The endless discussions regarding the Penn State sexual abuse scandal have been difficult to ignore. As a writer and a speaker whose main focus is equality, my heart and mind have been pushed to a breaking point.
I was having dinner with a family member when he said, very passionately, that the man who saw the 10-year-old boy being sodomized in the shower by Jerry Sandusky did exactly what Pennsylvania state law required.
To be factually accurate, he's right ... on one level. Still, what I could not ignore was the fact that this man saw a 10-year-old boy being violated by an adult and did not call the police. This adult should have been his protector and a voice for someone who was helpless because this young man trusted him as his mentor. At 10 years of age, one does not have a clear understanding of what is consensual touch and what is ( let's not mince words ) rape.
Pennsylvania law requires that if you see a problem, or find what you have witnessed concerning, or are suspicious of improper behavior, you report it to child-welfare services. Or, you are expected to report the incident to your supervisor and that person will follow through on the investigation and complaint.
At first we learned that Mike McQueary saw a young boy being raped in the Penn State locker room. Then the story changed when he said he thought something was odd. He wasn't sure what was occurring so he reported his suspicions to the police. No police records can be found to confirm this report ever actually happened.
Fifty-three million dollars are the real issue here. That is the rough estimate of what the Penn State football program brings to the college annually. To reveal sexual molestation would call into question the integrity of the institution itself. Now, the inescapable fact is that Penn State will spend many years and many dollars and PR consultants to resolve this horrific scandal.
Sandusky was supplied with an endless stream of willing young men who looked to his program as a way out of their circumstancesa way to build a career in football and a way to increase their chances of earning a college degree.
The position in which these eight young men were placed and the abuse they endured for years will forever affect their lives. The innocence of their youth is gone. The abuse has marked them for life.
I know all too well the pain they endured. It is a pain I rarely, if ever, speak ofalthough the lasting effect it has had on my life is very evident. Now, however, is one of those times I must speak out.
I remember at a very young age my diaper being removed and being touched in a way that confused me. I wondered why my tummy felt weird and why no one else touched me that way. Although it only happened sometimes at that young age, it was usually when I was in the care of just this one person.
The problem that compounded this was that I adored my abuser. I would wait for his return home and try to behavethinking that if I was a good girl the touching would never start. However, it was useless. The alcohol that was consumed would make me a target for desire by my abuser. How was it that I trusted this person and, yet, was so confused by the feelings?
As the abuse continued and I got older and could understand what was happening, I was told to keep quiet and that no one would ever believe me anyway. I was told that if I did say anything I would be sent away. Sent away where? I didn't want to go away. Where would they send me?
I never had the courage to tell anyone. I felt that if I were to ever reveal my pain it would be the end of my life as I knew it. I was already being disciplined for my moodiness and it seemed impossible to speak of my pain. I thought of talking to my priest because he was so good to me, but what would the consequences be if he decided to speak up on my behalf? It was a helpless and lonely place to be.
The unknown and fear of abandonment kept me silent. The abuse continued and then, when I became old enough to protest, I was given rum to relax me to perform the unspeakable acts that were required of me.
I hated the alcohol. I was 10 years old the first time it was given to me to make me relax around the abuse. It numbed me to what was happening, but it also made me not understand it even more. I remember thinking to myself, "Was this how adults got through sex? Was this how it worked?" I never found the urge to use alcohol to cope with my pain and, in fact, I hated how alcohol was tearing my world apart around me.
Alone in a car with my abuser on a business trip that was to be a treat for me, I was forced to touch and perform oral sex on my predator. I was left helpless and alone in the grips of this torment and felt humiliated I had little understanding of why, what did I do to deserve this? The shame ate at me from the inside out.
The weapon being used against me was the constant threat of being sent away. I loved my dogsthey were my best friendsand if anyone ever found out, it always felt like I would have no one to blame but myself if I never got to see them again. I was told once that no one really loved me anyway and that they talked all the time of sending me away. I was convinced it would happen if I did speak.
I felt such shame. Shame that "I" was somehow causing this attention, shame that "I" knew I would be disowned if it were revealed, and shame that "I" felt dirty and bad for somehow bringing this on myself.
The abuse took a turn in my early teens to another person touching me as well, and the pain grew even deeper. My second abuser told me over and over that no one would believe me anyway. I could not escape the endless attention and I wanted to die.
As I got older I would just lay still and wait for it to be over. My grades in school plummeted and I struggled in a silent world. The only place I felt safe was at my church or at my friend's house where I was able to breath, even for just a moment from the abuse and pretend that it never happened. I would beg for sleepovers at friends' houses or at my cousins' houses because it was fun and I did not have to worry about the touching and the threats. If I was alone with my predators, I knew they were always looking for a way to get at me.
When one of my elders learned of my abuse history many years later, I was asked why I said nothing; I said I did not know whom to trust. It was a secret that was unspeakable and I was taught well to keep my mouth shut or it risk having my world ripped apart.
There was no communication in my world. I was told very young to be seen and not heard. I was told to keep my hands to myself and to mind my own business. I was silenced and ignored and I learned that you just didn't talk about "those things." I was raised in the old Southern tradition which forbade young woman to speak of anything sexual.
Understanding the damage of that abuse took many, many years of talking. I joke today that I should be driving a tricked out Mercedes for the amount I have spent on professional therapy.
Part of the damage done by my abuse was my inability to make decisions as a young woman. I was very much stunted by my poor self-image. Had I been given the chance to be free and be a child, perhaps I would have developed a healthy understanding of my growing sexual self.
Sexual abuse continues to be a problem we don't discuss because it's too painful to see. Those of us who have survived abused pray to never hear of another childhood being robbed of their innocence.
The Penn State scandal is not just the institution's problem. It is a cultural problem that we all must address. We have to bring the sexual abuse of children out of the darkness and the silence and into the light of day if we are ever going to fix it.
As a society we fight hard for our children: we fight for the best schoolsthe best of everything. While we spend this valuable time advancing our children's chances in life, we risk ignoring our children's safety.
Predators are our neighbors and our family members. When we only talk to our kids about "strangers" we risk making them unable to respond to dangers that may exist closer to home, and incapable of communicating with adult who might be able to help them. It is not "stranger danger" that I will be speaking to my child aboutit is a healthy understanding of touch and what is appropriate and what we should talk about when we may be a little confused.
I look at it this way … if something is hard to discuss, it probably means we should be discussing it. I would personally like to see adults get comfortable with language that, although perhaps hard to hear, could help ensure the safety and protection of our childrenand the childhoods that are stolen by those who prey on the innocent.
Charlene Strong is a public speaker and the subject of an award winning documentary film. She is a human rights commissioner for the state of Washington and serves as editor of the online news magazine The Seattle Lesbian. Visit www.theseattlelesbian.com .