The thesis of Lancaster's book is that a series of sexual panics, in particular those related to minors, fundamentally changed America over the course of the 1970s and the 1980s and ultimately contributed to dynamics that made the United States a far more punitive place than it had been before. From a youth liberationist perspective, perhaps the key insight of this text is Lancaster's insight that successive waves of sex panics, with their focus on a stereotyped idealized and asexual innocent (fictional) child victim, have created a network of laws, policies, practices, and assumptions embedded deeply within the culture and the workings of the state in reference to minors, adults, and sexuality that is increasingly draconian and out of touch with reality. The effects have come to extend far beyond anything having to do strictly with sexuality and have not been for the good.
One bedrock tenet of my youth liberationism has always been that serious youth liberationists cannot be afraid to confront the harm that comes to both youth and adults as a result of authoritarian attempts to police youth and intergenerational sexuality because, while this may be politically fraught territory, it is also the ground upon which successive waves of sexually inflected moral panics have eroded the rights of youth and others in all manner of ways that extend far beyond the realm of sexuality. Youth liberationists can do this in a responsible way that recognizes that sexuality is an ethically fraught territory for people of all ages and that sexual exploitation can indeed be seriously harmful as radical feminist theorists such as Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon have written about eloquently. For this reason, I have long believed that feminists, youth liberationists, and everyone else should take a view of sexual politics that seriously grapples with the observations of sex critical radical feminism while pushing back strongly against notions of sexual panic that are used as a means of social control increasingly disconnected from any sense of proportion or reality.
Writes Lancaster in a particularly poignant passage regarding the sex panics of the 1980s, "They distilled diffuse anxieties about sex and children into the pervasive perception that all children everywhere are at perpetual risk of sexual assault. In the resulting culture of hypervigilant child protection, the denial of childhood sexuality and the perpetual hunt for the predatory pervert are opposite sides of the same coin: the innocent and the monster, the perfect victim and the irredeemable fiend... They spawned expansive new subfields of psuedoscience - fanciful psychological profiles of abusers, whimsical diagnostic tools said to predict future predation or recidivism. They powerfully contributed to the consolidation of an ever more comprehensive culture of child protection, thus extending the purviews of both long-standing official bureaucracies (child protection services) and newer, quasi-official ones (victims' rights advocates)."
In order to illustrate his point, Lancaster list a variety of important ways that these successive waves of sex panic "have led to to new terminologies and produced new ways of speaking and thinking about children." He writes that a "blanket 'no touching' policy" has pervaded many organizations responsible for child care in contravention of the long acknowledged wisdom that all people, especially very young people, need hugs and other forms of wholesome non-sexual touch in order to thrive. He notes that the insights of Freudian psychology, which acknowledged the reality that children are sexual beings and that all relationships "can have an erotic dimension without any overt sexual activity ever occurring" have been superseded by a new cultural logic that insists that acknowledging such psychological truths harms and damages children by "sexualizing" them. Lancaster states, "Commonsensical propositions, easily uttered before the 1980s - children sometimes develop crushes on their teachers, adolescents sometimes seek out sexual relationships with adults precisely because the latter are more mature, more experienced, and more sophisticated - have become suspect." Lancaster also notes that research findings which further the association between sex and trauma in the lives of youth are quickly afforded official status by politicians, journalists, activists, legal officials, and others while studies which find evidence to the contrary are ignored or even made into the targets of outrage and censorship. Finally, Lancaster notes that an obsession with the concept of childhood innocence "has become more valued than children themselves" as a focus on projects like abstinence only sex education and protecting children's and adolescent's sexual purity takes priority over securing the rights or material welfare of young people in any wider sense and that the term "pedophile" has, since 1960s, become a household word denoting an increasingly widening set of sexual behaviors and desires.
Lancaster wisely notes that unrealistic and stereotyped notions of youth asexuality are all too often quickly leveraged against youth themselves who fail to perform notions of childhood innocence to the satisfaction of the adults around them. He cites the statistic that ostensibly 41% of sexual abusers are said to be minors, but also notes that ultimately this statistic is problematic because "nonviolent, noncoercive sex acts between minors (or between minors and mature adults)" have come "to be classified as abuse." Ominously, the same sorts of logic that fueled the Satanic ritual abuse and daycare child molestation panics that were the primary subject of Richard Beck's We Believe the Children are now being employed in the service of labeling and punishing youth deemed to be "sex offenders" by overzealous and ill informed teachers, social workers, and law enforcement officials. Amazingly, Lancaster documents that in Maryland in 2001, for instance, one hundred and sixty-five elementary school aged youth were suspended from school for sexual harassment, including three preschoolers, sixteen kindergartners, and twenty-two first graders. Notes Lancaster wryly, "Children-who-molest, children-who-harass, children-who-abuse are mostly children who fail to validate adult fantasies of childhood innocence. And those fantasies are becoming increasingly fantastic." This is but one example of what youth liberationists are talking about when we insist that, all too often, child abuse and child protectionism are ultimately two sides of the same coin. A preoccupation with safeguarding an imaginary veil of childhood innocence does no such thing but in practice does ultimately lead to real and devastating harms for actual real flesh and blood children.
One fascinating and important point that Lancaster makes is that while mainstream acceptance of lesbian, gay, and bisexual Americans has increased, the shadowy specter of the pedophilic child predator continues to perform a great deal of the sociocultural work that the figure of the deviant homosexual menace once performed. For this reason, Lancaster argues that sexual panics are especially detrimental to the freedom, rights, and interests of members of the LGBTQ community. In making this argument, Lancaster draws on the work of the renowned queer theorist Lee Edelman, a thinker whose name I have long been vaguely familiar with but who Lancaster's work truly made me want to read and engage with for the first time in a meaningful way. Lancaster also draws on his own identity as a queer man and his own experiences of how sex panics can wreck havoc within the LGBTQ community to buttress his analysis of the wider social phenomenon.
Situating some fairly healthy and benign intergenerational relationships within the larger context of LGBTQ culture, Lancaster writes, "Like butch-femme or hustler-john relationships, intergenerational relationships were a long-standing paradigm of American gay life until recently. Equipped with fake IDs, teens as young as fifteen or sixteen were sometimes difficult to distinguish from young men who did not quite look their age ('twinks'). Their admirers (chicken hawks) were scarcely numerous, but but they were a visible part of gay life in the late 1970s, when I arrived on the scene. (I should note here that, to the best of my knowledge, I have never met a textbook pedophile, someone whose sexual object of choice is a sexually immature child, and the chicken hawks I knew as a youth all condemned relations with children, as well as relations involving the use of force, deception, or exploitation, as they understood these terms.) No doubt opportunities for exploitation existed in these settings. But because participants in these relationships frequented the same bars and shared gossip through overlapping networks, they were subject to the norms of the subculture. Mature minors, young adults, and mature adults alike took a decidedly dim view of sugar daddies who mistreated their 'boys.' And whether the younger party was younger or older than eighteen, there was an explicit expectation that the older partner would mentor the younger, helping him to acquire education, skills, savvy, or other forms of cultural capital. It does not seem self-evident to me that deeply criminalizing this sort of relationship, banishing it from subcultural oversight and regulation, benefits minors." Lancaster goes on to note that in many cases it was the older lovers of mature gay youth who cared for, provided for, and loved these youth when ultimately their own biological families had abused, abandoned, and shunned them for their sexual orientation.
Ultimately, I think that serious youth liberationists need to read this book in order to develop a deeper understanding of how the impacts of multiple waves of sexual hysteria in reference to youth in particular have shaped American culture in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century. Lancaster's work should make it exceedingly clear that sexual freedom for youth must be on the youth liberationist agenda not because we seek to aid and abet the sexual exploitation of young people by older people or by each other, but because we see the very real harms that overtly puritanical and protectionist approaches to youth sexuality do to young people in particular as well as to society as a whole.
|Roger N. Lancaster's book Sex Panic and the Punitive State published in 2011 by the California State University Press.|