Sexual Politics at Penn State—An Inside Look

Women’s Media Center’s exclusive:

The author, professor emerita of Penn State University, describes the culture that produced the recent scandal—and suggests a path to a needed focus on the victims of such abuse.

This book and its empathetic engagement will be a treasure to anyone working with victims of sexual abuse. And if we want to truly understand the failure in the Penn State scandal, we will look closely to its victims.

I was once summoned to my dean’s office to justify comments I made in a radio interview upon publication of my book Prostitution of Sexuality (1995). I had said that one in ten women in the United States is raped, and that figure—which has since doubled—was an undercount because only 10 percent of rapes are reported. The interview angered a Penn State alumni, who demanded that the university president take action against me. In all seriousness, the president forwarded the complaint to my dean, who expected me to explain myself. My answer didn’t satisfy apparently so I was called in once again. This time I told the administration that the call was likely coming from a sexual predator, and I walked out of the dean’s office. Penn State caters to an alumni whose donations are a major source of income, and whose presence is a major segment of the crowd that fills the 100,000-plus capacity football stadium every home game. In such an atmosphere, coach Joe Paterno, as the lead draw for alumni contributions, was beyond question. So, for a time, was Rene Portland, the Penn State women’s basketball coach whose explicit “No Lesbians” team policy and attendant sexual harassment wreaked havoc on many young women’s lives and college careers. When Penn State, under pressure from feminist and lesbian/gay rights groups, mandated sexual harassment training for all coaches in the 1990s, Paterno and Portland, with the arrogance of the untouchable, showed up for only the last 15 minutes of the program.