As you may have heard by now, last weekend the New York Times Magazine ran an in-depth article called "Prep School Predators: The Horace Mann School's Secret History of Sexual Abuse." In tremendous detail, author Amos Kamil, himself an alumnus of the school, details allegations that in the 1970s and 1980s, the administration of an elite New York prep school, Horace Mann, ignored teachers who sexually coerced, assaulted, and otherwise abused their students. Most of the stories Kamil was able to establish were of adult men exploiting boys, but he writes that there were just as many teachers exploiting girls:
Shortly after my arrival, a new friend walked me around the school, pointing out teachers to avoid.
“What do you mean? Like, they’re hard graders?”
“No. Perverts. Stay away from them. Trust me.”
I heard about some teachers who supposedly had a habit of groping female students and others who had their eyes on the boys. I heard that Mark Wright, an assistant football coach, had recently left the school under mysterious circumstances. I was warned to avoid Stan Kops, the burly, bearded history teacher known widely as “the Bear,” who had some unusual pedagogical methods.
"Everyone" knew it was going on. And yet it continued. How?
It's no accident that the article ran in the midst of Jerry Sandusky's trial for grooming, molesting, and assaulting a series of boys, in some cases on the grounds of Penn State. As I've written before, I'm a silver lining kind of gal. Boys have been molested for generations. But the Sandusky media storm, coming after the Catholic priest scandals of a decade ago, has opened a window on the subject, allowing more and more boys and men to speak out—and to feel that it's not their personal burden, but a horror perpetrated not just on them but on others. And that is changing the culture, teaching still more adults what to watch for—or should I say, how to see what they see.
For a generation now, males have had to bear an additional burden of shame if they were molested. This is not to suggest it's anything but horrifying when it happens to girls, as I've written here before. But many boys have been left to feel their violation is even more unspeakable than girls, as shameful and private as it was for females 50 years ago. They're raised to believe they should be the pursuers, not the pursued. If they're gay boys, they are forced wonder whether somehow they brought it on themselves, or whether they're gay because they were violated. If they're not gay, they're forced to doubt their own perceptions of their sexual identity—why would someone else see them as that kind of victim?—and worry that, if they ever told, someone else would belittle them as gay, a stigma only recently lessened as lesbians and gay men have become more culturally accepted. All this means that even as girls and women have pushed a revolution in making it possible to discuss child sexual violations since the 1970s, boys and men were left slightly behind. The Sandusky events, and now the Horace Mann story, means that there's more light and less shame on a subject that has until now been hidden. That's the silver lining: All this conversation is opening our eyes to what's been there all along.
We think of reality as fixed: that anyone could or should have been able to see and respond to something so horribly and obviously wrong. But seeing—or should I say, perceiving—is a social act, shaped by cultural climate. Once upon a time, everyone knew it was wrong to be gay, and that of course the federal government should drive lesbians and gay men out of the civil service, even at the risk of prompting their suicides. Once upon a time, everyone smoked on planes and while pregnant. Once upon a time, everyone knew that the king was appointed by God. You know the quote: The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there. That, surely, is part of what's so riveting about Mad Men: watching people live by truths that today we consider appalling falsehoods.
We may hold some truths to be self-evident, but it takes a society to decide which truths those might be. It takes stubborn, bullheaded people, crusaders and visionaries, to change what we perceive. They're often very difficult people; they don't play well with others. Once the change has started, it takes a host of others to carry that change out into the world: reporters, academic researchers, advocates and activists, lawyers, doctors, lawmakers, victims who save their own lives by transforming their violation into a crusade. And one day, ordinary people watch the news and rethink what they know, shocked at what they've let pass before. They come forward to tell the stories they've never even seen as important before, inscribing that change even more deeply into the culture in which they live. That's how we learn to see what's been right in front of our eyes all along.