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 lulu.com in January 2012. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter @kevin_powell