Thursday, April 7, 2016

Sexual Abuse, Then and Now

In today’s America sexual relations between adults and adolescents are severely condemned. The perpetrators are seriously punished criminally and they are named and shamed. Whether a man is preying on a teenage girl or a woman teacher is having sexual congress with a student, our nation has become extremely unforgiving in the matter of illicit sexuality.

We no longer distinguish between children and adolescents and treat the age of consent-- which differs significantly from country to country—as a line that separates adults from children. Molesting a seven year old is thus equivalent to having sex with a seventeen year old. One might imagine that the older adolescent can consent, but the law says he or she cannot.

Not only that, we have taken to making these cases into public spectacles. In the old days, people were more discreet and more modest, not only about their own sexuality but about sex crimes. They did not feel compelled to display sexuality on the public square and in the media.

Today’s culture warriors will tell you that it was all being covered up, but that was unlikely. When such crimes did happen, they were dealt with more discreetly. Neither victims nor perpetrators were named and shamed.

Was there more sexual abuse on college campuses? Five decades ago girls and boys lived in same-sex dorms. Boys were not allowed in girls’ dorms, ever. Girls followed strict parietal rules which forced them to return to their dorms at around midnight. It’s not just that sexual abuse was being covered up. There were far fewer chances for it to happen. Besides, many college girls at the time were not as insecure about their sexuality and did not flaunt their vampiness. They certainly did not get blind drunk and drop to their knees to provide sexual services.

Some thinkers have suggested that the new attitude, the one that named and shamed mas making us into a shame culture. They were really showing that they did not understand shame culture. When Mao Zedong subjected party bureaucrats to public humiliation sessions he was not trying to produce a shame culture. He was trying to undermine one.

In a true shame culture, such matters are usually not put on public display. In a true shame culture people do not have public conversations about sexual molestation. As a friend once told me, when you talk about such matters openly in public, you give people ideas. Worse yet, if you make sexual abuse seem to be prevalent you make it look more like the norm and less like a deviation.

Yale professor Mark Oppenheimer has taken up these questions in an article about the 1959-60 case of Suzi. I have not yet seen the original article, so I rely on the summary offered by Nora Caplan-Bricker in Slate’s XX column. Oppenheimer should be praised for offering a sober reflection on the old case and about today’s culture. And Caplan-Bricker has reported on the issues well and reasonably. Both have shown courage in offering some thoughts that challenge the current hysteria.

Since Suzi’s case took place during the Eisenhower administration, we can see in it how things were dealt with at the time.

Caplan-Bricker explains what happened at Yale University. The fourteen year old Suzi lived in a New Haven suburb:

… [She] offered blowjobs to an unknown number of men at Yale in 1959 and 1960.

Caplan-Bricker continues:

In a new feature for Tablet Magazine, Mark Oppenheimer—who teaches at Yale and has contributed to Slate—tells the story of what he calls “the original American campus sex scandal.” The case differed from the kind that has become so common today: Suzi didn’t accuse the Yale students of rape or assault—or, in fact, of anything. “I was not a victim,” she told Oppenheimer. “I pursued these people.” At 14 she was a minor and, in her own words, “very sexual”; some of the men told Oppenheimer they thought she was older, though many also remembered her, troublingly, as seeming “confused” or “disturbed.” She looked up the men’s dormitory phone numbers in the New Haven White pages and, as both she and the men represent the story, essentially invited herself over.

In today’s cultural climate, the men involved would have been exposed and imprisoned. Today’s morality is on the one side overly permissive and on the other side overly strict. Now that we have made morality into a black and white affair, a woman teacher who has carnal relations with a seventeen or even an eighteen year old student risks a felony conviction and jail time. One notes that the impetus for prosecution most often comes from the boy’s mother.

Oppenheimer first asks a question I have addressed on this blog. Is it easier to get over such a trauma when your name has appeared in the media? Emma Sulkowicz may have thought she wanted nothing more than justice when she chose to walk around the Columbia campus carrying a mattress, but still, as I mentioned at the time, she will henceforth be known as: Mattress Girl. How do you think that that will affect her dating and job prospects?

Caplan-Bricker follows Oppenheimer in questioning the recovery prospects:

In particular, he questions how a saturated media culture and an omnipresent Internet have made it harder for both men and women to move on after shame and trauma experienced in youth. Though twenty male undergraduates were convicted in court of “lascivious carriage” and forced to take some time off from school, most eventually graduated from Yale; Oppenheimer, who tracked many of them down, writes, “After graduation, no Google search had informed prospective employers about their criminal pasts, and they went on to lead lives of distinction: several architects, a doctor, a small-business owner, a painter.”

Convicted, but discreetly, as I understand it.  Apparently, for a misdemeanor offense. The men were suspended from school, but not stigmatized in aeternum. To this day we do not know their names.

But, what happened to Suzi? How did anonymity affect her:

Oppenheimer also wanted to know whether anonymity had benefited Suzi. “It occurred to me that maybe, if you came of age before everyone talked about trauma, there was less of it,” he muses. As his piece makes clear, our heightened debate over sexual culture—despite forward progress—has cost all involved “the luxury of forgetting.”

Oppenheimer seems fairly certain that the Internet would have amplified the damage on everyone—and perhaps especially on Suzi, who seems to have lived largely unencumbered by this history. She found her way to San Francisco in the Haight-Ashbury days, fell in love, and, as Oppenheimer writes, is “in a longer, more stable marriage, as far as I can tell, than any of the men I talked to who were arrested for being with her. Insofar as she thinks about her mental state, she judges herself to be well.”

In her conclusion Caplan-Bricker argues the case for today’s approach, the naming and shaming. She suggests that it protects women, though one fails to see that women are more protected today than they were in those olden days. Surely, a culture of discretion was more protective than a culture of exposure.

She also believes that telling stories of sexual abuse in public is therapeutic for young women. I disagree. In some cases women are obliged to testify in court, but they never do so willingly or happily. And they do not do so because they think it will be therapeutic. They make the sacrifice in order to see justice visited on a rapist.

Caplan-Bricker seems to think that the current wave of shaming men and women for certain kinds of sexual behavior is a good thing. She does not mention the fact that the new gender-neutral attitude does not distinguish between men and women perpetrators. Many of those who are being thrown in jail for improper sexual relations are women—presumably women who have been liberated from the rules and roles that used to constrain their sexual expressions. In really olden days they would have been practicing courtly love.

She concludes:

By contrast, current media practices reflect, at least in part, a growing awareness that publicly naming and shaming accused men can provide prophylactic protection for women, and that telling individual stories provides opportunities for precisely the education and discussion that Yale men lacked in 1960. That national conversation wouldn’t be possible without the Internet. Oppenheimer doesn’t say that the loss of certain privacies constitutes a bad trade. But his piece does express the ways that social progress is far from a straight line, and how, in the lives of individuals, the public nature of our current conversation about sexual culture can make it exceedingly hard to move forward.  

Not all change is change for the better. True enough, change does involve trade-offs, but not all trade-offs are the right trade-offs.


Ares Olympus said...

This discussion avoid consideration of the catholic priest sexual abuse scandals, where church leaders practiced "discretion" which simply moving perpetrators to new locations to continue their actions afresh.

It's easy enough to say "naming and shaming" don't work, don't help people to move forward from "mistakes", doesn't clearly act as a deterrent for other perpetrators, but it's obvious that ignoring the problem as the voice of discretion calls for ALSO doesn't work. I don't have any guesses what can work.

I agree we ought to distinguish between 7 year olds and 14 or 17 year old victims of sexual abuse, especially in regards to consent. Probably we do need to consider what "age of consent" means. Like if you're old enough to reproduce, you'd better be granted some autonomy to make your own messes.
In traditional societies, the age of consent for a sexual union was a matter for the family to decide, or a tribal custom. In most cases, this coincided with signs of puberty, menstruation for a woman and pubic hair for a man.

A related problem apparently is the age of puberty has moved steadily younger for modern cultures...
At the turn of the 20th century, the average age for an American girl to get her period was 16 to 17. Today, that number has plummeted to less than 13, according to data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. The trend has been attributed to the epidemic of overweight children and a greater exposure to pollution, which does bad things to developing bodies and accelerates the timing of a girl’s first menstruation.
Among the toxins causing this trend, the biggest offenders are plastic compounds, in particular phthalates, man-made chemicals found all over the place: in plastic food and beverage containers, carpeting, shampoos, insect repellents, vinyl flooring, shower curtains, plastic toys and in the steering wheels and dashboards of most cars. Our bodies cannot metabolize phthalates, which interfere with the endocrine system—the body’s system of glands and hormones—and harm fat cells. Indirectly, phthalates may cause weight gain and so influence the timing of puberty. “The No. 1 factor that was pushing girls into puberty early was their body mass index,” says Dr. Frank Biro, director of education and a professor in the Division of Adolescent Medicine at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center.
When children enter puberty, their brains undergo changes—brought on by the flood of pubertal hormones—that “makes them especially attentive to what other people think of them and especially responsive to social reward,” says Steinberg.
Meanwhile, no matter how physically developed a girl is, her psychosocial maturation remains anchored to her chronological age. “These young girls get, let’s use the term “hit on,” by older boys and men and how can they be prepared to deal with it?
There is a medical solution for patients who, like 6-year-old Rebecca, are diagnosed with precocious puberty. Hormone treatments can essentially halt the process of sexual maturation. Then, at an appropriate age, the drugs are withdrawn and puberty plays out.

I don't like my paranoid thoughts about environmental chemicals, but while we try to be slightly sensible about reducing exposure, we can be glad we have science to help measure the changes at all. Perhaps someday most children will be given inhibitory hormonal treatments that delay puberty, even if that seems dramatic. But

Maybe a low-tech alternative is to keep daughters physical active in sports, avoiding obesity to delay menstruation for long as possible?

sestamibi said...

"drop to their needs"???

Is that supposed to be a pun that I didn't get?

KCFleming said...

Brilliant blog post.

I do think no small part of the name and shame practice today is a feminist attack on normal male sexuality.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

to sestamibi== thanks for pointing this out-- it was more a mistake than a pun, so I corrected it