Sunday, July 3, 2011
Sex Scandals and Sex Panics are as American as Apple Pie
In 1960, sodomy was a crime in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Today, national polls suggest a rising tide of gay acceptance. Six states and the District of Columbia have legalized gay marriage, and such marriages are recognized in three more states.
Until recently, “living in sin” was unthinkable for public figures. Today, both New York City’s Mayor Bloomberg and New York’s Governor Cuomo live with their girlfriends, and almost no one bats an eye.
Sexual mores have changed a great deal over the past decades. But as Weinergate has shown, American culture is still obsessed with sexual transgression—and intensely so.
Not that we needed reminding. An ongoing stream of politicians and clergymen, “outed” as philanderers, drug addicts, or closet queens, then forced to do the walk of shame on the six o’clock news, testifies to our appetite for sex scandal: Clinton, Foley, Craig, Haggard, Spitzer, Vitter, Edwards, Sanford, Ensign, Schwarzenegger…. Many of these stories about fallen figures trade in schadenfreude; they allow tellers and listeners to revel in exposing the hypocrisy of others. They also allow reporters and audiences to savor the salacious details while condemning the fallen figure.
Other kinds of news stories trade in darker variants of the familiar boilerplate. Tales of wanton victimization urge the reader to join a crusade to protect the innocent. Some of these stories involve real and nightmarish but statistically uncommon events: the rape and murder of defenseless children. Others relate serious allegations of serial abuse and systematic cover-up.
Such stories are deeply embedded in the national psyche. Susan Faludi, Susan Jeffords, and other feminist scholars have shown how the drama of protection served as a foundational national storyline. In the colonial era, the “guardian myth” cast white men as protectors of white women and children; the villains of the piece were depraved red, black, brown, or yellow men.
This logic of peril and protection went on to animate both conservative and liberal political traditions in the US. Narratives of rescue were taken up by Victorian feminists and late nineteenth-century populists, obviously; by progressives and well-intentioned social reformers of various eras; and by assorted social movements from the late 1960s on. Sometimes the gender and racial roles are reversed: it will fall to white women or black men to protect the innocent—sometimes from the predations of white men. Sometimes, the bad guy of the piece is the effete villain, the plotting homosexual.
Such storylines have hardened in the past four decades. First came Save Our Children and the teen male prostitution scares of the 1970s, followed by AIDS terrors and the satanic ritual abuse and day-care panics of the 1980s. Beginning in the 1990s we have suffered a veritable avalanche. Reportage on violent pedophile predators, the perils of the Internet, the Michael Jackson trial, the priest abuse scandals, and so on made sex crime stories part of the furniture on twenty-four-hour news services, local television news stations, and even newspapers of record.
Sex scandals, which invite the public to shun sinners, and sex panics, which urge action against certifiable monsters, serve as distractions from pressing, real-world problems: political deliberations about how to steer the ship of state, whether to go to war, and whose bread should be buttered. But they do shape public discourse—and they do have undeniable effects.
When news reporters and victims’ rights activists portray statistically uncommon events as everyday threats to life and limb, they cultivate an exaggerated sense of danger in the public and reinforce a distinctly American culture of fear. That’s sociology 101.
They also promote an insuperable sense of grievance and prod forms of activism that focus on protection and punishment rather than the promotion of wellbeing in the round, the path followed in most other developed democracies.
An exaggerated sense of peril prods draconian responses.
Civil commitment procedures allow for the indefinite detention of sex offenders after the completion of their sentences, a practice hitherto deemed anathema to democratic law. In a growing number of cities and states, new laws throw sex offenders out of work and out of their homes, thus creating a permanent pariah class of uprooted criminal outcasts. Such measures are said to apply to violent recidivists but they invariably catch up minor offenders—or even minors. They have drawn the attention of the human rights community, while even a journal as staid as the Economist has noted both the harshness and in effectiveness of U.S. sex laws.
Moral panics around sex reinforce the idea that sex is the basis for morality. They thus sustain a puritanical outlook, even as the meanings of love and marriage change.
Not coincidentally, they blur distinctions and trade in dark insinuations—even in cases involving no sex, no crimes, and no complainants. Conservative activists have referred to Anthony Weiner’s nonsexual online conversations with a 17-year-old high school student as “contact” with a “young girl,” and a heckler at the congressman’s resignation press conference shouted out “Pervert!”
The acceptance of new family forms and living arrangements means that we’ve come a long way since the anti-gay witch-hunts of the 1950s. But the hunt for moral monsters continues.
If we keep such dynamics in mind, we can understand how US culture is becoming both more tolerant and more punitive at the same time. And maybe we can look for ways to change the storyline.