocrisy of PSU Rage
photo: marypaulose / flickr