Department of Psychology, Temple University, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19122;
Archives of Sexual Behavior, Vol. 31, No. 6, Dec. 2002, pp.
Moral Panic: Changing Concepts of the Child Molester in
By Philip Jenkins. Yale University Press, New Haven, Connecticut, 1998,
302 pp., $35.00.
Reviewed by Bruce Rind, Ph.D.
Sex between adults and minors, generally referred to as child sexual abuse
(CSA), is widely seen as uniquely psychologically destructive. A vast
establishment of social workers, therapists, and law-enforcement is currently
dedicated to treating and preventing CSA with a priority that far exceeds
related issues (e.g., physical abuse and neglect). Legislators have focused on
CSA as a crime in a league of its own, passing community notification and
indeterminate involuntary commitment statutes that do not even apply to
Are these beliefs about CSA realistic and responses to it measured or is this
a social hysteria? Jenkins, a historian, has done an outstanding job in
attempting to answer these questions.
Jenkins begins his book by listing common stereotypes that have grown up
- it invariably causes lasting damage;
- it is transmissible from adult to minor like a vampire's bite;
- offending is a compulsive pathology resistant to cure).
He rushes to add that, even if any of these stereotypes is objectively true,
none should be accepted as demonstrated fact because they all developed
virtually overnight a quarter century ago from advocacy, not science.
He explains this dramatic shift in thinking using the social constructionist
framework, wherein modern concepts of sex offences and offenders are viewed as
constructed realities reflecting social, political, and ideological influences.
As he notes, the utility of this approach is evident in recent times, the past,
and other cultures where conceptions of normal and acceptable sex varied widely
according to other prevailing social beliefs and concerns.
Jenkins identifies the key players in the current construction:
- psychiatrists and therapists,
- women's groups,
- moral traditionalists and conservatives,
- a sensationalizing media, and
- criminal-justice administrators and politicians.
He characterizes response to the sex crime problem as a "moral
panic," borrowing from British sociological moral panic theory, which holds
that a wave of irrational public fear exists
- when official reaction is out of all proportion to the actual threat,
- when "experts"
-- perceive the threat in all but identical terms and
-- speak with one voice of
--- prognoses, and
- and when media representations universally stress sudden and dramatic
increases in the problem that far exceed sober appraisal.
He spends the remaining chapters detailing these panic characteristics, which
occurred in three distinct periods in the twentieth century --
- at the beginning,
- and end.
In Chapter 2,
Jenkins describes the rise and fall of the first moral panic during the
"Progressive era" (1890 1934). He notes that morality laws up to the
late 1800s forbade, with threat of severe punishment, a wide range of sex acts,
because they were regarded as grave sins.
Age of consent was generally 10, predicated on protecting economic interests
(keeping girls from becoming "damaged goods" with respect to
marriage), not psychological health. Following the lead of English moral
crusaders, feminists and religious reformers in the 1880s campaigned to raise
the age of consent, decrying the trafficking of young girls and spread of
Medical writers reformulated sex offending as a biological defect rather than
just an act. Legislatures, galvanized by a wave of journalistic accounts of sex
crimes and killings, substantially increased ages of consent and introduced
castration statutes. This "progress," Jenkins notes, "included a
substantial dose of sexual and moral repression" (p. 45), wherein
legislatures passed sweeping laws based on flimsy "science."
Jenkins attributes the decline of this first panic to the fragmenting of
political feminism, the discrediting of moral activism due to the Prohibition
fiasco, and a shift in media attention to other issues, such as Prohibition
In Chapters 3 and 4,
Jenkins describes the second panic -- the "age of the sex
psychopath" and the sex psychopath statutes (19351957). As in the
Progressive era, well-publicized sex killings shaped the public image of the sex
offender, casting him as violent and a potential child-killer.
Media sensationalism was accompanied by law enforcement hyperbole. Psychiatry
and psychology gained in numbers and prestige from assisting the government in
attacking the "menace," increasing the medicalization of sex in the
process. Legislators profited politically through increasingly aggressive
legislation, which proceeded apace despite government commission findings of
vast exaggeration of the problem. Sex psychopath
statutes, an "ambitious experiment in the integration of therapeutic and
criminal responses to deviancy . . . [with] instructive parallels to modern laws
against sexual predators" (p. 76), aimed to close the "revolving
door," retaining sex offenders even after their sentences expired.
Sex psychopath legislation continued into the 1960s, but met growing
criticism regarding the "prostitution of medical terminology .. . . as a
basis for social policy" (p. 91) and the sacrificing of individual rights
to "therapeutic fads and jargon" (p. 92). Soon thereafter, these laws
were abrogated, becoming a byword for incompetent panic legislation.
In Chapter 5,
Jenkins discusses the "liberal era" (1958 - 1976), which was in
part a reaction to the public hysteria of the previous period, dismissing
stereotypes of the "lethal sex criminal" as a product of media
sensationalism abetted by cynical law-enforcement bureaucrats.
He traces various social changes that facilitated this reaction:
- liberal revulsion at southern "justice," persecuting Black men
based on trumped-up charges of sexually violating White females;
- the youth culture and sexual revolution, occurring in the context of a
broader revolt against the status quo;
- changes in the legal environment fostered by criminology's recasting
deviance as an artificial by-product of labeling, used by power holders and
special interest groups to invent rather than discover deviance;
- increasing hostility to psychiatric pronouncements of pathology, seen as
ideological and self-serving.
In this climate, with greater concerns for individual rights and due process,
and a general liberalization of sex laws, sex psychopath statutes fell.
In the second half of his book,
Jenkins details the third panic-the current one.
In Chapter 6,
he describes the "child abuse revolution" (1976 - 1986), showing
convincingly that current conceptualizations of sexual abuse are largely social
constructions erected by special interest groups. Increased interest in physical
abuse led to the 1974 Mondale Act, which funded state programs to curb this
problem. Feminist campaigns against rape and associated male
"oppression" shifted to incest, using rape concepts and rhetoric to
frame the issue. CSA became equated with incest, and soon, even in its lesser
forms, came to be seen as ruinous.
This dogma was amplified by moral conservatives. The media enthusiastically
sensationalized the issue, creating a sense of national urgency. Legislators
responded, taking the stance that "no policy would be seen as too severe in
combating a vast and unqualified evil like child abuse" (p. 143). By 1977,
the chief focus of the child abuse establishment, originally physical abuse and
neglect as prescribed by the Mondale Act, had become CSA.
In Chapter 7,
Jenkins discusses the crucial role that child pornography and "pedophile
rings" played in redefining sexual abuse. The palpability of the former and
vividness of the latter gave advocates extra leeway in exaggerated
In Chapter 8,
he documents some of the more blatant manifestations of the panic: Satanic
ritual abuse in day care, the proliferation of multiple personality disorder
diagnoses, and recovered memory therapy.
details the legislative response engendered by these and related
manifestations: community notification laws and the revival of sex psychopath
statutes, now called sexual predator statutes. As in earlier panics, this
response was sparked by notorious sex killings sensationalized by the media. In
this atmosphere, a
"sex offender, however nonviolent his crime, was felt to cause a far
more immediate menace than the mugger, robber, murderer, confidence trickster,
or corporate polluter, who were not subject to like restrictions" (p.
In his final chapter,
Jenkins effectively pulls together the three moral panics, coherently
summarizing common themes to identify advocates' motivations in creating and
- Psychiatrists, therapists, and social workers, often allied with
law-enforcement interests, gained considerably in numbers, opportunities,
and prestige from the sexual threat.
- Feminists gained in their campaign because this advanced their more
general struggles against perceived victimization and oppression.
- Politicians benefitted by appealing to constituent sentiments of "law
and order" or "protecting the weak."
This issue gave moral conservatives a rock solid front to press for wider
morality enforcement. The media enhanced ratings and profitability through their
Inimical to sex panics, Jenkins argues, are countervailing ideologies of
libertarianism, sexual freedom and experimentation, and distrust of the state
and its agencies-precisely the conditions that obtained in the 1960s and 1970s.
He speculates that the current panic will be enduring owing to its
meta-narrative power to explain all social ills and because of irreversible
- women's much more influential roles;
- the institutionalization of the child-protection idea in social welfare
- law-makers' bidding war to impose harsher penalties.
He concludes by noting the scapegoat status of "predators, psychopaths,
and pedophiles," who represent "a very minor component" of real
threats to children, yet have attracted a vastly disproportionate share of
official attention simply because they are the easiest targets (p. 238).
Jenkins' well presented social constructionist approach
offers a fresh perspective on current beliefs and policies concerning CSA. It
persuasively challenges the integrity and wisdom of these beliefs and policies,
demonstrating that they have been built on advocacy unrestrained by serious
concern with objective reality and rational solution.
Its central message
is that we are in a state of panic over CSA, as we were twice before in the
twentieth century, because various constituencies with vested interests have
used this issue to their advantage, creating a spiraling mythology. Its central
implication is that social scientists should critically question basic
assumptions and skeptically reevaluate extravagant claims-making, and
policymakers should learn a lesson from history, lest they repeat it.