Good Lord, this rash of sexual abuse and cover-ups. How often is it—every day? Every other day? Really damn frequently?—that another piece of this enormous and multifaceted … what are we supposed to call it? … this, this … this Thing is revealed.
“Problem” is too general. It’s too generic and too far removed, and as such, it’s way too disrespectful to survivors’ pain and courage. “Scandal” is a term too limited by its frequent association with politicians to completely apply to everybody else, though maybe it might work in academia’s wing of this Thing—the sexual abuse SCANDAL at Penn State, the sexual abuse SCANDAL at Michigan State.
“Movement” certainly applies to the nascent collective response to the Thing, i.e., the women’s movement, though I wonder if the term “movement” might be, ironically, too stationary. For comparison, when I think of the civil rights movement, I think of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and bravery and nonviolence and … the ’60s. A quick check on America’s racial climate reveals that we still need the civil rights movement, and, more than that, we need its association with NOW to be as fervent and determined as it was in the days of King. Far be it from our national conscience to term any response to the Thing a “movement,” then staple it to a particular time in history, only to study it 50 years later.
The Thing is a “plague”? “Tragedy”? “Latest great American self-inflicted wound”?
I find myself aghast, day after day, that the Thing has for so long been and continues to be a regular part of so many pieces of American life. I mentioned academia. Penn State and Jerry Sandusky. Michigan State and Larry Nasser. If you think for one second Southeast Tennessee’s beloved Vols’ or Tide’s or Dawgs’ successes on the athletic fields or courts or swimming pools couldn’t include sexual victimization as an ingredient somewhere in there, well, wise up.
There’s the church, too, both Catholic and mega. Shake hands, y’all, you’ve got at least one thing in common. The churches have found ways to perversely insert (Pun intended? You’d better believe it.) the Thing into their own familiar redemption narratives in these vain attempts to make the rest of us think they’ve handled it a) by the Good Book and b) differently from all the other institutions the Thing afflicts. Familiar redemption narratives but missing, I should say, a critical component. That is—and I’m borrowing the megachurch’s favorite adjective here—authentic regret.
Recall Andy Savage, a pastor now on leave from Memphis’ High Point Church. A few weeks ago, and from the pulpit, he shared that he’d “had a sexual incident” with a member of the Texas youth group he presided over 20 years back. He was something like 22 at the time, and I think she was 17. Aside from the adult-has-sex-with-child problem (though a friend of mine recently informed me that the legal age in Texas is … what did she say … 10? 11, maybe?), Savage’s case concisely lays bare the Thing’s backbone: massive corruption in the application of one’s power and position.
Maybe Savage thought what he did back then was consensual, and maybe he thought she thought it was consensual, too, though his official statement on High Point’s website is filled with mea culpas, so maybe not. Savage’s “I’m sorrys” may even be heartfelt as near as he is able to understand what the real Thing is, which is to say, not at all. What relegates his public apology to the realms of “still part of the problem” and not the realms of “confession as point of healing” is precisely his evident misunderstanding of what he did. “Sexual,” OK, sure, yep. But “incident”? That’s weak and self-serving. Instead, Savage should have tried something like:
I used my position of authority as this young woman’s youth leader to take advantage of her sexually. I had no way to know then and have no way to know now whether or not she accepted my sexual advances because she actually wanted sexual contact with me or only said she did because I was in a pre-existing position of authority. I, of course, was aware of the power my position carried. I knew what it could do and what it could get me, which is why I did what I did.
Somehow, that’s different from “incident.” It’s a little more authentic, I think.
I zero in on Savage’s case not because what he did is so particularly infuriating given his professional association with the church. How clumsy of me to believe a man of the church would unreservedly defend abuse victims or at least unreservedly examine his own wrongs and not equivocate on the subject like a top-notch shyster. Savage’s case is especially worth examining because the dynamics of power abuse at the heart of it are easy to see. Some evildoers (think Harvey Weinstein) have entire systems in place to obfuscate the roots of their contributions to the Thing. Teams of clever, well-paid lawyers and wordy, soulless PR folks and heaps of self-deception. While Savage is certainly self-deceived, jackhammers with diamond-tipped drill bits couldn’t punch through the self-deceit flesh mound that is Weinstein.
We all know, or good heavens we all should know, it’s not about sex. For the perpetrators, it’s about power. Does my power really have limits? If so, how far can I stretch them? Even out beyond God? When perps push the limits of their positional power in sexually self-serving directions, this Thing becomes more and more ensconced. Until the national conversation zeros in on the power dynamics at play in each terrible incident, the Thing won’t stop growing and mutating and festering.
The good news is this: The perps think they’ll get away with it forever. No, they assume they’ll get away with it forever simply because they’ve come to believe themselves to be just that powerful. Which is, of course, a big, fat delusion. As much as we’ve seen the ugliness of the Thing, we’ve all the more seen the courage of #metoo and the women’s movement as they stamp out these hellish abuses of power. And the sort of power wielded by people fighting evil is a different thing altogether, something that echoes through history for generations.
Paul Luikart is a writer whose work has appeared in a number of places over the years. His most recent book, “Animal Heart,” is available now from Hyperborea Publishing. Follow him on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.