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Book reviews

MORAL PANIC: CHANGING CONCEPTS OF THE CHILD MOLESTER IN MODERN AMERICA. Philip Jenkins. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1998. 302 pp., $30.00

PEDOPHILES ON PARADE: VOLUME 1: THE MONSTER IN THE MEDIA; VOLUME 2: THE POPULAR IMAGERY OF MORAL HYSTERIA. David Sonenschein. San Antonio, Texas: D. Sonenschein, 1998. 562 pp., $40 institutions, $36 individuals plus $5 S/H; PO Box 15744, San Antonio, TX 78212

Journal of Homosexuality, Volume 42, Number 4, 2002, pp. 185-192.

Der Kreis … excludes what was self-evident to the Greeks: the “Eros paidikos,” the pedagogical Eros .... Whoever lives this youth-love… may experience all the happiness and blessing proper to every love. But these are such subtle things, in which right and wrong stand on the knife’s edge, that here a community cannot take over the responsibility and run against a law ….

-- Karl Meier

  Der Kreis, December 1948 [i]

 Der Kreis’ editorial characterizing sexual relationships between adults and adolescents as on a knife-edge is telling. In acknowledging the value of Eros paidikos while observing the gay community cannot go against the law, one of the world’s longest-running and most influential homosexual magazines [ii] reflected a deep ambivalence to the idea of adults having sex with those under the age of consent. 

In the 50 years since this was written, this ambivalence has become opposition. Today, those who advocate for a right of adults and minor youth to have sex find themselves outside the margins of what most of the Western gay and lesbian community considers acceptable, even as it has included bisexuals, sadomasochists and gender-variant individuals.

Central to this exclusion has been the moral right, which early on linked homosexual rights with harm to children. Beginning with Anita Bryant's "Save Our Children" campaign in 1977, through the sensational child sex-abuse scandals of the 1980s, gays and lesbians have drawn an increasingly firmer line against sexual relationships with young people. 

These two books help explain why. They examine child-sex scandals in North America, how they come about and their effects. They are focused through the prism of popular culture, but from there their approaches diverge. Jenkins, a professor at Pennsylvania State University, looks at the civil liberties costs of ill-conceived legislation passed during sexual panics. Sonenschein, a former Kinsey researcher, details how society constructs images of pedophiles, children and the adults who protect them.

Periods of panic

 Jenkins charts a conventional course in describing how claimsmakers who advocate greater censure of adult-child sex have used—and been used by—the news media. He breaks no new ground in reporting how social workers, police and the mental health establishment formulated exaggerated claims in order to advance budgetary agendas.

Jenkins describes three major child-sex panics in the last 100 years. He shows how beliefs have shifted profoundly and repeatedly between a relative lack of concern and panic, and says the reversals mean they are irrational. The result has been,

"Outrage at random violence [against children] is transformed into a largely symbolic crusade against the nonviolent and thus squanders resources on the mildly deviant" (p. 9).

Jenkins performs a valuable service in drawing parallels between new laws which resulted from the latest child-sex panic and their antecedents, such as the now-discredited sex psychopath laws. The far reaching new measures were enacted in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Despite their breadth, they have had little historical characterization.

On the other hand, his is a broad-brush approach, superficial and at times inaccurate. For example, he implies the first federal child-pornography law prohibited mere possession, when in fact this provision was enacted later (p. 145). This may have been due to his reliance on inaccurate secondary sources such as the popular press for legal citations.

The book's biggest flaw is that it does not fully illuminate new laws' civil liberties costs, which go well beyond the groups they target. This may be seen in Jenkins' discussion of the sexually violent predator statutes.

In effect in more than 16 states and under consideration in more than 20 others, they require civil commitment, potentially for life, for anyone who may commit a vague array of non-violent sexual behavior, including, in most states, "any criminal act [found] to have been sexually motivated" (Lieb & Matson, 1998).

The statutes and mechanisms used to implement them generally exclude incest but are weighted against homosexuals, a fact not discussed by Jenkins.

State mental health agencies use actuarial scoring systems to determine predator status. The most popular system is the Rapid Risk Assessment for Sexual Offense Recidivism (RRASOR), published in 1997. (Hanson, 1997; Doren, 1999). RRASOR and its authors' successor, Static-99, use risk-predictor variables to determine whether subjects might have illicit sex. 

The risk-predictor variables have numerical scores for acts believed to reflect the subject's core beliefs. The state's evaluator uses data taken from police reports and other unverified sources to determine true or false answers for each risk predictor. While the risk predictors apply to anyone, male homosexuals are exposed to more of them than any other group.

Of the 10 risk-predictors in Static-99, four include homosexual male conduct or status—"any male victims", "single", "any stranger victims", and "any unrelated victims". What had been relatively common conduct among homosexual males may now earn the older partner classification as a sexual predator. For example, an unmarried man who had sex with a 17-year-old youth he had recently met would be assigned points for each of these variables and placed in the second-highest risk group. A charge for a earlier offense, such as publicly soliciting an adult for sex, would put him in the highest risk group. (Hanson, 1999).

Notwithstanding that actuarial systems for predicting criminal sexual behavior are in their infancy, unproven and subject to a high false-positive rate, and do not comport with recent Supreme Court decisions determining the evidentiary reliability of scientific theory and technique (Donaldson, 2000), state mental health agencies—eager for instruments with which to meet statutory requirements a predator have a diagnosable mental abnormality—have implemented them.

It is this requirement for a diagnosable abnormality that raises another civil liberties concern unmentioned by Jenkins: lifetime commitments may be applied to others than potential predators.

Under the predator laws, the accused does not have to be diagnosed with a DSM-IV defined mental illness, but merely found to have a "mental abnormality" or "personality disorder", terms which the Supreme Court decision upholding the laws, Kansas v. Hendricks, allows state legislatures to define. Legal commentators have noted Hendricks opened the door to labeling as predators any other group that may be potentially harmful, such as juvenile delinquents, habitual drunk drivers and drug users (Falk, 1999; Isaac, 1998; Peres, 1997).

The predator laws represent only one type of legislation passed in the wake of the 1970s-1980s child-sex panic. Others include lifetime registration, which forced hundreds of gay men to register as sex offenders for conduct no longer illegal (Small 1999), community notification of individuals labeled sex offenders, and laws prohibiting the possession of images of sexual children even if the "children" are fictitious (Greenhouse, 2001). Considering his civil liberties focus, it is a shame Jenkins does not analyze these laws' full effects.

Another problem is Jenkins at times does a disservice to the historical record, whose tapestry can be subtler than his discussion allows. 

For example, when discussing how the right used the threat of harm to children as an argument against homosexual rights, he observes that the North American Man/Boy Love Association (NAMBLA) was "deeply unpopular" with lesbian groups and that among mainstream gay organizations,

"initial sympathy rapidly [gave] way to deep hostility. ... because acknowledging any commonality of goals was likely to attract the 'molester' label for all homosexuals defending hard-won political rights and public respectability" (p. 162).

He does not mention that in the early 1980s some lesbians and minor youth defended not only NAMBLA‘s participation in the political process but also the desirability of sexual relationships between minors and adults (Kelly, 1979; Anonymous, 1979/80; Lotringer & Moffett, 1980). Neither does he acknowledge that today many gay and lesbian activists reject respectability and some have called for a dialogue with those who advocate relationships between adults and underage males (Rofes, 1998).

Occasional textual sloppiness compounds these flaws. On occasion he provides an account of statistical claimsmaking that does not make it clear who is doing the claiming and he cites Web documents without providing their addresses. He concludes demographic changes account for the shifts in how child sex abuse has been viewed, but does not mention Joel Best's argument against a demographic hypothesis (Best, 1990).

Those doing research would best be served by using Moral Panic as a Baedeker for further exploration rather than relying on it as comprehensive or accurate. These criticisms notwithstanding, Jenkins provides an informative and valuable account of how the latest anti-child sex laws have fixed the sexual deviance / paraphilia model more firmly in our society, to the detriment of children and adults.  

Constructing the child molester 

Sonenschein focuses on three principal actors—pedophiles, children and adult protectors—in the symbolic crusade mentioned by Jenkins. His premise is we base social relations upon imagery, using symbols

"animated and dubbed by their makers [which are] accompanied by standard, agreed upon and rigidly enforced texts that demand severe punishment for violation along with the elimination of criticism…." (v. II pp. 9-10).

Though Sonenschein focuses on American twentieth-century popular culture, he covers a great deal of historical ground. His may be the most detailed examination ever of the construction of child molester. For this reason alone, it is an important contribution.

Sonenschein notes homosexuals have been just one in a long list of child threatening figures. He shows what had been a homosexual threat to youth became in the late 1970s a pedophile threat as the moral right shifted its energies to easier targets. 

Although Sonenschein observes gays and lesbians were among the first to protest the child-sex panic originating with Anita Bryant’s campaign, he does not point out how those analyses—e.g. by Gayle Rubin (1978, 1984) and Pat Califia (1980)—turned out to be the high-water mark in critical assessment, or how, by the end of the 1980s, the gay community's ambivalence as seen in Der Kreis had become hostility.

Der Kreis' editorial against Eros paidikos came about halfway through its life and coincided with one of the U.S. child-sex panics described by Jenkins. It marked a change in how the North American homosexual-rights movement, still in its infancy, viewed sex with young people.

Hubert Kennedy's study shows Der Kreis had earlier published numerous short stories and poetry about men and youths in sexual relationships, including drawings of pubescent boys.[iii] Indeed, pederast themes had been present in gay publications since the beginning of the modern-day struggle for homosexual rights. 

The world’s first homosexual publication, the German journal Der Eigene (The Self-Owner), regularly extolled pedagogical eros (Oosterhuis & Kennedy, 1991). Sonenschein cites Friedrich Kröhnke as showing many homosexual activists in 1930s Germany were pederasts. The editor of Der Kreis quoted at the outset of this review reacted against Eros paidikos precisely because it had been an acceptable topic for discourse among homosexuals and lesbians. 

Up to the early 1980s, gay / lesbian publications in North America and Europe echoed this heritage. Widely read and/or critically regarded newspapers and magazines such as The Advocate (San Mateo, California), Gay Community News (Boston), The Body Politic (Toronto), Gay News (London), Gai Pied (Paris)—all but the first no longer published—went beyond child-sex scandals to explore ethical and cultural issues around youth and adults in relationships. Nowadays only a few publications such as The Guide (Boston) and Anarchy (Columbia, MO) critically cover political issues relating to adult-child sex. Eros paidikos has faded into obscurity.[iv] 

Both Jenkins and Sonenschein conclude the laws arising from child-sex panics are based on ideology more than science and do more harm than good. They try to step outside the Western proscription against children as sexual to illuminate how and why this ideology succeeded. The two books are a worthwhile complement for anyone seeking a more informed view of the cultural forces at work around these divisive issues.  

Mark McHarry, BA*  

*Mark McHarry is a consultant in the high-tech industry. He has written articles and reviews on gay and civil liberties topics for Alternative Press Review, Bay Area Reporter, Gay Community News, PAN, and Z Magazine, among others. He is grateful to Hubert Kennedy and Clair Norman for their help with this manuscript.  


Anonymous. (1979, December / 1980, January). A Militant Young Dyke's Feminist Perspective on the Age of Consent Question. Gay Youth Community News 1/5. In Tsang (p. 128).  

APA (1996, October 18). Kansas Law on Sexual Offenders Unconstitutional, APA Comments. Psychiatric News.

Best, J. (1990). Threatened Children: Rhetoric and Concern about Child-Victims (p. 160). Chicago: University of Chicago.  

Califia, P. (1980, October 30). Man/Boy Love and the Lesbian/Gay Movement. The Advocate. In Tsang (p. 133).  

Cochran, G. (1998, June 3-6). Perverted Justice. San Francisco Weekly.    

Curtis, K. (1999, February 27). Does treatment for predators work? (San Luis Obispo, Calif.) Tribune.

Donaldson, T. S. (2000, April 14). Continuing Antics in the Prediction of Sex Offense Recidivism. 

Doren, D. (1999, February). The Accuracy of Sex Offender Recidivism Risk Assessments. Paper presented at the XXIV International Congress on Law and Mental Health, Toronto. In Hanson & Thornton (1999).  

Falk, A. (1999). Sex Offenders, Mental Illness and Criminal Responsibility: The Constitutional Boundaries of Civil Commitment after Kansas v. Hendricks. American Journal of Law & Medicine. Volume 25, Number 1: 117-47.  

Greenhouse, L. (2001, January 23). Supreme Court Roundup; Justices to Weigh Issue of Child Pornography and Computer-Generated Images. The New York Times.  

Hanson, K. (1997, April). The Development of a Brief Actuarial Risk Scale for Sexual Offense Recidivism.

Hanson, K. & Thornton, D. (1999). Static 99: Improving Actuarial Risk Assessments for Sex Offenders.

Isaac, K. (1998). Kansas v. Hendricks: A Perilous Step Forward in the Fight Against Child Molestation. Houston Law Review. Volume 35: 1295-1331, p. 1317.  

Kansas v. Hendricks, 117 S.Ct. 2072, 138 L.Ed.2d 501 (1997)  

Kelly, B. (1979, March 3). Speaking Out on "Women / Girl Love"—or, Lesbians Do "Do" It. Gay Community News.  

Kennedy, H. (1999). The Ideal Gay Man: The Story of Der Kreis. New York: The Haworth Press; co-published simultaneously in Journal of Homosexuality, Volume 38, Numbers 1/2.  

Lieb, R. & Matson, S. (1998). Sexual Predator Commitment Laws in the United States: 1998 Update. Olympia, Washington: Washington State Institute for Public Policy. 

Lotringer, S. & Moffett, M. (1980, Summer). Loving Men. Semiotext(e) Special, Intervention Series #2. In Tsang (p. 14).  

Oosterhuis, H. (Ed.) & Kennedy, H. (Translator). (1991). Homosexuality and Male Bonding in Pre-Nazi Germany: The Youth Movement, the Gay Movement, and Male Bonding Before Hitler's Rise: Original Transcripts from Der Eigene, the First Gay Journal in the World (pp 2-7, 121). New York: The Haworth Press, 1991; also published as Journal of Homosexuality, Volume 22, Numbers 1/2.  

Peres, J. (1997, June 24). High Court: Pedophiles Can Be Held After Prison. Chicago Tribune.  

Rofes, E. (1998, November 13). Building a Movement for Sexual Freedom During a Moment of Sex Panic. Address to the Second Annual Summit to Resist Attacks on Gay Men's Sexual Civil Liberties, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Rubin, G. (1978, February). Sexual Politics, the New Right, and the Sexual Fringe. Leaping Lesbian. 2/2. In Tsang (p. 108). 

Rubin, G. (1984). Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality, in Vance,  C.S., (Ed.), Pleasure and DangerExploring Female Sexuality. Boston: Routledge & K. Paul; reprinted in Abelove, H., et al, (Eds.). (1993). The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader. New York: Routledge. 

Small, J. A. (1999). Who Are the People In Your Neighborhood? Due Process, Public Protection, and Sex Offender Notification Laws. 1466 New York University Law Review. Volume 74:1451, pp. 1465-1467. 

Tsang, D. (Ed.) (1981). The Age Taboo: Gay Male Sexuality, Power and Consent. Boston: Alyson Publications, 1981.

[i] Quoted in Kennedy (1999), p. 187.

[ii] Kennedy (1999), p. 1

[iii] By 1965, the editor had completed his distancing of Der Kreis—and homosexuality—from boy-love. (Kennedy, p. 202).

[iv] "Pedagogical Eros" is no longer visible in the North American gay / lesbian press. There were no reviews of Dutch jurist and man/boy-love proponent Edward Brongersma's two-volume work Loving Boys (Elmhurst, NY: Global Academic Publishers, 1990), and scant attention to Joseph Geraci's anthology from the defunct Paidika magazine, Dares To Speak: Historical And Contemporary Perspectives On Boy-Love (London: Gay Men's Press, 1997). 
NAMBLA is covered only rarely and then as a topic of controversy, such as in XY magazine's interview with spokesperson Bill Andriette (Michael Lowenthal, "The Boy-Lover Next Door," XY Number 6, February / March, 1997). 
is aimed at a young readership and has covered age-of-consent issues critically. It is telling that aside from XY, in the 1990s the only less judgmental looks by the news media at sexual relationships between adults and minors came from non-gay sources—e.g., Vanity Fair (Jesse Kornbluth, "Exeter's Passion Play," December, 1992), The New Republic (Hanna Rosin, "Washington Diarist: Chickenhawk", May 8, 1995) and the Associated Press (Lisa Lipman, "UMASS professor advocates pederasty," November 26, 2000).


© 2002 The Haworth Press, Journal of Homosexuality, Volume 42, Number 4, 2002, pp. 185-192.
Republished with permission.

Article copies available from The Haworth Document Delivery Service: 1-800-haworth. E-mail address:  <

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