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Moral panic

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For consequences of moral panic over "sexual offending", see Adverse effects of hysteria.

Moral panic' refers to a phenomenon in which mainstream society experiences large amounts of fear and uncertainty fuelled by the perception that a particular moral institution (such as childhood innocence) or group of people (such as children or adolescents) are under threat. The perceived threat often comes in the form of a socially excluded, alien group of people (pedophiles or sex offenders) and the ideologies and real life events attributed to them. Necessary to the incitement of moral panic is the persistant exchange of misinformation, by the media for example.

The concept is often used in the British sociological sense to refer to shorter-term events[1], such as groups of hooligans or mods supposedly inciting flash panics in society, and the resulting authoritarian crackdowns. This (while it was the original usage, by Stanley Cohen), is a highly questionable phenomenon, since it usually relies on moral enterprise and media/institutional involvement to manufacture consent to "moral panics". Academics such as Bill Thompson describe the British theory of Moral Panic as a bourgeoise construct of middle-class sociologists who themselves partake in this manufacturing of panic and benefit from it.

"Critical Realist" theorists such as David Pilgrim may argue that CSA does not fulfil the "criteria" of a moral panic on various technical grounds.[2] Nevertheless, there is clear evidence that childhood innocence/purity discourse and its offshoots have led to a series of rolling panics throughout western society (amplified by moral entrepreneurs in politics, media and the professional sphere), forcing the economic and recreational institutions to react in varying ways. Thus, within an academic context, CSA (as we now know it) is perhaps better described as a moral technology, or a technology of power.


The beginnings of (anti)sexual morality

Controls on sexuality have been used to varying degrees in traditional cultures[3], but what we now know as Christian sexual morality goes back a lot further than the present era of repeated moral panics, possibly even before the founding of the religion, as revealed in scripture[4]. Fornication (sex outside of marriage) and other sinful/wasteful/impure indulgences were the target, rather than intergenerational encounters per se.

  • Some forms of early ascetic Gnosticism held all matter to be evil, and that unnecessary gratifications of the physical senses were to be avoided. Married couples were encouraged to be chaste. The Skoptsys were a radical sect of the Russian Orthodox Church that practiced castration and amputation of sexual organs. They believed that Christ had been castrated during his crucifixion, and it was this castration that brought about salvation.

Sex has always been a thorny problem for Christianity. Since the religion’s early stages, its doctrines have included an antisensual strain—a sense that sexual love is at best a necessary evil [...] The greatest early champion of that puritanical, antisexual approach was St. Augustine, a monk who lived in the late fourth and early fifth centuries. As Pagels shows, his personal history was extremely important in shaping beliefs that eventually dominated the church’s policies in critical areas. As a young man, Augustine had freely indulged in the sexual licentiousness common during the declining years of the Roman Empire. By his own admission, he was ruled by an insatiable lust. Then, when he converted to Christianity, he became obsessed with triumphing over the temptations of the flesh. He valued celibacy more than married life and emphasized the essential depravity of the human race. Adam and Eve’s disobedience, Augustine argued, tainted their descendants forever after with what he called “original sin.”[5]

  • There are reports of men and boys being burned at the stake by the Church for mutually consented sexual activity in the middle ages - a period spanning from 500 AD to roughly 1500. The prohibition appears to have been on homosexuality and sodomitical activity in general.
  • In the following Renaissance era, ages of consent were soon established - usually 10-12 for girls.
  • The late 1600s begin the slow birth of "public opinion" as a monolithic entity - coffee houses and gentlemen's clubs serve as a base for polite society, and mass media proliferates in the form of high circulation newspapers from the 1800s.
  • In 1762, Emile, or On Education by Jean-Jacques Rousseau is published. The popular idea of childhood innocence pioneered by such romanticists begins to gain traction. The idea of insanity is slowly bought into the realm of medicine during the enlightenment, and sexual deviance is similarly medicalized. Psychiatry (as a medical science) emerges in the 1800s, along with official pathologization of masturbation, which had long been regarded as dysfunctional or immoral by learned men.

The "panic era" from roughly 1880

Charting the cycles of panic

Since the Victorian era, mass media/politics, industrialization, globalization and the artificial extension of childhood have all allowed for a series of moral panics concerning the erotic potential of children and minors. We are at the start of a fourth panic, which relates to normalization of sexual and romantic attractions towards minors. We insert titles to identify the rough start and end of different waves of moral panic in the graphic on the right.

Identification (Child Pro) Panic, and "Paraphilia"

  • 1873 - Comstock laws criminalize "interstate transport" of "obscene, lewd, or lascivious" material. Pornography was effectively outlawed.
  • 1874 - New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children is founded by Quakers and Moral Crusaders - the world’s first organization devoted entirely to child protection. Ten years later, the NSPCC is founded in England, and W. T. Stead's 1885 exposé of child prostitution in London, “The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon,” boosted the circulation of the Pall Mall Gazette ten times. The protection of girls is framed as a women's issue, causing feminist collaborators and the social purity movement to seize upon the panic - working alongside religious organizations such as the Salvation Army and Liberal politicians. The initial act that raised the Age of Consent from 13 to 16 was not so much designed for the protection of all children, but rather to propagate middle class morality to the masses, particularly in relation to girls' virtue. It also criminalized non-anal homosexuality and ramped up measures against sex workers.
  • During the same era, Homosexuality and Pedophilia are formalized by psychiatrists as medical diagnoses, later going on to be grouped together as "Paraphilias" (see also, our position on that term). Like the lawmakers, the German psychiatrists who invented these categories[6] did not hide their moralistic motivations, since they as well supported the beating of children who self-pleasured. While paraphilias did exist as diagnostic categories, they were far from being reified as part of the public lexicon. While the girl victim was given copious attention, and thus approached something akin to a concrete identity, there is no consensus that any such thing as the modern-day "pedophile" or its equivalent had entered the popular psyche. Depictions in gothic fiction contributed to perceptions of a monstrous stranger emerging from the shadows - a man of lesser virtue who exists almost entirely outside of middle class society.[7]
  • Following the yellow journalism panics and UK law reforms, lawmakers begin to raise ages of consent throughout the Anglosphere, including America.

Pathologization (Molester) Panic

  • 1920s - The media start seizing upon examples of "sexual deviance" among psychopathic criminals, including child murderers. The "sexual psychopath" and uncontrollable molester myth enters the public psyche, but still the "pedophile" is almost unheard of. For the first time, the idea of this problem as a medical-legal one as opposed to a moral or religious one is sold wholesale to the public.
  • 1930s-50s - De Orio notes "In the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s, lawmakers enacted new “sexual psychopath” and other sex offender laws in an effort to combat sex crimes of all kinds but especially ones involving children. In practice, those laws gave the police the discretion to enforce them in a discriminatory and disproportionate way against gay men, and furthermore the stereotype of the gay child molester underpinned and served to justify the over-criminalization of even homosexual conduct involving only consenting adults."[8]
  • 1950s - J. Edgar Hoover's "Stranger Danger" campaigns begin, targeting gays. According to De Orio, the state conflated the category of the male homosexual with the category of the child molester. In the eyes of the state, all homosexuals were potential child molesters, and vice-versa. The notion of the “pedophile,” as distinct from the “homosexual,” was still not prevalent at this time. He adds that police departments cracked down increasingly on men who were involved in sexual activity with teenage boys, some of whom were actually straight hustlers whom the state criminalized as “juvenile delinquents.”[8] Public information films from this era are a common trope of the gay molester/stranger danger panic, recycled frequently to this very day.[9][10]
  • 1957-62 - The Model Penal Code in the US and the Wolfenden Report in Britain advocate for the decriminalization of adult homosexuality. From this point on, the concepts of homosexuality and child molestation slowly begin to be defined as separate categories. Prior to the decriminalization of homosexuality, gays and pederasts were treated under the same legal schemes, with arguably some police departments allocating more resources to pursuing "deviant" non-pederastic homosexuals. A 1964 video calmly relays contemporary (mis)conceptions of the "child molester".[11]
  • 1960s[12] - For a long time, the mob had run extortion schemes against prominent pederasts and gays, however, the 60s were a time of relative latency in the war against sex offenders. Gay liberation and homophile activists were joined by sexual freedom activists, and progress began to be made with law reforms.[8] The decade ends with the Stonewall Riots, an event after which the Gay Movement frequently allied with pederasts and youth libs.
  • 1962-69 - The "discovery" of Battered Child Syndrome introduces the idea of child abuse as a widespread phenomenon as opposed to a one-off act.[13] For the first time, society as a whole is pathologized, heralding a new era of problematization (the next wave of the panic).

Problematization (CSA) Panic

Robin Lloyd's 1978 expose of American Boy Prostitution
  • April 1971 – Florence Rush presents her ground-breaking: “The Sexual Abuse of Children: A Feminist Point of View” about childhood sexual abuse and incest, at the New York Radical Feminists Rape Conference. Focus is on sexual violence against female children within the family, seen as a pervasive, if not universal factor in socializing females to accept subservient & submissive role in society. Sexual violence is reframed as an inherently political, women’s issue.
  • 1973 – Revelations that dozens of teenage boys had been tortured, raped, murdered and secretly buried by serial killer Dean Corll. Rumors that the boys had been involved in prostitution and/or pornography are encouraged by Police leadership, blaming victim “lifestyle” for the tragedy to offset parent’s revelations that police had refused to investigate the disappearance of the early victims. No verification of lifestyle claims from any family members or friends of the deceased. Boy prostitution and pornography operations are later uncovered in California, the DOM-LYRIC case (police attempt to link it to the previous case). In Houston, the Roy Ames case, 1973-75, again unrelated. In 1974, The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) passed in the U.S.
  • 1975 – Dr Judianne Densen-Gerber publishes “Incest as a causative factor in anti-social behavior: An exploratory study” in Contemporary Drug Problems. Establishes incest of female children as a public health issue linked to drug addiction and prostitution. In the same year, family members of children living in Christian Brothers run orphanage in Newfoundland Canada, supported by a concerned community employee, attempt to reveal the long history of physical and sexual abuse of the boys by the staff, which is ongoing. The whistle is blown over local radio, inciting police investigation but is quashed by collusion of prominent Catholics. Efforts continue however, over the next decade.
  • 1974–76 – Pederast network shut down by police investigation and successful prosecution of several principle conspirators, revealed in three linked cases: the New Orleans Boy Scout troop (Halvorsen), the Tennessee Boy’s Farm (Vermylie) and Brother Paul’s Christian Mission – Michigan (Gerald Richards). Dozens of boys aged 10-19 years linked with multiple men in prostitution and pornography operations over the previous 5 years. Perpetrators ran charities providing services to “wayward” or delinquent boys previously identified as juvenile prostitutes, including short and long term crisis housing. Images of the victims published as pornography.
Anita Bryant is the archetypal conservative problematizer, but was joined by lesbian feminists. Her threat was designed to shame mainstream gays into submission
  • 1977–79 – Densen-Gerber and Det. Lloyd Martin (LAPD) aggressively lobby state and federal legislators for new laws effectively banning and criminalizing possession or sale of child pornography. Heavy print media coverage of these issues, multiple hearings with testimony from various social sciences experts, incarcerated perpetrators, models. Victimization of children in state or private custody of various kinds is a secondary focus. In 1978, John Wayne Gacy confessed to police that since 1972, he had sexually assaulted, tortured and murdered approximately 25 to 30 teenage males, whom he falsely claimed were all runaways or male prostitutes, burying many of them in a crawlspace under his home. In 1979, Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy publishes “The Public School Phenomenon” in the UK, documenting a long history & culture of relationships between older and younger students, as well as violence perpetrated on residents by other residents and staff.
  • 1977 - Anita Bryant launches her divisive Save Our Children campaign, splitting the gay movement against the pederasts. While some radical voices argued for age inclusivity, the dominant faction saw that as a recipe for disaster and (foreshadowing the gay marriage movement) tried to minimize the differences between gay culture and heteronormativity, assimilating itself first to the latter's stigmatization of youth sexuality as deviant and harmful and later to its stigmatization of all sex outside of marriage (or, at least, of a monogamous relationship). "Consenting Adults" became the slogan for gay assimilationism.[14][8] By 1978, Bryant's campaign falters as an attempt to ban gay teachers is defeated in California. De Orio notes "In response to the decreasing popularity of “the homosexual” as a demonic figure, law enforcement officials such as the LAPD detective Lloyd Martin refocused their energies on demonizing the “pedophile.” By focusing less on homosexuality per se and more on other, less sympathetic deviant subjects, who remained outside the boundaries of identity politics, conservatives managed to pursue a law-and-order agenda with respect to sex crimes unhindered by resistance from gay and progressive activists."[8] In 1978, NAMBLA is set up, in response to an anti-gay anti-youth and anti-pederast witch-hunt in Revere, Massachusetts.
  • 1979 - The highly influential David Finkelhor's first book, Sexually Victimized Children is published, going on to shape policy and practise.
  • 1980Lawrence Pazder publishes Michelle Remembers, inventing the terminology and concepts of Satanic Ritual Abuse/Ritual Abuse/Ritualized Abuse. Pazder attempts to have Michelle Smith declared a living saint by the Vatican. Throughout the 1980s, "pedophilia" and the "pedophile" enters the wider public lexicon, a trend that intensifies in the following decades.
  • 1982-86 - Johnny Gosch and a succession of other Des Moines teenage boys go missing over the following years. Speculation is rife as to organized "pedophile" conspiracy.
  • 1983 – The first adult women claiming to be survivors of SRA are being evaluated and studied by psychiatric staff in California. Allegations are of long term sadistic abuse by satanic family cult members, with supernatural elements and frequent diagnosis of the previously rare Multiple Personality Disorder, and as in previous cases, are pumped by a political alliance of right and left.[15] By 1985, media coverage of CSA issues is entirely focused on women’s allegations of satanic cult abuse and mind control in childhood, or large-scale daycare abuse accusation cases with allegations by some parents that children have revealed SRA victimization. Child protection resources are also dominated by cases of this nature, as are police child sex crime investigation resources, and psychiatric treatment/therapy services for women and child sexual abuse victims. In the mid-80s, the "abuse survivor" concept is born as an identity; a segment of society that is commercially targeted by therapists.
  • 1986 - Meese Report is published in the U.S. The report is the result of a comprehensive investigation into pornography ordered by U.S. President Ronald Reagan, and in 1,960 pages, establishes the harmfulness of pornography by way of fabrication, suggestion and conjecture.
  • 1988 - The million plus best-seller Courage To Heal is published by Laura Bass and Ellen Davis. Abuse survivor self-help takes off as a genre. "The long term effects of child sexual abuse can be so pervasive that it’s sometimes hard to pinpoint exactly how the abuse affected you. It permeates everything: your sense of self, your intimate relationships, your sexuality, your parenting, your work life, even your sanity. Everywhere you look, you see its effects."
  • In the late 80s and early 90s, a number of photography controversies rocked the American intelligentsia as Child Pornography laws continued to be tightened. Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center director Dennis Barrie is charged with violating obscenity laws for presenting "Robert Mapplethorpe: The Perfect Moment." He is acquitted by a jury. FBI and local police break into San Francisco photographer Jock Sturges's home to investigate a photo-lab tip that Sturges is a child pornographer. Ten months after confiscating most of his possessions, and destroying some of his film stock and records, charges had still not been filed. Reflecting on these high-profile cases, academic Laura Marks (1990) argued that "A moral panic over the production of child pornography has swept the United States."[16] Sally Mann is another example of a photographer who faced similar controversy in the 90s.
  • 1990s - U.S. passes Megan's Law, among other domestic initiatives, while pursuing ever more imperialist sex, drugs and trafficking initiatives abroad. Sexually Violent Predator (SVP) laws are passed, allowing indeterminate incarceration. In conjunction with the implementation of Megan's law requirements at the state level, various programs for monitoring and treatment of paroled sex offenders are also implemented. The "treatment" regimens often include untested "therapies" featuring inducement of self hatred and extreme sex negativity. Many such programs have proven ineffective following empirical investigation. Gender neutrality becomes an agenda in the law, and previous theories of CSA must now be applied with equal vigor to boys. Popular personalities such as Andrew Vachss signpost the turning point for the homophobic American Male psyche - time to pick a new bogeyman - the Sexual Predator, or "Pedophile". The LGBT/Gay Movement ousts pederasts after having made considerable gains.
  • 1996 - AMBER alerts & milk-carton campaigns begin, displaying the faces of missing children.
  • 1998 - Rind et al controversy shakes academia and draws official congressional condemnation 2 years later. Much like the discovery of child abuse in the 60s heralded the later problematization panic, Rind is an early example of the normalization discourse that was to take on a life of its own two decades later.
  • 2004 - Sadistic killer Marc Dutroux (arrested in 1996) is convicted. The attention given to his case has already unleashed a wave of "pedophile" panic throughout Europe.
  • 2006 - Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act passed in U.S. Towards the end of the decade and early 10s, Minor Attracted People regroup online as a "movement" after the setbacks of the 90s, but this is a long, drawn-out process with many false starts.
  • 2007-2016 - This was a period of relative calm, representing a slight relief in the news cycle as the problematization that commenced in the mid-70s belatedly burned out. Attention shifted to institutional forms of abuse, celebrity abuse scandals and generalized trends such as human trafficking, and later, right-wing conspiracy theories and the #MeToo movement. A small note concerns the emergence of the "Male Survivor" in institutional/community settings such as English Association Football. In the 10s, two separate media trends emerge in defiance of moral panic: the "Virtuous Pedophile" and the "free range parent", potentiating the political polarization of this topic and helping to enable the subesquent "normalization" discourse.

Normalization (MAP) Panic

  • Going forward - The stages of moral panic summarized in the graphic on the right are an expansive analogy for how people come to terms with social "issues" in general. At the start, we are told "this is the issue" - the problem is identified and acknowledged. In the middle, we are told "these are the others who are to blame (pathologization) and moreover, such people are not of one single type and are among us" (problematization). At the end, the problem becomes so widely manifest, that we have to accept it as part of us. This is normalization.

Quotes on moral panic

Don Pierce, a Sex offender GPS tracking expert on the possibility of surgically implanted GPS for sex offenders:

"One of the things we want to make sure that we don’t do is something that feels good or looks good or causes the public to relax."[18]

Reading list


  1. Wikipedia - Moral Panic
  2. Pilgrim, D. (2017). Academic Disputes about Adult-Child Sexual Contact: A Critical Realist Appraisal. Child Abuse Review, 27(3), 171–180.
  3. How Sex Got Screwed Up: The Ghosts that Haunt Our Sexual Pleasure, by Jon Knowles, see also Vernon Press website.
  4. Bible Verses about Sexuality - Knowing Jesus
  5. John Bemrose's short review of Of carnal knowledge: ADAM, EVE, AND THE SERPENT, By Elaine Pagels.
  6. Janssen, D. F. (2016). “Chronophilia”: Appreciating 150 Years of Puzzle-Solving. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 46(1), 35–38.
  7. Bulfin. (2021). “Monster, give me my child”: how the myth of the paedophile as a monstrous stranger took shape in emerging discourses on child sexual abuse in late nineteenth-century Britain. Nineteenth-Century Contexts, 43(2), 221–245.
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 8.3 8.4 Scott De Orio
  9. Stranger danger public information film
  10. Boys Beware (backup)
  11. "The Child Molester." (Highway safety Films). Emphasizes the danger of attacks on children, dramatizing typical approaches. Shows what can be done to reduce the problem by making children aware of it and ready to take precautions when accosted by strangers.
  12. Late 1960s - Slate.com
  13. ‘The bones tell a story the child is too young or too frightened to tell’: The Battered Child Syndrome in Post-war Britain and America
  14. Save Our Children
  15. Medium: When Sex Hysteria was Left Wing
  16. Laura U. Marks, Minor Infractions: Child Pornography and the Legislation of Morality. Afterimage (1 November, 1990); 18:(4), pp. 12–14.
  17. Scottish Daily Express scandal re. EU, Police Scotland using "Minor Attracted Person"
  18. From dead local news article: king5.com/topstories/stories/NW_011409WAB-surgically-implanted-gps-TP.28c9413.html