The XX Factor

Penn State Scandal Encourages Victims To Come Out

Protesters supporting the victims.
Penn State students  express solidarity with the alleged rape victims of former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky

Photo by Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

There’s something about sports that those of us who aren’t avid sports fans will probably never understand but can also never really dispute: It gets to people. Sports has a power beyond the news media, TV, the music industry, or even the movies to reach certain audiences. According to NPR, this little truism is playing out in a big way when it comes to the fallout from the Penn State child rape scandal, which is inspiring large numbers of people to come forward with their histories of being victimized. Not only by Jerry Sandusky, but by anyone: scout leaders, church officials, family members. All sorts of people who’ve buried this secret deep inside are reaching out to attorneys across the country and finally speaking out and seeking justice.

The reason seems to be that this scandal’s presence in sports media means a brand new audience is hearing and accepting the message that it’s not your fault if you’re victimized by a sexual predator. The ugly truth of the matter is that the default setting in our society for rape victims is to feel ashamed and to self-blame, something predators eagerly exploit, often going so far as to call victims by slut-shaming names or tell victims that no one will believe them anyway. Getting a counter-message out is hard; you can put it in a media channel, but if there’s no audience for it, they won’t hear the message. It seems that for some sports fans, this may be the first time they’ve really been put into a situation of really thinking hard about how it must feel to be a victim of a sex crime. 

Additionally, the media coverage of this situation has been admirably free of the usual mud-slinging aimed at rape victims, usually perpetuated by the accused’s friends and defense team, but reported with inadequate skepticism by mainstream media outlets. It may be due to the youth and the gender of the victims, or because there’s testimony from an eyewitness that’s so repugnant it’s hard to squeeze in even a whiff of victim-blaming. That sends a strong, clear message to other survivors that they aren’t alone and they didn’t do anything wrong. If only that could be true of coverage of other sex crimes, especially when perpetrated by sports heroes. Sadly, I’m not going to hold my breath hoping this relatively progressive coverage influences future coverage of alleged rapes perpetuated by major sports figures.