Sexual abuse now plays a similar role when it comes to the general abuse of human beings.
Serious, vicious sexual abuse causes terrible harm; it can cripple people emotionally, it can mar their entire lives. When sexual abuse is violent or coerced or inflicted on children it leaves scars more intractable than those left by assault and battery and deserves all the punishment and public repugnance that it gets. But the focus on sexual abuse by the news media and legislators and human rights activists has broadened to include offenses which, while reprehensible, are a long way from being the nastiest things one human being can inflict on another in the course of a day.
Sexual harassment – while its effect can range from unpleasant to incapacitating – is being equated with sexual abuse and is treated in news stories and by the public as an equivalent evil. It is not.
Sexual harassment of a subordinate by a person in authority, if it falls under a criminal statute, should be punished as the crime it is. If it does not fall under a criminal statute, the perpetrator should be at least booted out of the position which accommodated his or her behavior. On the other hand, sexual harassment in which the harasser has no hold on, no power over, the harassed – cat calls on the street, innuendos by obnoxious colleagues, homophobic taunts – is a bummer, yes, but it does not deserve to be thought of in the same way as sexual abuse or sexual harassment by an employer or other authority figure. As I was reminded by my parents, in my obese pre-teens when I was taunted for being fat, “sticks and stones etc. etc.” Also, cat calls, innuendos and sexual taunts invite rejoinders that can turn the tables on the harasser by making clear the infantile inadequacies which prompted the harassment.
The whitewashing of rape and sexual abuse in the military and on college campuses are scandals that must be immediately addressed. The perpetrators should be punished to the full extent of the law. However, we should not let our enthusiasm for justice for victims of sex crimes deflect our outrage over other injustices which have become endemic in the military and academia, evils which, while not as violent and immediate as rape and sexual abuse, are equally unjust, effect far more victims and, just like sexual crimes, can reverberate malignantly through entire lifetimes.
Our soldiers, poorly vetted, poorly trained, unprepared, are being cast into dubious conflicts with ill-defined goals and shifting alliances, to cause havoc and to have havoc rained down upon them, and then they are recalled, and recalled again. Once they are done serving their country, their sacrifice is unacknowledged (except by empty words on appropriate occasions) and their welfare is ignored. Not only should there be no homeless veterans, there should be no poor veterans, no inadequately cared for veterans and no ignored veterans, much less shunned ones. Sexual harassment in the military is a real problem that must be quickly and straightforwardly resolved. Its resolution requires action, not the constant reiteration of the problem by the news media and by politicians. Sexual harassment is a scapegoat which allows a much broader range of deficiencies and injustices infecting the military to be ignored.
A rape on campus is a crime. The police should be called in and the rapist prosecuted. But why are college administrators, who wring their hands and piously close one barn door or another after a sexual assault is reported, not addressing iniquities which are their responsibility, not law enforcement’s? The high cost and the mediocre quality of the education offered in most institutions saddles many graduates with decades of debt and mindless toil. Unrelieved by the leisure available in an ordinary, decently salaried forty-hour work week and lacking the general knowledge which should be the bedrock of a liberal education, today’s graduates, unlike previous generations’, are unable to fully participate in and enjoy the life of the world around them. For college administrators to concentrate on the behavior of the student body – whether it is criminal behavior, such as rape (which should be dealt with by the police), or problematic behavior, like binge drinking – is to use student behavior as a scapegoat and allows them to ignore the failures and weaknesses that disgrace higher education in America today.
In society in general, sexual reforms such as gay marriage, uni-sex lavatories, gender-free toys, are of genuine concern for certain groups and individuals. Perhaps simply because sex attracts readers and viewers, such issues attract the news media’s attention, diverting it from a host of graver social ills – income inequality being at the top of the list. Think of the difference between media coverage of a Congressperson caught sexting and of one caught taking a bribe from a corporation, or between media coverage of one doctor accused of sexual abuse and of one hundred doctors accused of prescribing unneeded medication in return for pharmaceutical company perks, or between media coverage of a CEO’s erotic peccadillos and his or her company’s machinations to avoid paying taxes.
When it comes to the scapegoating of tobacco, I’m not so sure, but I doubt if there is a grand conspiracy to turn the public’s attention away from important social problems by engaging its prurient interest. Competition drives commercial news media to pander to the most reflexive human interests. Politicians and generals and harried college administrators are, for the most part, caught up in the same hysteria as the public in general and probably do not even realize that by narrowing their attention to the latest hot-button issues they are able to avoid their more pressing responsibilities.
Is there a solution? Well, having a news media that is gauged to adolescent proclivities is probably easier to fix than climate change. Major news providers could agree to apply some industry-wide rules of self-censorship, not unlike the self-imposed restraints of Hollywood’s production code of mid-century. The news media already practices self-censorship on a daily basis. It is known as editing – the same process which already is in place to decide what should be considered news and what should not. If the public were treated more maturely by the news media it would react more maturely to the news. To satisfy our less mature impulses there always will be The National Enquirer and its web equivalents.