Where Do Sex Panics Come From?

JoAnn Wypijewski

Sex panics keep happening because they tap into Americans’ deepest fears about the need to protect innocents from the threat of evil — fears that are endemic among the Left as well as the Right. Meanwhile, lives are destroyed in the process.

In 1977, Anita Bryant convinced voters to repeal a Florida county ordinance protecting gays and lesbians from discrimination with her Save Our Children campaign.

Interview by
Liza Featherstone

JoAnn Wypijewski’s new book, What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About #MeToo: Essays on Sex, Authority and the Mess of Life, is a collection of her writing over several decades about sex, class, and liberation – and what we all lose when we surrender to moral panic. In the book, she explores and complicates narratives surrounding AIDS, the “pedophile priest” scandals that have plagued the Catholic church, #MeToo, and many others.


LF

What is a sex panic?

JW

It’s a social eruption fanned by the media and characterized by alarm over innocence imperiled. That innocence, historically and stereotypically, has belonged to white women and children. The sex panic always involves some form of bad actor. Usually the bad man, the predator, is a lurking, mutable, social presence, a menace against which the population can be mobilized. Anthropologist Roger Lancaster calls this a “poisoned solidarity.” You can go back to Birth of a Nation. You can go back to the white slavery panic of the 1880s. Or a more modern period: the 1950s, where the Red Scare was a form of moral panic, and there was a “lavender panic” at the same time.

Superpredators,” the priests scandal, the Satanic panic — all have featured a tremendous amount of media attention and repetition of a storyline that cannot be questioned: a narrative of good versus evil where the evil one is out there doing something to the good, and the evil authorizes all the bad that the good can do.

Anything can be done to the bad man. And those doing it can feel a tremendous sense of vindication and social validation. That has accomplished something very practical: it has helped to build the prison state. According to a terrific book called The War on Sex, sex crimes are the fastest-growing cause of people being imprisoned. As leftists, we have to be concerned about that. But it’s also culturally developed a turn of mind that there are some people against whom anything is justified.

LF

Let’s talk about one of those people. Tell us about Nushawn Williams.

JW

Nushawn Williams was a young man from Brooklyn in the 1990s who was a petty drug dealer involved in various criminal activities, who, along with a number of other young people at the time, went upstate to sell drugs and to have what would be probably a better life. He went to the town of Jamestown, about seventy miles southeast of Buffalo, where I grew up. He was very popular with women and very successful as an entrepreneur. He was arrested at one point and tested for HIV, and he was told he was HIV-positive.

Perhaps he didn’t believe it or was in denial — we don’t know — but he continued to have sex with young women. A bunch of them turned up HIV-positive, and the state did something it had never done before. It took his mugshot and put it on a poster that said, “Public health threat, warning, warning, danger. If you’ve had sex with this man, come down immediately for a test.” And then it counseled those looking at this poster that their identity would be completely confidential. Of course, they had just busted his confidentiality! But the fact is that Williams did everything that the state wanted. When he was told he was HIV-positive, they asked him, “Who did you have sex with?” He gave them all the names.

LF

There’s a contemporary resonance here. As we’re rediscovering now with COVID-19, contact tracing is hard because people often do not cooperate with the authorities to the extent that he did. Nushawn Williams was a model participant in this process.

JW

He was a model participant!

This case was a signpost on the road to the criminalization of HIV, a blaring alarm: “There is an HIV predator among you.” He was on the cover of all the tabloids and the New York Times, and on CNN and in the world press.

And all the stories were the same. He was a “lethal Lothario.” He was the devil himself. He was a monster, he was a demon, he was an HIV predator, and this was just declared. These young women were all interviewed. They’d said a variety of things which came down to, “I thought I was in love. He gave me gifts. I thought he would be around. I’m so sad and broken now.” And that was pretty much the story, except for one woman who said, “I don’t know, I won’t join in on this. I loved him once. I’m not going to demonize him.” This woman was eighteen years old.

I thought, “She’s the one I want to talk to.” And I met her in jail. She was in jail for breaking probation. And then I met some other people who either had been with him or had been in the same world as he was, and I explored that.

The whole town was suddenly embracing young women who it never had any interest in, at all. They were “trash.” I mean, I would not call them that, but that’s how they were perceived. But suddenly they were the flower of Jamestown. Suddenly they were innocent girls who had been defiled by this awful monster, this animal, this predator. And suddenly they were humanized. They were humanized as victims.

Some had no way of certainly knowing [that they got the virus from Williams]. And the authorities were completely uninterested in how he may have contracted the virus.

I always think of every story I do as a class story. That’s my background. Before I started writing about sex, I was mostly writing about labor and class and unions and union politics, but always, I was interested in the people involved and their particularities. I couldn’t talk to Williams. [His lawyers declined to make him available for interviews.] But I was interested in the world of the women and the world of the town. After that story appeared, people in Jamestown were upset. They said, “You make it out as if the whole town is terrible.”

LF

Well, it did sound like a depressing place, but you also make clear that it was no more depressing than many other American cities.

JW

The guy who became mayor, Sam Teresi — he was then the development director — was straightforward about what deindustrialization had done to the country. This was the mid-’90s, but while people tend to see deindustrialization as an effect of NAFTA, in that part of New York state and in New York City, it had all started much sooner, in the late ’60s. Then, by the late 1970s, everything starts shutting down. So, in Buffalo, where I grew up, where my uncle worked in the steel mill, my father worked in a factory as a tool and die maker — for the company that invented the windshield wiper — all of us were affected. Catastrophe hit these towns and these cities. Teresi was saying, even with the best plans that we have here in Jamestown trying to make something happen, no one’s going to make an oasis in the desert of deindustrialized America.

I think that’s pretty heavy, and I think people ought to have paid attention to that part of it, because why were these guys involved as [drug drealers]? There were no other avenues, certainly, for good wages. And the young women, if they weren’t in the business, they were working in screw factory making $6 an hour, and that’s the reality. And so sex in that context, and sex with Nushawn Williams in that context, was not the worst deal. He presented the best deal. And that should raise questions for all of us.

It should also, as in every story, force us to recognize the humanity of every actor. That’s what I’ve tried to do. My whole career is to look at, even people who’ve done the worst thing, and try to see them not as monsters, not as demons, but products of a culture, of a society. They were once some little bitty baby in some mother’s arms, and something brought them to some point where, say, they kill Matthew Shepard out at the fence, or they do something heinous to prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Figures in the book exist within historical time and within social, cultural, and economic time. Their choices are confined the way all our choices are confined.

There was no way for a Nushawn Williams to get a fair shake in this situation, He’d been declared a monster. He’d been declared public enemy. He’d been declared a criminal and had to be put away, and the state didn’t have particular laws criminalizing HIV, but it found other means. He was convicted of having sex with two underage women (statutory rape) and served twelve years in prison. Hard time.

When he got out, the state decided that it was going to bring a case for civil commitment against him and declared him a “sexually dangerous” person. Then there was the kangaroo-type trial to prove that, which occurs all over this country. He was found indeed to be a sexually dangerous person, not for what he did, but for what he might do, and he joined some six thousand other people who are confined to mental institutions, detained indefinitely, without hope of getting out, supposedly for “treatment.”

I think we need to look at the social mechanisms that organize consent for punishment.

What’s always disturbing to me is that this ecstatic, panicky, moralizing approach is also embraced by the Left, by people who might shun, for instance, the Times reporting on terrorism.

LF

Yes, what about the sex exception on the Left? It seems especially jarring now, when ideas like the abolition of prisons and of police have so much traction, and restorative justice is a mainstream concept. The idea of due process would be taken for granted if someone was accused of murder, yet even people on the Left still demand the blood of anyone accused of a sexual violation.

JW

If we’re serious about culture and its formative power, then you have to look at the dominant culture that is the cauldron of current damaged life. We have to be serious about that, because it does form what James Baldwin called the “habits of thought” that reinforce and sustain the habits of power. I mean, toward authoritarianism. How we resist those habits of thought means separating yourself — or trying to — from them. That’s the work of a lifetime, because the propagandizing power of the culture is nonstop.