November 20th, 2011
07:30 AM ET

Opinion: Don Lemon: No matter the gender, rape is rape

Editor's note: Don Lemon anchors CNN Newsroom during weekend prime-time and serves as a correspondent across CNN's U.S. programming. He is the author of the memoir "Transparent."

By Don Lemon, CNN

(CNN) - I don’t remember exactly when it started for me.

It was before the first grade. I must have been 5 years old, maybe 4. My mother was divorced and worked during the day. My grandmother was my sitter. She watched over my sisters and me as much as she could, but even her watchful eye wasn’t enough to keep me out of the hands of my abuser.

He was an older teen: the son of one of my mom’s friends. He and two older teen boys, almost in their 20s, preyed on me and some of the younger boys in my neighborhood. The "incidents" - as I referred to in therapy for years - happened up until I was 12 or 13 years old. It was easier for me to call it the "incidents" then because calling it molestation was just too hard, even for me, a survivor of child sex abuse.

So, I imagine it’s difficult for people who haven’t dealt with abuse to confront it, face it, or, for that matter, know what to call it. But if the events at Penn State are to teach us anything, it should be that we can no longer turn away from something so ugly just because we struggle to define it or accept it exists.

So, let’s just call it for what it is: rape.

Rape is what former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky is accused of doing to at least one boy in a university shower. But because the victim is a boy, under Pennsylvania law, Sandusky is charged with deviant sexual behavior. If the victim had been a little girl, in fact, the law would call it rape.

The acts are the same. So what’s the difference? The difference, according to a friend and former FBI agent specializing in child sex crimes, who is also a survivor of child sex abuse, is that laws are just as antiquated as our feelings. Rape, he says, is typically defined as penile penetration of a female. The same behavior with a male victim is typically defined as sodomy or deviant sexual behavior. In prosecuting cases like Penn State, my friend says, just by definition, the laws unwittingly remove the sting from the accused wretched acts.

Men dare to share sex abuse stories

Sandusky would have been 59 at the time of the 2002 alleged shower rape. He’s a big guy, at least 200 lbs and more than 6 feet tall. He’s big and burly enough to have once played defense on the Penn State football team. The boy looked to be 10 years old, according to then-graduate assistant Mike McQueary, who says he witnessed the rape.

Pause for a second, please, and imagine what a 10-year old looks like. Ten-year-old boys are usually prepubescent, weigh around 85 pounds, are only about 5 feet tall and are usually in the fourth or fifth grade. The physical pain as a grown man forced himself on him was no doubt excruciating.

According to the grand jury report, McQueary “saw a naked boy, Victim 2, whose age he estimated to be 10 years old, with his hands up against the wall, being subjected to anal intercourse by a naked Sandusky. The graduate assistant was shocked but noticed that both Victim 2 and Sandusky saw him. The graduate assistant left immediately, distraught.”

Whether McQueary intervened and exactly what he told Penn State Coach Joe Paterno is up for debate. The truth will be revealed as the case unfolds. But by leaving, what he did do was abandon a 10-year old kid in the hands of an accused pedophile. By possibly not being clear in describing what he saw, he increased the likelihood the little boy and others like him would face the same fate again.

Now imagine, if you will, that 10 year old as a girl. Do you think any grown man would leave a 10-year-old girl with a grown, naked man in a shower? What if McQueary had said these words to Paterno: “I saw Jerry Sandusky raping a little girl.” Is there any doubt that getting such a report would have spurred Paterno and officials to take quicker and more aggressive action? Think about it. It is too difficult and disgusting to even conceive.

But as painful as it is for us, as far removed as we are, no matter how much we may want to put it out of our minds, no matter how much we want to turn away, we cannot and should not. Our inability to view and talk about male and female rape in the same way might have permitted a man to continue his alleged depraved behavior for decades. Rape is rape no matter the gender of the perpetrator or the victim. Pedophilia is wrong no matter the gender of the perpetrator or the victim

As a survivor of childhood sex abuse, please listen to me: We must stop turning a deaf ear to this issue. If you don’t open your ears and minds because of my plea, do it for the eight little boys whose manhood was shaped early on by, quite possibly, a monster.

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Filed under: Gender • What we think
soundoff (283 Responses)
  1. Samantha

    Don is 100% correct, rape is rape no matter what gender. Don has a great deal of bravery to tell his story to the world. We all are very dissapointed what has happened to him, but we are proud to hear him share his voice to the world and make a statement.

    November 27, 2011 at 2:02 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Clifford

    I agree with the article and want the law changed. Could congress repair this issues and at the same time prevent bullying as the boys who killed themselves and or were beaten or murdered?

    November 27, 2011 at 11:36 am | Report abuse |
  3. Nancy

    Don, you have been my favorite news anchor now for awhile. I applaud you even more now for being brave and sharing your experiences.

    November 27, 2011 at 11:03 am | Report abuse |
  4. Nila masagi

    Hopefully will be more and more young people actively fighting atleast for the sake of his future,especially in DEVELOPING COUNTRIES. No brilliance,success & prosperity and even HUMAN RIGHTS CAN WE GET without any hard work and stuggle.

    November 26, 2011 at 10:51 pm | Report abuse |
  5. dc3gal

    Don, more power to you! I will be getting your book.

    November 26, 2011 at 7:25 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Marle

    Although sharing the trauma helps, it still never leaves one's mind. I know.

    I cannot imagine a grown man seeing such abuse of a child and walking away without doing anything... without yelling 'What the hell are you doing?!" and knocking the man away!!!

    No, he saw ... and left. Unconscionable.

    Don, hugs to you.

    November 26, 2011 at 11:13 am | Report abuse |
    • dc3gal

      If you are talkiing about when the assistant coach saw Sandusky raping that boy, he did make it stop, he said he did anyway. But I know if it were me, I definitly would've been all over that. There is no way I could walk away from that.

      November 26, 2011 at 7:23 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Lori

    Thank you Don. I have wondered why Sandusky has not been called an (accused) child rapist, since that is what he is accused of. You make an excellent point about Sandusky and the 10-year old boy in the shower – what if the boy had been a 10-year old girl? Laws need to be changed across the country, laws that use words which attempt to minimize crimes against boys.

    November 26, 2011 at 8:01 am | Report abuse |
  8. Maryalyce

    Where are ALL the Christine's that are up in arms about abortion???? Why don't they get together for the rape situations both genders & get things changed in congress. GET ORGANIZED & GET THIS CRIME STOPPED NOW.

    November 25, 2011 at 3:37 am | Report abuse |
  9. rh

    Not surprisingly, there is a story today about a teacher who raped a sixth grader, and also supplied him with drugs and alcohol. The first comment I saw was "men and boys can't be raped by a woman because they have to be willing participants". That is exactly the kind of comment that pedophiles use, that it's "okay" if the child is a "willing participant".

    I don't care if a child "wants" something that is illegal for them to get, and frankly, there are enough kids around if they want something from someone their own age. Adults, ESPECIALLY adults in power, have too much sway over children.

    Saying that because physically a girl can be raped because "she can't resist" and a boy can't be raped because "he has to agree with it" due to a physiological response (let alone the case in NY I mentioned involved DRUGS and ALCOHOL) is EXACTLY what differentiates pedophiles from the rest of society.

    November 23, 2011 at 3:20 pm | Report abuse |
    • heartache

      This is an important point b/c I think it complicates the situation in the victims own mind as well, being betrayed by their own body, etc. and makes a healthy recovery even more challenging.

      November 26, 2011 at 11:38 am | Report abuse |
    • retphxfire

      The rape of a male by another male doesn't require the victim to be aroused any more than that of a female. Unless, in rare cases, its a female assaulting a male, in those cases its a physical response to stimulation, not an emotional or participatory response. In all cases, its rape..when it involves a child it should have greater penalties, a child's response is far more destructive and long-term. In no way am I dismissing the effect rape has on adults, as a suvivor of being assaulted when I was in my mid-twenties I know.

      November 26, 2011 at 3:52 pm | Report abuse |
  10. pat

    I have never read something so well put. Bravo Don.

    November 23, 2011 at 2:46 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Linda

    I to am a molestation survivor, and I agree completely with what the author is saying.
    I had told my husband, that I could not conceive of this man, walking away from what he saw, regardless of the statis of the man involved.
    And, I feel that it being a boy, instead of a girl or woman, unfortunately, for whatever reasons, was a part of him doing so.
    I was saying to my husband, "IF it had been a little girl or a young woman that this man was raping in the shower, I could imagine the man who saw it, running over and physically attempting to attack the man doing it, and also calling 911 emediatly. WHY was it different because it was a boy?"

    November 23, 2011 at 10:05 am | Report abuse |
    • rh

      I wonder too. WOULD it have been different if it was a girl?

      Sadly, I think not. I think there would still have been the same response, "try" to do the right thing and have EVERYONE who ever taught you what is RIGHT and WRONG not only let you down, but let down the entire Penn State community AND the state of Pennsylvania AND the United States AND the entire planet.

      November 23, 2011 at 3:22 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Christy2174

    Everytime I hear about this "shower scene" I get sick to my stomach. I can not imagine the pain, confusion, sadness and anger that little must have felt. Male or female...if I walked into a situation like that..I would not have walked away. I would have helped him.

    Sadly, I think our society has become numb to crime. I think America's shock factor is dead.

    November 23, 2011 at 8:21 am | Report abuse |
    • rh

      Unfortunately there are "mainstream" apologists for women raping boys because "the boys obviously wanted it" yet somehow men raping boys is different. It's not different.

      November 23, 2011 at 3:23 pm | Report abuse |
  13. not giving my name

    I agree with you completely. People say you must have enjoyed it if you waited so long....it has nothing to do with enjoying it, it has to do with the embarrassment that something like this could happen to you. I was embarrassed, I was humiliated, I was ashamed, I was not wanting to live anymore. You waited 15 years before seeking help, I am going on year 25 and still seeking help. There are times my wife can't touch me without me freaking out. People who have not been in this situation have no idea what we as victims have been through. They think it's easy to just come forward and say 'hey, i was raped by so-and-so', but it's not that easy. I pray everyday that this is something I didn't have to endure, but I did and a lot of us have endured this pain so that some moronic pedophile could get his rocks off. But the one thing to remember, we did nothing wrong. We live with the scars of what happened, but we didn't ask for this, we didn't consent to this, we didn't want this. It happened and yes some people can move on from it and lock it away, but not all of us can. We all have to deal with this ordeal in our own ways and use things to help us get through it, no matter how long it takes.

    November 22, 2011 at 6:22 pm | Report abuse |
  14. ZZ

    Child molesters should be publically executed. I would like to see this nationally televised on prime time. The executuion method should be relatively slow and painful. These animals deserve no possibility of rehabilitation. The recidivism rates are proof enough!

    November 22, 2011 at 1:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • Dave in Portland

      Exactly. Pedophiles do not "get better". They have an innate attraction to children. Saying that they can be conditioned not to would be like saying that someone can be conditioned not to be gay. The only difference is that one is between consenting adults (legal) and one is not (illegal). I apologize if I offend anyone comparing the two, but the analogy is actually fitting if you look at it objectively.

      November 23, 2011 at 4:26 pm | Report abuse |
  15. J

    Amen Don. Rape is rape is rape!!

    November 21, 2011 at 9:11 pm | Report abuse |
  16. Jennifer Reiser

    Bravo Don Lemon for your courage in telling your story. Your opinions and insight will help and enlighten many who have never experienced something as awful as having someone touch you in a most disgusting way.
    It is way to common. I know.
    Thank you.

    November 21, 2011 at 8:51 pm | Report abuse |
  17. Mia Watson

    Thank you so much Mr Lemon for having the strength and courage to share your story. I hope your journey to healing continues.

    November 21, 2011 at 7:06 pm | Report abuse |
  18. Dumic

    Don Lemon, thank you for having the courage to share your terrible experiences as a child and to call for fairer treatment of male victims. I wish you the best.

    November 21, 2011 at 6:45 pm | Report abuse |
  19. jen

    thank you for your article....the remaining 99% of us whom have been molested as children, i beleive will choose to remian silent, and try to let the past go, and protect and teach our own children from the real world...i also think as reporter you have the obligation to make sure the pressure stays on the school and everyone that knew should be fired from the past 20 years, and also encourage Penn to take down the statue of paterno....he is an enabler of rape

    November 21, 2011 at 10:09 am | Report abuse |
    • EJ

      I was never raped as a child. However all the kids in town knew who the local child molester was. Did the adults? I do not know. What I am trying to say is that adults have an obligation to society in general to stand up and say No. Rape is rape whether by an adult or a minor.

      November 21, 2011 at 7:06 pm | Report abuse |
  20. dave


    November 21, 2011 at 9:58 am | Report abuse |
  21. Jason

    Sandusky is innocent until proven guilty, but that dosen't mean I agree with the things he has already admitted. He was inappropriate and for that reason alone I do not support him. I pains me to know that Don was a victim also, but I so appreciate his willingness to share. The more people who come forward, the more comfortable (hopefully) others will feel. We need to work through these things together as a society to prevent this from happening to others.

    November 21, 2011 at 9:48 am | Report abuse |
  22. J Steven Porter

    Why is there not a nation wide organization set up to not only help prevent Child Abuse, but to alert perpetrators their dark shadows are getting more light?

    A campaign where people will get enthused about telling and asking and talking.
    What would happen is there was a card for adults to have in their wallets and purses ....12 things to look for....perhaps a pledge or contract they sign committing that they know the signs and that they will listen!

    T Shirts, Bumper Stickers lapel pins....lectures, walks, etc....much like Breast Cancer Awareness......

    I am going to tell...

    ...I am going to listen!

    November 21, 2011 at 8:47 am | Report abuse |
  23. Cindy

    The scandal didn't cause Paterno to lose his job, not reporting rape did.

    November 21, 2011 at 7:01 am | Report abuse |
    • Sugarland

      He did report it. He apparently followed the university's policy. Not only did he report the rape but there were many officials that knew what was going on. I wouldn't' be surprised if the entire faculty and student body knew what was going on. It's almost impossible to keep a secret for such a long period,

      November 21, 2011 at 8:03 am | Report abuse |
      • KM

        Yeah but even if everyone "reported it per University policy" why wouldn't any of these people question why nothing was done?? So you report what you saw. Then your part is done? Why, after reporting it, wouldn't a person say...Ok...where is the law? Why hasn't this guy been arrested? Wouldn't you take it a step further if NOTHING had been done to a person who clearly was doing something wrong? If you witnessed a murder, reported it, and NOTHING was done, wouldn't you continue to further push? Just reporting it to a supervisor and then washing your hands of it is NOT the right thing to do. It's the cowardly and easy thing to do.

        November 21, 2011 at 8:48 am | Report abuse |
      • Ann

        Um, excuse me? "... the entire faculty and student body knew what was going on?"

        I was at Penn State from 1980-84, went to all the football games, loved it. So, I guess you would hold me responsible, right? (Not that I'm aware of any cases coming out from that time period, but pick any years you like.)

        Do you have any idea how big Penn State is? At the time I was there, the student body at just the main campus was the size of a small city. In four years, I happened to run into Joe Paterno ONCE on the street. That's it. (I'd never even heard of Sandusky until recently.) To outsiders, maybe you think all that goes on there is football, but believe it or not, most of us were there to get an education. Sure, we had fun, too – lots of it! – but there are actually classes going on in between football games, ya know?

        The scandal is awful. The witch hunt is just as bad. Holding all Penn Staters responsible for some "consipiracy" of abuse is as rational as holding YOU responsible if your coworker's neighbor's son's girlfriend's cousin beat his wife.

        December 12, 2011 at 1:35 pm | Report abuse |
  24. Ashlyn

    Usually I would be waving the innocent-until-proven-guilty flag myself, but Sandusky has already labeled himself guilty by his own words. He admits to showering naked with young children. I'm not sure what the Pennsylvania statute specifically identifies as child molestation, but no parent is okay with their 10 year old child showering naked and alone with a naked 60 year old man. If you have children in your charge and they are dirty/sweaty and need a bath/shower, there is nothing wrong with getting them clean. There is something very wrong if you strip off your clothes and jump in the shower with them.

    November 21, 2011 at 6:57 am | Report abuse |
    • RobertC

      They should shower with their clothes on? The reporting on this story has been so coy, it has left a lot of unanswered questions and unresolved contradictions. The more I read, the more doubts I have.

      November 26, 2011 at 10:56 am | Report abuse |
      • Tim

        No Robert, they should not have been showering together at all.

        November 26, 2011 at 11:55 am | Report abuse |
  25. seriouslyomg

    Thank you for sharing your story, Don. The only way to end this epidemic is to speak out against it and there simply aren't enough of us speaking out – victim blaming and shaming keeps so many silent and it's unfortunate that we can be silenced by the fear of others.

    November 21, 2011 at 6:47 am | Report abuse |
  26. lauranne

    Mr. Lemon, describing yourself as a gay, black man who was abused as a child, and who is now a well educated, successful person, is a most amazing revelation that I hope will result in increased awareness of these issues, more discussion and harsher updated, appropriate laws. You are to be recognized as a strong campaigner of human rights. You have opened up the conversation enormously as evidenced by these responses. You must be commended on all levels. You have my most sincere respect.

    November 21, 2011 at 4:03 am | Report abuse |
  27. MIKE

    What reeks, is probably your own stench. There are many reasons – 5, 6 and 12 year-olds don't tell their parents. Many, don't quite know it is wrong. More don't have the mental and/or physical capacity to stop it, speak up about it or otherwise put an end to their abuse. There are so many things to lie about - like my dad is an astronaut - I have yet to hear from a child who brags about being dicked by his dad, brother, uncle or other family friend - doesn't happen!

    November 21, 2011 at 2:02 am | Report abuse |
    • Abresh

      Ah, there is the point: You are brainwashing them to think that it is wrong!

      November 21, 2011 at 2:11 am | Report abuse |
    • Abresh

      Mike, would YOU come out if your brother, sister, mother, father, etc. could go to prison? I think not, at least not non-anonymously.

      November 21, 2011 at 2:25 am | Report abuse |
  28. MIKE

    YOU ARE A MORON. Only when it is is forced on the victim, it is rape? There are too many ways to force yourself on someone without physical force.

    November 21, 2011 at 1:56 am | Report abuse |
    • Jane

      Are you defending pedophilia? Oh. My. God.
      So at what age can a child consent in your sick twisted brain? 4?

      November 21, 2011 at 7:13 am | Report abuse |
  29. Clint

    And, as much as some people don't want to admit it, women rape men too.

    Men have a habit of not reporting it for several reasons, one being embarassment because of the typicla social reactions by their friends, family and co-workers.

    The reallity is, victims are victims, men, women, girls, boys, doesn't matter. This is perhaps the biggest area of non-equality between females and males these days in teh U.S.of A..

    The way men are treated in situations of perceived "domestic violence" is shameful at best. Guilty until, well, no matter what.

    One of my coworkers was thrown in jail, because his wife beat him up. He didn't lay a hand on her, and he had cuts and bruises, and witnesses that said he did nothing to provoke the attack and that she beat him up, and he went to jail for a week and then was charged with domestic violence and could not own a gun (I think ever again, not sure).

    November 21, 2011 at 1:24 am | Report abuse |
    • Abresh

      Women do rape men.... however, 90% of the time, it is men or teenage boys thinking that they were 'raped' later because their parents don't like who they are sleeping with or slept with and are threatened by their parents into making an accusation or 'getting away' from that woman/girl in question.

      November 21, 2011 at 2:00 am | Report abuse |
      • SameforWomen

        Women falsely accuse men of rape far more than the other way around. I have friends including myself (12 in total) who were all falsely accused of rape. Luckily for me, I didn't even have relations with the girl and a DNA test and my alibi proved my innocence.

        Its a very strong social stereotype that the men must have raped the women if she said so. Now Im extremely reluctant to believe it.

        November 21, 2011 at 2:36 am | Report abuse |
      • L

        @sameforwomen, i agree with you that it's true sometimes women falsely claim rape for various reasons. however, it's incredibly sad that anyone in their right mind would do such a thing because it's like the boy who cried wolf. as a victim myself, it's incredibly frustrating, hurtful, demeaning, etc, to have people not take you seriously. the ones who falsely accuse are ruining it for the real victims. i wish people would be less selfish and actually think about what their false accusation could do to the accused and to society's view of rape victims in general. i think it's important to take every claim seriously, but i do feel for those who are falsely accused. nobody deserves to be raped, and nobody deserves to be falsely accused either because that's a reputation that is difficult to shake, even if solidly proven innocent.

        November 21, 2011 at 2:43 pm | Report abuse |
  30. Alex

    A 10 year old child has not completed the development that an adult has gone through. Their brains have yet to fully develop and understand the consequence of their actions.

    Did you know exactly how to operate as the adult you are now? Anyone that thinks a 10 year old child has the same judgement abilities as a 50+ year old adult is kidding themselves.

    November 21, 2011 at 1:24 am | Report abuse |
    • Abresh

      No, the people who are kidding themselves are the people who use viewpoint to make it appear that children are 'immature' compared to adults, when the reality is they do not ALLOW them to make their own choices and then try to say that we have to 'protect them from their own choices and making those choices' because of that.
      That is the reason why we have so many child-adults today, people who never got that level of maturity as i did very early.

      November 21, 2011 at 1:42 am | Report abuse |
    • John

      Anyone that thinks an Eighteen year old has has the same judgement abilities as a 50+ year old adult is kidding themselves. It's all relative. I know kids who are more mature than college students, does that mean we shouldn't let the eighteen year olds do stuff?

      November 21, 2011 at 1:48 am | Report abuse |
    • Abresh

      John, Exactly right. It seem that as soon as 's ex' and 'child' are in the same sentence, even if it is children doing that with other children, some nitwits lose their reasoning capacities.

      Add into this that we AUTOMATICALLY take allegations from a child of someone touching them in a s exual manner without their permission as gospel truth, and you have to WONDER why these people are waiting years to make these allegations.

      November 21, 2011 at 1:50 am | Report abuse |
    • Jay

      @Abresh - Your posts prove that - assuming you're an :"adult" - faulty reasoning and delusion infiltrate the 'mature' minds of adults far quicker than children. But that obvious fact aside, you also illustrate how the heinous crimes against children in State College could've been swept under all these years: cowardice, narcissism, unjustifiable amorality. You may need to take a water break from JoePa's Kool-Aid and regain your rationality. Either that, or grow a conscience before it's too late.

      November 21, 2011 at 3:22 am | Report abuse |
  31. Keith

    Christopher you are another simpleton and i bet you live in Pennsylvania where the men are men and the boys are scared...

    November 21, 2011 at 1:21 am | Report abuse |
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