From Moral Outrage to Moral Panic: the Limits of Public Rage

Photo by Rob Kall | CC BY 2.0

Is the U.S. in the midst of yet another period of moral panic?  Since its founding, the nation has witnessed numerous periods of social or political disturbance over a perceived “moral” or “values” issue, often involving sex.  During these periods, controversy reached a crisis level — and the nation shuddered.  Is this what’s emerging as the new feminist movement’s rage against male sexual abuse morphs from a personal issue to a public-policy concern?

Early Puritan settlers accused, shamed, tried and imprisoned over 200 people for witchcraft.  About 30 people, mostly elder women, were convicted of sexual congress with Satan — and executed.

Centuries later, during the WW-I era, evangelical moralists forced the closing of dozens of “red-light” districts, zones of iniquity, in cities throughout the country..  Religious moralist also had 30,000 women seized without warrants or due process as national security threats, alleged prostitutes who might infect the nation’s male fighting force.  These women were forced to endure a medically examination for a venereal disease and, if found to be infected, were imprisoned.  This period of moral panic culminated in the passage of the 19th Amendment establishing Prohibition; it’s the only Amendment to be repealed.

A century later, moral panic involves two issues, abortion and sex offenders.  The religious right has sought to not simply prohibit abortions by women for cause (e.g., rape, harm to them or their fetus), but also for choice (e.g., unwanted pregnancy).  A 2010 Rand report finds that between 1973 (following the Roe v. Wade decision) and 2003, abortion providers were the targets of more than 300 acts of extreme violence, including arson, bombings, acid attacks and murders.

The outing of Catholic priests for sexual abuse – often of minors, boys and girls – in the early-2000s focused public attention on a criminal practice long tolerated by the Church.  A 2011 report by John Jay College of Criminal Justice, an update of an earlier study, found that from 1950 to 2002 some 10,667 individuals had made allegations of sexual abuse and that Catholic dioceses identified 6,700 unique accusations against 4,392 U.S. clergy.  Recently, a Queens, NY, priest, Adam Prochaski – known as “Father Pervert,” “The Pig” and “Lurch” – was outed for alleged offenses against 34 females and one male who allegedly being sexually abused between 1970 and 1994.

The current public rage regarding sexual abuse – and worse — of women and girls (and some men/boys) by leading males of the entertainment, political and other sectors involves both sex and power. Dubbed by some the “Weinstein Effect,” a growing number of people (mostly women) have come forward to accuse famous or powerful men of sexual misconduct.  It is a forceful break from the culture of silence that has long protected such men from being held accountable for their misdeeds.

Some progressive feminists have raised concerns that this movement may slip into a conservative, neo-puritan anti-sex campaign.  Two episodes of sex-policy reaction are easily recalled: (i) the Antipornography Civil Rights Ordinance proposed by Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon that argued that pornography was a violation of women’s civil rights (it was adopted by the Indianapolis city council in 1984 and found unconstitutional) and (ii) Tipper Gore’s 1985 campaign, the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC), to label music lyrics for profanity and other objectionable content.  Whether the #MeToo movement will spawn a moral panic remains to be seen.


Larry Nassar, MD, USA Gymnastics doctor and Michigan State University, was convicted on charges of molested 150-plus girls and women, including Olympic gymnasts Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas, Aly Raisman and McKayla Maroney.  Judge Rosemarie Aquilina sentenced him to 40 to 175 years in prison, declaring, “I just signed your death warrant.”  Adding, “It is my honor and privilege to sentence you. You do not deserve to walk outside a prison ever again. You have done nothing to control those urges and anywhere you walk, destruction will occur to those most vulnerable.” This sentence followed a 60-year sentence for violating federal child pornography charges.

Perhaps most remarkable about the Nassar case is that it did not turn into a moral panic.  Two earlier pedophile scandals — the McMartin Day School and Jerry Sandusky — led to moral panics in which the purported offenders were arrested, tried and convicted.  These panics were based on over-aggressive prosecutors, alleged “recovered memories” and disturbing media reports.

The McMartin Preschool of Manhattan Beach, CA, was the site of in 1983 of the gravest recovered-memory charade in the contemporary period.  The school was closed and five of its staff prosecuted based on the students’ recovered memories of sexual abuse.  After more rigorous investigation, little to nothing of the sexual abuses that were originally claimed actually occurred, yet many peoples’ lives were ruined.

The trial, conviction and imprisonment of Jerry Sandusky is an illuminating example of how moral outrage can turn into a moral panic when a perfect target captures public attention.  He was a Penn State football coach who served for thirty years (1969-1999) as an assistant its legendary head-coach, Joe Paterno.  He also founded The Second Mile, a charity for at-risk youths.

However, on November 4, 2011, a Pennsylvania grand jury released a report initially accusing him of sexually abusing eight young boys over a period of at least 15 years.  A month later, two additional boys came forward claiming they had been abused, raising the total of accusers to ten. He was charged with 48 counts of sexual abuse including “involuntary deviant sexual intercourse, indecent assault, unlawful contact with a minor, corruption of minors and endangering the welfare of children.”  But did he commit the acts he was convicted of perpetrating?

Mark Pendergrast, a science writer and author of more than a dozen books, provides an invaluable case study into how questionable accusations and outrage could rapidly snowball into a moral panic.  In his recently-published book, The Most Hated Man in America: Jerry Sandusky and the Rush to Judgment (Sunbury Press), he argues that Sandusky’s arrest, prosecution, trial and final imprisonment was a miscarriage of judgement and believes he should receive a new – and fair – trial.

After careful coaching from aggressive law-enforcement officials, therapists discovered repressed memories and opportunistic civil-litigation attorneys, the alleged victims fundamentally changed their stories, their memories.  The author takes particular aim at those promoting recovered-memories theories, specifically many of the psycho-therapist who assisted the victims to recall long-suppressed memories of sexual abuse.  During the Sandusky scandal, this form of psychotherapy captured much media attention and became a short-lived self-help fad, with numerous scholarly/academic studies and popular books published about the topic.  Stories about recovered memories regularly appeared in the local media and spread to the New York Times and The Washington Post as well as CNN and NBC, ensuring that the Sandusky case became a national story.


One of the unexpected outcomes Donald Trump’s presidency is that it helped fuel a growing moral outrage among an increasing number of Americans, women and men, about immoral sexual conduct.  His victory in the face of unquestionable immoral – if not illegal – engagements with nearly two-dozen women who publicly accused him of abuse fostered an unexpected result.

If immoral conduct can be celebrated by the macho-man president, why should not the truth about an ever-growing list of men accused of engaging in inappropriate sexual conduct be similarly outed?  In the world of Trump’s moral order, a man should own the immoral, if not illegal, sexual activities he engaged in.

Public shaming did not work during the ’16 election but is beginning to during Trump’s presidency.  Three factors have been critical: (i) the male figure had power, wealth or standing, (ii) there were more than one female victim and they were willing to go public with their stories, and (iii) public exposure through credible media outlets gave the accusations legitimacy.

Unexpectedly, Trump’s arrogance likely contributed to the outing of movie-mogul Harvey Weinstein.  His victory has fostered a deeply-felt sense of outrage among many women, especially – initially — well-educated, white professionals who felt “entitled” to be treated as someone more than a sex object.  They were shamed — outraged! – and, with time, fought back.

In the past, the Weinstein exposé would have been dismissed as just one more sensational sex scandal: guys will be guys.  As suggested by the initial hands-off policy of New York’s DA Cyrus Vance – a policy extended to Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Ivanka Trump and Donald Trump, Jr. – Weinstein walked.  But something deeper was simmering.

In 2006, Tarana Burke launched the #MeToo movement to, in her words, “support survivors of sexual violence, in particular black and brown girls ….”  In 2017, the hashtag went viral, personal experiences of debasement morphed into a social movement.  The recently-launched #TimesUp campaign may succeed where earlier efforts — like those following Anita Hill’s 1991 Senate testimony — faltered.

Popular reaction to increased outing of male sexual abuse makes clear that a perpetrator’s wealth, power or mea culpa – “I’ll seek counseling” — is not enough.  A growing number of women insist that personal sexual abuse is not isolated or private, but an endemic feature of most social relations and all-too-common in male-dominated sectors, whether Hollywood/entertainment, Wall Street/finance or Silicon Valley/high-tech. The ongoing outing of upper-crust male notables and executives suggests that something more long-term is at play.

For centuries, macho-male patriarchy defined U.S. military culture, but things have slowly changed with more women in uniform.  In 2015, there were 1,340,533 active-duty troops, including those serving in the U.S. Coast Guard — and 15 percent of active-duty military personnel (approximately 200,000) were women – up from 11 percent in 1990.  Equally significant, 14,900 service members were officially reported to have been sexually assaulted in 2015, 5,400 fewer than the 20,300 sexual assault victim reports estimated in 2014.  The Defense Department reported that in 2015, one in three service members reported their assaults an increase from one in four people in 2014; a decade earlier only one in 14 service members reported the crime.

Some more-progressive feminists worry that the campaign against male sexual abuse may contribute to a conservative backlash, a moral panic reminiscent of those symbolized by Dworkin and Gore in the 1980s.  In a Le Monde Op-Ed on January 9th, 100 French women called for a rejection of the “puritanism” that they believed to be at the core of the #MeToo movement, a “hatred of men.”  Among the signatures were Catherine Deneuve, Catherine Millet, Joëlle Losfeld and Ingrid Caven.  The story was picked up by the Hollywood Reporter, but sufficiently mangled as to make the underlying critique unintelligible.

The Op Ed takes issue with a number of assumptions that underscore some of the campaign against sexual abuser.  First, they worry that the campaign is an overreach.  They are concerned about an accused whose “only wrong was to have touched a knee, tried to steal a kiss, spoken of ‘intimate’ things at a business dinner, or to have sent sexually explicit messages to a woman who was not attracted to them.”  They are also concerned from a basic civil-liberties perspective that the campaign’s targeting of up-market males is taking place in public, through the media, and with the accused not “being given the opportunity to respond or defend themselves, [and] are put on the same level as sex offenders.”

However, their gravest concern warns, “This fever to send ‘pigs’ to the slaughterhouse, far from helping to empower women, in reality serves the interests of the enemies of sexual freedom, religious extremists, the worst reactionaries, and those who, in the name of a weighty notion of the good and of the Victorian morality that goes with it, view women as ‘special’ beings, as children with adult faces, demanding to be protected.”  In conclusion, they insist: “We think that the freedom to say no to a sexual proposal does not deny the freedom to solicit. And we consider that it is necessary to know how to respond to this freedom to solicit differently than by locking oneself into the role of prey.”

Surprisingly, for all the civil liberties and humanistic sexuality defended by those who backed the Le Monde Op-Ed, the issue of power was not addressed.  One can only wonder if they’d ever read Simone de Beauvoir, let alone Michel Foucault?  Sex is both natural and social, the pleasure of the living body and the mores determining power, practices and pleasures.  In a public domain like the workplace, power is the glue that holds social relations together.

The almost-daily revelations about sex-related scandals involving Trump, Nasser or other men accused of abuse or worse are a moral time-bomb, one in which outrage can easy turn-into – or be manipulated into – a panic.  Public rage needs to be guided by caution or it could collapse into mass hysteria like that inflicted on Puritan-era witches and Sandusky.

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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 drosennyc@verizon.net; check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com.

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