I am a secular humanist. I don’t really understand the appeal of religion – all the ritual and rigamarole – although I can see that believing in God could be comforting. I firmly believe that religious dogmatism and tribalism account for many of the greatest ills in history, one of the most recent and prominent being the sexual predation of boys by countless Catholic priests, almost none of whom were charged let alone tried or incarcerated. The scale of the abuse almost defies belief, and while the guilty priests certainly acted (and likely continue to act) in an appalling way, I think the cover-up by the church leadership is even more despicable. The reputation of the institution meant more to them than the welfare of those innocent boys. Disgraceful.
As a humanist, I try to treat everyone with compassion. As a human, I often fall short of this goal. I previously wrote an article about rape culture in which I noted that more males are raped than females, and then went on to rather smugly suggest that this fact was beside the point. I apologize for my glib dismissal of the violation of males at the hands of sexual abusers. It’s true that rapists are almost always men, but that has no bearing on the suffering of those they defile regardless of their gender. Male victims are still victims and deserve to be heard and to have their assailants brought to justice.
My son recently sent me an article from Sports Illustrated entitled “Why Aren’t More People Talking About the Ohio State Sex Abuse Scandal?” The article, written by Jon Wertheim, recounts how the sports doctor for Ohio State University, Dr. Richard Strauss, spent 20 years sexually abusing male athletes while also handing out illegal steroids. A great many people are aware of the abuses of Larry Nassar, the sports doctor for Michigan State University and USA Gymnastics. I have seen two documentaries about this scandal, and the countless accusations against Nassar and his trial were all over the news. A paper commissioned by Ohio State reported that Strauss committed at least 1,429 instances of fondling and 47 instances of rape between 1978 and 1998, yet only a handful of victims complained about their abuse at the time and almost no media coverage ensued. Why?
There are many factors which play into the answer to that question. Firstly, many Ohio State athletes confirm that it was “an open secret” that Strauss regularly fondled his patients. Athletes in varying sports had different nicknames for him – some called him “Dr. Feel Good”, to others he was “Dr. Jelly Fingers”. There was also “Dr. Nuts”, “Dr. Balls”, and “Dr. Drop-Your-Drawers”. These young men needed to make light of the abuse because their ability to compete depended on Strauss clearing them to play. Many of them were at school on athletic scholarships, so they needed to compete and do well to ensure they could continue at Ohio State until graduation. Ultimately it was up to Strauss whether they completed university or not.
Secondly, Dr. Strauss was only about 5’7” and 140 lbs, whereas most of the patients he abused were big, strapping young men. Many of them felt ashamed that such a small, slight man had taken advantage of them. They thought both their reputation as team players and their manhood would be called into question if they reported the abuse. They were ashamed of and confused by what had happened, and felt turning Strauss in would reflect worse on them than on the doctor himself. Also, this was happening at a time when the awareness of sexual assault, let alone same-sex sexual assault, was very limited. These young men didn’t have the comprehension or vocabulary to express what had happened to them. As one of the victims says in the article, “We never thought a man could sexually abuse a man. We joked about it. But I don’t think we were really joking.”
Thirdly, Dr. Strauss was handing out steroids of all sorts to enhance the athletes’ performance. This was at a time when not a lot was known about performance enhancing drugs, or PEDs, and university drug-testing protocols were lax at best. Strauss openly offered PEDs to various athletes, then when their performance improved he would threaten to withdraw the drug unless the athlete silently submitted to his fondling. A trainer in the article is quoted as saying Strauss prescribed PEDs on the understanding that, “I’ll make you bigger. I’ll make you a better performing athlete. But you have to do what I say.”
There were some young men who told authorities about Strauss’s behaviour over his twenty years in the position, but nothing was done about it. The same thing had happened with Nassar at Michigan State and in USA Gymnastics – athletes came forward, but those in power chose not to act. I think these organizations did not want to become embroiled in a scandal and therefore chose to ignore the abuse in order to protect their reputations. It is the same thinking that has allowed pedophile priests free reign for decades despite the Catholic Church’s knowledge of their behaviour. These institutions are therefore complicit in the vile conduct of their employees.
The coaches at Ohio State are also to blame for Strauss’s unchecked abuse. The SI article claims that they were well aware of his predations and would regularly use the threat of having to see the doctor to make their athletes run faster or train harder. They also knew that Strauss was distributing untested PEDs to their players, but rather than being alarmed by such behaviour they were grateful that their athletes now had a competitive edge. Clearly winning is everything to people of this mindset, and the health and welfare of the young adults in their charge was willfully ignored in favour of acquiring championships and medals.
In 1996 the number of complaints became so overwhelming that the University quietly dropped Strauss from their athletics department, although he would remain on campus as a tenured professor. Wertheim writes, “No formal reports were prepared. No state of Ohio licensing personnel were notified.” In other words, nobody was told what Strauss had been doing, and he faced no official repercussions for his heinous behaviour. What’s more, because the medical authorities had no idea about his misconduct, Strauss opened a private men’s clinic in Columbus as soon as he lost his position at OSU. He was sufficiently sure that he would never face charges from the university that he brazenly offered student discounts at his clinic in the campus newspaper.
Strauss’s fate changed once he began treating the public. The men using his services no longer needed his approval to play on a team or maintain their scholarship. These independent patients began to complain about the doctor’s behaviour and in short order Strauss left the clinic and voluntarily retired from OSU in 1998. The article notes that, “Upon his retirement, Strauss was conferred the honorific emeritus status by OSU.” How galling to the hundreds of men he abused that he never faced any repercussions for his actions, especially considering how many of his victims continue to deal with the trauma he inflicted decades after they were abused. Some have psychological issues and struggle with rage, and many deal with chronic pain that could have been avoided had they felt comfortable going to the doctor when they first suffered their injuries.
I was shocked that I’d never even heard of Strauss until I read this article, especially considering the scale and duration of his serial abuse. It is a testament to how awkward society still finds male rape that this story was buried for so long. The reparations victims are receiving from OSU as a result of recent lawsuits also speaks to how much same-sex sexual abuse is underplayed and misunderstood. The female athletes who sued Michigan State for institutional neglect in the case of Larry Nassar received an average of almost $1.3 million per claim, while the male athletes who sued OSU with regards to Strauss received roughly $250,000 per victim. Why is the pain and suffering of abused men worth so much less than that of women?
Compensating men the same amount as women would be an admission that they are as susceptible to psychological and emotional damage as the so called “weaker sex”, and this is a point pervasive toxic masculinity cannot cede. I would argue that the distress and shame of sexually abused men, and their deep reluctance to come forward in the first place, can be laid at the feet of toxic masculinity as well. This is a type of hyper-masculinity promoted in patriarchal cultures which manifests in attitudes detrimental to society at large, and to men themselves. These include the stereotype that men must be socially dominant, which can in turn lead to misogyny and homophobia. Toxic masculinity can also perpetuate the normalization of violence in the lives of males, an example being the continued use of expressions like “boys will be boys” in response to aggressive behaviour.
Peggy Orenstein has recently written a book called “Boys and Sex” which was excerpted in The Atlantic this January. Orenstein spent two years researching the book, interviewing over 100 American boys between the ages of 16 and 20. She spoke to them “…about masculinity, sex and love: about the forces, seen and unseen, that shape them as men.” Orenstein interviewed boy of all races and ethnicities, but concentrated on those who were either in college or college bound because “…like it or not, they’re the ones most likely to set cultural norms.”
I was encouraged when I read through Orenstein’s article because almost all of the boys had very egalitarian opinions about females – feeling they were smart and deserving of their positions in college, on the athletic field, and in school leadership. Many of the boys had female and gay friends, marking a a huge shift from what you might have seen even 20 years ago. They also were very savvy about toxic masculinity, citing mass shootings, domestic violence, sexual harassment, and campus rape as direct results of its existence. Orenstein consequently didn’t have to spend any time finding a shared definition of the term with these young men. Rather, she began delving into how toxic masculinity played out in their lives, and how, if at all, they hoped to counter it.
What made me sad in the article was the reported result of a 2018 national survey of more than a thousand 10 to 19 year-olds commissioned by Plan International USA and conducted by the polling firm PerryUndem. The study found that the girls believed there were myriad ways to be a successful women and that they could shine in many different disciplines (with the big caveat being that they still felt valued primarily for their appearance). The boys, on the other hand, were of the opinion that there was only one path for respectable men – they had to be dominant, aggressive, tall, sexually accomplished, stoic, athletic, and, at least some day, rich. Further, Orenstein writes “One-third said they felt compelled to suppress their feelings, to “suck it up” or “be a man” when they were sad or scared, and more than 40% said that when they were angry, society expected them to be combative.”
So how do these boys break free from the strictures of such narrow, pervasive definitions of masculinity? One of the young men Orenstein interviewed, Cole, relayed a story. He had joined the rowing team at his high school when he was a sophomore, and one day a senior on the team started bragging about a sexual encounter with one of Cole’s female classmates. Cole and another sophomore felt uncomfortable hearing such private details about a female friend and told the guy to cut it out. Cole says “I started to explain why it wasn’t appropriate, but he just laughed.” The next day a second senior told a really sexist story, and while Cole’s friend stepped up again, he decided to hold back. Cole explains that as his friend continued to object, “…you could tell that the guys on the team stopped liking him as much. They stopped listening to him, too. It’s almost as if he spent all his social currency” trying to get them to stop making sexist jokes. “Meanwhile” Cole continues, “I was sitting there, too afraid to spend any of mine, and I just had buckets left.”
Which begs the question, how do good guys who don’t agree with the oppressive definition of manliness perpetuated by toxic masculinity make any progress in the face of it? If speaking directly against the sexist and homophobic elements of toxic masculinity leaves them without any social currency, then how can they possibly combat it? Orenstein cites research which shows that those who rigidly adhere to these masculine norms are “not only more likely to harass and bully others but to themselves be victims of verbal or physical violence. They’re more prone to binge-drinking, risky sexual behaviour, and getting in car accidents. They are also less happy than other guys, with higher depression rates and fewer friends in whom they can confide.”
Many of the young men victimized by Dr. Strauss experienced periods of depression and unaccountable rage over the years after their abuse. How much easier might their lives have been had they been able to express the hurt that was done to them, and subsequently received the same kind of non-judgemental counselling and support as female rape victims? Clearly men have to start allowing other men to feel the full panoply of human emotions without shame, but society generally does as well. Every adult – every parent, coach, and teacher – must begin to allow boys to express empathy and pain without fear of their masculinity being called into question, in the same way that they should stop telling girls that anger is unladylike. We must also model these behaviours amongst ourselves. True freedom for both sexes will never be achieved unless we stop emphasizing what makes us different and start celebrating what makes us the same – our shared humanity.