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What Most Sex Scandals Have In Common (Hint: It's Not Sex)

Sex scandals are treated as gossip, not as wake-up calls to fight abuses of power.

'Tis the season for sex scandals. More possible victims of former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky are coming forward, and Herman Cain's sexual harassment allegations remain in the headlines. Earlier this week, New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan took pains to acknowledge Penn State's scandal, which has echoed the Catholic Church's ongoing problems with sex abuse. At a news conference, Dolan said “we once again bow our heads in shame" and reminded listeners that sexual abuse is a universal problem plaguing most institutions.

Perhaps, Archbishop Dolan. But why?

Sex scandals typically unfold the same way—a media frenzy erupts, alleged victims and perpetrators, as well as their defenders, are dissected under a microscope and demonized accordingly. The abuser is "sick," "a bad apple," a "monster." The accuser is "troubled," a "gold-digger," a "liar." Eventually, screaming headlines give way to memes and SNL skits, and the scandal fades from the press. The opportunity to talk about larger structural problems eludes us. Then, a few months or weeks later, another "shocking" scandal surfaces, and the cycle starts all over again, with the public and the perpetrators apparently none the wiser.

The "he said, she said" legacy of the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas case may make for good gossip, but it has yet to incite real change to stop other abusers in their tracks. Whether it's the shortsighted worship of sports or God or the outrageous entitlement of a man with too much power, we need to channel our thirst for juicy tidbits into a long-term conversation about why sex abuse occurs in the first place. The Sandusky case has tackled this problem more than the Cain coverage, shining a light on the neglect of former Penn State coach Joe Paterno. But even then, the focus has been more on Paterno's cowardice than the forces behind his decision.

Even the phrase—sex scandal—connotes a torrid love affair; more often than not, we're talking about rape, harassment, and abuse of power. Salacious language takes these incidents at face value and fails to place them alongside cultural patterns—much like convicted rapists are condemned (if we're lucky) out of context in a rape-apologist culture. Of course, the vast majority of people are not rapists and child molesters, and most CEOs don't sexually harass their subordinates. But if you bolster an abuser with too much privilege and leeway, he'll take it and run.

Every time we frame compulsive pedophiles as rogue psychos existing in a bubble, or sexual harassers as bosses who simply got "carried away," we embolden the next sex offender or skeevy executive to make a move. As the twin cases of Cain and Sandusky unfold, let's not only pay attention to the soundbites and lawyers, but the money and power that shielded them for so long.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user bentley_mcbentleson (This photo is a satire of the original.)

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