Every time a story about sexual abuse of children surfaces in the news, I have a tendency to hold my breath wondering if there will be a link to gay men. Since pedophilia and sexual abuse of boys has often been linked to homosexuality and predatory gay men, it rarely takes too much time for a “blame the gays” scenario to play out.
But the scandal at Penn State involving married, father-of-six Jerry Sandusky turns that storyline on its head and the coverage and analysis of the scandal has been, reassuringly, free of anti-gay rhetoric and links to gays. But is it a turning point on how these kinds of stories play out in the media? That’s harder to tell.
What differentiates this story with previous sexual abuse stories is the complete lack of a gay narrative. No one is assuming that Sandusky is a gay man who preys on young boys. Maybe it is the football, maybe it is the marriage with six children, but no one is suggesting that there is a gay angle here. While that seems obvious to people who understand pedophilia and sexual abuse, the media hasn’t always been quick at understanding that.
When you look at how the Catholic abuse scandal has been reported, there was a fairly constant gay angle to the stories. In part, that’s because some of the abusers appear to have been gay men. It also impossible to examine a scandal involving Catholic priests without there being a hint of homosexuality and gay men involved. In addition, the Catholic church and its defenders quickly went on a “blame the gays” defensive and suggested the abuse scandal occurred because of all the gay men in the priesthood.
But when critics of this approach pointed to research on pedophilia and child sexual abusers not having a link to homosexuality–or even the study commissioned by the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops which found no such result–the gay storyline never really goes away.
A controversy erupted over the weekend after Gawker went after the Public Radio International show “To The Point” for connecting the Penn State controversy to LGBT people becoming foster parents and adopting. Here’s how the show explained its inelegant attempt to connect the two issues. The show has elicited a huge outpouring on the show’s Facebook page. While there’s plausibility in the show’s explanation, part of the problem was its choice of “counterpoint” analyst Jerry Cox, president of Arkansas’ Family Council. While the conservative group unsuccessfully lobbied to ban gays from adopting in Arkansas, host Warren Olney did a poor job of challenging Cox’s assumptions and we are left with anti-gay conservatives going largely unchallenged when invited on as guests.
But the disagreements here are fairly minor league and we are in the second week of the story. That’s an oddly good sign. But does it mean that the “blame the gays” storyline in coverage has gone away, or is it the unique nature of the Sandusky story that provides no room for connecting the abuse to gay men? I’d like to think that the media is becoming more skeptical of claims that link child sexual abuse to gay men. I also think this story will likely change how we look at sexual predators because the abuse and cover-up is so dramatic and so authentically “masculine” in the world of college football.
But will it change how sexual abuse stories are covered and how they are linked to gay men? Only time will tell.