Joe Paterno, Herman Cain, Men, Sex, and Power

by Kevin Powell

Joe Paterno. Herman Cain. Penn State football. Presidential campaigns. Men. Sex. Power. Women. Harassed. Children. Abused.

These are some of the hash tags that have tweeted through my mind nonstop, these past several days, as multiple sexual harassment charges have been hurled at Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain; as Jerry Sandusky, former defensive coordinator for Penn State’s storied football program, was arrested on 40 counts related to allegations of sexual abuse of eight young boys over a 15-year period. Sandusky’s alleged indiscretions have not only brought back very ugly and unsettling memories of the Catholic Church sexual abuse mania a few short years ago, but has led to the firing of legendary coach Joe Paterno and Penn State president Graham Spanier, plus the indictments of athletic director Tim Curley and a vice president, Gary Schultz, for failing to report a grad assistant’s eyewitness account of Sandusky allegedly having anal sex with a ten-year-old boy in a shower on the university’s campus in 2002.

In the matter of Mr. Herman Cain I cringed, to be blunt, as I watched his press conference this week denying accusations of sexual harassment against him, which has swelled to four different women, two identified and two anonymous, for now. I was not there, so I don’t know, only he and the women know the truth. But what was telling in Mr. Cain’s remarks is that he was visibly defensive and defiant, rambled quite a bit about the media’s smear campaign and, most curious, only once mentioned sexual harassment as a major problem in America, and it was just one quick, passing sentence. Then he went back to discussing himself, which he is particularly adept at doing.

What Herman Cain and the disgraced male leaders of Penn State have in common is the issue of power and privilege we men not only wield like our birthright, but which has come to be so inextricably linked to our identities. So much so, in fact, that many of us, regardless of race, class, religion and, in some cases, even sexual orientation or physical abilities, don’t even realize what a disaster manhood is when it is unapologetically invested in power, privilege, patriarchy, sexism, and a reckless disregard for the safety and sanity of others, especially women and children.

Every single year, it seems, some well-known man somewhere gets into trouble because of sex, money, drugs, or violence, or some combination thereof (and God only knows how many unknown males do likewise). It is always the same themes, just with a new cast of characters. Yesterday it was priests of the Catholic Church. Today it is the male leadership of Penn State. Yesterday it was Anthony Weiner and Charlie Sheen. Today it is Herman Cain. I remember earlier this year, in fact, in the wake of Mr. Weiner’s sudden and rapid fall from grace, a report was published that said over 90 percent of sex scandals in America feature us men as the culprits. That very few women engage in that mode of self-destructive behavior.

The question begs itself: Why not? I feel it has to do with how we construct manhood from birth. Most of us boys are taught, basically from the time we can talk and walk, to be strong, tough, loud, dominating, aggressive, and, yes, even violent, even if that violence is masked in tales of war or Saturday afternoon college football games. Without anything to counteract that mindset like, say, that it is okay for boys and men to tell the truth, to show raw emotions and vulnerability, to cry, to view girls and women as our equals on every level, we are left with so many of us, far into adulthood, as fully formed physically but incredibly undeveloped emotionally. And if you are a male who happens to have been sexually assaulted or abused yourself, and never got any real help in any form, highly likely you will at some point become a sexual predator yourself. And if you are a man who still thinks we are in pre-feminist movement America where it was once okay to, well, touch, massage, or caress a female colleague inappropriately, to talk sex to her, as she is either working for you or attempting to secure a job (and has not given you permission to do so), then you are also likely to be the kind of male who will deny any of it ever happened. Again and again and again—

The bottom line is that our notions of manhood are totally and embarrassingly out of control, and some of us have got to stand up and say enough, that we’ve got to redefine what it is to be a man, even as we, myself included, are unfailingly forthright about our shortcomings and our failures as men, and how some of us have even engaged in the behaviors splashed across the national news this year alone.

But to get to that new kind of manhood means we’ve got to really dig into our souls and admit the old ways are not only not working, but they are so painfully hurtful to women, to children, to communities, businesses, institutions, and government, to sport and play, and to ourselves. Looking in the mirror is never easy but if not now, when? And if not us in these times, then we can surely expect the vicious cycles of manhood gone mad to continue for generations to come, as evidenced by a recent report in the New York Times of a steadily climbing number of American teen boys already engaging in lewd sexual conduct toward girls. Where are these boys learning these attitudes if not from the men around them, in person, in the media, on television and in film, in video games, or from their fathers, grandfathers, uncles, older brothers, teachers, and, yes, coaches?

  • Mimi

    I hate to sound pessimistic, but after seeing the thousands of students at Penn State showing support to Joe Paterno after he knowingly covered up a molestation scandal, we are nowhere near changing the mindset of how men should not abuse their power. I was absolutely sickened by what I saw this morning as tons of Penn State students were actually supporting a man who was involved in such heinous behavior inflicted on young boys. To me, Joe is just as guilty as Sandusky. If you know something that terrible is going on and you do nothing to stop it, you are just as guilty as the person doing wrong and the fact that thousands of students chose to support Paterno, versus supporting the victims has left me with zero respect for Penn State, its students and anyone who supports coverups.

  • Olion

    This article truly lacks a concrete focus and direction. After reading it, it seems to me that you’re blaming sexual harrasment and pedophilia on “manhood” when there are many cases where women have been perpetrators as well. And to even compare sexual harrassment and pedophilia where a child was raped? really?

  • CountryGirlSmile

    THANK YOU Mr. Powell!

  • Jazz

    I believe the focus was very clear. He grouped all of them into one category: sex crimes committed by men with power, clout, and stature. Is sexual harrassment or pedophilia of a child any less than rape. Its all the same. He presented the statistic that over 90% of sexually heinous crimes are committed by men as the culprits. Manhood comes into play because that is what tends to be protected (the guilty) versus the crime committed.

    I wish people would take the time out to fully read, absorb, and comprehend. I actually thought it was dead on. Good read

  • Jazz

    that was in response to Olion

  • starr

    the PSU situation is tragic…i’m not talking about the paterno part. i know we have to talk about him, because he’s larger than life down there, but when you read that whole grandjury report….my god

  • Olion

    I believe the focus was very clear. He grouped all of them into one category:. He presented the statistic that over 90% of sexually heinous crimes are committed by men as the culprits. Manhood comes into play because that is what tends to be protected (the guilty) versus the crime committed.

    I wish people would take the time out to fully read, absorb, and comprehend. I actually thought it was dead on. Good read

    Jazz your assumption is that I did not take time to fully read, absorb, and comprehend the article? Just because I did not get to the same conclusions as you does not validate that assumption. I read the article and if in your opinion Mr. Powell grouped them all into the category of ” sex crimes committed by men with power, clout, and stature” Joe Paterno fits nowhere in that discussion, which is why I felt that the article lacked a concrete focus since I have to explain to you. I definitely see the point Powell was trying to make but the examples he chose failed to prove that. And again I repeat manhood has nothing to do with sexual crimes. ” Is sexual harrassment or pedophilia of a child any less than rape. Its all the same.” Sorry my dear as much as you would like to believe that a crime is a crime they are not all the same.

  • lostluv224

    As a PSU alum the situation is beyond tragic, but the media is missing the point. This isn’t a Joe Paterno issue, and the focus shouldn’t be placed on him–in no way, shape or form. If you didn’t read the reports, or know of Sandummy before, you would think Paterno was the perp.

    Hermain Cain is just an ass…..as you were.

  • Nyce

    My daughter is a freshman at Penn State and we have been discussing the Penn State situation daily. I used this situation as a teaching moment to discuss the responsibility of power, morality and corporate management — she plans to be a business major. Like many students at Penn State she was caught up in the protect Joe Pa movement until we started to discuss the facts surrounding the situation. The lack of action taken by the administration including Joe Pa regarding the abuse of those young boys and how their lack of action contributed to additional abuse. We discussed the morale issues of accountability, the business and image implications for Penn State. She and her friends last night begin to discuss the bigger picture — that why we send our children to college, to open their minds, expand their thoughts and prepare them to take on the ever changing world that is their future.

    I have no regrets about sending my daughter to Penn State, without question it’s a great school — ranked #1 by corporate recruiters nationally (that includes Ivy League schools), what happened at Penn State is inexcusable; heads had to roll and jail sentencing should be severe. A teaching moment in real time indeed.

    As for Herman Cain, really??? I’m more concerned about his wife — when you put yourself in the presidential spotlight it becomes impossible to hide the skeletons in your closet. What’s sad is that his wife has to go through this, I’m sure this is not what she signed up for. Yes, as (Black) men we need to continuously take advantage of every opportunity to step up — step up and protect our family, our women, our children and help improve our communities, but in now way do I see the Penn State/Cain situation as an indictment of our (Black) Manhood.

  • SAA

    Great article but here’s my thing- sexual harassment and child sexual abuse are not even remotely of the same caliber so to put them on the same level is wrong. I’d argue (keyword is “I” as in myself, you don’t have to agree) child sexual absue has long-lasting, life-damaging results on a child and those memories will never go away, no matter how much therapy one gets. In comparing this cover up to the Catholic Church be mindful that its not only the Church that stages cover ups when these allegations arise, several other churches/ religions do the same thing (not that it makes it okay but to throw Catholics out there is an easy and lazy example).

    I am disgusted about what is coming to light about the PSU sex abuse scandal and it makes me absolutely sick to my stomach that people knew what this man was doing yet did very little to stop what was happening. They did the right thing this morning by firing Joepa and I hope and pray all of them get charged to the fullest extent of the law. oo bad the death penality isn’t extended to child molesters and abusers.

  • secret ninja

    this was an excellent piece. very well thought out, very well written, very truthful, blunt, pointed and very clear cut. if you couldn’t wrap your head around it, it’s because you didn’t want to.

  • BOB

    Man hood has nothing to do with it, and many women do the same sick stuff, cheat on their husbands, just because the media keeps it in the dark does not mean it does not happen. Women are so virtuous , you know that if every dad took a paternity test it would come back a match to their child. Those men were sickos end of story.

  • http://sisterescape.blogspot.com Fiore Scott

    +1

  • B

    “allegedly having anal sex with a ten-year-old boy.” Just call it what it is: “anally RAPING a ten year old boy.” Jeez. A grown person cannot “have sex” with a ten year old. Goodness, Lord – semantics, people. Semantics. Using “sex” (a word for which “consensual” is the general connotation even if that shouldn’t be the connotation) in such a context as what that Penn coach did minimizes the severity of what these children endured. But then again, maybe using “sex” in such a disturbing context does exactly what the author intends: brings attention to how twisted our views of “sex” have become, such that we are so used to hearing stories of grown a$$ men “having sex” with kids (i.e. the catholic priests, as he mentioned). Therefore, job well done for making anyone who reads that sentence feel disturbed and disgusted at once. We should all be genuinely disturbed and disgusted by what grown people are doing to so many children and minors everyday.

    Btw: I always find myself peeved when people make statements like this about the perpetrators, regarding the issue of rape and sexual molestation: “And if you are a male who happens to have been sexually assaulted or abused yourself, and never got any real help in any form, highly likely you will at some point become a sexual predator yourself.” My thing is: if the abused knows he didn’t like the abuse he suffered, then why the hell turn around and do the same thing that you didn’t like to someone else? I’ve never understood this, and feel that it’s more of an excuse than a reason for the crimes that sexual predators commit. I’m all about understanding the reasons behind people’s actions, but this one reason never set well with me. It’s just illogical – but then, I guess humans are often illogical, so….(Maybe it’s all so traumatic that the abused ends up not really KNOWING what to think about whether he liked it or not – trauma can be so bad that people can lose sight of the fact that they themselves were violated, that they didn’t “ask for it to happen”).

    Anyway, I enjoyed this article! Especially this encapsulating statement: “So much so, in fact, that many of us, regardless of race, class, religion and, in some cases, even sexual orientation or physical abilities, don’t even realize what a disaster manhood is when it is unapologetically invested in power, privilege, patriarchy, sexism, and a reckless disregard for the safety and sanity of others, especially women and children.” *standing and applauding.” It is definitely time for men to grow up, as you concluded. It’s time for men AND women to grow up, to look in the mirror and to look around us at the mess we are participating in and perpetuating. Thank you for this article, Mr. Powell.

    I’m so happy to see the wonderful activist Kevin Powell writing for Clutch!

  • jamesfrmphilly

    paterno needs to be charged………

  • lostluv224

    Um, no, he really doesn’t. read the report–he reported it to his superior, his job was legally done.

  • TR

    I have to go with Olion and Bob here. This is a stretch. Cain has been accused of sexual harassment. Paterno’s assistant coach has been accused child molestation. Both are unfortunate and the Penn State situation is especially troubling. Yet, how are those situations indictments on manhood? As someone else noted up thread I would be very hesitant to even group those two situations together. And not to defend Cain, but this piece assumes he is guilty of the accusations and there is no political maneuvering going on behind the scenes. We don’t really know that.

    Powell puts forth his definition of manhood and then goes on to talk about how sick it is and how it needs to change. He can do that, but what about those of us who don’t buy into his definition to begin with? He seems to be taking dysfunction and calling it manhood and then saying manhood needs to change. No. Dysfunctional people need to change. Dysfunctional people need to deal with their inner demons. Dysfunctional people need to stop making others victims of their dysfunction. Was the woman who murdered herself and her children by driving into a river an indictment on womanhood? How about the woman here in Los Angeles who threw her newborn baby from the 4th story of a parking garage? Does she signify some transformative event needed in womanhood? Or are those two separate situations that have nothing to do with one another?

    The problem with the concept of “manhood” is people want to make it some kind of virtuous, mystical, higher level of achievement that eludes all but a special group of men. That’s bogus. The truth is manhood is defined by having a penis and being beyond puberty. That’s it. After that it becomes a question of what kind of man one is. Most men are not like the two men cited here (Cain and Sandusky). Most men are not molesters. Most men are not physically abusive. Most men are not criminals. Yet, why is manhood in Powell’s world defined by all out dysfunction? Is this really a “manhood” issue?

  • sandrine

    Did you not make it to this part?

    “A manhood, alas, where we men and boys understand that we must be allies to women and girls, allies to all children, and be much louder, visible, and outspoken about sexual harassment, rape, domestic violence, sexual abuse and molestation. Knowing that if we are on the frontlines of these human tragedies then we can surely help to make them end once and for all, for the good of us all.

    That means time for some of us to grow, and to grow up. Time for some of us to let go of the ego trips and the pissing contests to protect bruised and battered egos of boys masquerading as men. Before it is too late, before some of us hurt more women, more children, and more of ourselves, yet again—”

  • B

    “Yet, why is manhood in Powell’s world defined by all out dysfunction?” Because the traditional notions of “manhood” (and “womanhood”) ARE dysfunctional. The dysfunction of those notions, as we’ve traditionally understood them, are on full display all around us. As Powell said, it’s time to grow up and re-evaluate oneself and the culture one lives in.

  • Grant White

    I really do appreciate this article but I must say that when taking about male privilege from heteronormative perspective men often still put themselves above women as if it is our obligation to “protect” our women (or property). Now I know from the lens this article was written you do not see women as your property. However, when ever it seems that straight men are attempting to look at their privilege it always in relation to women and not to each other. Why cant we begin to see each other as equals, men mostly assert their privilege wether that be on women children or each other to gain affirmation from other men they they are a “real man.” So we must stop this guilt fest about how badly male privilege effects women and children and reflect on how badly male privilege effects other men therefore perpetuating violence on all levels.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Twan-BlackSwan-Claiborne/4101295 Twan BlackSwan Claiborne

    I think people are quick to disagree to with Powell because he equated sexual violence with manhood. I did read the article fully, and understood what he was trying to accomplish and I agree spot on. I think the people who are quick to jump Powell don’t fully understand what masculinity — heteronormative masculinity — means and the mechanic in which it is used to demonstrate power. In fact, because there is no clear definition of masculinity, in the same respect as femininity, no one really does. I think it is completely relevant to the conversation in both cases. No one cares if the individual men who disagree with his definition aren’t like that. It’s not about you. He’s mentioning a larger symptom that by default we are all part of, whether we choose to be or not, myself included.

  • TR

    Social dysfunction can just as easily be seen from an economic perspective, or religious or even ethnic perspective. Gender (the perspective chosen here) is just one of many perspectives. And since it is one of many it can’t be the definitive perspective. And like any other perspective it is limited in its ability to explain the complexity of human nature. Those limitations are showing here.

    “…Time for some of us to let go of the ego trips and the pissing contests to protect bruised and battered egos of boys masquerading as men…”

    The people referenced in the piece are grown men. Herman Cain hasn’t been a child for a long time. He is a man. He may be a morally lacking man (we don’t know). But he is a man none the less. Manhood is not some mythical state that only comes after some form of enlightenment. It is not Buddhism. Manhood is a subset of humanness, and as such it is a flawed state. No more, no less.

  • QON

    So manhood is on trail and not the men who have been alleged to have committed crimes? More anti male vindictiveness. Not interested. Doesnt bring justice either.

  • QON

    You contradicted yourself. On the one hand you say it isnt about these individual male commentators who are objecting but then go on to say its about a system we are all apart of? These men need to be tried for the crimes they have been alleged to have committed provided there is sufficient evidence to indict them. This has nothing to do with manhood, this has nothing to do with masculinity.

  • B

    @Twan: I see no contradiction in what you said. You are exactly correct, and this is one of those types of conversations (just like when black folks critique “whiteness” and white folks get defensive, instead of understanding the critique of is whiteness the idea, and not of individual white people). As you said, this discussion of masculinity is about the larger cultural idea and system of masculinity. But as Americans, we are often too trained to think only in individualistic terms – we have to be able to see how we are implicated within larger identity constructs if we desire to ever change (for the better) the way that we all interact with one another. You summed it up perfectly: “No one cares if the individual men who disagree with his definition aren’t like that. It’s not about you. He’s mentioning a larger symptom that by default we are all part of, whether we choose to be or not, myself included.”

    Thank you.

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