American Moral Panics Then and Now

So, the comments are in (thanks!), and the consensus seems to be that there's no special focus on campus sexual assault in Germany because (1) Most German universities don't have traditional campuses or an insular 'campus culture' like American universities; and (2) German university authorities just aren't expected to deal with crimes between students. That's what the police are for. German universities have no 'campus police' in the American sense, just a few hired security guards.

And there's no special concern about 'campus' sexual assault in Germany the way there is in the U.S. Disclaimer: I believe sexual assault is a serious crime that should be punished. Every allegation should be followed up, preferably by specially-trained investigators. These things are self-evident to any civilized person, but in this crazy modern era, there are people out there eager to misconstrue.

That out of the way, I have three problems with the particularly American approach to campus sexual assault, which strikes me as a classic moral panic:

  • First, the debate revolves far too much around whether you immediately 'believe' personal stories of people who say they have been victimized. Most accusations of sexual assault are well-founded, but some people invent rape stories to gain sympathy or take revenge, or more commonly because they suffer from mental illness. Statistics vary from study to study, but they generally put the rate of false accusations between 2 and 8%. A small percentage, but considering  that many American states impose a mandatory minimum sentence of 5-10 years in prison for rape, caution is in order. The focus of activists on immediately believing all rape accusations creates self-inflicted wounds when some of the accusations turn out to be unfounded, as they inevitably will. As Freddie de Boer recently put it in an intelligent piece: 'By creating the expectation that all rape accusations must be presumed true regardless of circumstance, anti-rape activists have tied the credibility of their efforts to every individual accusation, and in so doing perversely undermined our efforts to end sexual assault.' His argument is more complex than this, go read the whole thing. But the point comes across.
  • Second, many universities, in response to pressure from activists, have adopted investigation guidelines for allegations of sexual assault that deprive the accused of a fair chance to be informed of the allegations against him or her and respond effectively. Twenty-eight Harvard law professors from across the ideological spectrum recently denounced Harvard's new guidelines for exactly this reason. Emily Yoffe's recent long read on one of these cases shows, in my view, a system that makes a mockery of due process. Like university administrators, the American criminal justice system is heavily influenced by public opinion, which means moral panics often translate into an urgent call to do something, and this call is heeded by elected prosecutors eager to make headlines (like this guy). From the death penalty to Satanic child abuse to life in prison for drug dealing to civil forfeiture, the list of American punitive overcorrections based on moral panics is long indeed.
  • Third, there is a class angle to this story that many people ignore. Three quarters of Americans will never go to college. Women who do not attend college are more likely to be raped than women who do. The farther down the socio-economic ladder, the wider the prevalence of sexual assault. As one recent study put it: 'Research shows an undeniable link between poverty and sexual violence.' America is focussed on sexual assault on campus because politicians, journalists, and activists almost exclusively emerge from the college-educated class. If we really want to combat sexual assault, it would probably be much more effective to concentrate resources in poorer areas, where it happens more often than on university campuses. Instead of reporters fanning out across campuses interviewing upper-middle class people like themselves, why not fan out to isolated suburban strip-malls and ask the working-class female employees how prevalent rape is in their lives? Whether their workplaces have adequate security? How long they have to walk through dark parking lots to get to their cars at night? I wager the results would be pretty sobering. But the upper-middle class college-educated journalists who shape news coverage don't seem to be very concerned about the 75% of Americans who will never go to college. Whenever class raises its fat, pimply head, an uncomfortable silence descends on the American chattering classes, with a few notable exceptions.

2 thoughts on “American Moral Panics Then and Now

  1. AMEN! Rape is a very serious horrible crime, but it crosses all social lines and cultures. One thing that until now hasn’t been in the German press is something I found out from many medical doctors here. Sexual abuse is often confronted by those on exchange programs in the US usually in the 10th or 11th grades and they are most often put into rather ‘religious or conservative’ families in the suburbs or rural America. My son had a classmate who returned so traumatized she could not continue her schooling for quite some time. Of course, I presume sexual abuse and/or rape occurs in other countries in exchange programs as well.


  2. Very nice post, esp. the attention given to class!

    Re. Germany, besides the structural reasons discussed that would seem to make a US-style “campus rape”-moral panic less likely, it is my impression that matters sexual and criminal tend to elicit somewhat less strong moral-panic responses in Germany than in the US, not least probably for reasons connected to the matters you analyze in your book. That is not to say that the German media and German public opinion are significantly more rational than US media/p.o. (cf. fears about, aeh, certain energy and biological technologies), just that the sites of anxiety/hysteria are different to those prevalent in the US.


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