America’s Five Sex Panics

Photo by Tom Britt | CC BY 2.0

Donald Trump is a once-upon-a-time upmarket hedonist who, like a recovering alcoholic, has morphed into a super-moralist.  Upon taking office as president, he relaunched the culture wars with VP Mike Pence as the officer-in-charge and implemented by the Cabinet, the new Supreme Court justice and the Republican-controlled Congress.  The U.S. is living through the fifth sex panic and the religious right’s efforts may signal the death-play of the postmodern culture wars.

The current sex panic was launched in 1972 by Phyllis Schafly, a lawyer and conservative activist, and successfully blocked the adoption of the proposed Equal Rights Amendment (ERA).  Until Trump’s election, it appeared that this sex panic was contained.  A series of key Supreme Court decisions — along with changes in popular attitudes (especially among younger people) and aggressive corporate promotion of sexuality to sell nearly everything – restricted the religious right to local and state battlefields.

Trump’s renewed culture wars target teen birth control and abortion, gay and transgender rights, access to pornography, sex-toy sales and the treatment of sex offenders, among other concerns.  Most troubling, the anti-sex right has more federal power than since the anti-Communist and anti-homosexual purges of the 1950s.

Today’s culture wars are, broadly speaking, the fifth sexual panic in U.S. history.  These panics are social battlegrounds on which Americans fought, over the last four centuries, to determine the country’s moral order.  These struggles fashioned the nation’s sexual culture, the boundaries of personal sexual experience, the meaning of pleasure.  Today’s panic follows four earlier panics: (i) during the colonial and post-Revolutionary era; (ii) during the premodern, post-Civil-War era; (iii) during the early-modern, WW-I era; and (iv) during the modern, post-WW-II era.  Today’s panic embodies the crisis of postmodern globalization.

Sex panics are terrains of social struggle, an area of contestation as the nation modernized — and capitalism came to increasingly dominate both public and private life.  Each panic embodied the country’s socio-economic, demographic and legal maturation, from a small-town and rural society, to an urban and industrial nation and to the center of a globalized, financialized system with an ever-expanding militarized state.

During the first two panics, the America colonies — and then as the U.S. — slowly matured from an agricultural society with pockets of port-city development along the Atlantic coast.  In the wake of the Civil War, industrialization and westward expansion remade the nation, increasingly distinguished by an ever-growing marketplace.  In the 20th century, consumer revolutions in the 1920s and 1960s transformed sexuality from a private indulgence into a commodity.  Today’s fifth panic pits those seeking to impose greater repression, returning American morals back to the 1950s when the U.S. was “great,” and those seeking to promote, however incoherently, sexual emancipation by ending the role of sex as a commodity.

During each panic period, then-traditional notions of moral order were promoted by those with religious and political authority.  They sought to impose a conservative check on the excesses of the marketplace – and were often successful.  They secured the passage of regressive laws and implemented repressive police actions to maintain what they considered acceptable standards of decency.  However, during each panic subversive forces emerged and the boundaries of the acceptable were continually challenged and changed, often culminating in major social crises.  We are currently living through such a period.

America’s 1st Sex Panic

Americans have never been comfortable with sex and the first panic started in the earliest days of the nation’s settlement.  On April 5, 1614, Pocahontas, a Powhatan woman and reputed daughter of Chief Powhatan, married the Englishman John Rolfe near Jamestown, Virginia. The marriage took place just eight years after this first-permanent English settlement was established in what would become America, the United States.  It is the first recorded interracial marriage in the newly-colonized territory, but to marry Rolfe, Pocahontas converted to Christianity, was renamed Lady Rebecca and radically changed her appearance, adopting British formal dress.

During the half-century of 1647–1693, New England colonists were subject to a nearly-inexhaustible list of sins that fell into two broad categories, sins of character and sins of the flesh. Among the former were pride, anger, envy, malice, lying, discontent, dissatisfaction and self-assertion. Among the latter were adultery, bestiality, fornication, incest, interracial relations, lust, masturbation, polygamy, seduction and sodomy as well as temptations like carnality, drunkenness and licentiousness.  Almost anything could be a punishable sin.

But the gravest sin was being accused of witchcraft and over 200 people were so charged.  But the most shameful sin was being accused of engaging in the truly unholy deed of having sex with the Devil.  The worst sex offenders were the 30 or so people, mostly elder women, who were convicted of sexual congress with Satan — and executed.

During the first sex panic, the religious and political leaders of the white European colonies – those considered “Americans” – railed against difference, seeking to contain sexual desire from those not like themselves.  And in the wild, still untamed new world, difference was everywhere and people, both men and women, indulged their desires for difference.  Illicit sexual “congress” was initially between British males and Native females, but as the immigration of both free and indentured European women and men, and the forced importation of African slaves increased, both male and female, the complexity of illicit interracial relations multiplied.

During the early days of the nation’s settlement, voluntary and noncommercial sexual relations between whites and people of a different color were not yet illegal.

The first recorded legal marriage between an African man and a European woman is reported to have taken place on William Boarmans’ plantation on the western shore of Maryland in 1681.  The couple — Eleanor Butler, a white servant girl called Irish Nell, and Negro Charles, a black slave — was married by a local Catholic priest.

Colonial male leaders were deeply troubled by such relations.

America’s 2nd Sex Panic

During the first-half of the 19th century, the definition of what, in fact, was America profoundly changed.  Between 1790 and 1860, the nation’s total landmass tripled to 3,021,000 square miles from 891,000 square miles.  The country grew through the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, Spain’s cession of Florida in 1845, the annexation of Texas in 1845, the establishment of the Oregon territory in 1846 and the seizure of California and much of the Southwest from Mexico in 1848.

The 1820-1860 period witnessed the emergence of a powerful evangelical movement – often called the Second Awakening – that sought spiritual revival and to renew American morality.  It sought to renew the eroding sense of exuberance that characterized the post-Revolutionary era.  The revival movement emerged in upstate New York’s “burned over” district and spread rapidly throughout the country, especially in the rural West.  It replaced the deism of the Founding Fathers as America’s religious ethos.   It’s evangelical spirit of renewal contributed to the rise of the temperance movement in the 1820s, the abolitionist movement of the 1830s, the feminist movement of the 1840s and – to the shock and chagrin of its proponents – the communitarian and free-love movements (e.g., Shakers and Oneida) that flared up throughout the era.

On June 16, 1827, James Richardson and Josephine Lolotte began living together as husband and wife at the utopian community of Nashoba, a Chickasaw word that means Wolf River.  Richardson was an immigrant Scotsman who was Nashoba’s storekeeper and doctor as well as the community’s operational overseer; Lolotte was the daughter of Mam’selle Lolotte (Larieu), a free woman of color from New Orleans who oversaw the raising of the children.  Francis Wright, the radical utopian, founded the community — with the help of Andrew Jackson — in the wilderness of eastern Tennessee, a full day’s coach ride from Memphis.  Surviving for only three years, it was the most radical of the dozens of experiments in utopian communitarianism that flourished in the U.S. during the tumultuous, uprooting decades of the mid-19th century.

The Richardson-Lolotte marriage was not the only interracial sexual relationship in America, let alone in the South, during this period.  Surely the most scandalous affair of the era — and perhaps in all American history — involved Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings.  Their affair, as much about an adulterous liaison as an interracial one, has gotten more controversial with time.  Back then, among Jefferson’s set of plantation gentry, a slave master was understood to have had certain “property rights” that legitimized sexual rape of female slaves.

During this antebellum era, intimate relations could also take place between a white woman and a black man as evident in the experiences of the noted abolitionist Frederick Douglass.  While only recently escaped from slavery, he married Anna Murray, a free black woman, in 1838, and they remained together for the next four decades.  In the 1850s, Douglass is rumored to have had several affairs with white women, including the daughter of a leading British abolitionist and with the journalists, Ottilie Assing, a half-Jewish, German immigrant and – like Marx – a “’48er.”  Anna Douglass died in 1882 and, after observing the traditional period of mourning, Douglass married Helen Pitts, a white woman twenty years his junior, in 1884.  They remind together until his death in 1895.

Slavery was the defining issue of American life in the 80-odd years between the Revolution to the Civil War; interracial sexual relations was surely the most explosive.  It truly was – and still is — America’s most peculiar institution.

America’s 3rd Sex Panic

The Civil War significantly transformed the nation.  New technologies like the railroad and the telegraphy were setting the stage for the forthcoming age of electricity.  Many of the new developments inflamed the forces of moral rectitude, those who battled to preserve what they believed to be the nation’s true Christian virtue.  Led by Anthony Comstock, a new generation of Puritans fought against prostitution (i.e., “white slavery”), obscene literature, (i.e., pornography), birth control (e.g., abortion), race mixing (i.e., “miscegenation”), homosexuality (i.e., perversion) and alcohol consumption (i.e., abstinence).

A powerful white conservative Christian social movement railed against the emerging new social order, assailing vice in every form, be it alcohol consumption, gambling, prostitution, birth control or obscenity in publishing and the arts.  Champions of the “social purity” movement included the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), the Women’s Christian Temperance Alliance (WCTA), the American Purity Alliance (formed in 1895), the American Vigilance Committee (the two later consolidated into the American Vigilance Association). In addition, local groups included Chicago’s Committee of Fourteen, New York’s Committee of Fifteen, the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice and the New England Watch and Ward Society in Boston. These groups drew upon many social notables, from Jane Addams and Grace Dodge to J. P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller, Jr., for both political influence and financial support.

Nearly a century after Francis Wright called for a utopian sexual revolution, a modern generation of feminists, exemplified by Victoria Woodhull, Emma Goldman and Margaret Sanger, fought to redefine social and sexual relations.  However, the Comstock laws banning obscene materials and the Mann Act barring interstate sexual commerce set the limits of sexual expression.  As the U.S.’s entry into WW-I approached, about 125 red-light districts in cities throughout the country (most notably New Orleans’ Storyville) were closed-down under the requirements of “war discipline.”  More troubling, the government launched a campaign that led to the arrest, forceful medical testing and/or imprisonment of some 30,000 women for allegedly being carriers of venereal disease and, thus, “domestic enemies” undermining the war effort. Two key postwar Amendments were the crowning achievements of the 3rd sex panic: (i) the 19th Amendment prohibiting the manufacturer, distribution, sale and consumption of alcohol; and (ii) the 20th Amendment granting women the right to vote.  Women of the Christian right actively backed both efforts as ways to ensure abstinence.

America’s 4th Sex Panic

During the post-WW-II era, the U.S. was wracked by a war against communists and a wide-ranging war on sex, the nation’s 4th sexual panic.  Targets in these culture wars were homosexuals, pornographers and others who posed a special threat that needed to be suppressed.

Homosexuals were singled out from special persecution.  In 1950, the year Sen. Joe MacCarthy claimed he had a list of 205 subversives working for the State Department, he served on the Subcommittee on Investigations of the Committee on Expenditures in the Executive Departments.  It held hearings investigating “homosexuals and other sex perverts” working for the government, thus directly linking subversion and sexuality.  It found that the mental health of gay federal employees affected national security:

In the opinion of this subcommittee homosexuals and other sex perverts are not proper persons to be employed in Government for two reasons: first, they are generally unsuitable, and second, they constitute a security risk. [emphasis in original]

In the wake of this and other hearings, in 1950, Congress passed – over Pres. Harry Truman’s veto — the Internal Security Act, aka the Subversive Activities Control Act of the McCarran Act.  A series of Washington, D.C., witch-hunts purged thousands of so-called perverts from government jobs.

For McCarthy and others, communism and homosexuality were but two sides of the same corruption undermining the nation’s moral order.  The panic led Truman, in 1951, to issue Executive Order 10241; it barred prostitutes, paupers, the insane as well as ideological undesirables and homosexuals from government employment.

On January 20, 1953, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower took office as the 34th President formally ending two decades of Democratic rule.  He also ended the New Deal and the Fair Deal, replacing them with an era of Cold War prosperity and peace that transformed American life.  During the period from 1945 to 1960, the nation’s population increased by 28 percent, to 181 million from 140 million, and the gross national product (GNP) more than doubled, to $503 billion from $212 billion.  This was a new America.

On June 13, 1953, Pres. Eisenhower gave a seminal address on free speech and censorship at the Dartmouth commencement ceremony, second in importance to his legendary 1960 Farewell Address warning about the growing influence of the “military-industrial complex.”  Faced with a rise in book – and comic-book – burnings, Ike tried to square the circle.  “Don’t join the book-burners,” he declaired.  “Don’t be afraid to go in your library and read every book,” he declared, “as long as any document does not offend our own ideas of decency.  That should be the only censorship.”

The panic that took place during the late-‘40s to the mid-’50s was fueled by numerous reports of sex crimes.  In 1947, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover warned, “the most rapidly increasing type of crime is that perpetuated by degenerate sex offenders. … [It] is taking its toll at the rate of a criminal assault every 43 minutes, day and night, in the United States.”  Teenager boys were singled out as the new sex offender.

In ‘53, Congress passed and Ike signed the now-infamous Executive Order 10450, “Security Requirements for Government Employment,” legalizing the firing of federal employees for committing “any criminal, infamous, dishonest, immoral, or notoriously disgraceful conduct, habitual use of intoxicants to excess, drug addiction, sexual perversion.”  As a result, between May 1953 and June 1955, 837 investigations of alleged sex perverts took place.

Pornographers posed a special threat to the nation, challenging established notions of what was acceptable, what Ike called “decency.”  A growing sexual aesthetic or culture was in formation, being expressed in all forms of “obscene” representation, whether images, books, magazines, comics or movies, both poplar and scholarly. Against the powerful forces of religious, legal and psychological repression, an underground, counterculture, of sexual deviants survived and thrived.

Radical sexual representations, images that suggested the pleasures of something considered deviant, were increasingly popular at the margins of indulgence, best symbolized by the ‘50s icon, Bettie Page.  Old fashioned and more religious terms like “sin” and “immorality” gave way to a new vocabulary of the illicit, including more medical, scientific and secular concepts like perversion, deviant, sexual psychopath and sex criminal.

During this period, bars and other party spaces fermented illicit desires.  Private hook-ups were easily arranged, facilitating the voluntary, consensual association of self-selected individuals, men – and some women – seeking to fulfill idiosyncratic sexual indulgences.  Many were into simply homoerotic pleasures.  Others sought to fulfill leather, bondage, sadomasochism (s&m) or other fetishes.  Remarkably, they discreetly sought out – and found — like-minded individuals, whether heterosexual or homosexual, who shared their special fantasy.

America’s 5th Sex Panic

In the early-1970s, Schafly and other Christian conservatives were infuriated by ‘60s political and cultural radicalism, of calls for Black Power, mounting anti-Vietnam War protests, a nascent feminist movement and a counterculture celebrating sex, drugs and rock-&-roll.  They were deeply distressed by two landmark 1973 decisions.  First, the Supreme Court ruled in Roe v Wade that a woman has a right to her body and can terminate an unwanted pregnancy; second, the American Psychiatric Association (APA), in the revised The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychiatric Disorders (DSM-3), the mental-health bible, reclassified homosexuality, freeing it from the stigma of a mental disorder.

Since the 1970s, Christian conservatives have vehemently fought to limit the innumerable forms sexuality, of sex for pleasure.  It lost key battles over a person’s right to contraceptives, a woman’s right to an abortion, access to pornography, purchase of sex toys and gay marriage.  Blocked at the federal level, conservatives have successfully waged campaigns in states across the country to limit a woman’s – or underage girl’s – access to a medically-approved abortion and other sex-related products.  Until Trump’s inauguration, the culture wars seemed at a standoff, but they are now back with a vengeance not seen in a century.

Over the intervening four decades, conservative moralists have focused on four critical issues: (i) abortion and birth control, (ii) homosexuality and gay marriage, (iii) teen sex education and premarital sex, and, most recently, (iv) transsexuality and gender identity.  Other, secondary, issues concerned sex trafficking of young girls, child pornography, local sex-toy shops and sex-offender registries.

In the 21st century what was once considered a sin or a perversion has become the new normal.  The adult consensual sex industry is estimated to a $50 billion enterprise.  These developments may prove ultimate undoing of Trump’s relaunched culture wars.

David Rosen is the author of Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at; check out