Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Daniel Mendelsohn on Penn State Paterno-Sandusky Story: Heterosexual Clubs and Homosexual Anxiety

As I've noted several times here, I think Daniel Mendelsohn is a national treasure, one of the most insightful and gifted writers around.  His Lost is at the top of the list of books I've read in the last decade that, in my judgment, are world-transforming works of art.  And that's a very small list . . . . 

And because I esteem Mendelsohn so much, I was intrigued when Kathy Hughes left a comment here a day or so ago, telling me Mendelsohn had published an op-ed piece in the New York Times about the Penn State Paterno-Sandusky story.  Kathy then kindly emailed the piece to me, and I've just read it.  

Mendelsohn thinks that the gender of Sandusky's victims at Penn State made all the difference to those in the know about his abuse of minors.  Those like Mike McQueary, who by his own admission actually saw Sandusky raping a boy, and those like the officials who were apprised of what Sandusky was doing, reacted with shame and denial because the objects of Sandusky's abuse were male and not female minors. Whereas they would no doubt have intervened with alacrity if they had seen (or gained certain knowledge of) Sandusky abusing a girl, they turned a blind eye to his sexual abuse of boys.

Though Rush Limbaugh and others keep trying to milk homophobic outrage from the Penn State story, psychologists have, as Mendelsohn notes, long since distinguished between pedophilia and adult sexuality whether gay or straight.  Sandusky is, one gathers from what appear to be highly credible accounts of his behavior, a pedophile.  But he also happens to be a pedophile who has lived his adult life in a heterosexual marriage and has enjoyed all the rights and privileges of that marriage, and to attempt to call him "gay" in the face of that easily ascertained set of facts is to twist the plain reality at our disposal to the breaking point, in order to invent a dishonest anti-gay narrative for this story.

But then why the heightened anxiety and outright shame when an official of a powerful athletic program is caught raping male minors?  How can this be a story about shame revolving around homosexuality if what Sandusky was doing is properly named pedophilia and not homosexuality at all?

Here's Mendelsohn's take.  Here's his explanation for why all those who knew very well what Sandusky was up to failed to intervene:

The denial is hardly surprising. In a culture that increasingly accepts gay life, organized athletics, from middle school to the professional leagues, is the last redoubt of unapologetic anti-gay sentiment. Anecdotal and public evidence for this is dismayingly overwhelming. Most recently, Sean Avery, of the New York Rangers hockey team, has been ostracized and ridiculed merely for making a short video in support of New York’s same-sex marriage act. (Anti-gay slurs are such an ingrained part of Ranger fans’ cheering that some gay fans have stopped attending games.) 
What lurks behind so many male athletes’ vociferous antipathy to homosexuality seems to be deep anxiety about masculinity, the very quality that aggressive team sports showcase. After all, a guy is never so much a guy as when he’s playing a violent game or hanging with his teammates afterward in the showers and locker rooms, “horsing around.” The familiar ferocious anti-gay swagger many athletes affect is likely meant to quash even the faintest suspicion that anything tender or erotic animates naked playfulness between men.

The stronger the current of subliminal and suppressed homoeroticism is in male-bonded fraternities that exclude and demean women (and openly gay men), the more likely that fraternity is to project outwards a vicious, effusively vocal homophobia.  It has to behave this way, in order to avoid coming to terms with the meaning of all that male-bonded "horsing around" within the confines of the clubhouse.

As I've noted previously, I believe, one of my grad school professors first put me on to a line of analysis similar to Mendelsohn's in this op-ed statement, when he noted that the Catholic clerical world is simultaneously viciously homophobic and rife with homoerotic attraction because all male-exclusive, male-bonded clubs including the Catholic priesthood (and the ministry of many churches), the army, the police, etc., feel obliged to be hyper-noisy about their heterosexuality.  To demonstrate to the world that they're heterosexual.

And to themselves.  In a culture that harshly stigmatizes male deviations from the masculine norm, these male-exclusive and male-bonded fraternities* have to avoid ever letting the awareness dawn on club members themselves of what, precisely, all that back-slapping and chest-bumping and "horsing around" in the showers portends for themselves.  These clubs depend absolutely, for their maintenance, on high levels of denial and projection: of denial reinforced by shame of the homoerotic bonds they comprise, and of macho demonstrations of power over gay men and women in order to prove their bona fide heterosexuality to the world.

We won't get far down the road to a solution to the behavior of the Penn State authorities or of Catholic officials until we begin to deal with what's at the heart of many of the most destructive gay-bashing impulses of our society, until we begin to recognize that these impulses almost always originate within male-exclusive, male-bonded clubs of heterosexual men who imagine that their heterosexuality is entitlement to demean others.  And who need to act out such demeaning of stigmatized others to prove to the world and to themselves that they're real men.

Real men like Mr. Limbaugh.  Or Pope Benedict.  Or Jerry Sandusky and Joe Paterno.  Or like any other members of the numerous male-dominant fraternities of which our society is full to the brim, and which depend for their sustenance on the definition of heterosexuality as normative and homosexuality as disordered.

*And I realize some of these groups--e.g., the police and military--have opened up to women considerably since my professor, whom I'm quoting in enumerating those groups, first made this observation.  Sadly, though, not the Catholic clerical club . . . . 

No comments: