Sex Panic and the Punitive State

Sex Panic and the Punitive State

Sex Panic and the Punitive State

Sex Panic and the Punitive State


One evening, while watching the news, Roger N. Lancaster was startled by a report that a friend, a gay male school teacher, had been arrested for a sexually based crime. The resulting hysteria threatened to ruin the life of an innocent man. In this passionate and provocative book, Lancaster blends astute analysis, robust polemic, ethnography, and personal narrative to delve into the complicated relationship between sexuality and punishment in our society. Drawing on classical social science, critical legal studies, and queer theory, he tracks the rise of a modern suburban culture of fear and develops new insights into the punitive logic that has put down deep roots in everyday American life.


The most modern aspect of the spectacle is thus also the most

—Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle

To him who is in fear, everything rustles.

—Sophocles, Acrisius (fragment)

I began drafting notes for this book when I found myself near the center of a raging sex panic: a combined police, judiciary, and media frenzy triggered by vague and constantly shifting accusations against a gay male schoolteacher I know. It is one thing to understand, in the abstract, that presumptions of innocence, standards of reasonable doubt, and assorted procedures of rational law have been eroded by wave after wave of sex crime hysterias in the United States. It is quite another thing to see scary mug shots of a close friend aired on the evening news. Calling the public spectacle I witnessed unfair or prejudicial would understate matters. Credulous journalists related, without qualification, the narratives of cops, prosecutors, and victims’ rights advocates. in the process they conveyed outright misinformation about the defendant and the case. Even facts that would normally count in one’s favor—for example, a long and spotless record of employment in the field—were made to sound menacing. Homosexuality, never named, was insinuated—by repeatedly announcing the home address of the accused. (He lived in the heart of a gay neighborhood.)

Sex panics, it suddenly seemed to me, were more or less everywhere, a fixture in and fixation of American culture. I started to pay close attention to other sex cases in the news. Some of these news stories involved nightmarish but isolated events: the rape and murder of defenseless . . .

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