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Julie Waterson

Behind Closed Doors

(January 1999)

From Socialist Review 226, January 1999.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Moral Panic
Philip Jenkins
Yale University Press £20

‘There is a common thread ... to ignore the real reason for child sex abuse and to refuse to fight against the causes’

Many doors have been opened over the past decade concerning child sexual abuse. The ‘discovery’ of sexual abuse in the family, of ritual abuse by some in the Catholic Church and by a minority of care workers has led many to believe that this was the start of dealing with a pernicious problem. In fact it proved to be the opposite. These doors were slammed shut by the ensuing moral panic over paedophilia.

A new book by Philip Jenkins called Moral Panic is a fascinating and informative read. Jenkins studies the response to child abuse and the moral panics these create over the last 100 years and examines how attitudes, while shifting, have basically remained the same.

Moral panics are not new. From the sexual policing of the newly arrived immigrants at the turn of the century, through the harsh and punitive anti-gay legislation of the 1940s and 1950s, to today’s moral pronouncements, our rulers have always attempted to control our sexuality. Their aim has been the preserve of the family unit and an attack on anything that threatens it. As Jenkins says, ‘Predators, psychopaths and paedophiles represent a very minor component of the real sexual issues faced by children, while even sexual threats must be considered alongside many other dangers arising from physical violence, environmental damage and the myriad effects of pervasive poverty.’ Yet moral panics are focused on this ‘minor component’ and in doing so elevate this component into a common threat, with every child a possible victim.

Despite the press hysteria it is still the case that child sex murders are very rare. Of children under the age of 12 years old in the US, an average of 900 are murdered every year. Some 400 are murdered by a parent and are under one year old, and 54 kids (6 percent) will be killed by a stranger – in only 3 percent of these crimes (27 cases) did ‘a sex offence either [occur] simultaneously with or preceded the murder of the child’. Only five victims a year involved the murder of a child by a stranger in a sexual assault.

One such murder was that of seven year old Megan Kanka, who was raped and strangled in July 1994. Within a month her home state, New Jersey, introduced ‘Megan’s Law’, which compelled sex offenders to register for a ten year period and if convicted a second time to serve mandatory life imprisonment. Two years later and some 35 states had introduced this legislation. It has achieved nothing in dealing with child sex abuse, only feeding the misconception of ‘stranger danger’. This has resulted in the witch hunting of sex offenders and creating a climate of fear and loathing.

Such witch hunting also occurred earlier this century. In 1915 media coverage was ‘intense’ after the murders of two children in New York City. Mobs took to the streets ‘looking for suspicious characters’. The New York Times campaigned for ‘the state to provide adequate places of custody for the feeble minded where they may have the treatment by skilled physicians.’ The introduction of such laws for ‘sexual deviants’ led to between 700 and 800 people being examined by the early 1930s. Again, in 1937, New York City became the scene of mob rule after sex murders of children (with one sheriff recommending that child attackers should be shot on the spot instead of arrested).

Yet who are sex offenders? In the 1990s in New Jersey a 12 year old boy admitted sexually fondling his 8 year old brother in the bath. He received three years’ probation and was then required to register on a sex offenders’ list for the next 15 years!

Among the victims of the moral panic over child sex abuse are gay men. As Jenkins notes, ‘When public fears were at their height, homosexuals were most vulnerable to vice purges and mob vigilantism, to incarceration and medical intervention.’ Sodomy arrests in New York City were at an all time high in the late 1930s, during a moral panic over child killers. A study in the 1950s in New Jersey found that the majority of sex offenders were harmless and convicted of consensual gay sex or something like exhibitionism. Another report recorded that most offenders were ‘immature and underdeveloped emotionally and sexually’ and that ‘sex offenders have one of the lowest rates as repeaters of all sorts of crimes’.

The 1960s and 1970s brought the issue of abuse inside the family to the forefront, but it was shrouded in patriarchy theory. As Jenkins writes, ‘Even in the 1940s, a few writers had seen rape and abuse as a matter or power, aggression and violence, but this was strictly a minority view until the 1970s when feminists stressed that offenders scarcely differed from ordinary men and their sexual urges.’

This view brought together right wingers, who wanted to abolish contraception and sexual education, with some feminists, who united against child pornography and sexual abuse.

Yet the resulting laws in the 1980s have – like before – done nothing to stem child sexual abuse; they have only strengthened the right. Jenkins exposes our rulers’ hypocrisy regarding the safety of children. His treatment of Satanic and Ritualistic Abuse (SRA), where care workers were sentenced to jail because children claimed (with the help of enthusiastic therapists) of ‘meeting cartoon characters, hidden tunnels, having their penises chopped off, barbecued in ovens, dangled over alligator pools’. No physical evidence was ever offered in any trial. As Jenkins notes, ‘The SRA movement represents an eerily postmodern dominance of created illusion over supposedly objective reality.’ By the end of the 1980s the idea that ritual abuse was common had acquired the status of social fact. By 1993-95 SRA was under attack, alongside false memory syndrome. As Jenkins says, we have ‘come full circle’ with respect to child sexual abuse.

This book shows the political weaknesses of those who formulate policies and who fight to implement them. From the turn of the century to the SRA ‘therapists’ today, there is a common thread. This is to ignore the real reason for child sex abuse and to refuse to fight against the causes: sexual repression and the role of the family under capitalism. Nonetheless, this is a book which should be welcomed by anyone who wants to peek behind the headlines and understand the price being paid by many children for our society’s commitment to the nuclear family.

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