I've been wondering why no one here at TBP has posted anything about the Penn State scandal except Sara Whitman, and I wonder if it's because our feelings about this case, with our particular sexual biographies as gays and lesbians, have been so layered and complicated and hard to make sense of. I've been trying the last several days to figure out the strangeness of my reaction: Why am I more sad than shocked, more resigned than surprised?
As a teenager, the locker room was a scary place that I was helpless to negotiate. There's nothing revelatory to me in finding out that Sandusky got away with sexually abusing so many boys over a period of decades in an environment where sex and humiliation are woven into the culture. For me - and this feeling can't be mine alone - locker rooms are saturated with desire and terror in a way that makes it still, all these years later, sometimes difficult to tell them apart.
I lived for those mornings when I would see naked and up close the boys whose bodies I wanted so badly to touch, and I cried myself to sleep the night before in dread of exposure of the shame of my desire, the exposure of my own body which could not possibly be desirable to them.
Forced, at 14, to strip naked in a roomful of boys so that they could taunt me about my lack of pubic hair and athletic prowess, compelled to participate in games and activities the rules of which I didn't know, then marched back to a steamy, windowless chamber and forced to strip again in order to shower with these boys whose touch I secretly craved.
I think I had it easy. The terror was mostly psychological. No one ever physically assaulted me. The teasing was mild compared to the treatment of other boys who were pushed down, punched, their underwear yanked up into their crotches, etc. None of this abuse was called out or stopped by the adults in charge, the teachers and coaches. I can't imagine that I'm the only kid who felt alone, without protection or recourse.
I look back at that ritual of adolescence with two strong but contradictory attitudes: 1) a willingness to concede that it was just one of those "life is unfair" things - like the myriad inconveniences the left-handed deal with every day in a right-handed world, it's no one's fault that gym class and locker rooms are often a nightmare for homosexual kids - just the friction of living as a minority in a world that was made for the majority, and 2) a need to condemn a culture that encourages behavior that I think is abusive, that hurt and scarred me.
This attitude comes out especially when I hear people, in conversations about the so-called obesity epidemic, lament the loss of physical education in public schools. To argue for reinstating phys ed in schools that have discontinued it feels to me like arguing for a return to corporal punishment or racial segregation or warehousing the disabled. It's a return to the dark ages.
I have to admit that there's something about locker room culture that is and may always be incomprehensible to me. Why all the obviously sexual behavior (grabbing and teasing and pulling each other's pants down, etc.) in these groups of presumably mostly heterosexual boys and men? What are they doing? Obviously it occupies a different psychological space for a confidently straight teenage boy than it does for a gay kid just becoming uncomfortably aware of his same-sex desire. But, still, what's it about?
I'm not unwilling to consider that it might have some component of a natural and healthy initiation into "manhood." But it didn't work that way for me. One of the things about this behavior that was so disconcerting to me as a kid was that it seemed to come so naturally to the other boys but not to me. Like football or basketball or any of the games we played in gym class, if I had known the rules and been allowed to participate, I might have enjoyed it. If this was an important ritual, I was excluded from it.
Here's what I'm left thinking about the Sandusky scandal:
Is it possible to see McQueary's reaction as unsurprising considering he witnessed this incident in a place where the sexual humiliation of boys is normal, expected, and routine? He saw a crime, the rape of a boy, which disgusted him but which was apparently not far enough beyond the pale to report to anyone outside of the circle of men familiar with the culture. He decided that the protocol of the locker room is best left to specialists. The rules are too arcane for laypeople. In other words, "You wouldn't understand."
We've all fixated on the one particular crime, the shower rape that McQueary witnessed and didn't report to the police. But this was only one incident in decades of sexual aggression toward boys by Sandusky, behavior that he is calling "horseplay." In other words, normal.
All these incidents of unwelcome touching, hugging, and grabbing, when we see them in hindsight as part of a long career which included the rape of a 10-year-old, are clearly criminal, but how do we draw a clear line between the behavior of this man and the everyday roughhousing among boys and men in locker rooms and on athletic playing fields, much of which is aggressive, unwelcome, and sexual (smacking asses, grabbing crotches, calling boys "girls" or "faggots," taunts that take the form of sexual demands, and questioning the virility and sexual prowess of targeted boys)?
The scene McQueary witnessed was aberrant not by category but only by degree.