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Moral Panic

Moral Panic: Changing Concepts of the Child Molester in Modern America

Philip Jenkins
Copyright Date: 1998
Published by: Yale University Press
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  • Book Info
    Moral Panic
    Book Description:

    It is commonly acknowledged that sexual abuse of children is a grave and pervasive problem and that child molesters are predators who compulsively repeat their crimes and have little hope of cure. Yet as recently as twenty years ago many experts viewed the problem far less seriously, declaring that molestation was a very rare offense and that molesters were merely confused individuals unlikely to repeat their offenses. Over the past century, opinion has fluctuated between these radically different perspectives. This timely book traces shifting social responses to adult sexual contacts with children, whether this involves molestation by strangers or incestuous acts by family members. The book explores how and why concern about the sexual offender has fluctuated in North America since the late nineteenth century.Philip Jenkins argues that all concepts of sex offenders and offenses are subject to social, political, and ideological influences and that no particular view of offenders represents an unchanging objective reality. He examines the various groups (including mass media) who have been active in promoting particular constructions of the emerging problem, the impact of public attitudes on judicial and legislative responses to these crimes, and the ways in which demographic change, gender politics, and morality campaigns have shaped public opinion. While not minimizing sexual abuse of children, the book thus places reactions to the problem in a broad political and cultural context.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-14853-4
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Note on Usage
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. 1 Creating Facts
    (pp. 1-19)

    This book concerns the creation of orthodoxies, of social facts so obvious that it seems incredible that they could ever have been ignored or doubted and yet which, in historical perspective, appear temporary and contingent.¹ Prominent among what are accepted as self-evident facts in contemporary America is the belief that children face a grave danger in the form of sexual abuse and molestation. This menace has certain well-known, stereotypical characteristics. Sexual abuse is pervasive, a problem of vast scope; molesters or abusers are compulsive individuals who commit their crimes frequently and whose pathologies resist rehabilitation or cure. Sexually deviant behavior...

  6. 2 Constructing Sex Crime, 1890–1934
    (pp. 20-48)

    In 1926, psychiatrist Benjamin Karpman examined a man who in other eras would be variously termed a sex fiend, a defiler, a child molester, or a serial pedophile. Karpman quotes at length the words of the subject, Kenneth Elton, who emerges as a rounded historical figure rather than the monster of media stereotypes.¹ Born in Virginia in 1899, Elton claimed to have been raped by an adult woman, a neighbor, when he was seven, and this incident had a great influence on his later behavior. He began molesting younger girls when he was about fifteen. As often happens in such...

  7. 3 The Age of the Sex Psychopath, 1935–1957
    (pp. 49-74)

    In 1934, a sixty-four-year-old man named Albert Fish was arrested in New York State for the murder, mutilation, and cannibalism of twelve-year-old Grace Budd. This gruesome crime was one episode in about three decades of violence and sexual molestation, a career that involved hundreds of assaults and perhaps fifteen murders of children. In addition to homicidal sadism, Fish had experimented with numerous perverse sexual activities, including self-mutilation and coprophagia, which he recorded in his terrifying diaries. Fish’s trial in the spring of 1935 increased public awareness of the further reaches of sexual deviancy: his story remained in the headlines until...

  8. 4 The Sex Psychopath Statutes
    (pp. 75-93)

    The problem of the compulsive sex offender was given fictional form in the 1952 filmThe Sniper, in which a didactic prologue declares that “high among police problems is that of the sex criminal, responsible last year alone for offenses which victimized 31,175 women. Adequate and understanding laws do not exist. Law enforcement is helpless. Here in terms of one case is the story of a man whose enemy was womankind.” The story depicts a rooftop sniper who attacks women in a symbolic attempt to kill his mother, and like the real-life Heirens, he leaves a note urging the police...

  9. 5 The Liberal Era, 1958–1976
    (pp. 94-117)

    In reaction to the panic of the 1940s and early 1950s, psychiatrists and scholars of the next two decades underplayed the scale and seriousness of the sex offender issue. In the professional literature, the real problem was described as lying not in the aberrant sexual behaviors themselves but in the public hysteria surrounding them. Liberal therapists and academics aimed to quiet popular concern by debunking claims about rape, incest, and sexual violence, while the most heavily consulted textbooks and manuals of the period argued that sex crime laws were disproportionately invoked against racial minorities. These experts acknowledged that sex offenses...

  10. 6 The Child Abuse Revolution, 1976–1986
    (pp. 118-144)

    By 1974, the federal courts were reflecting a broad consensus that child molestation was not a significant problem, but at just this point, other social developments were heralding another reversal of the pendulum. In 1974, feminists were engaged in a national campaign to raise concern about the prevalence of rape, while professionals in the fields of medicine and social welfare had successfully drawn attention to the menace of child battering or physical abuse. Initially, neither issue was necessarily connected to the theme of molestation, but within a few years, concerns over sexual exploitation and domestic maltreatment combined to create a...

  11. 7 Child Pornography and Pedophile Rings
    (pp. 145-163)

    The child pornography issue was critical to redefining views of abuse and molestation. This material escalated the perceived threat from molesters, who could no longer be depicted as confused individuals succumbing to a warped impulse: that they were photographing or filming children in sexual contexts suggested the deliberate, repetitive, and premeditated quality of the activity.¹ The commercial gain obtained from the ventures showed that molesters were dehumanizing children, treating them as commodities to be bought and sold: so much for boasts of “boy-love” and “intergenerational intimacy.” Beginning in the late 1970s, child pornography was depicted as such an unqualified social...

    (pp. 164-188)

    The media’s linkage of child pornography and organized abuse escalated the perception of not only the threat posed by pedophiles but also the urgency of devising effective law-enforcement strategies. And while child-protection advocates initially benefited ideologically from the exposure of organized molestation, the credibility of their ideas suffered when it was found that the existence of many pedophile rings had been postulated on the basis of weak evidence and were subsequently disproved.

    In recent years, this fate has befallen a whole subset of claims about pedophile rings engaged in “satanic and ritualistic abuse,” or SRA. In the late 1970s, investigators...

    (pp. 189-214)

    After the late 1980s, child molesters were viewed as being extremely persistent in their deviant careers, having sexual contact with very large numbers of children over many years. They were virtually unstoppable, either by repeated incarceration or by prolonged programs of treatment or therapy, because their acts arose not from any temporary or reversible weakness of character but from a deep-rooted sickness or moral taint. And now, many believed, sex offenders were mobilizing the latest technology in their remorseless quest for victims, so that cyberspace had become a potential hunting ground quite as perilous as the lonely park or field....

  14. 10 A Cycle of Panic
    (pp. 215-238)

    It is easy to understand why groups or individuals who perceived children as being endangered should have been so active in trying to protect them and to pursue and condemn their exploiters. But activists in child-protection movements, however sincere in their efforts to assist the vulnerable, have all gained in various ways by drawing attention to the problem of molestation, and the same professional groups and ideological strands can be identified in each successive campaign. Even so, this continuity of activism has not reflected any stability in how the issue has been conceived at different times. Concern has fluctuated wildly...

    (pp. 239-240)
  16. Notes
    (pp. 241-292)
  17. Index
    (pp. 293-302)