Now that we’ve learned more about Joe Paterno, Penn State football and its “legacy” than we ever needed to, it’s time to talk about the real issue: allegations that at least eight boys were sexually abused by former football coach Jerry Sandusky. To date, the grand jury report remains one of the few accounts that documents what exactly these boys (now men in their 20s) had to endure. This is because, since Day 1, this story has never been about sexual abuse.
And as the spouse of a sexual-abuse survivor, I’m heartbroken. My husband was abused by his stepfather when he was 6, and for a period of time no one believed him except for his dad, who reported the abuse to the authorities. It was only after we got married last year that my husband, now 29, really started displaying signs of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. All of a sudden, he could not function. Everyday acts, things we all take for granted with our spouses, like hugging or laughing, became huge undertakings for him. Our first year of marriage was marked by shame, resentment, pain, anger and guilt. The sexual abuse had stolen my husband.
But he is slowly returning. Thanks to therapy, our love for and commitment to one another, my husband is reclaiming his life. He gets the credit for our progress because he had the strength to say, ‘I want to stop hurting.’ He spoke up once again—and this time, thankfully, I listened.
This is why I’m so embarrassed by what’s happening in the national conversation right now. I seethed when I saw a headline about how the coach of the Indianapolis Colts “feels” about the tragedy. Why is this man being given an outlet to voice his empty opinion? I’m also disturbed by a Facebook conversation I had the other day. I commented on the Penn State riots, noting how ashamed I was that thousands of people were acting out in favor of someone who did not do more to stop these horrible alleged crimes. A PSU alum later commented that she was offended by my remarks, even though she wasn’t there and had nothing to do with what happened on campus. These actions are pathetic, and so is the fact that people with ties to PSU—people who weren’t there and played no role—are taking the backlash personally. If this is not a testament to how stigmatized—how utterly silenced—sexual abuse has become in our society, I don’t know what is. Which is why we all need to start talking about it immediately.
The survivors’ loved ones play a big role in that. Another recent headline I saw focused on a woman whose son is an alleged victim of Sandusky. Naturally, she wants justice. She wants the perpetrator “to be put away for a long time.” I hope that she and all of the survivors’ partners, parents and friends do more than call for justice. I hope that they do their homework on the effects of sexual abuse and do their damndest to understand the triggers, the defense mechanisms and the pain associated with being molested. The real healing will be ongoing. It takes years. Survivors cannot do it alone and they have to know that their loved ones aren’t ashamed to help them deal with it. And to the survivors I want to say: I hope this media circus has not caused you any more pain. Though when I see how affected my husband has been over the last week, sadly, I know that it has. To see a school so obsessed with its own reputation must make you feel guilty for speaking out or in some way complicit in what happened to you. I hope that you find the strength and the courage to heal. My husband is living proof that it’s possible.
Just a little over a week since this case has unfolded, I’m now reading that PSU’s Board of Trustees is allegedly ordering people to stop talking about the case. Now is the worst possible time to be silent. Now is the time to talk about sexual abuse in a way that helps people understand the gravity of it. Let’s use this tragedy as an opportunity to address all of the terrible consequences and symptoms of being sexually abused. A good place to start would be to stop referring to this case as a sex scandal. When you call it that, you’re comparing child rape to what people like John Edwards (who cheated on his wife with a staffer, had a baby and lied about it) and Eliot Spitzer (who cheated on his wife with a hooker and lied about it) did. Yes, semantics matter.
It has taken my husband his entire life to come to grips with the fact that he was sexually, physically and emotionally abused. It has taken all the strength that we have, and then some, to keep our marriage together in spite of all the darkness.
Sexual abuse can happen anywhere, to anyone. One in four girls and one in six boys are molested before the age of 18. But the more we talk about it, maybe, just maybe, we can save a child from enduring what my husband and these survivors did. We can help eliminate the stigma. So next time this conversation comes up in your circle of friends, family and colleagues, don’t make it about football, legacy or Joe Paterno. Make it about sexual abuse. That’s the real story.
Those who have put PSU on a hallowed pedestal helped create the conditions that enabled the sexual abuse.
We need to hear from you—the survivor, the loved one, the advocate. We need you to tell your story, in your own words. To do so would help bring to light the one thing that’s missing from the national conversation: the reality of what it’s like to heal from the devastating effects of sexual abuse.
Savage Love: Sondheim is solace