This Hypothetical Life (Penn State is the World)

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In the days and discussions that pass following the child rape scandal at Penn State, two camps of hypothetical speculation have emerged: Some are outraged that Joe Paterno, Jerry Sandusky’s boss, did not take decisive action back in 2002 when eyewitness Mike McQueary told him he’d seen Sandusky raping a 10-year-old boy. And some say they understand how or why Paterno could have chosen not to do more; and that, in the same situation, you probably would have done the same thing.

The media provided rationale for the latter point of view. In the New York Times, David Brooks chided those who would dare claim that they might have acted more conscionably than Paterno did. In his article, “Let’s All Feel Superior,” he cited history—“the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide or the street beatings that happen in American neighborhoods”—and psychology—“Normalcy Bias” and “Motivated Bias”—to underscore the idea that there is a “pattern” to our “natural tendency to evade and self-deceive.”

And in Men’s Health magazine, Bill Phillips surveyed a forensic psychiatrist and psychiatry scholar to make his gender-biased argument that men are doomed to fail when it’s time to face and take responsibility for facts as glaring as a child rape happening under their watch. Like Brooks, he called up the “Motivated Bias,” added “cognitive dissonance” and the whopping generality that “humans are programmed to not question authority”—especially men, he added, when they are in hierarchical positions. He quotes an associate professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School, William Pollack, PhD, who explains, “Men are still socialized to not show vulnerability,” which should explain why McQueary and Paterno might not have wanted to appear to be “overreacting” by reporting the rape.

Phillips asks the inevitable question set up by his column: “Since men seem more predisposed to protect each other and their organizations (see ‘Church, Roman Catholic’), I wondered if a powerful woman might have reacted differently.”

I’d rather not think of moral decision-making as a gender issue, even if it gives me a (false) advantage. And I would need the heft of many more psychiatrists to weigh in before I’d ever agree to the idea that all men are categorically prone to bad judgment in positions of authority. If this were true, no law could even hope to hold them responsible for their actions. And I know too many men whose judgment I admire, even in the worst situations. Paterno and McQueary are two men for whom the lowest psychological explanations happen to fit. There are men in similar positions who have done better (see below).

When we run the hypotheticals, it’s not gender that we test; it’s empathy. When people say, “What if it had been your child?” or “What if you had been in charge?” the question is straightforward: Can you imagine yourself in this situation? How much can you empathize? And if you can empathize at all, what action would you take? Of the apologists’ analyses—Brooks’ and Phillips’—of Paterno’s non-action, this was the one word missing from their arguments: empathy.

Whether or not we can empathize, there is the sense within the debate that the moment of opportunity—in Sandusky’s case at least—has come and gone. The crime is over; we speak in hypotheticals because we were not there. We were not, are not, Paterno. We have no proximity to the crime; it is past.

But is it? Sandusky’s crime is but a sliver of what continues to happen to children and women around the world, and in our own cities, every day. And how important is proximity? We know that even when the crime happened in Paterno’s local locker room it wasn’t enough to motivate him to intervene. So, whether the crime is in front of us or thousands of miles away, the same hypothetical questions apply: what should we do if we hear that someone has been raped? A boy or a girl? A man or a woman? How far does our empathy or responsibility or potential effectiveness extend? Would we do the right thing?

To Bill Phillips’ credit, when I finally came across a story about someone doing the right thing, it was about not one but six women, and two men. “The Long Night” is Paul Hond’s cover article in this month’s Columbia Magazine, which begins with a woman who—like McQueary—found herself in an awful place at the right time. Katherine Bolkovac was a United Nations Peacekeeper in Bosnia—a former police officer and mother from Nebraska—who uncovered a sex trafficking scandal within the ranks of the UN. Hond writes:

UN monitors, including some DynCorp employees, were not only patronizing the hundreds of brothels that had sprung up around the peacekeeping presence in Bosnia, but were buying, selling, and transporting women and girls, most of whom came from the former Soviet Union. When Bolkovac reported the problem to her superiors in the UN International Police Task Force (IPTF), she was told to back off — no joke in a part of the world where accidents could happen. Military commanders removed her case files. But Bolkovac kept pressing. In 2000, the UN relieved Bolkovac of her duties, after which DynCorp fired her for allegedly falsifying her time sheets.

Madeleine Rees, head of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Bosnia, learned of Bolkovac’s story and in 2001 told Tanya Domi, a former employee of the State Department there. That June, writes Hond, Domi published an article exposing the scandal in the Bosnian paper Oslobodjenje (reprinted in English here).

Bolkovac went on to write a book about her experience, The Whistleblower: Sex Trafficking, Military Contractors, and One Woman’s Fight for Justice, which was made into a movie by Larysa Kondracki and Eilis Kirwan, released this past August. To avoid a “sensationalized account,” the movie played down the violence committed against the girls and raised their ages; in reality the girls were as young as 11 or 12 years old. Still, writes Hond, Stephen Holden called the movie “a story so repellent that it is almost beyond belief.”

Upon learning about the film, the United Nations, like Paterno, considered turning a blind eye. Hond quotes an extraordinary correspondence between Kondracki and the Secretary-General of the UN, in which she insists that they screen the film and take transparent and corrective action. Like Sandusky’s alleged rapes, the UN peacekeepers’ crimes were “committed by the very people who were meant to protect the innocent,” wrote Kondracki. Ultimately, under pressure, the UN’s response was to screen the film for staff as well as member states, and “embrace the challenge that [Kondracki’s] film places before the United Nations.”

For most of us, it may be easy to think that these foreign victims were unfortunate strangers in a faraway land during a violent war—people about whom we could speak hypothetically. But Hond’s article looks close up at the sex trafficking industry in New York City itself, and the social worker, Faith Huckel, who began an nonprofit in 2008 to support foreign-born victims of sex trafficking in New York called Restore NYC, and in 2010 opened a shelter where they could recover. Huckel described to Hond the women who came to her shelter:

These are cases where girls were trafficked at 16, worked six years in New York in a room, were raped 20 or 30 times a day, were forced to have multiple abortions, had sexually transmitted diseases and complications, had probably attempted suicide. The list goes on.

With new estimates of human trafficking reaching upwards of ten thousand in New York State alone, Huckel’s advocacy is just one model for what the rest of the world—with sex trafficking estimates in the millions—would do well to adopt. But to most people, the problem seems too big to tackle, or too risky to confront (as it was for Bolcovak, who risked her life). Or we have lost faith in leaders we would depend on to take decisive action. Or the victims are so far away; they are not our children; we didn’t do it; it’s not our fault. We suffer cognitive dissonance about our leaders. We have “Motivated Bias” or “Normalcy Bias” or we just want to get on with our regular lives. Or we just don’t know what to do.

Hond’s article is not just about women who do the right thing. One of them is a man, Siddharth Kara, who spent two months volunteering in a Slovenian refugee camp in the mid 90s. Over and over he heard stories of Bosnian soldiers systematically raping women and girls and trafficking them across Europe. Back in the states, Hond writes, “Kara decided that his own advantages and abilities required him to dig deeper.” He spent the next several years researching and writing his book, Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery.

The other man is Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon of the United Nations, who has taken the right first step by screening the film, but who still has an enormous amount of work to do to make his organization not only accountable but effective against international sex trafficking.

I was so inspired by Hond’s article about these people—Bolcovak, Domi, Rees, Kondracki, Kirwan, Huckel and Kara. What moved me the most was that, of the seven of them, only Bolcovak was motivated to act because of being a direct eyewitness to crime. The rest were more like Paterno—individuals who were told of wrongdoing and placed in the position to decide whether or not to do something about it. But, unlike Paterno, they were not all in positions of relative authority—they had far less authority than him, if they had any at all, and yet did far more. Nor did they all have proximity to the crime—some were halfway around the world. Yet, they applied their passion, or their disgust, or both. They did what people often do when told of atrocity: They empathized. They acted. They exerted whatever talents they had to expose or improve the situation.

Their stories made me think about all the hypotheticals in the arguments that have gone down all over the Internet and at bars and across dining tables in the past few weeks: What would you do? Only the question changes slightly, when we consider that thousands of children around the world are still being kidnapped, sold and raped every day—not just in foreign countries, but here in America. So the question is not what would we do, but what will we do? When you and I hear that people just like Sandusky regularly exploiting and victimizing the most vulnerable children, what is the imperative? And by all of this I mean that the moral imperative is not on Paterno any more than it is on each one of us: Now that we know, what will we do? It is difficult; it is burdensome; it’s none of our business. Perhaps we think and speak in hypotheticals not so much to enlighten us about our highest potential, but to shield ourselves from it.

Like Sandusky’s alleged victims, the victims of sex trafficking are poor, vulnerable and sometimes tricked into situations from which they cannot escape. In dramatically increasing numbers, they are also American. In Oakland, California, where one in four children lives in poverty, youth sex trafficking has taken hold.  An eight-part series in Oakland Local takes a close look at how kids end up being sold, abused and exploited by sex traffickers, and how the system has so far failed them.

Beside the straightforward gesture of reporting known crime to the police, it may be hard to know what to do, where to go, or whether we have the right training or expertise to help. I asked Mary Lynn Fitton, founder of The Art of Yoga Project—a nonprofit that provides yoga along with therapeutic creative and character development to young girls who are incarcerated or recovering from sex trafficking—what she would recommend for people who want to help but may not know how, or may not feel they are qualified. Fitton says:

“It’s true that special training is required to work directly with these children. But so much is needed to support that work. Anyone with any level or even no level of expertise can be an advocate for children who are sexually exploited. And the truth is, everyone needs to be. That may begin with reading and educating yourself, and talking to people you know. You can give money, even a small amount, because all these advocacy organizations need money to do what they do. Or you can volunteer any talents you may have to support fundraising activities—or host your own fundraiser. You can write letters to your local representatives, and you can vote. Every single action makes a difference.”

The Sandusky case pulls back the curtain on all kids who, like his alleged victims, become sexually victimized and exploited because of their poverty. It exposes how easily such crimes are committed, and how poorly they are prevented and punished. And it exposes how all of us, even as we may side against Paterno’s horrendous irresponsibility as a man who could have made a difference but didn’t, share a similar responsibility. What will you do? Anything, even a single step to better understand the nature of the crime, the statistics, what to look for, and what can be done. It’s not hypothetical.

Here’s a list of resources:

Take action to fight youth sex trafficking in Oakland and across the U.S.

California Against Slavery (important 2012 ballot initiative)

Polaris Project (sex trafficking tip hotline: 1-888-3737-888)

MISSEY: Motivating, Inspiring, Supporting and Serving Sexually Exploited Youth

The Art of Yoga Project

SAGE SF: Standing Against Global Exploitation

Restore NYC

GEMS: Girls Educational and Mentoring Services

Safe Horizon

The Protection Project

Amnesty International U.S.A: Stop Violence Against Women

Coalition Against Trafficking in Women

Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking

Human Rights Watch Campaign Against the Trafficking of Women and Girls


Julie Greicius was Art Editor for The Rumpus when it launched in January 2009. One year later, she became Senior Literary Editor and is now Senior Features Editor. Julie also co-edited the first book published by The Rumpus, Rumpus Women, Vol. 1, featuring personal essays and illustration from twenty kick-ass contributors. Her writing been featured on The Rumpus, Midnight Breakfast, Stanford Medicine Magazine, and BuzzFeed, as well as in the anthology The 27th Mile. She lives in California. More from this author →