by Roger N. Lancaster. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2011. 328pp. Hardcover $50.00. ISBN 9780520262065. Paper $24.95. ISBN: 9780520262065.

Reviewed by Joseph Fischel, Pembroke Center for Teaching and Research on Women, Brown University. Email: joseph_fischel [at]


As I write this review in the Fall of 2011, the alchemy of sex, politics and panic bubbles over in blogs, newscasts and print media. The nation has witnessed a rising Republican presidential candidate failingly rebuff sexual harassment charges, and the famed Penn State football outfit has withered under publicized charges of child sexual abuse. Roger N. Lancaster’s Sex Panic and the Punitive State insists that episodic “sex panics” are not simply sensationalist, epiphenomenal media accounts produced for profit, but rather reflect and reiterate what he calls forms of “punitive governance.” For Lancaster, punitive governance describes the paranoid politics in U.S. culture that has eroded presumptions of innocence, valorized the victim as national hero, and ennobled the vigilante as iconic citizen. Sex panics, the eruption of public anger and media frenzy around (sometimes imagined) sexual violations, has inaugurated and codified the extension of the state’s supervisory and carceral powers, the expansion and subsequent legitimation of security measures, and the enactment of harsher regulatory and punitive laws. In this regard, Lancaster follows other recent and not so recent work charting the political mobilization of collective anxieties around sexual threat (for example, Jenkins 1998; Rubin 1993; Watney 1996; Weeks 1981). However, more compellingly than his predecessors, Lancaster investigates how the logic and rhetoric of sex panics has infused multiple, often-nonsexual arenas of state control. He offers a cartography of the U.S. political landscape that links up concerns over unmoored sexuality with the war on terror, and with the sharp turn, over the past several decades, to incarceration as the U.S.’s method of governing par excellence. Thankfully, Lancaster mostly resists the language of causation and opts instead to show his readers the complex relations between sex, media, panicked citizenry, the ever-longer arm of the punitive state, and the ever-shrinking arm of the welfare state. At the core of his analysis is not, as he suggests early on, the figure of the homosexual (p.17), but rather the political use and abuse of fear, and the political, discursive leveraging of the child and childhood innocence to keep fear not only alive in the body politic but also effective in the promotion of state power.

Like its writing style, the architecture of Sex Panic and the Punitive State is straightforward and smart. The book is divided into two parts. Part One: Sex Panic considers, over the course of three chapters, the modern history, sociological contours, and legal consequences of sex panics in the United States. Part Two: The Punitive State is less narratively linear than Part 1, as the scope of inquiry is far wider. The four chapters under Part 2 document: the punitive turn in U.S. forms of governance beginning in the late 1960s, the global amplification of U.S. carceral, punitive, and securitizing practices after 9/11, and the emergence of the injured victim as the central figure igniting (conservative and liberal) 1970s-1990s activist agitation and law and order reform. At the close of Part Two, Lancaster briefly but excellently pushes back against some critical accounts of [*28] the relationship between neoliberal capitalism, (identitarian-infused) liberalism, and the punitive state. Chapter 4, an autobiographical interlude, judiciously bridges the two parts of the book.

The first and second chapters spell out the history of sex panics and their consequences for U.S. politics and changing social and institutional relations. Following other scholars, Lancaster re-appropriates the term “moral panic” from Stanley Cohen’s famous investigation of the mods and rockers (Cohen 2002). For Lancaster, sex panics refer to episodes in which actual or perceived acts of sexual violence foment public anger and hysteric media reportage, and often result in draconian state response. Predominant sex panics therefore refer to 1930s public alarm around the sexual stranger; postwar, McCarthy era crackdowns on homosexuals and other nonconforming sexual subjects; teen prostitution and child pornography purges in the late 1970s; public hysteria around AIDS and (manufactured) satanic ritual abuse rings of the 1980s; and finally, a seemingly unending parade of sex offender statutes in the 1990s and 2000s, catalyzed most explicitly (though not at all entirely) by singularly heinous but statistically unrepresentative events of sexual violence (on similar historiographical periodization see Chauncey 1992; Freedman 1987; Jenkins 1998). For scholars interested in fine-tuning or amending the moral panic model as Cohen (2002) described it and Goode and Ben-Yehuda formalized it (1994), this is not the book for them. Questions concerning what threshold of anxiety qualifies as “panic” as opposed to legitimate apprehension, or concerning the directional flow of “panic” between media and public opinion, or concerning the role multiple, conflicting media and multiple, conflicting publics play in the mediation of scandal are not Lancaster’s. He aims instead to provide a big picture of sex panic, its sometimes tidal force in the political history of the nation, and its production of “new monsters” that have genealogical affiliation to other historical figures of recidivistic predation, namely homosexuals and black and brown men.

The third chapter takes his readers to present sex panics. Lancaster thoughtfully dissects current fixations with priests and clerical sexual abuse, suggesting that the relative rarity of occurrences of priest sexual abuse is disproportionate to the public outcry and demonization such occurrences receive. He notices too the incongruity between the adolescent age of most victims and the public narrative of priest abuse that centralize the young child. Careful neither to excuse abuse nor exonerate church authorities, Lancaster calls attention to the ways the church scandal, like other sex panics, absorb political energies and public attention, while other structural injustices are comparatively neglected.

Lancaster documents the reinvention of the sex offender in the popular imagination from the 1990s until the present, observing the vast array of laws – registration, notification, civil [*29] confinement, residency restrictions, chemical castration, GPS tracking – codified to pursue and socially paralyze alleged predators. He demonstrates as well the ineffectiveness, overreaches, and faulty presumptions of such laws. While Lancaster argues throughout the text that sex panics invariably result in new, defective, and severe sex law, it strikes me that the best evidence of this assertion is presented in the third chapter; the relation between legal change and other sex panics is left largely unspecified (Denno 1998). In Lancaster’s most persuasive analysis of law and sex offense, he posits, “this production of categories of people who have diminished rights has happened not by undemocratic or unlawful means but by means of a process that is effectively poisoned while remaining democratic and lawful” (p.96). In other words, it is squarely within law, and not at its margins or in the ambiguity of juridical interpretations, that the modern sex offender is produced and persecuted.

The fourth chapter weaves the sex panic analyses of Part One with the diagnosis and criticism of Part Two by way of autobiography. Lancaster reflects on how the public scandalizing of sex ostracized him as a young, sexually uncertain teenage boy. As an adult, the scandal of sex re-haunts himself and his two friends, a gay couple. Lancaster recounts his and his friends’ devastating encounter with law, law enforcement, and public outrage. Falsely charged with sexual assault, Lancaster’s friend, a middle school teacher, is publicly harangued and vilified by police, prosecutors, and judges. The personal account masterfully works three purposes: it offers experiential evidence on the regressive force of sex panic; it opens a window onto the apparatuses of state control he will critique in the remaining chapters; and it reminds us that we, like Lancaster, are all similarly susceptible targets of raged outbursts and juridical overreach when, in an age of fear, the state’s raison d'être is the neutralization of risk and the sacralization of the victim.

Chapters 5 and 6 historicize the punitive turn in American governance and analyze present day expansions of U.S. punitive practices across the world. Beginning with the crime waves of the late 1960s, observes Lancaster, the U.S. state shifted its financial and political investments toward incarceration, risk prevention, and securitization, and away from the provision of social services. He presents the sheer magnitude, in absolute and per capita terms, of the incarcerated population, and catalogues too the staggering racial inequalities of the U.S. prison system.

He suggests that, from the 1970s to the 1980s, the conventional figure of threat transitioned from the black criminal to the white sex offender, from the urban to the suburban; barricading dangers from the outside morphed into purifying middle class whiteness from the inside. He charts a hodgepodge of emergences and emergencies – among them, tampered Tylenol scares, V-chips, AIDS, the drug wars, the exclusionary architectural layout of wealthy suburbs – that constellate condensation points of panic and subsequent punitive hyper- [*30] vigilance. The scattershot nature of this laundry list is mostly excused by the scattershot nature of the problem of punitive governance as he diagnoses it.

Compellingly, Lancaster demonstrates the way logics of sex panic infuse and rationalize state actions in the war on terror. The pornographic public reception of the scandal at Abu Ghraib, the creation of the hearth-sounding Department of Homeland Security (p.169), the sexualized caricatures of terrorist suspects, and the immediate deployment of Patriot Act provisions and other war on terror legislation to accelerate the pursuit and capture of sex offenders, are all indicative of an “associative logic” whereby the rhetorical and political forms that congeal in response to sexual predation effectively bulwark punitive governance writ large.

The seventh chapter tracks the historical career and ultimate supremacy of the “victim” in administrations of law. Lancaster argues that strands of the civil rights movement, welfare state policy, late 1970s feminism, the self-help industry, and the rise of the social services professions converge in their promotion of the injured victim as the morally proper addressee of criminal policy. For example, he notices how rape shield laws – successes of feminist reform – modeled later laws permitting children to testify against their accusers via closed circuit televisions. So too, presentencing victim statements and statewide victims’ bill of rights have further demonized the accused while wearing down his constitutional protections. Over the past four decades, punishment has become regarded as “a settling of accounts between individuals,” thus mostly detached from any deterrent, rehabilitative, or restorative rationales (p.200). Following Wendy Brown (1995), Lancaster suggests that the identitarian myopia of late liberalism may propel this politics of victimhood and its supplement, a politics of monsterhood.

I wish Lancaster had more space to develop his eighth chapter, an adept intervention in current critiques of neoliberalism. He counters contentions that neoliberal deregulation and privatization reforms spurred punitive governance, increased rates of incarceration, and the racial inequalities of the criminal justice system. Instead, he observes that the U.S.’s preoccupation with prison as the premier institution of population management preceded neoliberal economic policies. Likewise, sex panics inflect punitive governance sometimes as cause and sometimes as effect, but never simply as an affective symptom of global capitalism. This important amendment fruitfully allows Lancaster to avoid neoliberalism as the default black box of causation for national distress.

In his conclusion, Lancaster reports on his autopsy of the “basic anatomy of sex panic” (p.231), highlighting the similarities (of logic) and differences (in the construction of predatory figures) between crime panics and sex panics. He points out how the language of predation, risk, and victimhood travels in punitive culture. Cursorily, he offers [*31] advice for a better political future: calibrate risks, avoid demonization, loosen our attachment to trauma, “take a deep breath,” etc. (p.243). These proposals are slightly underwhelming but do not at all subtract from the impressive precision of Lancaster as a diagnostician of our panic-punitive world.

I have one reservation about the purported centrality of the “homosexual” in Lancaster’s explanation of modern sex panics. I have another reservation regarding his mostly unforgiving account of second wave feminism as collusive with right wing conservative agendas. As for the first point, homophobia plays a key explanatory role in the text, and I wonder if that clouds other modes of interpreting public anxieties and media narratives around predatory men (and sometimes women) and the often gender-interchangeable child. As for the second point, Lancaster might have more carefully distinguished between alignment and cooptation in order to assess when feminists’ proposed solutions to sexual violence were warped by regressive political projects. Feminist analysis might also specify why some acts of sexual violence are susceptible to panic while other acts are ignored or readily disbelieved.

Nonetheless, Lancaster has offered a rich, exceptionally researched, cogently written exposition on panic and its force in the U.S. political punitive climate. Sex Panic and the Punitive State is a thorough, often poignant corrective both to the literature on moral panics and sex panics, as well as to critical accounts of punishment under neoliberalism.


Brown, Wendy. 1995. States of Injury: Power and Freedom in Late Modernity. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Chauncey, George, Jr. 1992. “The Postwar Sex Crime Panic.” In True Stories From the American Past, ed. William Graebner. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Cohen, Stanley. 2002. Folk Devils and Moral Panic: The Creation of the Mods and Rockers. 3rd ed. New York, NY: Routledge.

Denno, Deborah W. 1998. “Life Before the Modern Sex Offender Statutes.” Northwestern University of Law Review 92: 1317-1414.

Freedman, Estelle B. 1987. “'Uncontrolled Desires’: The Response to the Sexual Psychopath, 1920-1960.” Journal of American History 74: 83-106.

Goode, Erich, and Nachman Ben-Yehuda. 1994. Moral Panics: The Social Construction of Deviance. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers.

Jenkins, Philip.1998. Moral Panic: Changing Concepts of the Child Molester in Modern America. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Rubin, Gayle S. 1993. “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality.” In The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, ed. Henry Abelove, Michèle Aina Barale, and David M. Halperin. New York, NY: Routledge.

Watney, Simon. 1996. Policing Desire: Pornography, Aids and the Media. 3rd ed. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Weeks, Jeffrey. 1981. Sex, Politics and Society: The Regulation of Sexuality Since 1800. New York, NY: Longman.

© Copyright 2012 by the author, Joseph Fischel