Kevin Powwell`s blog

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

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?

For sure, nothing sadder and more tragic than to see 84-year-old Coach Joe Paterno, who I’ve admired since I was a child, throwing away 46 years of coaching heroism and worship (and 62 total years on the school’s football staff) because the power, glory, and symbolism of Penn State football was above protecting the boys allegedly touched and molested by Sandusky. Equally sad and tragic when Mr. Cain’s supporters are quick to call what is happening to him a lynching when this man, this Black man, has never been tarred and feathered, never been hung from a tree, never had his testicles cut from his body, never been set on fire, as many Black men were, in America, in the days when lynching was as big a national sport as college football is today. Anything, it seems, to refute the very graphic and detailed stories of the women accusing Mr. Cain of profoundly wrong, unprofessional, and inhuman conduct.

But, as I stated, when our sense of manhood has gone mad, completely mad, anything goes, and anything will be said (or nothing said at all), or done, to protect the guilty, at the expense of the innocent. We’ve got to do better than this, gentlemen, brothers, boys, for the sake of ourselves, for the sake of our nation and our world. It was Albert Einstein who famously stated that insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. Then insanity may also mean men and boys doing the same things over and over again, for the sake of warped and damaged manhood, and expecting forward progress to happen, but then it all crumbles, once more, in a heap of facts, finger-pointing, and forgetful memories when convenient.

If any good can come of the Cain and Penn State disasters it is my sincere hope that spaces and movements are created, finally, where we men can really begin to rethink what manhood can be, what manhood might be. Manhood that is not about power, privilege, and the almighty penis, but instead rooted in a sense of humanity, in peace, in love, in nonviolence, in honesty and transparency, in constant self-criticism and self-reflection, and in respect and honor of women and girls, again, as our equals; in spaces and movements where men and boys who might not be hyper-macho and sports fanatics like some us are not treated as outcasts, as freaks, as less than men or boys. A manhood where if we see something bad happening, we say something, and not simply stick our heads in the sand and pretend that something did not happen. Or worse, yet, do something wrong ourselves, and when confronted with that wrongness, rather than confess, acknowledge, grow, heal, evolve, we instead dig in our heels and imagine ourselves in an all-out war, proclaiming our innocence to any who will listen, even as truth grows, like tall and daunting trees in a distant and darkened woods, about us.

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—

Kevin Powell is an activist, public speaker, and author or editor of 10 books. His 11th book, Barack Obama, Ronald Reagan, and The Ghost of Dr. King: And Other Blogs and Essays, will be published by in January 2012. You can reach him at, or follow him on Twitter @kevin_powell


21 Responses to “Joe Paterno, Herman Cain, Men, Sex, and Power”

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  2. [...] Click Here to read Kevin Powell’s Blog and Full Article… [...]

  3. Jo Bolton says:

    This is the best description of what is happening in our patriarchal society that I have read. Thank you for your insight and ability to put it into words!!!

  4. Kristin says:

    I was dating someone I thought was a narcissist but maybe he was just being… a guy. Sure, there are a few diamonds in the rough and in truth we all have certain behavioral tendencies that reflect a privileged mindset, growing up in a supposed first world country. (We’re the only 1st world country afraid to open our medical, tuition and utility bills!) This is the core issue at the heart of the Occupy movement worldwide, I believe. The earth simply can no longer handle the imbalance of patriarchal rule, the privileged mindset of conquest, domination and destruction. The global family is too connected and the painful consequences of such actions are immediately felt by the whole. Either we learn to build an empathic civilization or the path we are currently on will lead to our ultimate extinction.

  5. Donna Clark says:

    Thank you dear, thoughtful, kind man!

  6. I am the founder of Alternative House, the shelter for battered women and their children, in Lowell, MA. I burned out and left the shelter over 25 years ago. I am proud that Alternative House still exists. At the time of our work back then, there was a group of men who counseled the batterers. I met a number of them and they were absolutely remarkable in the way they treated women as equals. They LISTENED to us! You remind me of those wonderful men.

  7. Lee says:

    Thank you for your very eloquent perspective. As a female, I’ve been flabbergasted by the events of the past week and at how some men can be so arrogant and self-serving; it restores my faith that there are men such as yourself who are working to change this through writing and speaking out.

  8. Neledi Tafari says:

    Why Mr. Powell, it seems that you have awakened. I haven’t been this impressed by anything you’ve written since 2pac. I applaud your courage. The fact of the matter is, from a Black perspective we have for too long been defined by what amerikka framed us to be. Until we understand and recreate the source of the makeshift Black male identity in amerikka we will repeat the cycle of patriarchal disorder.

  9. It is this sense of entitlement that some men have. Wether it is raping children, the system, the land, etc. They have no conscience. I think there is something seriously wrong with their minds. They have managed to hide their crimes for so long they start making mistakes. These people come from all walks of life. They are very dangerous individuals and need to be put behind bars and kept there for the rest of their lives. They are a danger to society.

  10. Luzma says:

    Thank you for your insights on manhood. The problems at Penn State are nothing new. In 1991, I denounced abuses at Penn State. It was in the university’s newspaper. I had many women and LGBT individuals wanting to talk to me about abuses. I met them outside the campus. I spoke publicly about it in interviews in the media. The then Chair of Women Studies called me into her office and told me to shut up. I guess I spoke only 20 years too early, and I was only a Lesbian Puerto Rican scholar.

  11. Crys says:

    Thank you for this. I don’t know what else to say.

  12. jersey says:

    great post. i have been struck by how silent so many men (even within anti-violence movement) have been on this issue and i cant help but wonder if perhaps many men just dont know what to say… it seems this has shaken so many to the core. so thanks for posting this.

    one thought though… what allegedly happened in the shower really cant be considered (legally or morally) as “having anal sex”. it was child rape. sometimes i feel like we minimize and decriminalize behavior when we use words like “having sex with a 10 year old” rather than calling it what it is… rape.

  13. Rochelle Robinson says:

    wow, kevin…i am so utterly impressed by you and your courage to speak out in the face of such hyper patriarchy and sexism…you are truly one of a kind, and i admire, respect and appreciate you and your work. keep going strong…

  14. OSCAR says:

    brilliant…you express my sentiments…i will follow u for your thoughts….:)
    thank you

  15. [...] Kevin Powell is an activist, public speaker, and author or editor of 10 books. His 11th book, Barack Obama, Ronald Reagan, and The Ghost of Dr. King: And Other Blogs and Essays, will be published by in January 2012. You can reach him at, or follow him on Twitter @kevin_powell Eric Benet Expecting A Baby, Talks New Album leave a response, or trackback from your own site. [...]

  16. [...] Kevin Powell writes eloquently about the role of male privilege in this and other recent issues on his blog. [...]

  17. Pat says:

    In general, yes, men always need to be introspective and become better people. In fact, that’s true for all people; that is the nature of being human.
    I do think there’s a difference between molesting children and frequenting prostitutes. Spitzer and Sandusky do not belong in the same boat.

    “For sure, nothing sadder and more tragic than to see 84-year-old Coach Joe Paterno, who I’ve admired since I was a child, throwing away 46 years of coaching heroism and worship (and 62 total years on the school’s football staff) because the power, glory, and symbolism of Penn State football was above protecting the boys allegedly touched and molested by Sandusky.”

    And yet Paterno didn’t do that. He heard a vaguely-worded allegation, and he passed on the rumor to his superiors. Why are we condemning him for doing the right thing?

    Are we really supposed to call the cops every time we hear a rumor? Are we really supposed to confront strangers when we see a parent disciplining a child, or someone raising his voice at his wife, or any other thing that we personally find offensive?

    I don’t think that will help anyone.

  18. Linqui says:

    I must agree with Yo Jones. Mr Powell, the depth of this analysis is painful and confronts painful demons that all men face and some choose NOT to succumb to. I would be interested in hearing your analysis on how YOU and men that you know stay committed, remain humble, love one wife (or partner), and generally uphold the highest ideals of our society. It is difficult to look at the man in the mirror and realize how off the mark many of us men are in our personal relationships. We are a society built on the subjugation of ‘the other’ for the glory of patriarchy. It all comes down to the almighty penis as you say, and in this case personal pride and ego trumped doing the right thing, and innocent people suffered and continue to suffer to this day. So despite the wins, and an incredible 60-year career+, it all came crashing down in one moment .. A moment that called for your very best self (man-up) and yet we in a very public and humiliating way we all are reminded that we fall short.

  19. Yo Jones says:

    Today, it is rare to find writing online that is clear, simply worded–yet poignant. This blog posting serves the true spirit of the medium, which is to offer a delving insight into an issue–then back off. The ‘back off’ is critical. It allows the reader to take inventory of their own guarded ideals, without feeling brow-beaten by the writer. Mr. Powell, thank you. –yo jones

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