Sandusky and sexual abuse: From apathy to panic

Jerry Sandusky leaving the courthouse in Centre County on Thursday, the day before a jury convicted him of sexually abusing 10 boys. NABIL K. MARK / Centre Daily Times
Jerry Sandusky leaving the courthouse in Centre County on Thursday, the day before a jury convicted him of sexually abusing 10 boys. NABIL K. MARK / Centre Daily Times
Posted: June 27, 2012

In the 1970s, I went to a summer camp whose director liked little boys. That's how we described pedophiles at the time, and all the kids figured he was one.

Our parents did, too. I remember telling my folks that the director often visited our cabins at the end of swim period, because he knew we would be changing out of our bathing suits at that point. He also showed up at skinny-dips with a movie camera. True story.

If you think that's astonishing, consider this: We thought it was funny. My parents laughed it off, and so did I. Later, after I became a counselor at the same camp, the director's proclivities remained a source of mirth. There was a playful, Keystone Kops aspect to it; we would station a kid on "director watch," for example, to warn everyone when he was on his way.

I thought a lot about my summer camp during the trial of former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky, who on Friday was convicted of sexually abusing 10 boys over a 15-year period. My heart goes out, first and foremost, to the victims of his horrific crimes. But I also worry that our present-day obsession with pedophilia will scar all our kids, who are growing up in a climate of fear and mistrust. Rather than simply vilifying pedophiles like Sandusky, we might also pause to consider how our shifting views of them have affected American childhood.

Less taboo

Born in 1944, Jerry Sandusky came of age during one of the United States' first great child-abuse panics. "Children in alarming numbers have been the victims of molesters, exhibitionists, perverts, and pedophiles," warned journalist Howard Whitman in 1951, when Sandusky was 7. Even "tots of five and six" had been "forced or defiled — in their ignorance — into acts of perversion," Whitman added.

Whitman also noted that childhood sexual abuse inevitably left "psychological wounds." Male victims of molestation were supposedly at risk of becoming homosexual, which was classified as a mental illness at the time.

Yet by the late 1960s, when Sandusky was playing football at Penn State, such behaviors were much less taboo. Experts increasingly described children as willing participants or even provocateurs in sexual relationships with adult partners, who were diagnosed as "immature" or "feebleminded" rather than warped or dangerous. Moreover, they were thought to be redeemable: One study found that seven of eight pedophiles had been "cured" of their "compulsions ... to use children as sex objects."

Most shocking to our own sensibilities, psychiatrists questioned whether "a single molestation" would damage a child. "Early sexual contacts do not appear to have harmful effects on many children unless the family, legal authorities, or society reacts negatively," one textbook declared.

Potential criminals

If that was the case, perhaps my parents were right to laugh off the camp director's pedophilia. Today, his inclination could have triggered a criminal investigation and a media blitz. The camp that we loved would almost certainly have closed down. And none of that would have been good for the kids who went there.

Unless, that is, they had been sexually abused by the camp director. Since the 1980s, a wealth of psychological research has demonstrated the negative long-term consequences of childhood sexual abuse.

I have no idea if our long-deceased director actually abused children. If he did, he most likely subjected them to significant and lasting suffering.

But all our children have been hurt by the current panic surrounding childhood sexual abuse. Consider that it's become nearly impossible for men to get child-care jobs in some places; that teachers of both sexes are subjected to fingerprinting, which marks all of them as potential criminals; and that many schools now have absolute prohibitions on all physical contact between students and teachers, including end-of-the-year hugs.

Contact among students is closely regulated, too, with occasionally ridiculous consequences. Last year, an assistant principal in Florida notified police after a 12-year-old girl kissed a boy of the same age in gym class. The administrator called it a "possible sex crime" that he was required to report under state law.

That brings us back to Jerry Sandusky, who will most likely spend the rest of his life in jail. That's exactly as it should be. But no matter how many people we imprison, it will never make us feel completely safe.

We've gone from laughing at pedophilia to letting it consume us. The cost of our vigilance is the loss of our innocence.

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history at New York University and lives in Narberth. He is the author of "Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory" (Yale University Press). He can be reached at We invite you to comment by clicking here. Comments will be moderated.

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