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The Boy Scouts' Abuse Crisis Signal A Shift In American Masculinity

Nov. 16 marked the last day to file sexual abuse claims against The Boy Scouts of America (BSA). Thousands took advantage of this reporting window; a window set by the BSA in February in conjunction with their filing for bankruptcy. This deadline is open to all scouts, past and present, to file.  The BSA is currently facing upwards of 82,000 claims, according to the New York Times.  These thousands of claims are an attempt at justice after decades of abuse experienced by scouts of all ages all across the nation.

In the 1910s, many influential parts of society (i.e. powerful business men, politicians, etc.) were looking to construct a new, mainstream manhood that would fit within the new bureaucratic society that was developing. A new economy emerged as the Industrial Revolution created a sector of factory and corporate workers who needed to fall in line. This was accomplished through the establishment of BSA. 

Millions of Americans, including public figures such as John F. Kennedy and Neil Armstrong, have gone through BSA programs. The organization was even endorsed by John D. Rockefeller and Theodore Roosevelt. In his book, Modern Manhood and the Boy Scouts of America, Benjamin R. Jordan explains how, “modern corporations needed employees to work together seamlessly on segmented, routine tasks in order to compete against rivals.” Masculinity in the Victorian Era emphasized the importance of independence and self-regulation in the form of personal businesses and self-sufficiency. Contrasting this Victorian masculinity, the Boy Scouts taught obedience and servitude. It worked to create civil servants that contributed to society in predetermined ways. There was an emphasis on outdoor skills, civil service, and good deeds. The BSA wanted to create men that would listen and follow orders, ushering in a new kind of manhood for a changing society.

This setting of obedience became a breeding group for power imbalances and sexual violence. Early in the organization's history, documented instances of sexual assault were already emerging. The issue of sexual abuse became a consistent issue throughout the organization’s lifetime.

As the BSA and their lawyers work to provide compensation to survivors in 2020, they released a statement, saying they were “devastated by the number of lives impacted by past abuse in Scouting.” Thousands of these stories are shocking the nation as they surpass the number of cases against the Catholic Church and reveal the horrors of an organization so ubiquitous with American manhood and society. The magnitude of these sexual abuse cases marks the decline of one of the most influential organizations of the United States economy and understanding of masculinity in the modern era.