Sex Panic Essay

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Historian Allan Berube suggests the term sex panic refers to a moral crusade that leads to crackdowns on sexual outsiders” (Wockner: 1997). Sex panics, witch hunts, and red scares are staples of American history,” writes Lisa Duggan (1989/ 1995). She elaborates: While often promoted by relatively powerless but vocal minorities hostile to cultural difference, they have been enthusiastically taken up by powerful groups in an effort to impose rigid orthodoxy on the majority.” They generally function to obscure any responsibility to confront and address very real problems, that is poverty, militarism, sexism, and racism” (Duggan, 1989/95: 75).

Critics suggest panics take shape as a condemnation of queerness, public sexual culture, those on welfare, or women who have children out of wedlock. In response to a panic over queer sexuality in the 1990s, a group of scholars suggested:

This is not the first time that officials have launched repressive measures against sex in the name of public good. Since the nineteenth century, it has been a recurrent pattern: Public morals and health have been invoked; scapegoats have been found in homosexuals, sex workers and others who are unlikely to fight back; and a fantasy of purity is held up as the norm. Historians have come to call this pattern a sex panic.”   (Crimp et al. 1998)

The concept of sex panic is useful in that it helps explain collective behavior – including periods of hysteria,” red scares,” and prohibition.” Yet, just because something is stirred by irrational behavior does not necessarily mean it is a panic. Future research must highlight approaches to combat the dynamics of panic so reason can prevail over fear.


  1. Crimp, D., Pelligrini, A., Pendleton, E., & Warner, M. (1998) This is a sex panic! Fountain 6 (2): 22-4.
  2. Duggan, L. (1989/1995) Sex panics. In: Duggan, L. & Hunter, N. (eds.), Sex Wars: Sexual Dissent and Political Culture. Routledge, New York, pp. 74-9.
  3. Wockner, R. (1997) Sex-lib activists confront Sex Panic.” Gaywave November 17.

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