The Emerging Sex Panic Targeting Gay Men

By Eric Rofes
Speech given at the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force's Creating Change Conference in San Diego, November 16, 1997

Historian Allan Berube has defined a "sex panic" as a "moral crusade that leads to crackdowns on sexual outsiders." It is distinct from ongoing harassment and vilification of the sexual fringe. It requires the following components: ideology, the machinery and the power to transform ideology into action, and scapegoated populations, sites, and sexual practices.

During a sex panic, a wide array of free-floating cultural fears are mapped onto specific populations who are then ostracized, victimized, and punished. As Gayle Rubin has observed, historically we have seen that when moral panics are over, countless individuals and groups have suffered greatly and the original triggering social problems have not been remedied.

Gay men have no corner on the market on sex panics. In recent years, we have seen sexual terrors marshaled to create a stampede mentality to trample upon many groups including prostitutes and other sex workers, African-American men, welfare mothers, sex offenders as a class, and men who engage in consensual sex with male teenagers.

Are We Confronting a Sex Panic Today?

Currently debate rages among sectors of gay male communities about whether contemporary spates of police entrapments, closures of commercial sex establishments, encroachments on public sex areas, and vilification of specific gay male subcultures constitute a sex panic. It is important to distinguish between ongoing waves of harassment and victimization and a full-scale sex panic because, while both are destructive of lives and communities, a sex panic alone is characterized by a sustained period of intensified persecution of sexual minorities involving punitive state action, public disgrace, and a powerful cultural dynamic of scapegoating, shaming, and silencing of alternative viewpoints. While communists were harassed and persecuted in this nation during the 1940s, it took the coalescing of a variety of cultural factors in the late 1940s and early 1950s to create the moral panic we have come to know as "The McCarthy Period."

I believe we may be witnessing the early stages of an emerging sex panic focused on sexually-active gay men who do not organize their sex and relationships following heteronormative models. It is at different stages in different locations. For example, I believe this sex panic has emerged in New York City with a sustained, intensified period of policing, harassment, and closure of many gay sex spaces and an accompanying discourse in the media about the need to halt continuing gay male HIV infections. In places like Los Angeles, Miami, Washington, D.C., Austin, and Providence, it is clearly at an earlier stage. Sex panic looks different in urban, small city, and rural areas and will have different characteristics, contexts, and trajectories.

What we are witnessing in 1997 are several powerful social shifts which could easily and swiftly fall into place, causing a full-scale sex panic to break out nationwide at any time. This is the way terror and scapegoating operate in a postmodern culture. At least four factors are contributing to a mounting sex panic:

  1. The ascendancy and entrenchment of the Far Right and their development, testing, and successful utilization of sex as a wedge issue which speedily divides liberals and Leftists, their primary opponents.
  2. The redistribution and intense concentration of wealth creating vast economic disparities and making the urban centers of our nation sites of contentious class-based battles over massive corporate land-grabs.
  3. A shift in public awareness from the belief that gay men had stopped transmitting HIV to the realization that gay men continue to become infected with HIV at significant levels. This is accompanied by many gay men and lesbians' feelings of embarassment, shame, and outrage.
  4. The relative success of gay rights efforts where certain victories are offered predicated on the sacrifice of certain sectors of our communities or the squelching of certain social, cultural, or sexual processes which seem different from heterosexual social norms.

Why Are the Current Debates Flaring Into Sexual Civil Wars?

The emerging sex panic appears to be shaping up as characterized by an ideology which believes gay men's sex is not only sinful and predatory, but is responsible for an escalating AIDS epidemic. We are seeing the machinery and the power to transform ideology into action emerging in media frenzies over gay men's sex, the conceptualization of current health problems as public health emergencies, the use of exceptional measures to restrict sex spaces by public officials, and extreme actions by police officers and other representatives of state power to curtail the sexual activity and drug use of gay men. Media accounts are increasingly scapegoating specific populations--at this moment, circuit boys are the scapegoat-of-choice,--sites such as bathhouses, sex clubs, and circuit parties, and activities such as "barebacking." It is also characterized by the active involvement and, in some cases, instigation and leadership of gay and lesbian journalists, political leaders, public officials, HIV prevention workers, and other public health officials.

This is precisely what makes the current debates problematic and why many have such powerful feelings of rage and betrayal:

Those of us defending gay male sex cultures are not indifferent to HIV prevention efforts. Many of us are leaders in both areas. We know that effective prevention is build on sexual empowerment and believe that decades of public health research show that tactics of guilt, fear, and repression exacerbate public health crises rather than deter them. It is precisely because many people have become frustrated with HIV prevention and feel at a loss to chart new directions for our work, that the time is ripe for an escalation of support for coercive measures to stop gay men's sex.

Those of us standing up for sexual freedom are neither lost in a romanticized version of the golden age of the 1970s nor dick-hungry men who are selfishly seeking more power and more privilege. We have been condescendingly characterized as immature children who haven't grown up and need to get with the times, put our pricks back in our pants, and apply our energies to the real challenges facing our communities, like gays-in-the-military or gay marriage. Yet we believe that even a cursory look at the histories of our movement will show that sexual liberation has been inextricably bound together with gay liberation, the women's movement, and the emancipation of youth. Among the most effective ways of oppressing a people is through the colonization of their bodies, the stigmatizing of their desires, and the repression of their erotic energies. We believe continuing work on sexual liberation is crucial to social justice efforts.

Those of us taking action to monitor, de-track, and resist the emerging sex panic find ourselves increasingly at odds with mainstream gay efforts to present a sanitized vision of our people which has replaced butch/femme dykes with Heather and her two mommies and kinky gay men with domestic partner wedding cakes. Can we not advocate for a pluralistic queer culture where we affirm everyone's right to self-determination in the ways they organize their sexual relations and construct their kinship patterns?

How Can We Prevent a Full Scale Moral Panic Over Gay Men's Sex?

People who want to stave off the emerging moral panic should go home and organize local activist groups like queers of all genders have done in New York and San Francisco. I hope you write letters and hold the media and public officials accountable for their actions and refuse to renounce our movement's historic linkage with sexual liberation. And I encourage you to continue our efforts at HIV prevention but refuse to support a panic-based response to continuing gay male seroconversions or feel that current infections diminish our communities' contributions to the fight against AIDS of the past 15 years.

For those of you who are ambivalent about such organizing, and for mainstream gay groups who are scared to touch these issues with a ten foot pole, let me say one thing: When full moral panics flare history has shown, in Lillian Hellman's words, it's "scoundrel time" and there are limited roles from which social actors can choose. There are the scoundrels who blow the whistle, point the finger, name the names. There are the resistors who take the risk, go out on the limb, take the fall, and get trampled in the mindless, outraged stampede. And there are the vast masses who find themselves locked in silence by confusion, misgivings, self-protection, ambivalence, and fear. When the panic is over and attention has shifted to other issues, when we all shake our heads and say "How did we ever let it get to that stage?," these people are complicit in the destruction. There is no neutral here.

Please consider three final points.

  1. Regardless of your confusion or misgivings stand up firmly against any efforts which mobilize arms of the state to restrict the right of sexual and reproductive self-determination. You don't like sex clubs, don't go to sex clubs. But do not ask your local authorities to shut them down. You don't like sex areas in parks, don't go to sex areas in parks, but don't invite police to bust the men who enjoy such activities.
  2. Refuse to cast off any section of our community in order to gain privileges and social acceptance. Demand a continuing commitment to a pluralistic vision of community. Resist scapegoating subcultures you don't know and you don't understand.
  3. Try to understand the historic role sex cultures have played in the formation of queer identities and communities and resist seeing them simply as an unfortunate by-product of antigay oppression. Are our sex cultures evidence of our stigmatization, abuse, and reprobation? Or, to borrow James Baldwin's language about a parallel matter, can they be understood as "cultural patterns coming into existence by means of brutal necessity" and can they be seen as strategies for survival?

Perhaps the real trouble with gay men's sex cultures, in a time when many in our communities are replicating heterosexual patterns of social organization, is that they alone give testimony to the fact that gay men as a class have not completely assimilated.

Eric Rofes is a long-time community organizer based in San Francisco and was an organizer of the Sex Panic Summit which occurred in San Diego on November 13, 1997. He is the author of Reviving the Tribe: Regenerating Gay Men's Sexuality and Culture in the Ongoing Epidemic.