Recently I reread Malcolm Gladwell’s characteristically penetrating and elegant essay “In Plain View” (New Yorker, 24 Nov. 2012), published on the occasion of Jerry Sandusky’s exposure as a long-term child molester. The essay is not for the faint-hearted. It is a sickening profile of how child molesters groom not only their victims, but also their communities, and—in Sandusky’s case, as well untold others—their employers or supervisors, like Joe Paterno. Since the last time I read the piece, I’ve learned a great deal about professor-on-student sexual harassment and assault; this time through Gladwell’s essay, I was struck by the parallels between the two kinds of sexual molestation.
Essentially, predators of both kinds ingratiate themselves with their victims, their victims’ families, their co-workers, and those who observe them from afar. They style themselves as citizens above suspicion—caring, involved in young people’s lives, put on earth to do nothing but good. They appear to be so pure of motive that an accusation of exploiting their considerable influence over their less powerful victims would seem offensive, unthinkable. Gladwell presents an example of a child molester in a school where the parents can’t bring themselves to entertain the possibility that the teacher is corrupt because the offender so carefully attends to his mask. Likewise, professorial sexual abuse disguises itself as pristine. The teacher earns trust through earning professional and social respect—through successful teaching, parenting, and college and community service.
Gladwell writes about how Sandusky used physical horse play to test his possible victims, gradually increasing the bodily contact with a child and gradually moving the contact toward the child’s genitals. At the first sign of resistance from a child, Sandusky would drop him and, like all child molesters, continue searching for less skittish prey. When the physical contact with a willing child finally escalated to unambiguous sexual abuse, it had been prepared for over the course of months, perhaps even years, so as to seem the natural next step.
The grooming of a student by a professorial predator can assume much the same characteristics and stages. A professor seeks out vulnerable students who need a safe haven, and he takes pains to cultivate a caring, nurturing relationship with them. In one case I’ve come to know well, the professor invited the student to his home for Thanksgiving dinner with his wife and daughter. He was a beloved professor who seemed invested in everyone’s welfare and happiness and who expressed his love and concern through intent listening, hugging, and knee-rubbing. Gradually, he seemed to single out this particular student above countless others to whom he was warm and compassionate. He worked up to whispering “I love you” in her ear.
When the professor finally forced oral sex on her, she was too confused by what she’d taken to be his empathy to understand what was happening, much less to deal effectively with his assault. He knew she’d be too confused to fight him off. He’d been grooming her for months toward just that outcome.
Gladwell maintains that Sandusky’s grooming of children is typical. Sandusky fits the profile of a child molester to a tee. Although professorial grooming of students is subject to some variation, more cases than you might suppose adhere to the example in this blog post. Not all predators are married with children, but a surprising number use their families as camouflage. Like Sandusky and his ilk, those who molest college students are also likely to hide “in plain view.”