One point needs to be made about former Penn State assistant football coach Mike McQueary. If indeed he is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, he is not alone.
To be clear, before publication, McQueary apparently neither confirmed nor sanctioned reports by ESPN and other media outlets that he told Penn State players he had been abused as a boy. That said, if McQueary is a survivor, he would be a member of a brotherhood far larger than many people realize.
More than 25 million males in the United States have experienced some form of sexual violence in their lives, according to a 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey. That so many of our boys and men are abused should be shocking, not because it is rare, as so many believe, but because of its profound commonness.
Sexual violence is a problem that has reached epidemic levels in our society. In the recent report on rape and sexual violence issued by the White House Council on Women and Girls, the victimization of men was highlighted as a point of concern. More men have been sexually abused at some point in their lives (more than 1 in 5, according to the NISVS) than have diabetes or heart disease — 1 in 10 or 1 in 8, respectively, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics.
The Adverse Childhood Experiences Survey reports that more than 1 in 6 males experienced sexual abuse in their childhood. It also says survivors of abuse are at greater risk than nonsurvivors of depression, anxiety disorders, interpersonal difficulties, substance abuse, a wide range of physical illnesses and even suicide.
Given these grim statistics, anything done to discourage survivors from coming forward makes combating the scourge of sexual abuse that much harder, while it also exacerbates a host of health issues. By running this article on McQueary, ESPN has just made fighting sexual abuse in the United States much more difficult. Even worse, the network has sent a terrible message to all survivors that their right to privacy no longer exists.
ESPN used this article to serve an agenda that has nothing to do with the former coach’s interests, and was more than likely directly opposed to McQueary’s personal wishes. Presuming that everything in the report is accurate, McQueary shared this information in a closed-door meeting with a select group of players.
He did not make a public declaration to the entire team and certainly not to the whole Penn State community. It would seem a fair assumption, then, that this is not information McQueary wanted splashed in headlines across the nation. Yet ESPN and others felt entitled to report this information without prior confirmation — or presumably permission — from McQueary.
Whatever the reasons behind publishing this information, one thing is clear: It was not done with the intent to provide support to McQueary. Nor, it would seem, was any thought given to how this story might negatively affect other survivors.
This sends a chilling message to all survivors. Now, any disclosure they make about sexual abuse they suffered could lead to them being publicly exposed and humiliated. Worse, it also signals to those who would report a person they suspect is sexually abusing a child that public disclosures of the most private details of their own life may well be a consequence of their actions.
By stealing McQueary’s right to privacy, ESPN has effectively said to survivors and their supporters, “We, the media, have the right to tell your stories on our terms.”
This makes it far more likely that people will keep silent in the face of the epidemic of sexual abuse we are battling. And that silence will likely make perpetrators rejoice. Abuse thrives when survivors are kept silent and others refuse to speak up.
Christopher M. Anderson is the executive director of MaleSurvivor in New York.