Elevate Difference

Moral Panics, Sex Panics: Fear and the Fight over Sexual Rights

The war on drugs. The down low. Rainbow parties. Obamacare death panels. Our society has a crazy way of taking contemporary moral issues and, with a dash of religious fervor and moral superiority and a pinch of media dramatization, blowing them up into large-scale panics.

It’s not surprising that many moral panics are aimed at sexualities or sexual practices deemed “abnormal.” Moral Panics, Sex Panics: Fear and the Fight over Sexual Rights asserts that this focus on sexuality isn’t a coincidence: many moral panics are rooted in the fear that “different” sexual practices will alter the foundation of society in ways that are catastrophically devastating. Society, ever vigilant, attempts to eliminate these threats with a shrill moral anger designed to shame those outside the norm and intimidate everyone else into staying inside the bubble of conformity.

Herdt’s book suggests that this shame is not only misplaced, but also counterproductive. Often, moral panics allow communities to ignore aspects of society that are lacking or failing, and point the finger of blame at those who bear the brunt of those inadequacies. For example, Cathy Cohen’s “Black Sexuality, Indigenous Moral Panics, and Respectability: From Bill Cosby to the Down Low” suggests that the decline of the black family postulated by Cosby and others is less a product of declining moral values in black society, and more a product of societal forces that have caused economic and social justice to stagnate.

I wish I could say Moral Panics, Sex Panics captured my attention from cover to cover. Unfortunately, the book’s tendency to belabor its points meant that, only pages into a chapter, I was tempted to skip ahead a few pages or take a snooze. The chapter on gay marriage, for instance, is too heavy-handed on historical details. Analysis and discussion about those details, however, is slim, creating a book that is dry and laborious to read. Which is a shame, because Herdt’s anthology discusses a diverse array of sex panics surrounding the AIDS epidemic, black sexuality, gay marriage, reproductive rights, and colonialism—a cornucopia of issues certainly worthy of intelligent debate.

Written by: Gwen Emmons, October 11th 2009

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