Sex Panic and the Punitive State

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One evening, while watching the news, Roger N. Lancaster was startled by a report that a friend, a gay male school teacher, had been arrested for a sexually based crime. The resulting hysteria threatened to ruin the life of an innocent man.
In this passionate and provocative book, Lancaster blends astute analysis, robust polemic, ethnography, and personal narrative to delve into the complicated relationship between sexuality and punishment in our society. Drawing on classical social science, critical legal studies, and queer theory, he tracks the rise of a modern suburban culture of fear and develops new insights into the punitive logic that has put down deep roots in everyday American life.

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Editorial Reviews

“Casts a thought-provoking perspective.”
The Gay & Lesbian Review
“A convincing argument.”
“Smart, witty, and political. The critique of state responses to sex offense is desperately needed in a policy debate that celebrates ever harsher punishment.”
Gay & Lesbian Review/Worldwide - J.A. Myers
“This book provides a . . . window on the use of sex panics and fear-mongering by the state to increase its control over private behavior.”
From the Publisher
"Casts a thought-provoking perspective."--Salon

"A convincing argument."--The Gay & Lesbian Review

"Smart, witty, and political. The critique of state responses to sex offense is desperately needed in a policy debate that celebrates ever harsher punishment."--Contexts

"This book provides a . . . window on the use of sex panics and fear-mongering by the state to increase its control over private behavior."--Gay & Lesbian Review/Worldwide

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780520262065
  • Publisher: University of California Press
  • Publication date: 3/15/2011
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 328
  • Sales rank: 732,873
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.50 (d)

Meet the Author

Roger N. Lancaster is Professor of Anthropology and Cultural Studies at George Mason University and is the author of several books, including Life Is Hard and The Trouble with Nature, both from UC Press.

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Read an Excerpt

Sex Panic and the Punitive State

By Roger N. Lancaster


Copyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-94821-1



A Guide to the Uses of Fear

[W]e are only episodic conductors of meaning, essentially. We form a mass, living most of the time in a state of panic or haphazardly, above and beyond any meaning. —Jean Baudrillard, In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities

"Moral panic" can be defined broadly as any mass movement that emerges in response to a false, exaggerated, or ill-defined moral threat to society and proposes to address this threat through punitive measures: tougher enforcement, "zero tolerance," new laws, communal vigilance, violent purges. Witch hunts are classic examples of moral panics in small, tribal, or agrarian communities. McCarthyism is the obvious example of a moral panic fueled by the mass media and tethered to repressive governance.

The manner in which moral panics operate is the stuff of both archaic and postmodern social forms. Moral panics bear some similarity to what anthropologists used to call "social revitalization movements": they represent more or less deliberate attempts to reconstruct social relations in the face of some real or perceived threat or against some condition of moral decline and social disrepair. Central to the logic of moral panic is the machinery of taboo: nothing, it would seem, incites fear and loathing, and initiates collective censure, more rapidly than the commission of acts deemed forbidden, unclean, or sacrilegious. Another item from the anthropological curio cabinet seems germane: scape-goating is implicit in the full spectrum of panic's forms. Sometimes the person designated as the scapegoat is said to embody the moral threat in some intrinsic fashion. Nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century theories of degeneration held that some classes, races, or ethnic groups were biologically regressing or declining, and these notions formed the basis for the eugenics movement and ultimately Nazism. Alternatively, the actions of the designated scapegoat are said to constitute the moral threat—usually in pernicious, conspiratorial, or occult ways.

For as long as I can remember, unidentifiable evildoers, sometimes figured as satanists, supposedly have been spiking Halloween candy with razors or poison. Fear of candy tampering was present at a low level in the 1960s, grew in the 1970s, then exploded in the 1980s, along with other imagined threats to children's safety. Needless to say, such seldom seen, often imaginary folk devils inspire complicated forms of rage. Manufactured to be tracked, hounded, and pummeled, the scapegoat can also serve as a repository of secret desires, his or her extravagant evil a projection and condensation of widely distributed feelings.

Moral panics generate certain well-known forms of political organization. Self-styled leaders of the movement—"moral entrepreneurs"—convince others that containment, punishment, banishment, or destruction of the person or persons designated as scapegoat will set things right. This is never the case. Moreover, the acute state of fear cultivated by the movement's leaders effaces meaningful distinctions between threats real and imaginary, significant and insignificant. Invariably, then, moral panics tend to escalate.

What Freudians call displacement is a recurring feature of moral panics: panics often express, in an irrational, spectral, or misguided way, other social anxieties. At the turn of the twentieth century, panics around "white slavery" crystallized pervasive anxieties about the economic decline of the Victorian middle class and white skilled workers who were native born. Social reformers fancifully imagined that white women and girls were being kidnapped and forced to sexually service black, brown, and yellow men. In the 1960s the British press anguished about the socialization of British youth—and thus the future of a Britain recently divested of empire and great power status—in sensationalist reportage on youth subcultures: the Mods versus the Rockers. (In his landmark study of this phenomenon Stanley Cohen popularized the indispensable term moral panic.)

As these examples suggest, imagination plays a prominent role in panic mongering. The object of panic might be an imaginary threat (the devil, witches) or a real person or group portrayed in an imaginary manner (diabolized Jews, Negro satyrs, plotting homosexuals). And because alarmed social actors give fantasy free rein in the contemplation of social ills and moral threats, panics can encompass in a single movement any number of forms of dread and loathing. McCarthyism is generally remembered as the "red scare," but the homosexual purges associated with it lasted longer and wrecked more lives than did the anticommunist witch hunts. "Condensation"—the production of amalgamated, blurred, or composite figures in dream work or symptoms of a disturbance—is a perennial trait of moral panic. The objects of collective outbreaks of fear and loathing are complex entities: part real, part imagined; part one thing, part another.


Social theorists from Georg Simmel to Jean Baudrillard have suggested that panic is implicit in the structure of mass society. Writing at the turn of the last century, Simmel begins with the basic features of contemporary life: modern metropolitan subjects live among strangers and are constantly bombarded by stimulation. Of necessity, they adopt an indifferent, jaded sensibility, a "blasé attitude." These cool, aloof people in turn crave excitement, intense sensation, and are thus primed for what Todd Gitlin would later call "the media torrent." The mass media—newspapers, movies, and dime novels of Simmel's period—provided the requisite sources of sensation. Now, as then, news that shocks, scandalizes, or evokes fear and dread brings temporary relief from the tedium of modern life. However, these stories also quickly lose their power to excite, reinforcing the blasé attitude and stoking the need for ever more extreme forms of stimulation. In the culture of modernity, then, periods of panic will alternate with periods of social rest, and journalism, especially yellow journalism, plays a key part in setting the rhythm.

For Baudrillard, writing in the late twentieth century, panic is rooted in a different sort of paradox: the circuitry of mass communication itself creates a longing for scenes that disturb or frighten. Baudrillard plants his analysis in a late-modern media-saturated world where everyday experience has been rendered increasingly full of simulations such as television shows, video games, online worlds—virtual realities. "When the real is no longer what it used to be," when reality threatens to disappear entirely behind its simulations, the postmodern subject responds with "an escalation of the true," "a panic-stricken production of the real"—in no small part through news stories that shock, titillate, or horrify. Sensational news serves as evidence of the real. But this news too enters the circle of simulation, which feeds more frantic longing, more frustrated desire—more panic—for the disappearing act of the real. Meaning is exhausted. The circle is closed.

Under any scenario mass media are essential to the dynamics of modern moral panics, so much so that Thomas Shevory prefers the term media panic. But not all media panics are the same. Fear and confusion propagate faster through radio and television than by way of mass-produced broadsides or flyers; the Internet is a more efficient means of converting anecdote into evidence than was the Hearst newspaper chain. Paul Virilio succinctly describes the implications of the changeover from type to electronic image: "Following the standardization of opinion that came with the nineteenth century, we are now witnessing the sudden synchronization of emotions.... Public opinion is supposed to be built up through shared reflection, thanks to the freedom of the press but, equally, to the publishing of critical work. Public emotion, on the contrary, is triggered by reflex with impunity wherever the image holds sway over the word."

Today alarmist stories and sensational journalism play out in real time. As means of communication have speeded up and expanded, panics too have accelerated and intensified. Media conglomerates, institutional actors, and political factions all have a stake in the production and management of certain kinds of fear; they provoke panic to sell newspapers, to forge "community," to curb dissent, or to foster various kinds of social discipline. All these factors tend toward the production of panic as the normal condition in the contemporary United States. And just as mass media create "publics," media panics tend to forge a certain kind of citizenship and a certain kind of state. When audience-communities become truly alarmed, they demand action, usually repressive action against a perceived enemy. So goes the logic of what Stuart Hall and colleagues have dubbed "authoritarian populism." Panic, then, has become ever more intricately woven into the basic structure of politics and governance; it is a technique for running political campaigns, staging (in some cases contriving) and addressing social issues, and solving problems in a variety of communicative or administrative domains.

A great many—perhaps all—of the social reform movements since Jimmy Carter's presidency have taken the form of moral panics. An obvious example is the victims' rights movement, which promulgates true crime horror stories, advocates harsh criminal penalties, has become a quasi-official branch of law enforcement, and has reshaped judiciary practices across the board. A variant of this approach is embodied in Mothers Against Drunk Driving, an organization founded in 1980 by Candice Lightner after her daughter Cari was killed by a drunk driver. A quick look at the group's methods and aims reveals something of how the logic of moral panic can be applied to genuine, statistically significant problems. MADD draws public attention to the problem of drunk driving by using a communication strategy that puts a human face on highway fatality statistics; the organization succeeded early on at winning passage of the 1984 National Minimum Drinking Age Act, which prodded states to set a legal drinking age of twenty-one. Advocates of this approach point to a decline in fatalities associated with drunk driving after passage of the act, but correlation alone does not establish causation, and statistics from the international Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development do not lend obvious support to the idea that higher legal drinking ages are associated with lower traffic fatalities overall. (In fact, OECD data show that per capita and per vehicle highway fatalities are declining almost everywhere, more rapidly and to much lower levels in many developed countries that have significantly lower drinking ages than the United States.) No doubt MADD's efforts have produced a greater public awareness of the risks involved in drinking and driving that has changed drivers' practices. But many alternative strategies might plausibly contribute to a reduction in traffic fatalities: improving the safety of automobiles, developing mass transit systems, requiring more extensive driver training (presumably to include modules on how alcohol affects driving), or raising the legal age for acquiring a driver's license. In practice, MADD emphasized an approach that played to themes of child imperilment and protection. And in the process what the organization unambiguously accomplished was the retrenchment of a temperance perspective in public life, a redefinition of the rights of adulthood, and an expansion of the domain of childhood.

Threats to child safety are a recurring theme in American public life. During the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries, Hillary Clinton gave her campaign a new lease on life with the "red phone" ad: "It's 3 a.m. and your children are safe and asleep. But there's a phone in the White House and it's ringing." The sociologist Orlando Patterson has suggested that the ad, with its images of "innocent sleeping children and a mother in the middle of the night at risk of mortal danger," has a racist subtext; he compares the ad with scenes of peril from D.W. Griffith's racist epic Birth of a Nation. Anything that touches upon the protection or socialization of children can serve as the stuff of panic, of course. But the logic of panic can also be instrumentalized in other, more subtle, ways. When the pharmaceutical giant Merck unveiled Gardasil, its vaccine against the human papilloma virus (HPV), the company was careful to present the new vaccine as a cancer prevention drug, not as a vaccine against a sexually transmitted disease. In the prevailing atmosphere the latter tack would have been tantamount to promoting sexual promiscuity. Instead, Merck's publicity campaign constantly invoked high levels of male HPV infection to trump the notion that marital fidelity offered women protection against HPV, which is associated with cervical cancer. In positioning the drug as a protector of girls and young women, Merck used an old story line: virtue, fallen to vice; vulnerable female innocence besmirched by male sexual diseases. Instead of opposing the vaccine, many religious and social conservatives embraced it.


Because panics lead to new statutes, organizations, cultural templates, and various durable forms of social organization, their threads are woven into modern social life. Historians have suggested that white fear of violent slave uprisings contributed to the production of a durable culture of fear in the United States. During the eighteenth century, these anxieties were by no means restricted to the South. Fueled during the run-up to the Civil War, these anxieties laid the groundwork for a pervasive culture of sexual fear in the South, which was reinforced under Jim Crow. Sexual fears, moreover, have underwritten the development of major state institutions. Radical critics of policing have stressed the role that nineteenth-century moral panics around prostitution and vice played in the definition of crime and the development of modern policing.

Michel Foucault's History of Sexuality provides useful conceptual tools for thinking about moral panics in connection with race and class relations. To paint the picture in broad strokes, Foucault treats the role played by sex in class definitions and class struggles at the outset of European modernity. Aristocratic rulers of the old feudal regime had based their right to rule on kinship, descent, blood. In contrast, the rising bourgeoisie contested blood right and asserted its right to rule based on fitness, life force, vitality. The nascent class cultivated this vitality in myriad eighteenth- and nineteenth-century hygienic practices, and in those practices two methods repeatedly recur: one involves sexual abstention, prohibition—the repression of sex; the other involves the control, use, and productive disciplining of sex.

The entrenched bourgeoisie, whose power today derives from its ownership of capital and the domination of capital over every sphere of economic activity, no longer relies on these procedures, but not so the striving middle class. And when bourgeois values cross the Atlantic, they gain an especially durable purchase. Because the United States lacks both an aristocratic tradition and a strong socialist movement, bourgeois values and identities are stamped indelibly everywhere. The white middle class has repeatedly asserted its claim to be the universal class, the class whose values are life sustaining, by keeping vigil against moral lassitude and by undergoing periodic purifications, renewals, and moral renovations. In these undertakings it has occasionally tilted against the "bluebloods," whose refined tastes and work-free money the middle class equates with sexual decadence, but the main adversaries of the middle class are the nonwhite lower classes (whose profligate sexuality and implicit criminality are held to threaten the social order from without) and white sexual deviants (who threaten the order from within).


Excerpted from Sex Panic and the Punitive State by Roger N. Lancaster. Copyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Introduction: Fear Eats the Soul

1. Panic: A Guide to the Uses of Fear
Innocents at Home: How Sex Panics Reshaped American Culture
3. To Catch a Predator: New Monsters, Imagined Risks, and the Erosion of Legal Norms
4. The Magical Power of the Accusation: How I Became a Sex Criminal and Other True Stories

5. Zero Tolerance: Crime and Punishment in the Punitive State
Innocents Abroad: Taboo and Terror in the Global War
7. Constructing Victimization: How Americans Learned to Love Trauma
8. The Victimology Trap: Capitalism, Liberalism, and Grievance

Conclusion: Whither the Punitive State?

Appendix 1: Race,
Incarceration, and Notification
Appendix 2: Notes on Method


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