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Sex Panic and the Punitive State

Sex Panic and the Punitive State

Roger N. Lancaster
Copyright Date: 2011
Edition: 1
Pages: 328
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  • Book Info
    Sex Panic and the Punitive State
    Book Description:

    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.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-94821-1
    Subjects: Anthropology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. INTRODUCTION: Fear Eats the Soul
    (pp. 1-18)

    I began drafting notes for this book when I found myself near the center of a raging sex panic: a combined police, judiciary, and media frenzy triggered by vague and constantly shifting accusations against a gay male schoolteacher I know. It is one thing to understand, in the abstract, that presumptions of innocence, standards of reasonable doubt, and assorted procedures of rational law have been eroded by wave after wave of sex crime hysterias in the United States. It is quite another thing to see scary mug shots of a close friend aired on the evening news. Calling the public...


    • [PART ONE Introduction]
      (pp. 19-22)

      “It all seemed darkly funny at first.” Or so claims the opening line of a story published in theWashington Post, a story I take as illustrative.¹ Eric Haskett, twenty-eight, had arrived early for a dinner date with his girlfriend, Ali Huenger, twenty. Tired, and reluctant to risk falling asleep while waiting for his date at her mother’s home, Haskett napped for a few minutes in his car, just a few doors down from his girlfriend’s house in Frederick County, Mary land. This innocent napping was to set in motion a chain reaction involving snoopy neighbors, community vigilantes, the Internet,...

    • CHAPTER 1 Panic: A Guide to the Uses of Fear
      (pp. 23-38)

      “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.¹ 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.²

      The manner in which moral panics operate is the stuff of both archaic and postmodern social forms. Moral panics bear some similarity to what...

    • CHAPTER 2 Innocents at Home: How Sex Panics Reshaped American Culture
      (pp. 39-72)

      Fear of lawlessness was running high by the late 1960s, a time of escalating crime rates and social unrest. Full-blown sex panics were slower to develop, but these were already incubating in conservative reactions to the decade’s generational conflicts. Sex, manifestly, was in contest: Hippie experimentation with clothing and coiffure bent established gender norms, the antiwar movement confronted social conventions associated with militarized masculinity, and the very idea of free love took aim at the underpinnings of the moral order. Still, sex was only one of many nervous sites along a wider generational divide. Moral entrepreneurs who railed against the...

    • CHAPTER 3 To Catch a Predator: New Monsters, Imagined Risks, and the Erosion of Legal Norms
      (pp. 73-103)

      In the wake of September 11, 2001, came a renewed round of intense reportage on the Catholic Church sex abuse scandals. Those reports illustrate something of how proportion and measure are distorted in sex panics. There were horror stories of rape or unconscionable abuse perpetrated by men of the cloth. But there were also grown men in their midthirties or forties who wept before television cameras, recounting the trauma of a brush to the crotch or a groping said to have happened twenty years before.¹ Journalistic interest in the subject synchronized with the conduct of several high-stakes lawsuits by trial...

    • CHAPTER 4 The Magical Power of the Accusation: How I Became a Sex Criminal and Other True Stories
      (pp. 104-136)

      When I was thirteen, it seemed to me that my life had come to an end. Students in my eighth-grade class started a rumor that I, and several other boys (the exact constitution of this group varied from telling to telling), had been caught “fagging off” in the bathroom. A veritable mania quickly swept the school, and for several weeks it seemed that my homosexuality was all anyone could talk about. Such was my first encounter with sex panic. These and other experiences have conditioned my deep interest in the subject.

      Here, then, I tell some stories about events, I...


    • [PART TWO Introduction]
      (pp. 137-140)

      In the twilight years of the Bush-Cheney administration, a number of writers took the view that something had gone terribly wrong in U.S. society. Public intellectuals and prominent scholars discerned “the end of America,” “the last days of the republic,” “the subversion of democracy,” and the specter of a new form of totalitarianism.¹ Some of the period’s broadsides dated the undemocratic turn to the Supreme Court’s intervention in the 2000 presidential elections, which stopped the Florida vote recount and thereby installed an unelected president in the White House, or to the days after September 11, 2001, when the Bush administration...

    • CHAPTER 5 Zero Tolerance: Crime and Punishment in the Punitive State
      (pp. 141-166)

      If one stands only a step back from the periodic changing of the political guard, perhaps the most impressive social trend in post-1960s America has been the rise of what academic critics have called the “carceral state.”¹ In plain English the carceral state is a type of political organization in which three conditions obtain. First, incarceration becomes the preferred sanction for a growing number of infractions. Second, official bureaucracies and civil society collude to intensify enforcement, enhance penalties, and keep the prison system growing. Third, a bloated prison system begins to supply norms for other institutions of government: surveillance becomes...

    • CHAPTER 6 Innocents Abroad: Taboo and Terror in the Global War
      (pp. 167-180)

      American culture metabolized the outrages of September 11, 2001, in a pattern evocative of the sex and crime panics. Depictions of despoiled innocence, sensational journalism, and calls to citizen vigilantism were followed by preemptive measures, the devising of lists and registries, and the erosion of fundamental rights and procedures. The resulting war on terror projected America’s forty-year punitive trend onto the international stage, replete with images of tough-talking sheriffs straight out of the Old West, “wanted” posters, and steely ultimatums.¹

      On September 11 and for weeks thereafter, live nonstop news coverage stoked a sense of collective trauma, fanning fear into...

    • CHAPTER 7 Constructing Victimization: How Americans Learned to Love Trauma
      (pp. 181-213)

      Some elements of the current scene are more deeply embedded in American culture than others. Americans have long imagined themselves to be a nation of innocents. Narratives of rescue are a recurring feature of U.S. social movements, and rites of protection fashioned the pioneer nation around red, black, and brown threats to white women and children long before there was a republic. But the modern institutions that recycle these cultural artifacts do not much resemble the institutions of the McCarthy period, much less those of the progressive, Victorian, or colonial eras. Even those patterns that seem most durable in current...

    • CHAPTER 8 The Victimology Trap: Capitalism, Liberalism, and Grievance
      (pp. 214-226)

      So far, I have drawn analyses that are largely concerned with form and function: how institutions of race and sex interact and mutate under changing conditions; how durable structures (organizational strategies, legal rationales) perpetuate themselves and replicate in various domains; and how fears about sex and crime expand, multiply, and progressively colonize wider social spaces. Two questions of a different slant and scale have arisen in various ways: What is the connection between the punitive turn, with its expressly authoritarian politics, and the liberal political tradition, with its emphasis on individual rights? And how is the punitive state related to...

  7. Conclusion: Whither the Punitive State?
    (pp. 227-246)

    It is said that U.S. politics runs in cycles, with periods of progress and regress alternating roughly every forty years. These periods are often marked in presidential terms, and some have heralded the election of Barack Obama in 2008 as giving closure to a forty-year period inaugurated by the election of Richard Nixon in 1968.¹ I am skeptical of anything resembling a numerological approach to social trends. Still, signs of change are in the air.

    If it now seems that the party of hope and change is displacing the party of memory and reaction, other matters remain unsettled: Is the...

  8. APPENDIX ONE Race, Incarceration, and Notification
    (pp. 247-251)
  9. APPENDIX TWO Notes on Method
    (pp. 252-256)
  10. Notes
    (pp. 257-294)
  11. Index
    (pp. 295-308)
  12. Back Matter
    (pp. 309-309)