Flash Points: Penn State’s Cover-Up and the Ethics of Rape Jokes


The cover-up of Jerry Sandusky’s crimes at Penn State, as detailed in Louis Freeh’s July 2012 report, should surprise no one, because it’s all happened before. Not the continued employment of a person known to sexually assault children, but Penn State’s willingness to overlook egregious offenses by those in authority, in order to protect a successful athletic program. An earlier example with many parallels to the Sandusky case is that of Penn State women’s basketball coach Rene Portland, who openly and actively harassed and discriminated against women she perceived as lesbian, and continued to do so without consequences, until a former player filed a lawsuit and forced the university to act.

The Freeh report is available from many sources on the internet, but in case you don’t have the inclination to read all 267 pages, here are a few key points. In 1998, Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky was accused of molesting a young boy on campus. In 2000, two campus janitors observed Sandusky performing a sexual act on a young boy, in a campus locker room, but did not report the incident because they were afraid they would be fired if they did. In 2001, a graduate assistant in the football program (Mike McQueary) heard sounds suggesting sexual assault in a Penn State locker room, and found Sandusky and a young boy in the shower together. McQueary reported these facts to his immediate superior (head football coach Joe Paterno) and to the university administration, but they did not inform the police.

The chief impression that emerges from the Freeh Report is that of a football program that operated as an independent entity, located on the Penn State campus but subject neither to university oversight nor to common standards of morality or law. An email from university president Graham Spanier identified the university’s interest in 2001 as preventing the incident from becoming public, rather than preventing further assaults or seeing that justice was done for those that had already occurred.

And they almost got away with it. Were it not for a lawsuit filed against Sandusky in 2008 by the mother of yet another alleged victim, Penn State would be able to continue to promote itself, and its football program, as the embodiment of solid values like teamwork and selflessness. Similarly, Joe Paterno would be remembered as a coach who, despite having won more football games than anyone else, remained a humble adherent of the virtues of discipline and hard work.

That’s all gone now, and, as it turns out, those images never did correspond to reality. Here’s something worth knowing: even as the investigations into the Sandusky case began, Joe Paterno was negotiating his contract with the university. In return for his agreement to retire at the end of the 2011 season, Paterno would receive (among other things) a payment of $3 million, loans from the university worth $350,000 would be forgiven, and he would be granted the use of the university’s private plane. Such arrangements are not unprecedented for head football coaches at major programs, but it does give one a bit of perspective on how important Paterno was to the university (as opposed to, say, any professor on campus), and how manufactured was Paterno’s public image of simplicity and humility.

Look back a few decades and you’ll find another scandal at Penn State, one that also involved protecting a successful coach and facilitating continued violations of basic human rights. I refer to the case of Rene Portland, head women’s basketball coach at Penn State from 1980 to 2007. Portland was a successful coach—her teams at Penn State won 72 percent of their games, and played in 21 NCAA tournaments—and that success granted her a license to discriminate against a class of students in violation of explicit university policy.

You may not have heard about Portland, because women’s basketball receives far less media attention than football, and also because of the nature of the discrimination. Portland had a well-known policy of excluding lesbians from her team, as expressed in her oft-quoted training rules for the team: “No drinking, no drugs, no lesbians.” Of course, Portland didn’t actually know which of her players were lesbians and which were not, so she went after what she considered to be signs of lesbianism—such as having a short haircut and not wearing makeup. Portland’s players femmed it up, if they wanted to stay on the team.

The reductive nature of Portland’s apparent view of sexual identity—that it can somehow be equated with superficial aspects of appearance—is bizarre, but not the main point. The point is that she discriminated against perceived lesbians, publicly declared that such was her policy, and Penn State was perfectly fine with it until a former player fired a lawsuit against the university.

The Portland case is chronicled in Dee Mosbacher and Fawn Yacker’s 2009 documentary Training Rules, which serves as a sort of Freeh Report for Penn State women’s basketball. Training Rules is packed with interviews by former Penn State players who were forced off the team and hounded out of the game. It also documents the fact that Portland engaged in negative recruiting, telling prospects and parents that other coaches were lesbians, or tolerated lesbians on their team, the implication being that the prospect would not be “safe” (from those mythical predatory lesbians that population so many ’50s pulp novels) at those other schools.

Portland was so open about her anti-lesbian sentiments that she expressed them in interviews published in the Chicago Sun-Times in 1986, and in the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1991. The university’s response, after a flood of negative publicity following the 1991 interview, was to add sexual orientation to the list of categories protected against discrimination or harassment. Of course, policy without enforcement is useless, and the university took no effective action against Portland as she continued to do exactly as she had before.

As in the Sandusky case, it took the threat of outside legal action get Penn State’s attention. Jennifer Harris was a high school basketball star that played successfully for Penn State from 2003 to 2005 (her sophomore year, Harris was third highest on the team in points, steals, and assists) before being kicked off the team, officially for having a poor work ethic. Harris tells a different story: during those two years, Portland repeatedly questioned Harris about her sexual orientation and threatened her with dismissal if Portland should find out that she was a lesbian.

Unlike previous Portland victims, Harris took action, filing a lawsuit against the university in 2006 (it was settled out of court in 2007). Thus motivated, Penn State conducted its own investigation of the women’s basketball program, and discovered that Portland had in fact created a “hostile, intimidating, and offensive environment.” Did they fire the coach? No, she got a slap on the wrist—a letter of reprimand, a $10,000 fine, and mandatory diversity training. Portland retired, apparently of her own free will, in 2007.

Here’s a few fun facts to tie the Portland and Sandusky cases together. The athletic director who hired Portland was Joe Paterno. The athletic director when Harris was playing for Penn State was Tim Curley (who had held the position since 1991), and the university president was Graham Spanier (who had held the position since 1995). For these three, the postman really did ring twice—they escaped consequences for failing to act against Portland, only to find that they couldn’t so easily escape responsibility for the Sandusky scandal.

Both the Sandusky and Portland cases are ultimately stories about money and power. While most college athletics programs lose money, according to the NCAA, a few make a lot of money. Penn State was one of those few, with an estimated $31.6 million in profit in 2010-2011. Athletics also provide an obvious way for a university to attract free publicity in the form of news coverage, and thus create the kind of national recognition that can give it an edge over its competitors. At Penn State, successful athletics programs were part of its brand, and the university was willing to do whatever was necessary to protect that brand. As we have seen in these two cases, that choice included granting the athletic department the power to basically operate on its own terms and without university oversight.

Readers outside the United States may wonder why any university would use a football team (or sports in general) as a key aspect of its public identity. There are many reasons, including the somewhat disturbing fact that a successful year in athletics is often accompanied by increased student applications, suggesting that student consumers care more about the quality of the sports teams than the quality of education offered on a campus.

The problem with vesting your image in peripheral matters like sport, rather than in the core functions of a university (those would be education and research) is that you can’t easily disengage from the former identification when things go south. Even in death, Joe Paterno remains the public face of Penn State, but he’s no longer retro-chic JoePa, the humble yet winningest coach in college football history. Instead, he’s power-hungry Joe Paterno, the coach and athletic director who cared more about winning games than anything else. Similarly, Penn State’s image is no longer that of a hard-working public university with a solid athletics program to complement its academic offerings, but of a corrupt institution that betrayed the public trust and valued athletic success above all things.

— Sarah Boslaugh

Can Rape Be Funny?

When the Penn State scandal broke, two responses were typical: moral outrage and rape jokes. South Park was amongst the jokers in the pack and (as you’d expect) some people were morally outraged by the laughter. The fact that a scandal could produce responses on opposite ends of the spectrum highlights a society operating on different wavelengths. One conflicted viewer tried to approach the South Park episode ‘The Poor Kid’ from both ends simultaneously, and found himself angered by his own laughter.

If you want to make rape jokes, specifically child rape jokes, you better be saying something. You better be making some sort grand statement on the institutional failure that is Penn State, and it better blow people’s minds to the point that they are talking about it the next day. Instead, you didn’t say anything, South Park. It was almost like your show’s creators, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, sat down to try to write a Penn State episode, couldn’t figure out what they wanted to say, and settled for jokes that weren’t directed at anyone or anything. I felt uncomfortable laughing at them last night, because I read the grand jury report of what Jerry Sandusky is accused of doing to those kids, and it’s affected me. But at some point you have to laugh to alleviate the tension induced by the soul-crushing things you’ve been reading in the last week, and I thought I’d get something out of it in the end. I thought I’d be rewarded for laughing at dumb Penn State jokes with some sort of larger statement made in the show’s closing moments. When that statement wasn’t made, I was mad at myself and mad at the show. (Dan Fogarty, “South Park Goes All In On the Rape Jokes”, 17th November 2011).

South Park, however, was trying to say something: that the sexual abuse of children is no laughing matter. ‘The Poor Kid’ episode was clearly making fun of people who make child rape jokes. The person making the jokes was seen as clueless and symptomatic of the problem of adults not taking sexual abuse allegations seriously — the aspiring comic even came from the ranks of the Child Protection Services. South Park was also reiterating the observation that all rape jokes are variants of the same basic joke. The basic joke being: women and children secretly enjoy being raped and/or many adults secretly want to rape others.

If the prevalence of rape fantasies are any indication, there is an element of truth to some variants of the jokes: many men and women fantasise about being raped or raping others. Nonetheless, there is a difference between sexual fantasy and reality, and many of these same people are able to distinguish between coercion and communion (physical force and mutual consent). The main difference, of course, is that people are in control of their own fantasies. In reality, rape is about having no control over the situation and living with the consequences (such as being blamed for your own rape or going to prison for raping someone else).

South Park therefore appeared to be saying: unless you’ve got a moral point of view or can offer psychological insight, making fun of rape is taking the path of least resistance. This is not to suggest that South Park is above making the same jokes for its own ends. The animated sitcom has been criticised for its increasing dependence on the shock value of rape jokes over the years. The show itself appears to be conflicted about the shocking nature of rape — or maybe it just opts for cheap laughs when inspiration fails. Consequently, South Park has hypocritically encouraged viewers to make a mockery of rape too.

The recent replace band names with rape meme was another reminder that we all live in a rape culture. Many men and women thought it was hilarious to take a band name — say, The Rolling Stones — and replace one of the words with rape! The Rolling Rape! And then laugh their collective asses off as they attempted to outwit each other on twitter. These people were trying to put the fuck into wit. The joke, however, was really on the fuckwits mindlessly following a trend: the hashtag #ReplaceBandNamesWithRape merely highlighted their moral idiocy by actively normalizing lack of sympathy and understanding through group think.

Saturday Night Live’s Scared Straight sketch from earlier this year was morally instructive though. It made juvenile delinquents the butt of prison rape jokes in an attempt to put the young men back on the straight and narrow. Indeed, the threat of being ‘turned out’ by male prisoners helps to put the question of sexual identity and relations in social context.

As the HBO series Oz readily documented – also see the documentary Turned Out:Sexual Assault Behind Bars – when there are only men around, sexual differences and politics continue to abound.

The real men are the ones who manage to turn the weak into ‘women’ and their personal ‘bitches’. Once a structure of dominance has been put into place, it’s pussy galore. The physical acts might be homosexual but – psychologically speaking – it’s only the ‘pussies’ who have become feminine or gay. Rape is used to determine a social hierarchy and mark territory through sexual roles or positioning. Being turned into a ‘woman’ (and so a complete joke) is confirmation that sexual assault is the real punishment in prison: it’s when the weaker sex is given a life sentence by doing hard time. The rapes are therefore not just about sex: they’re about power differentials and relative value. And that’s why the Scared Straight sketch was supposedly hilarious: apparently it was funny to watch these young boys squirm in their seats at the prospect of being anally raped by complete assholes. After all, being forced to spread your legs and take it from behind adds insult to injury. Anal rape is every man’s worst nightmare: it means having to take it like a woman.

As comedian Denis Leary reminds us, however, men who allow themselves to turn into an asshole (someone who is emotionally closed off and enjoys having fun at other people’s expense) is a source of male strength and pride. That’s because the male sanctum is both role model and ultimate prize. Identifying with their own asshole is how men fortify their sense of self. Indeed, it is so precious that men might encourage others to bet their ass or invite others to kiss theirs. Men even prefer to keep their heads up their own ass, if only for safe keeping. Indeed, some men’s heads are so far up their own ass it’s no wonder it sticks out of the top of their necks.

Speaking of which: a smug asshole recently made headlines when he joked about his audience raping a female heckler. Daniel Tosh was certainly asking for it when he reportedly asked everyone “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like, five guys right now? Like right now? What if a bunch of guys just raped her”? Tosh initially got the reaction he wanted — vindication in the form of laughter as the female heckler fled in terror. Nonetheless, Tosh was invariably forced to do something very unfunny: apologise for the resulting uproar and explain his joke. He tweeted “all the out of context misquotes aside, i’d like to sincerely apologize” and noted in another tweet that he was trying to make a philosophical point with his fall down routine. Specifically, the point “i was making before i was heckled is there are awful things in the world but you can still make jokes about them #deadbabies”.

The real question, of course, is: are jokes about painful subjects (like rape, dead babies and the Holocaust) ever funny? The answer is complicated, and begs the more original question: why do we make and/or laugh at jokes in the first place? While no straightforward answer will suffice, it’s worth noting that humour serves many different social functions. As Psychology Today observes

Humour is serious business. Sure, there’s simple comedy like a pie in the face or an Adam Sandler movie, but a lot of jokes display real intellect, and despite much reflection and experimentation — both in labs and on stages — no one has yet discovered a unified theory of hilarity. Humour can be used for bonding, releasing tension, attracting a mate, putting a rival in his place, or entertaining a child. It has as many functions and styles as there are variations on the light bulb joke.

While there might not be a ‘unified theory of hilarity’, attempts to explain humour can be classified into three neatly identifiable groups: 1.incongruity (ambiguity, inappropriateness, irrelevance, etc) 2. superiority (feeling supremacy over others), and 3. relief (releasing anger or frustration, etc) .

So if anyone were to ask whether jokes about rape (dead babies or the Holocaust) are ever funny, they should be really asking: what is the point of it (i.e., what is it trying to do and/or how is it doing it)? Since everyone’s mileage obviously varies, there is no point in saying that some jokes are never (or will always be) ‘funny’. People will continue to laugh (or not) at all kinds of jokes and no subject matter should (in principle) be off limits. Trying to locate the humour in either a joke’s intent or response is therefore pointless. We’ve all experienced situations where people laugh at jokes that others don’t find funny — that doesn’t prevent the joke from being (potentially) humorous or offensive. It obviously depends upon the situation and people: a joke can clearly be both of these things to different people.

People may or may not respond to the joke’s intent and their response might be other than intended. This is why we talk about people (not) getting a joke: the way it is received helps determine its meaning. Comedy involves the process of give and take — and how people ‘take’ what is given to them plays an active role in the meaningful exchange. So when comedian Ricky Gervais conveniently claims “The simple fact is, offence is taken, not given. It’s up to you if you’re offended or not. And remember, just because you’re offended, it doesn’t mean you’re right”, we simply say: if only it were that simple. The comedian might as well be saying ”The simple fact is, humour is taken, not given. It’s up to you if you’re amused or not. And remember, just because you’re amused, it doesn’t mean you’re right”. All said and done, it’s the relationship between the person telling the joke and the people responding to it that determines its binding force (power to amuse or offend).

It’s also worth stressing that lacking a sense of humour is considered a personal failing : taking ourselves and other people too seriously can reflect badly on our characters. The reverse is equally true: making and/or laughing at jokes invariably mirrors the content of our own characters too: we all have our weak and blind spots. A person’s sense of humour becomes a moral flashpoint — individuals may typically burst into laughter or erupt in anger. It goes without saying that is easier to laugh at others than ourselves.

The point of a joke is called a punch line for a reason: they’re implicitly violent and (ideally) hit their marks by landing psychological blows. A test of our true characters can therefore be revealed by the jokes we’re prepared to make and/or laugh at. Indeed, jokes typically camouflage or displace real social attitudes – if you want to know what someone really thinks about (say) Jews or women, try to share a joke about the Holocaust or rape with them. You’ll find that you’re also trying to share values and beliefs that are implicitly taken seriously or for granted on some level. It’s true, of course, that we can often laugh in spite of ourselves. If a joke manages to get past our defences, however, that doesn’t minimise the role of the self — it merely manages to throw it into sharp comic relief. A sense of humour presupposes a shared sensibility (assumptions, attitudes, prejudices, etc) and invariably tests the limits of our social identities.

While many people (like myself) might agree that comedy should go beyond acceptable limits and explore touchy subjects (like race relations or sexual politics), its beside the point. The question remains: what’s the point and/or context of it? If we compare the Chris Rock and Michael Richards jokes about ‘niggers’, for example, the jokes can be distinguished by their historical context and cultural resonances. Indeed, some approaches are clearly beyond a joke and can instantly become a serious matter again. If Richards were to perform Rock’s comedy routine on black people versus niggaz, the same jokes would be morally questionable: hilarity is not likely to ensue and Richards would be bringing the pain. When ‘Kramer’ inadvertently appeared in black face on Seinfeld, however, it was simply a question of: cue the laugh track. Once he made fun of his cultural insensitivity on Curb Your Enthusiasm , though, it’s possible the scene was drowned out by the sounds of your own laughter.

This returns us to Daniel Tosh’s culturally sensitive joke about gang raping a female heckler, and the fact that many people were laughing at her as she ran for the exit. We shall set aside the question of whether it is appropriate to heckle a comedian, if only because the issue between them was the appropriateness of rape jokes in the first place. We will note the irony, though, that heckling means that someone is refusing to take a comedian seriously – it is treating them like a joke. Such behavior is particularly bad if the heckler happens to be a woman: if there is one thing worse than a man being anally raped in prison, it’s being laughed at by a woman. The heckler was clearly ‘asking for it’ when she dared to publicly challenge Tosh’s moral authority. Then again, that was the bone of contention between them: a man’s right to assert power over women through rape (jokes). As she observed on a Tumblr post called A Girl Walks in a Comedy Club

So Tosh then starts making some very generalizing, declarative statements about rape jokes always being funny, how can a rape joke not be funny, rape is hilarious, etc. I don’t know why he was so repetitive about it but I felt provoked because I, for one, DON’T find them funny and never have. So I didnt appreciate Daniel Tosh (or anyone!) telling me I should find them funny. So I yelled out, “Actually, rape jokes are never funny!”

I did it because, even though being “disruptive” is against my nature, I felt that sitting there and saying nothing, or leaving quietly, would have been against my values as a person and as a woman. I don’t sit there while someone tells me how I should feel about something as profound and damaging as rape.

After I called out to him, Tosh paused for a moment. Then, he says, “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like, five guys right now? Like right now? What if a bunch of guys just raped her…” and I, completely stunned and finding it hard to process what was happening but knowing i needed to get out of there, immediately nudged my friend, who was also completely stunned, and we high-tailed it out of there. It was humiliating, of course, especially as the audience guffawed in response to Tosh, their eyes following us as we made our way out of there. I didn’t hear the rest of what he said about me.

Tosh was not acting out of character or against type. Making fun of the weak and defenseless is part of his resume, and he clearly thinks rape jokes are the epitome of humor. Tosh’s brand of comedy involves feeling morally superior, and he encourages other people to share in that superiority complex. Perhaps what is most notable about his most notorious rape joke is that it can be taken in three ways. The rape joke’s attempt at humor derived from incongruity because everyone obviously knew that no one would have laughed if the heckler was gang raped right there and then. The joke, though, was about the difference between what might be expected and what actually occurs: she wasn’t about to be gang raped on the spot either. The Laugh Factory was a public venue filled with people – a group of guys were not likely to commit such a horrific crime in front of potential eye witnesses. Men are more likely to gang rape women in a theatre of war and kill everyone in sight.

Suppose a couple of members in the audience decided to put Tosh’s theory to the test. The comedian would have (presumably) been mortified and yelled “But I was only joking!” This obviously requires us to ask: but what’s the real joke then? It is at this point where feelings of superiority come into play. Tosh obviously felt threatened by the fact that a woman was publicly challenging his manhood, and attempted to reassert it by joking about raping her. Note what he does though. Instead of speaking truth to power and conceding defeat, he chose to speak to (his) power instead.

And the source of Tosh’s power was male affiliation and group identity. It’s certainly telling that he called on other men to empower (save) him through the power of laughter. He instinctively encouraged other men to identify with him in order to put this woman back in her place. The joke about gang rape was essentially a male bonding exercise in the form of an implied threat. The fact that he joked about gang rape – “But I’ve been taken out of context!’ — indicates where his comedy is coming from and/or is directed to: power assertion and anger retaliation. And although he was ‘only’ joking, the joke speaks to the potential rapist in all men. Hence the comic relief — and why the heckler took his joke seriously and fled with her female friend.

By releasing sexual anger or frustration in a joke that implied the threat of gang rape, Tosh was thereby able to regain control of a male dominated situation. No one likes a heckler — everything seemed to be going fine until she ruined everyone’s fun. As far as we know, no other women objected to his jokes about rape and continued to enjoy the show in her absence. Their silence (and presumed laughter), however, doesn’t necessarily vindicate Tosh’s rape jokes. It simply highlights the problem that many women don’t take rape allegations seriously either — they’ll also blame the victim or think it doesn’t really happen to well behaved women like them. So presumably Tosh spoke for many people when he was able to resume his comedy routine without further incident. Although he was forced to apologize for his bad behavior when she shared her experience online, rape jokes aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. They remain an important social adhesive or lubricant. The real joke is the way they typically normalize rape by reinforcing male dominance and entitlement.

— Steven Aoun