Panic Attack: Sex and Terror in the Homeland

October 31, 2008

A few years ago, i sat in on the trial of a Salvadoran man—an “illegal alien,” as they say—who had worked for years in the construction industry. One sunny Saturday afternoon, he had greeted a 14-year-old white girl, accompanied by a gaggle of her friends, in the green commons of the sprawling apartment complex where they all lived. By every account, the somewhat drunken man stood in the sidewalk and gently took the girl’s wrists in between his thumbs and index fingers (with the remaining three fingers on each hand pointed aloft) to exclaim upon how lovely she looked in her summer outfit. And that was the extent of his offense, which involved neither sexual touching nor lewd or suggestive language.

Atwitter with excitement, the teenagers quickly turned out their parents from nearby apartments. And when the crowd came running after the Salvadoran man, he ran and locked himself in his own apartment. The fact that he ran—who wouldn’t?—was later cited as evidence of evil intent in the criminal trial. The prosecutor initially piled on charges: battery, attempted rape, kidnapping. In the end, the defendant was convicted for “unlawful detention,” a charge that carries no jail time but was sufficient to have the man deported and barred from reentering the country.

This trial occurred not in some rural backwater, but in the urbanized and politically liberal section of a border state. The original charges themselves were nonsense, but I think I understand the reasoning, as it were, of the white and black jury. The man’s few seconds of drunken patter could be ominously construed as “unlawful detention” because abusive sexual intent was already attributed to him. And where sexual fears blurred with ethnic resentments, it seemed better to err on the side of caution: Something must have happened, or have been in the process of happening, or else the “children” (actually, teenagers) would not have reacted as they did. To make matters worse, the defendant himself was not the sort of man who evokes empathy. His public attorney had difficulty finding character witnesses because his co-workers viewed him as a surly, bitter alcoholic. It was thus easy for the prosecutor to depict him as a rootless drifter, and this, no doubt, shaped the verdict, although the challenge of appearing trustworthy and likable in the face of vague sexual accusations could overwhelm almost anyone. (The prosecution repeatedly insinuated that the man was a dangerous pedophile.) And so the good citizens did their part, producing a brown scapegoat in the name of the white victim child.

Shortly after sitting through the Salvadoran man’s trial, I followed the news of a case from my hometown in the rural section of a southern state. A driver who was an undocumented worker from Mexico had struck and grievously injured two young African American children at a school crosswalk. Worse yet, it was initially a hit-and-run incident, and the motorist was unlicensed, uninsured, and driving while intoxicated. The local newspaper ran daily coverage of the incident over several weeks, meticulously reporting on the children’s medical condition. Articles, editorials, and letters to the editor raised questions about the prevalence of lawlessness among “illegal” immigrants—persons defined, in their very condition, as unlawful. By the time the man’s trial began, the newspaper was promoting a full-tilt anti-immigrant hysteria using techniques that eerily duplicated the logic of ongoing panics around child sex abuse: The singular or statistically anomalous event becomes the occasion for sensational reporting, the sounding of alarms, and the proposal of draconian laws.

Such cases, I think, are emblematic of wider tendencies in U.S. culture, which is suffused with fear of crime, particularly sex crime, through various media (from milk box ads to instant-messaging notifications) and new modes of organization (victims’ rights organizations, e-lists). “Sex panic” looms large in the arsenal of techniques that have stoked the culture of fear. Moral panic can be defined broadly as any mass movement that emerges in response to a false, exaggerated, or ill-defined moral threat to society, and that proposes to address this threat through punitive measures: tougher enforcement, “zero tolerance,” new laws, communal vigilance, violent purges. Sex panic is that subset of moral panics that revolve around sex.1

What is the relation between sex panics and other forms of institutionalized fear in the present-day United States? At first glance, the connection might seem a non sequitur: What, after all, could overwrought fear of pedophile predators have to do with post-9/11 fear-mongering? Quite a lot, I suggest. The lurking pedophile has become a stock figure in U.S. political culture: a monster whose cultural presence far outweighs statistically meaningful threats to children’s safety and welfare. Correlatively, the victim child looms large in the public imaginary, and he or she is usually but not always white. Fear of sexual predation serves as both metonym and metaphor for other conditions of nervousness in the body politic: It is a part that stands for the whole, and also a cultural figure whose meaning is readily transferred to other figures.

The abject victim crying out for vengeance now stands center stage in the national political drama. The resulting laws represent a significant change in the legal culture: They have progressively eroded the rights of the accused and shifted the burden of proof from the prosecution to the defense, while tilting the balance of legal reasoning away from rehabilitation and toward punishment as a norm. Conservatives, of course, have always had but one approach to crime: Lock up the bad guy and throw away the key. But liberals have scarcely been innocent bystanders in a 38-year trend that has ballooned the prison population to more than 2.3 million at latest count: a fivefold increase since 1970, which makes the United States number one worldwide in incarcerations, whether measured in raw numbers or in per capita rates.2

Worse yet, this punitiveness shapes the behavior of voters and the way citizens understand their citizenship. As far as I can tell, voters have never rejected a ballot initiative to “get tough” on crime, to assess additional punishments for infractions, or to “crack down” on various imagined abuses of government services. Over the years, voters have vented ballot-box rages at sex offenders, welfare cheats, and convicts of various stripes. Increasingly, punitive laws have been directed against undocumented immigrants. Undocumented border crossing is a violation of civil, not criminal, law, but the point seems moot in ongoing hysterias. Depending on the state, county, or municipality, undocumented workers may be denied social, educational, or medical services; they may be denied driver’s licenses; they may be prohibited from congregating (often in the name of public safety); they may be screened by local police, who now effectively function as an extension of border enforcement; and they may be denied housing under hodgepodge zoning laws that prohibit unrelated, unmarried persons from living in the same house—all by popular demand.

For decades now, tough-talking politicians of both major parties have cultivated voters’ fears of crime in order to win elections. Where fear is the order of the day, protection is the name of the game. Robert Sillen, a hospital administrator appointed by federal court to clean up California’s prison health care mess, succinctly described the nature of the problem to The New York Times: “No one gets elected in Sacramento [or anywhere else] without a platform that says, ‘Let’s get rid of rapists, pedophiles and murderers.’ ”3 This has become second nature—protecting the public is what government is for, isn’t it? Law exists to protect the innocent, doesn’t it? Sex panics efficiently condense this neo-Hobbesian approach to law and order; metonymically, they figure as especially salient instances of the ongoing crime panics that, over time, have prepared the public to surrender key rights and guarantees in exchange for security.


The logic of sex panic is essentially promiscuous; it has fused with other ongoing panics apparently having little to do with sex. Fear of sexual predation thus has become a key social metaphor for menace in general. In Virginia, after casting about for various ways to frame driving 20 miles per hour or more above the speed limit as a felony—“reckless driving,” “road rage,” “aggressive driving”—the Democratic governor and the Republican state legislature eventually settled on “abusive driving,” a term eerily resonant with ubiquitous talk about sex abuse and child protection. Small wonder: The same techniques that perpetually produce new sex crime laws—sensational journalism covering statistically uncommon occurrences, emotional congressional testimony by victims and their families, collusion between law enforcement and victims’ rights groups—also produced the abusive driving law (penalties include possible jail time and fines as high as $3,000).

The history of modern sex panics is a closely sequenced one. First came the teen male prostitution scares of the 1970s, followed by AIDS terrors and the Satanic ritual abuse and day care panics of the 1980s. Then a veritable avalanche ensued from the 1990s onward. Reportage on violent pedophile predators, the perils of the Internet, the priest abuse scandals, the Michael Jackson trial, and so on have made sex crime stories part of the furniture on 24-hour news services, local TV news stations, and even highbrow newspapers of record.

The pernicious effects of such public sphere furbishings have been amply noted, and not only by queer theorists and sex radicals. In The Assault on Reason, former vice president Al Gore presents a string of nonstop news stories about sex and violence—the O.J. Simpson trial, the JonBenét Ramsey case, the murder of Laci Peterson, the Chandra Levy tragedy, along with assorted disappearances, kidnappings, sexual peccadilloes, and celebrity scandals—as exhibit A in his argument that “something has gone fundamentally wrong” in U.S. public discourse. Such stories rework yellow journalism’s familiar dynamics of titillation, scandal, and terror, blurring the difference between major and minor crimes, statistically common and uncommon events, and horrific and imaginary offenses. They keep the public in a perpetual state of fear and watchfulness. Although they provide distractions from what rational people have usually regarded as the real news—political deliberations over how to steer the ship of state, whether to go to war, and whose bread should be buttered—they are not, as Gore suggests, without “impact on the fate of the Republic.”4 For these stories provide an infinitely malleable template for producing recurring narratives about victimization and innocence, inventing new identities around these terms, and manufacturing an inexhaustible “need” for ever more discerning modes of surveillance, supervision, and protection.

The psychological mechanisms of sex panic are there for everyone to see. They are to be found neither in the psyches of individuals who manifest the symptoms (acute anxiety disorders) nor in the physiognomic reactions of a public defined by its fears (chronic stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system), but in the outer world of media images, collective beliefs, and political narratives—that is, in the social machinations that actually manufacture and perpetuate panic. They leave their traces, imprints, residues, in the hardware of the state. Emergency becomes routine, exception becomes the rule, panic becomes the law.5

After the attacks of September 11, 2001, mass-mediated terror panics mixed with sex panics. First came extensive media coverage of the attacks. Public portrayals of an immaculate nation’s “lost innocence” resonated with long-standing cultural motifs around child abuse, and the naming of the new Department of Homeland Security (DHS), with its intimation of a national hearth under siege, reverberated eerily with the logic of the antecedent sex panics. The organized response likewise drew on familiar templates: Families of the victims of 9/11 organized to press for compensation, to monitor congressional hearings on intelligence failures, to serve as a pressure group in lower Manhattan redevelopment plans, and to press for redress in varied criminal trials having little or nothing to do with 9/11. Assorted actions by various of these groups have sometimes tilted rightward, other times leftward, but have always traded on the dominant cultural logic of the victims’ rights movement, which derives a sort of sacral authority from aggrieved victimization.

The logic of the one panic dovetailed with the other’s in less subtle ways, too. The sexuality of the 9/11 terrorists—whose devotion to an extremist Wahabi politics allowed them to drink and cavort at Hooters as part of their “cover”—was the object of some media attention. For a time, speculation that Mohamed Atta was homosexual was a staple of the yellow press.6 “Predator,” a term generally used to describe pedophile child stalkers, was the favored euphemism for “terrorist,” and Jerry Vines, twice president of the Southern Baptist Convention, stirred news stories when he called Muhammad a “demon-possessed pedophile.”7 The rhetorical association of one disapproved thing with another is old hat, but new connections between sex and terror developed in the course of events. When the Patriot Act was first passed into law, civil libertarians worried that aggressive new surveillance tactics would not be restricted to the detection of terror plots but would gradually be applied to everyday, routine law enforcement. In fact, there was nothing gradual about the Patriot Act’s extension into sex. Almost immediately, DHS was boasting that new border screening measures were keeping pedophiles out of the country, and the Justice Department was defending Internet “data mining”—which never caught any terrorists at work—as a means to detect child pornography and to catch online sex predators.

Measure and proportion proved elusive on other fronts, too. With the launching of Operation Predator in 2003, the DHS’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency expressly linked sex, terror, and immigration policies. The stated purpose of the initiative was to rid the country of immigrant child molesters and predatory sex offenders, thus restoring integrity to an immigration system widely viewed as “broken,” while also capturing U.S. citizens traveling abroad who violate U.S. sex laws. The problem, say immigration lawyers, is that ICE has also swept up people who pose no conceivable threat to safety and welfare. Because ICE agents review Megan’s Law registries to identify sex offenders, the quirks and imprecision of one system of enforcement is conferred to another: One long-term Mexican immigrant, convicted years ago on statutory rape charges stemming from his relationship with his girlfriend when he himself was also a minor, faces deportation as a sexual predator. Another immigrant urinated in an alley behind a garbage can; he was convicted of “indecent exposure” and rounded up for deportation hearings. MaryLu Cianciolo, an immigration lawyer, told the Chicago Tribune: “In Operation Predator, the purpose is to rack up the numbers and say, ‘Oh, we’ve deported thousands of dangerous sex offenders.’ . . . Some of them are dangerous sex offenders. But some of them aren’t.8


In the present political dispensation, the best of intentions—empathy with the victims of violence, rape, and abuse—has tilted our system of law toward the worst of practices: a presumption of guilt, which shifts the burden of proof to the defense and fuels, not blind justice, but a blind rage to punish the bad man.9 Indeed, a very large majority of convicts later exonerated on DNA evidence were convicted of rape or sexual assault. In one study, 133 of 144, or 92.4%, of such overturned convictions between 1989 and 2003 were originally for rape or sexual assault. A similarly high percentage (88.5%) of the 208 post-conviction DNA exonerations listed by the Innocence Project ( were also for rape and sexual assault.10

Empathy for victims also revives less benevolent intentions, reconstituting old-time U.S. sexual and racial fears in new forms. Today, the mysterious brown-skinned stranger and the lurking white pedophile cathect sexual anxieties, perhaps more readily and with less guilty conscience than does the figure who historically carried this burden, the phantom black man. The panic around sex thus infuses other panics—in this case, the hysteria around immigration. In other cases, it arouses fears about the future of the heterosexual nuclear family, anxieties about highway conditions, or feelings of dread and desire in the imagination of disaster. Worse yet, this empathy plants what is said to be the most archaic aspect of law at the heart of the modern social order. For the flip side of this empathy is suspicion, paranoia: dread of the stranger whose strangeness can derive, depending on the occasion, from manifold sources of racial, sexual, or ideological otherness—or even, simply, from the accusation itself, which produces the inference of invisible otherness, hidden weirdness, in the accused. And it is here that fellow feeling for the victim, real or imagined, does its most destructive work.

For the moment, who one is or what one believes or what one is presumed to be becomes “evidence” in a criminal charge; all protections of rational law have been forfeited, and the accusation itself acquires a magical power. Today, a growing legion of “strangers to the law” live under the evil spell of accusation, including those accused of sex crimes, those suspected of plotting terror, undocumented workers—defined from the outset by their lack of legality—and other effectively stateless peoples who exist outside the closed and foreboding circle of official empathy.

Something, it would seem, has gone terribly wrong not only with public discourse, but also with U.S. law, and with how politics and citizenship in general are imagined. Sometimes, the outsider looking in sums it up best. “There’s power in the victim role,” observed a middle-aged Mexican shopkeeper I interviewed last year on her perceptions of U.S. culture. Although she has never been to the United States, she is an avid reader with an alert mind and progressive, anti-clerical sensibilities. “You are becoming more like us,” she continued—and this was not meant as a compliment.

Now the shopkeeper drew out a broad connection between crime panics, sex panics, and the post-9/11 culture of fear: “You used to be a nation of businessmen; you buried the dead and faced forward to the future. Now you are a nation of commemorators, memorial builders. You cannot let go of your hurts. You cannot stop inspecting your neighbors for signs of transgression. You are becoming a nation of victims.”

Roger N. Lancaster teaches anthropology and cultural studies at George Mason University, where he directs the cultural studies Ph.D. program. He is the author, most recently, of The Trouble With Nature: Sex in Science and Popular Culture (University of California Press, 2003). Research assistance: Lucas Witman.

1. I draw the term sex panic from work by Jeffrey Weeks and Gayle Rubin: Jeffrey Weeks, Sex, Politics, and Society: The Regulation of Sexuality Since 1800 (London: Longman, 1981), and Gayle Rubin, “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality,” in Henry Abelove, Michèle Aina Barale, and David M. Halperin, eds., The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader (Routledge, 1993), 3–44.

2. The Pew Center on the States, “One in 100: Behind Bars in America 2008,” February 2008, available at

3. Solomon Moore, “Using Muscle to Improve Health Care for Prisoners,” The New York Times, August 27, 2007.

4. Al Gore, The Assault on Reason (Penguin, 2007), 3–4.

5. With apologies to Giorgio Agamben, whose title, The State of Exception (University of Chicago Press, 2004), is blended here with Gillian Rose’s, Mourning Becomes the Law: Philosophy and Representation (Cambridge University Press, 1996). I am greatly indebted to these two slim volumes.

6. See Michelangelo Signorile, “The Mohamed Atta Files,” Newsweek web exclusive, October 31, 2001.

7. Daniel M. Filler, “Terrorism, Panic, and Pedophilia,” Virginia Journal of Social Policy and the Law 10, no. 3 (2003): 345–82, esp. 345, 356.

8. Frank James, “Immigrant Sex Offenders Targeted,” Chicago Tribune, February 25, 2005.

9. I echo part of the argument laid out by Paul Craig Roberts and Lawrence M. Stratton in The Tyranny of Good Intentions: How Prosecutors and Bureaucrats Are Trampling the Constitution in the Name of Justice (Prima Publishing, 2000). I also echo something of Hannah Arendt’s suspicion of compassion and pity in politics; see On Revolution (Viking Press, 1965), 74–75, 80–82.

10. See Samuel R Gross, Kristin Jacoby, Daniel J. Matheson, Nicholas Montgomery, and Sujata Patil, “Exonerations in the United States, 1989 through 2003,” Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 95 no. 2 (2005): 523–60.


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