Feminism, Sexuality, and Politics: Essays

By Estelle B. Freedman | Go to book overview

7 | Uncontrolled Desires | The Response
to the Sexual Psychopath, 1920–1960

As I began to compare the response to male and female deviance in twentieth-century
America, I kept encountering medical, legal, and popular references to the sexual psy-
chopath. In this essay, I interpret the psychopath scare of the 1930s through the 1950s
not simply as an expression of psychiatric authority but as a popular, discursive con-
struction of male sexual boundaries in response to the sexualization of women and
children and the greater visibility of homosexuality. Because it focuses on discourse,
the article only hints at how the psychopath laws were enforced. Although those who
promoted the segregation of sexual psychopaths may have conflated homosexuality
and pedophilia, most of the men incarcerated under the new laws were heterosexual. I
would now place the early-twentieth-century psychopath scare within a longer history
of periodic outrage over the sexual abuse of children, from late-nineteenth-century
child-savers to contemporary exposes of abusive teachers and priests.

IN THE 1931 German film M, Peter Lorre portrayed a former mental patient who stalked innocent schoolgirls, lured them with candy and balloons, and then, offscreen, murdered them in order to satiate his abnormal erotic desires. Two years later, when the film opened in the United States, the New York Times criticized director Fritz Lang for wasting his talents on a crime “too hideous to contemplate.” Despite the reviewer's distaste for the public discussion of sexual crimes, the American media soon began to cater to a growing popular interest in stories of violent, sexual murders committed by men like “M.” In 1937, the New York Times itself created a new index category, “Sex Crimes,” to encompass the 143 articles it published on the subject that year. Cleveland, Detroit, and Los Angeles newspapers also ran stories about sexual criminals, while national magazines published articles by legal and psychiatric authorities who debated whether a “sex-crime wave” had hit America.1

Previously published as Estelle B. Freedman, “'Uncontrolled Desires': The Response to
the Sexual Psychopath, 1920–1960,” Journal of American History 74, no. 1 (June 1987):
83–106. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.

-121-

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