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Moral Panics, Sex PanicsReview - Moral Panics, Sex Panics
Fear and the Fight over Sexual Rights
by Gilbert Herdt (Editor)
NYU Press, 2009
Review by Asim Jusic
Apr 27th 2010 (Volume 14, Issue 17)

Not much needs to be said about how societies in different eras and in different places have gone out of their way to control, trough either primitive means of physical sanctions or more subtle means of inculcating internal "virtues," the ways in which persons as "legal subjects" use their own bodies. Even in the contemporary era, which, in a self-congratulating fashion, thinks of itself as an era of "guaranteed privacy and sexual freedom" public sphere has not been fully purged of deeper emotional "gut reactions" to expressions of affectionate sexual urges that differ from what is socially constructed as "normal or expected or decent." At the very least, with regards to the topic of sex, our time has become one of "of course you are free to do whatever you want, but please at least publicly mind other people feelings too (and behave in front of the children)."

The collection of essays Moral Panics, Sex Panics: Fear and the Fight over Sexual Rights, edited by Gilbert Herdt, is a contribution exactly to this debate:  on roots, political intentions, strategies and ways of dealing with the occasional, willingly produced or not, contagious spread of moral and sex panics as a result of the public perception that the "borders of acceptable sexual behavior" have been transcendent . The book consists of six essays and an introduction, and while I cannot do justice and analyze all in sufficient detail, I will shortly mention the topic of each essay and point to some recurrent theoretical tropes authors build on. In chapter two, Diane di Mauro and Carole Joffe analyze the influence of the American religious right on the reshaping of sexual education during the last Bush administration. In chapter three, a particularly intriguing study that combines theory and practice, Cathy J Cohen analyzes sexuality within the black community. With an attentive eye on how combination of the already socially structured racial prejudice combined with the talk of "promiscuity and the spread of AIDS" within the communities of color contributes and indeed perpetuates "low reputation" of the people of color among the white citizens, she describes mechanisms that negatively affects the individual self-esteem of the people of color finally entrenching the "bad perception of oneself and one's own group," by so closing the vicious circle.

Garry W. Dowset discusses, using cases from the US, Canada and Australia, how news of the spread of AIDS had negative impact on the status of gays, turning them literally into "a carriers of plague" in the public eye; while Gilbert Herdt discusses various political strategies used by the American Right in order to create (and use as its leverage) moral panic over gay marriage.  Saskia Eleonora Wieringa analyzes how in postcolonial societies of Indonesia and Southern Afriaca, moral sexual strategies are used to entrench the ruling of new national elites, mixing in a very particular way narratives of past, repression of sexual practices and religious identities, especially in the case of Indonesia where the Islamic identity following the end of Suharto's rule has taken great prominence and role in "remodeling society" in its own image. In a final essay, with a fine theoretical touch and deep insight, Janice M. Irvine draws our attention to how cultural scripts and "affective economies" (to use Sara Ahmed's term) that precede and condition institutional and social setting, play themselves out (or not) with various and sometimes counterintuitive consequences once the talk of "whether and how" to regulate sexuality becomes a hotbed of a public dispute and a cause of collective action.

The book is written in a clear style that makes it accessible to lay audience. Generally speaking most authors built, as the title suggests, on the previous works of Stanley Cohen who popularized the term "moral panics," and anthropologist Carole Vance who coined the term "sex panic" in 1984. However, it is noteworthy that several authors, especially Irving, manage to introduce new theories or discuss practical issues that tend to cure for some past biases engrained in the research on collective behavior, particularly the (since recently) strongly hold assumptions about the "unimportance of emotions" in the political discourse and the "irrationality of the crowds," which have prevented social science from constructing more plausible and intuitively acceptable explanations of the social reality.

There are two things I have found wanting in the book. First one is a somewhat narrow focus in terms of the types of sexual orientation analyzed and their construction within the social space. By this I mean that authors almost uniformly discuss predominantly issues of the gay and lesbian rights and a right to same-sex marriage (this excludes, to a certain degree the chapter on post-colonialist amnesia in Indonesia, which takes a somewhat different queue dictated by the area under scrutiny). 

But that is far from a being a whole story. At least within the confines of the Western Europe and North America, the real "boundary" breakers are bisexuals, transgered persons, those practicing BDSM, and persons living in polyamorous communities or practicing polyamorous lifestyles. And while bisexuals are having somewhat easier time in "staying bellow the radar" of ostracisms of various types and are, as Yoshino says, easily "epistemicly erased," transgendered persons, given saliency of their difference relative to heteronormativity or even, in some communities and geographically distinct areas,  homonormativity,  are having a much, much more difficult time. Indeed, if anywhere, in the case of transgendered persons we can observe the full scope of frontal attack using social and legal measures aimed at "disciplining the deviants" and denying them almost next to all civil rights, in egregious case even a right to be recognized as an autonomous subject with social and legal agency.

 It is noteworthy that despite various tough legal cases involving rights of transgendered persons, the LBGT movement (which includes them also, at least in name) has been, relatively speaking, conspicuously silent regarding the issue. This silence might be strategic, but it is silence nevertheless and it should be a matter of a further research and problematizing what sorts of the "silencing" strategies of the transgendered persons issues have been used within the LBGT movement.

 In the case of the open BDSM lifestyle, despite its relative silent acceptance as "games for adults," things are pretty much the same as in the case of transgendered persons. Persons living in polyamorous communities or engaging in polyamorous lifestyles have also not received any serious academic treatment, let alone meaningful inclusion in various movements that promote freedom of sexual orientation. This indicates that some conscious or unconscious blind spots and self-censorship are still heavily operational, rhetoric of the liberation of bodies notwithstanding.

Which brings me to the second thing I have found wanting in the book, namely the deeper critic of the LBGT movement and its demand for recognizing same-sex marriage. As both Hardt (p. 189) and Janice Irving (p.262-264) have noted, even those strongly opposing the right to same-sex marriage in the American context have found the array of "rational" and emotional arguments they can employ against it somewhat restricted and even arguments they can (and have) used have in some situations backfired. But that is not where the analysis should stop. Looking further, as Hardt rightly notes, one might say that the reason for this is that the right to same-sex marriage and many (not all) rights demanded by the LBGT movement have been couched in a language so familiar (and dear to heart) to many Americans – namely the language of rights, equality, and most importantly, the language of inclusion. These arguments and language used to express it, within the American context, carries connotations and emotional baggage of its own and restricts the opponent's playing field. But this fact might also point to a conclusion that the movement the way it stands does not by any means present any significant threat to the social order and hence panics, as real and dangerous as it sometimes is, might be wholly "invented" and transitory and therefore somewhat "inauthentic." For that reason, I am certain that within the American context the hyphenated controversy over same-sex marriage will be in due time finished and the right will be granted uniformly and with no reservations.

To conclude, this collection of essays is a valuable contribution. It will certainly find its natural audience among cultural theorists, sociologists and political scientists. In addition, it should definitely be read by activists and lawyers working in the messy empirical world in order to establish the right to free sexual orientation. The book would also be useful material for graduate courses dealing with the problematic of regulating bodily freedom in various societies.


Kenji Yoshino, The Epistemic Contract of Bisexual Erasure, 52 STAN. L. REV. 353 (2000).


© 2010 Asim Jusic 


Asim Jusic is an SJD candidate in Comparative Constitutional Law at Central European University, and a Research Fellow at the Centre for EU Enlargement in Budapest.


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