I’m a card-carrying Eagle Scout. (Yes, there’s actually a card.) I know the secret handshake, I can construct a bonfire from little more than dryer lint, and, yes, I still own a pair of those amazing camo-green short-shorts. For the most part, I have fond memories of scouting, so it is with embarrassment, anger—and a total lack of surprise—that I read about yet another charge of sexual abuse against the Boy Scouts of America. Two, in fact.
The Great Falls Tribune reported yesterday that five Montana women have sued the BSA for a series of rapes that occurred in 1974; a Scoutmaster, they claim, offered private help with merit badge work at a coed event, only to use the opportunity to commit “sick, sick sexual acts.” And just today, the News Tribune of Tacoma, Wash., wrote that two men have accused a former Scout leader of similar molestation. Both of these scandals come on the heels of a 2010 decision against the BSA for $18.5 million regarding the existence of secret “perversion” files the organization was keeping on suspected or reported abusers.
These new stories are horrible and, regardless of their veracity, point to a major problem: Scouting has an unhealthy relationship with sex. Unfortunately however, I suspect little real change in the way of protecting kids will result from taking on the BSA in court. While the national council is, in general, the public face of Scouting, the actual organization of the many local troops within the group is fairly loose. True, the BSA sets general policy, awards high honors, and runs national events, but in local issues like fundraising and, most importantly here, Scout leader vetting, the BSA’s involvement is limited. Charging the BSA with responsibility for a local Scout leader’s actions, while perhaps legally tenable, is like blaming a national fraternity for the bad actions of a single chapter—it doesn’t really address the issue of a corrupt culture.
Which is not to say that I don’t support the suit; in principle, I do. However, I think that in addition to seeking restitution for the victims, these cases should serve as an occasion to ask Scouting some tough questions about its relationship to sex and sexuality, which, in my experience, is a really weird one. For starters, in all my years of Scouting, from Tiger Cub to Eagle, sex as such was never discussed, and abuse was addressed in an awkward pamphlet (PDF) that left one with the impression that sex crimes could only take place outside of Scouts. Besides exhortations to practicing good hygiene, an acknowledgement of the fact that Scouts are pubescent boys (with all the desires, discoveries, and potential missteps of that stage) was almost never made.
For an organization meant primarily for preparing boys to be men, this seems like a gross oversight. Moreover, besides the asexual “Scout mom,” women were hardly ever present, physically or theoretically. While I agree that limited single-sex socialization has positive benefits (i.e. I’m not advocating gender-neutral Scouting), the “no girls allowed” mentality of most Scouting occasions is bound to engender a skewed view of the opposite sex. And I’m not even going to address the gay issue here; these folks do a fine job with that.
In the end, all this furtive hedging about sex and sexuality, good and bad, creates a culture of awkward silence and underinformed youth. That, combined with a good-willed policy toward volunteer leadership, and you have the perfect environment for a molester. However, there are ways to begin to clear the air. A big step would be to lessen or altogether remove the Boy Scouts’ religious affiliation. Though began in 1907 as a Christian organization, I don’t think dogmatic backing is still necessary to maintain Scouting’s commitment to honor and ethics. Moreover, meeting in churches, as many troops do, almost certainly discourages the kinds of frank, open-minded conversations that are needed here. Beyond this, a move toward more transparency by dissolving the insular, “good old boys” quality of Scouting leadership (evidenced in the file-keeping scandal) would make the organization less of a safe haven for criminals.
First and foremost, though, Scouting must recognize and teach that sexuality is something to understand, celebrate, and, in some cases, be wary of—something that’s crucial for becoming a healthy, well-adjusted man.