Human Rights

Sex, Lies, and Moral Panics

Some Christian conservatives are comparing colleges to brothels. But don't withdrawl your daughter quite yet, it might just be the latest example of a mass moral panic.
Don't panic, but if your child is a college student, she or he is likely to be having lots of casual sex with a random string of partners. That's according to Dr. Joe S. McIlhaney Jr., founder and chairman of the Medical Institute for Sexual Health in Austin, TX, who recently warned Washington Times readers and parents of the "sexual chaos" on college campuses today. Similarly, Loyola College in Maryland theology professor Vigen Guroian compares college to a sex carnival in a January article for titled "Dorm Brothel."

Their exaggerated rhetoric and fear-mongering strategy seem designed to inspire a moral panic. Sociologists define a moral panic as mass hysteria generated by exploiting people's worst fears, often for the sake of an underlying political agenda.

For example, remember the furor in the 1980s over the supposedly widespread satanic ritual abuse of children by daycare workers and parents? It turned out to be a series of hysterical events that have since been entirely discredited -- although some of the accused remain in prison.

Moral panics have taken place throughout history. From 1730 to 1731, for example, scores of homosexuals were burned alive in a sex panic that rose out of the fear that God would punish "sodomy" by allowing the North Sea to break through the dikes that defend Holland. Two hundred and fifty trials were held, and 75 men and boys were executed -- frequently burned alive.

Every moral panic has a few essential elements, most of which were first outlined and named in British sociologist Stanley Cohen's 1972 book Folk Devils and Moral Panics. One or more groups -- researchers call them "moral entrepreneurs" -- start the panic when they fear a threat to prevailing cultural values. For example, the civil rights and sexual liberation movements of the 1960s and 70s, which dramatically altered society's rules about sex, race, and gender, inspired a fearful moral panic among many conservatives who believed the outcome of these movements would be the total dissolution of western civilization.

Driven by anxiety, the moral entrepreneur identifies a person or group that embodies that threat -- the "folk devil." Mary deYoung, a professor of sociology at Grand Valley State University in Michigan, says, "The goal of the moral panic is then to identify, restrain, and punish those folk devils." In the Middle Ages, social outsiders, such as religious non-conformists, lepers, homosexuals, and Jews, were commonly considered folk devils. Centuries later, the list of groups that inspire moral panic remains frighteningly similar.

For example, when President Reagan took office in the 1980s, he began to focus on what his administration perceived as a growing threat to the moral order -- teen pregnancy. The extreme right then identified one of its folk devils: the older man who supposedly victimized and impregnated the innocent teen girl, writes author and professor Carolyn Cocca.

Fueled by exaggeration and misinterpreted statistics -- there was little evidence that teen pregnancy was a crisis perpetrated by older, predatory men -- this moral panic eventually culminated in harsher statutory rape laws in many states. In one California case, a 22-year-old was prosecuted when his 17-year-old fiancee went to the doctor for her first checkup, which revealed that she was pregnant. (The two were married by the time he went to court, Cocca writes.) More recently, a 17-year-old boy was sentenced to 17 years in prison for having oral sex with a 15-year-old-boy.

Throughout its panic about older guys preying on teen women and making them pregnant, the administration largely ignored policies that might actually prevent teen pregnancy, such as comprehensive, medically accurate sex education and expanded access to birth control.

Truth aside, the image of a slick, manipulative older man lying in wait for his young prey is compelling; sex sells, and legislators were clearly buying it. Numerous other sex-related issues -- including abortion and same-sex marriage -- have provoked moral panics in more recent decades. Moral entrepreneurs often focus on sexual issues because they stand in proxy for deeper structural and ideological issues, like gender and power, that test the boundaries of what is considered normal, deYoung says.

"Sexuality evokes very strong emotions, whether it's arousal, anxiety, ambivalence, discomfort, or a mixture of all of those things," says Deborah Stearns, associate professor of psychology at Montgomery College in Maryland. "It's just one of those things that it's hard to be neutral about." A

At the end of the 20th century, the rise of the extreme religious right in the United States fueled particularly high-anxiety conflicts about sex.
These public furors tend to ignore the subtle nuances or root causes of social problems. In the case of abortion and same-sex marriage, moral panic has led to the passage of laws that restrict both practices, while ignoring underlying issues like family planning and family stability that have real a impact on the number of unintended pregnancies and the general health of our society.

"Moral panics about sex don't often deal with issues like the availability of contraceptives to people based on their economic level or racial background," deYoung says. "They don't deal with the underlying complexity of abortion or teen pregnancy. They're a remarkable diversion from very real problems that affect human beings, and they can divert attention and resources away from those problems."

Little research has been done on the prevention of moral panics, and no one has discovered the magic formula to predict where and when they will arise.

"Once you've been identified and demonized as a folk devil, your power and credibility diminish, and it becomes much harder to fight back," deYoung says, noting that the momentum of a moral panic can build quickly. "Being proactive and rational and tied to facts and data is the best antidote."

In other words, ask your daughter about her experience at college before sending her to the nunnery.

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Cindy Kuzma is an editor and freelance writer based in Chicago.