What’s Behind the Pileup of Sex Abuse Scandals?

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Abuse scandals tend to follow a pattern, said Nicole Bedera, a sociologist who studies the ways that groups and institutions enable sexual violence.

“We get caught up in the details of individual cases as if each one of them is different, and each organizational response is different, but that’s not true,” she said. “The finer details might change a little bit from case to case, but the organizational response to sexual violence in general tends to be pretty consistent, especially in organizations that are allowed to self-police or to self-govern.”

People who brought abuse claims, she found, were often presumed to be untrustworthy or mistaken. When victims reported abuse, institutions like universities, schools or churches tended to react with doubt and skepticism. That doubt was used to justify inaction, enabling the abuse to continue. “What I’ve found is people won’t say ‘I don’t believe the victim.’ They’ll just say ‘I’m not sure enough,’” Bedera told me.

The pattern was not just one of skepticism against those who raised abuse complaints, however. She also found that institutions tend to act to protect individuals who are perceived as high-value members of their communities — in sexual assault cases, usually high-value men.

Sometimes that value was concrete. At one university she studied in depth, the category included scholars who are seen as having important academic legacies to protect, or successful student athletes. But she also found that men, particularly if they were white, were often seen as automatically carrying their potential future accomplishments with them, and so were treated as high-value individuals even if they were still just teens. The women who raised accusations of assault or abuse, by contrast, were not presumed to have valuable futures worth protecting.

The result was that, over time, abuse victims tended to be disbelieved or dismissed. Perpetrators were given the benefit of the doubt, and took advantage of that freedom to continue their abuses. And that eventually led to harm not just for the victims, but for the institutions that had enabled the harm to continue.

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