Moral Panic & Changing Concepts

When it comes to sexual offending and sexual offenders we are, as a society, caught in what some have referred to as a “moral panic,” (see Jenkins, 2004). Think of the Salem Witch Trials.  According to Stanley Cohen, author of a sociological study about youth culture and media called, Folk Devils and Moral Panics (1972),

A moral panic occurs when a “condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests.” Those who start the panic when they fear a threat to prevailing social or cultural values are known by researchers as moral entrepreneurs, while people who supposedly threaten the social order have been described as “folk devils.”

Today there is no doubt that sex offenders, especially those who target children, are the most despised and physically ostracized offending population in modern society (McCartan, 2004). There are practically no safe means of talking about children and sex without drawing the ire of just about everyone, or worse, without risking a report being made in your honour to any number of authorities whose mandate it is, appropriately so, in fact, to investigate. That you might lose your job, be required to move out of your home, have contact with your family tightly regulated and monitored, or worse, lose your children to child protection social workers, none of that matters; it is all justifiably sacrificed on the alter of “child safety is paramount.” And that’s pretty hard to argue against. But if you are a man, you are doomed; if you are a woman, doubly so.

Little wonder then, is it, that very few people come forward seeking help before they act on their desires, and no wonder at all they don’t step up after doing something criminal, like viewing child pornography.

Reason, however, should not be sacrificed on any alter.  And it is entirely reasonable that we should encourage people to seek help before they act on dark thoughts, just as we would encourage a friend to seek help if they felt suicidal. But we don’t.

For instance, in the realm of probably one of the most common occurrences of troubling behaviour today is the rampant use of internet pornography. Ever since the internet became a viable place for human exchange of all sorts, say, post-1994, there has been an increasingly heavy demand for internet-based pornography. A typical male user will tell me, “I started looking at porn when I was maybe ten or eleven. My dad’s stuff. Everyone knew it was there. Then as soon as I got a computer, I pretty much knew what to do. And there was everything there. Really rough stuff, if you wanted it. And kids, too. I started looking at adult women and men, but soon that wasn’t enough. I wanted them younger. I looked for teens, then the ‘barely-legal stuff, and then it was kids. What the hell’s wrong with me? Kids! But I liked it.”

With the arrival of child pornography widely available on the internet, recent research (Seto ) has identified the emergence of potentially two, previously unidentified sexual offenders who use then stuff: those with no previous criminal history, nor any known history of hands-on sexual offending. And secondly, those who use child pornography who do, in fact, have a criminal history of hands-on sexual offending. This same research also talks about risks to reoffend. It turns out that those with no previous history are not likely to graduate to hands-on offending. They are at low risk to offend against a child.

Those who have history, however, are at increased risk to offend again against children, and there use of child porn escalates that risk.

What does all this mean?  What does it mean if you are child porn user?  I hope this means that while protecting children is paramount, seeking help is equally important.  What this means is that we know quite a bit about sexual offending, and that means we have the knowledge and ability to offer professionally-based support and treatment. This means that we, as members of a community, need to stop acting with fear, hatred and persecution. This drives people underground and away from seeking help. And that makes our neighbourhoods less safe and more dangerous. Stop it now. Make an appointment with a qualified professional, and get help – now!    

According to

  • Jenkins, P. 2004. Moral Panic: Changing Concepts of the Child Molester in Modern America. Yale University Press.
  • Cohen, S. (1972) Folk Devils and Moral Panics, London: MacGibbon and Kee.
  • Kemshall, H., Kelly, G. & Wilkinson, B. 2012. Child sex offender public disclosure scheme: The views of applicants
  • McCartan, K. (2004) Here there be monsters: The public’s perception of paedophiles with particular reference to Belfast and Leicester. Medicine, Science & the Law, 44. pp. 327-342. ISSN 0025-8024
  • 7.   Hayes, H. & Prenzler T. (2012) An Introduction to Crime and Criminology: 3. Frenchs Forest: Pearson
  • Thompson, K. in C. Critcher, (2006). Critical readings: Moral Panics in the Media. Berkshire: Open University Press, 2006)
  • Journal of Sexual Aggression: An
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