Sex Panic and the Punitive State

Book Review by Phil Horner 

Roger Lancaster’s book, Sex Panic and the Punitive State (University of California Press, 2011) is part scholarly treatise, part impassioned polemic on the dysfunctional relationship between sexuality, fear and punishment in modern America. Lancaster is Professor of Anthropology and Cultural Studies at George Mason University.  He began drafting notes for his book when a teacher friend was improbably accused and falsely convicted of sexual assault against one of his junior high students. 

Lancaster borrows the idea of “moral panic” from sociologist Stanley Cohen, who coined the term in his 1972 study, Folk Devils and Moral Panics.  Moral panic is “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.” Sex is fertile ground for moral panics, and the mass media, with its predilection for titillation and alarmist stories, is essential to the dynamics of modern sex panics. 

The author traces the history of such panics from the mid-twentieth century.  The most spectacular of such episodes were the Reagan era “satanic ritual abuse” daycare center scares. Implausible stories by preschoolers of animal torture and sexual behavior occurring in broad daylight were believed, wholesale without corroboration. Although daycare satanic ritual abuse has been thoroughly discredited, these sex panics had important and lasting cultural consequences by allying antagonistic social movements. Social conservatives joined political forces with liberal feminists against the imagined threat of rampant sexual abuse. Perhaps Lancaster’s most important contribution is documenting the history of this improbable alliance in the promotion of the punitive state. 

Lancaster sees sex panics as a crucial factor leading to the establishment of punitive governance in America.  Crime control has become the dominant governing model, extending surveillance far beyond the policing arm into all official activities. Today a host of public institutions takes on police functions acting to zealously discover offenses and to anticipate imagined crimes. ”In a more or less continuous stream of crime, sex and terror panics, a complex set of cultural values related to forbearance, forgiveness, rehabilitation, and second chances has progressively ceded ground to an equally complicated set of values that revolve around vigilance, accusation, detection, the assertion of guilt, and spectacles of punishment.”

Lancaster does not skimp in his criticism of the victim’s rights movement for contributing to this state of affairs. The victim’s bill of rights emerged from the feminist-led anti-battering movement of the 60’s and 70’s. Newly minted victim’s rights tilted law enforcement away from a constitutional emphasis on the rights of the accused toward a punitive preemptive orientation, making the victim, not the accused, the center of attention at court proceedings. But, granting new rights to victims conversely decreases the rights of defendants and cedes new powers to the judicial arm of the state. 

In the end, government has limited means to respond to the victim advocates except by ramping up vigilance against abuse, and increasing the punishment and stigmatization of the offender. Thus politicization of victim’s rights led to a perfect storm in which mainstream feminists made common cause with law-and-order conservatives to promote the increasingly intrusive and punitive laws we see today. Lancaster holds out little hope for a reversal of the current course. “The weaknesses of the present system seem glaringly apparent. A public defined by its fears cannot pursue its rational interests. A culture overwhelmed by a sense of it own victimization will become an increasingly unhealthy place to live. A political system that revolves around punishment cannot long remain democratic in any meaningful sense.”