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Sex Panic and the Punitive State Hardcover – March 15, 2011

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 328 pages
  • Publisher: University of California Press (March 15, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0520255658
  • ISBN-13: 978-0520255654
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 8.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #5,485,637 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews


“Casts a thought-provoking perspective.”
(Salon 2011-12-09)

“A convincing argument.”
(The Gay & Lesbian Review 2012-09-01)

“Smart, witty, and political. The critique of state responses to sex offense is desperately needed in a policy debate that celebrates ever harsher punishment.”
(Contexts 2012-08-30)

“This book provides a . . . window on the use of sex panics and fear-mongering by the state to increase its control over private behavior.”
(J.A. Myers Gay & Lesbian Review/Worldwide 2011-09-01)

From the Inside Flap

"Lancaster's approach is fresh, critical and engaging. Many scholars have examined America's 'carceral state,' but few so successfully combine personal narrative and passion with sober assessment. This is a landmark book—a dismaying, angry, but powerful analysis of America's justice system."—Michael Sherry, Northwestern University

Sex Panic and the Punitive State is a passionate, wide-ranging analysis of a culture of American fear that takes shape as moral panic and a socially permeating knee-jerk vindictiveness—not just against the criminal but against anyone (therefore everyone) who could be cast as a potential perpetrator. Its focus on sex and crime is centrally on the male sexual predator, especially the pedophile figure: but its richly archived and narrated examples reach from 19th century victimology to the present, from slavery to terrorism, and their legitimation of the preemptive moral strike. A manifesto against the contemporary paranoid style and its hold on the law, media and you, this book is an important contribution to LGBTQ studies and to American studies in general.”—Lauren Berlant, Department of English, University of Chicago

"Sex Panic is gripping and provocative. Lancaster effectively weaves historical and ethnographic accounts along with his own experiences to illuminate the dangerous tilt in America's legal system toward a presumption of guilt. This is an important book for anyone interested in how crime and justice are perceived in society."—Jonathan Simon, Berkeley Law, Berkeley Center for Criminal Justice

“A profound meditation on sex panics in the modern period, coupled with a biting polemic against the role of the punitive state in American culture. This is a must read for everyone concerned with the state of human rights, sexuality, and political economy. You may not agree with it all, but it will rattle your brain.” —Gilbert Herdt, founder, Department of Sexuality Studies, San Francisco State University

"From the moral panics about child abuse to the war on terror, Roger Lancaster brilliantly explores the fears and anxieties of the United States in recent decades, showing how they continuously participate in the shaping of the nation. His vivid depiction of the paranoid style and bellicose rhetoric in politics gives remarkable clues to comprehend contemporary punitive governance." —Didier Fassin, James Wolfensohn Professor of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton University

"Sex Panic & the Punitive State is a sensationally smart integration of the ever-expanding regime of sex-offender surveillance and punishment with all those vexing phenomena you knew were related but couldn't figure out how: victim worship; parental paranoia; the racialization of crime; neoliberalism; the 'war on terror'—and more. Lancaster spares neither right nor left, feminist nor religious conservative; he privileges neither cultural nor economic theories. Meticulously historicized, complexly thought-out, and elegantly written, this exegesis of sexuality and the 'punitive state' will long be vital to academics, policymakers, and activists alike."—Judith Levine, author of Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex

More About the Author

Roger Lancaster is the author of "Sex Panic and the Punitive State" (2011) and several other books, including "Life is Hard: Machismo, Danger, and the Intimacy of Power in Nicaragua" (1992), which won the C. Wright Mills Award and the Ruth Benedict Prize, and "The Trouble with Nature: Sex in Science and Popular Culture" (2003). These works try to understand how sexual mores, racial hierarchies, and class predicaments interact in a volatile world. Lancaster is currently a professor of anthropologist and cultural studies at George Mason University, where he directs the Cultural Studies Program.

Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

30 of 30 people found the following review helpful By Karen Franklin on January 14, 2012
Format: Paperback
In this carefully researched and eloquently written analysis, Roger Lancaster explains how 35 years of virtually nonstop panics over crime - urban unrest in the 1960s, street crime in the 1970s, crack wars in the 1980s, predatory gangs in the 1990s, and terrorists in the 2000s - have congealed into a durable regime dominated by irrational fear. Underlying wave after wave of panics, Lancaster argues, is a synergy between deeply ingrained (but covert) fears of black criminals (especially rapists) and homosexual child molesters.

Lancaster sees the newly minted social category of "the victim" as a central force in a new social order. In the name of the iconic crime victim, the Victim's Rights Movement has led the charge to dismantle traditional legal protections. Perversely, increased repression of the American citizenry has arisen in tandem with the loosening of economic restraints on privatization, globalization and corporations' relentless squeezing of what we now call the 99 percent.

Although there are other excellent books on both sex panic and on mass incarceration in the United States, Lancaster delves most broadly into the deeper historical, economic, religious and social trends that have contributed to what he describes as "a broken social order based on mistrust, resentment, and ill will."

This is an enlightening book on an essential topic. I highly recommend it.
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15 of 15 people found the following review helpful By Nathan D. Backlund on October 8, 2011
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
The sex offender is perhaps the most demonized person in our society. Following on the heels of the now classic work by Judith Levine, Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex, Lancaster writes a book that is both more intimate than Levine's and more broadly theoretical. The intimate part of the book is Lancaster's narrative of how a gay teacher friend of his was charged with sexually assaulting a minor. The attitude of the community and judicial person towards his accused friend is abominable. Lancaster does a marvelous job of telling the story and this section of the book reads like a thriller.

There is much more to this book than the personal story. Lancaster gives an excellent summary of the various panics and laws targeting both accused and convicted sex offenders. He also includes an in-depth discussion of the media's role in the "sex panic." His later chapters lay out an fascinating case for the perniciousness of America's hysteria about sex crimes. Lancaster writes about this hysteria corrodes our democratic institutions and reinforces the politics of neoliberalism, (a political project designed to crush public solidarity and heighten inequality). Lancaster attacks the carceral state as a whole, laying bare its racism and classism. This is the best book I have read so far in 2011.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
The fear of Frankenstein's monster lurks everywhere. Roger Lancaster does a great job of shining the light under the bed--there IS no bogeyman there, other then the one in our own mind. Rather, we can set better boundaries to protect both ourselves, our children, AND those who would be vilified for behaviors that merit less than the chopping block we seem so anxious to set up.
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3 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Janet Mackie on March 10, 2013
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I believe government has a duty to shield those less powerful from the tyrany of those more powerful. It is true that our governmnt has run amok, has become the tyrany from which we seek protection, perhaps especially when government uses its power punitively to consign virtually every "offender" to "life" on the National Registry. I have no argument with most of Mr. Lancaster's positions. They are enlightening and thought provoking.

Conversely, while we need not panic on que, I want to point out that child sexual abuse does occur. Sexual predators do exist, many within the bosem of our own families. But even beyond the intrafamilial taboo against incest, it is the power differential between children and unrelated adults as defined by,admittedly differing, Age of Consent statutes that draw a necessary bright line between childhood and adulthood. The age of consent makes child sexual abuse legally (and dare I say morally) different than the same sexual activity occuring between equally consenting (and qually powerful) non-related adults of whatever gender.

I belive that as adults we do have a duty to protect, a duty to NOT misuse our adult power to take advantage of minors. Whether we personally would define individual children as innocent or not, child sexual assault, when it occurs is still defined as those more powerful taking sexual advantage of those less powerful. Just as female rape is defined by conservatives as NOT rape because (they say) "You can't rape the willing." (and they claim all power to retroactively define "willing"), even teen age children who are said to have themselves behaved seductively, to have "wanted it" are still childrn in comparison to an adult claiming the right to define for the child what was or was not "willing" sex.
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