Holy Fuck, Carol Tavris: Moral Panics

[CONTENT NOTICE: Sexual assault]

Last time, I suggested Tavris herself was guilty of binary thinking. The headline of this blog post gives away the quality of that thinking.

Epidemics are always clearer in hindsight. In the 1980s and 1990s, I watched as the recovered memory hysteria, aided by beliefs that Satanic ritual abuse cults were proliferating across America and that daycare centers were run by pedophiles, tore hundreds of families apart. In 1981, Ms. magazine had a cover story on Satanic cults, with the overline: “Believe it!” Without evidence? No, thank you. But the mere fact that there was no evidence for recovered memories of trauma, Satanic sacrifices, and other preposterous claims did not slow the steamroller—and steamrollers always leave the wreckage of human lives in their wake.

Tavris does a really good job of sketching out the Satanic Panic, which is no surprise as she was a key figure in debunking it. She repeats the same calls for moderation in her 1993 book review, and also paints a “both sides” narrative. There really isn’t much room for misinterpretation in Tavris’ 2017 article, she sledgehammers the “moral panic” claim at us several times and in several ways.

I hadn’t thought about that [1993 book review] in many years, until journalist JoAnn Wypijewski sent me an email:

I reread that NYTBR piece of yours last night, amazed to see that you had written this: “To raise these questions does not mean that all ‘reawakened’ memories are fraudulent or misguided. It does mean that we should be wary of believing every case of ‘me too’.” The very phrase…down the decades … and what have we learned? […]

In case you missed this essay—and you might have, considering how hard it was for the author to get it accepted anywhere—here is some of what Claire Berlinski wrote in “The Warlock Hunt” for The American Interest (December 6, 2017): [snip!…]

I asked my friend Leonore Tiefer, a sexologist and feminist, for her concerns on the “Me, Too” movement and she responded: “There’s a rush to judgment. A conflation of all offenses. An underlying truth about the lasting effects of shame. Little room for complexity. Some bastards getting their long overdue due. Lots of lawyers looking for cases and money. Lots of institutions needing to cover their asses for money/legal reasons. Opportunists galore with axes to grind.”

That about sums it up.

OK OK, fine, we get it: Carol Tavris thinks #MeToo is a moral panic. So what are the key ingredients?

  • Behaviour that most of society finds morally repugnant: “Satanic ritual abuse cults” are a literal textbook example of this.
  • .. Repugnant enough to demand immediate attention: Mass murder by guns fits the first criteria, but most citizens of the US have become numb, indifferent, or apologetic to it, so it doesn’t qualify as a moral panic. As for the Satanic panic, “During a prosecutorial fury that swept the country from 1980 to 1992, there were at least 311 alleged child sex rings investigated in 46 states.
  • Substantial evidence of this behaviour: No really, that Vox article I linked to rattles off a nice pile of evidence. LaVeyan Satanism was founded; The Exorcist was released; multiple memoirs of people experiencing Satanic abuse were released; four members of the Manson cult claimed Satanic abuse was widespread; several high-profile serial killers adopted rituals for their murders; and as Tavris herself dealt with, the seemingly scientific idea of false memories. And of course, the media and the courts replayed and reinforced all this, hyping it up.
  • … Evidence which can’t stand up the slightest scrutiny: The same article also points out that sometimes within months of being published, those memoirs were being debunked; LaVeyan Satanism never engaged in widespread ritual abuse; those four members were playing out a Christian narrative of being “reborn” and stood to profit from becoming consultants; serial killers are not cults, and were probably inspired by existing worries over ritual abuse; and The Exorcist is a fictional Hollywood movie having nothing to do with ritual sacrifice. The only thing which seemed on solid ground was the “science” behind false memories, and even that was torn down by other scientists relatively quickly.

How does #MeToo stand up?

Substantial evidence of this behaviour: Sexual assault has been studied for over four decades now,[1] and the amount of science on it is staggering. Standardized questionnaires have been developed, tested and retested for their validity;[2][3] prevalence has been measured on college campuses, the general public, and all around the world;[4][5][6][7] motives have been assessed, and the key ones seem to be myths about alcohol and sexual violence, plus attitudes towards women[8][9][10]. As for specific cases, Harvey Weinstein has been extensively covered, Al Franken faces multiple credible accusations, as does Roy Moore, and so on. This is bang on.

Behaviour that most of society finds morally repugnant: … Maybe? One study found that one in seven boys aged 12-15 disagreed with the statement ““forcing a dating partner to have sex is never OK;”[11] another that roughly one in six men would force a woman to have sex with them if there were no consequences, plus another one in six that would rape a woman if there were no consequences.[12] Unless you got your study participants drunk, though, I don’t know of a way to cross the 50% threshold. Having said that, people tend to be more accepting of sexual assault if it doesn’t involve penetration, and many of the accusations brought up by #MeToo fall into that category. “Maybe” is the best I can do.

.. Repugnant enough to demand immediate attention: Uh ….

I first came up with the phrase in 2006, after an experience with sexual violence left me searching for the right words. Ever since, I’ve gone to schools and community groups all over to connect with young women—mostly black and brown girls—to let them know, “You’re not alone. This happened to me too.” […] To me, 2018 will be all about processing #MeToo. The next step in the movement will be helping women navigate what happens after they disclose an experience. It’s about what happens if someone posts #MeToo and nobody “likes” their status and how to be advocates in our communities. How to talk to children about this. Discussing the sexual harassment teenagers deal with in school.

The hashtag started as a way to raise awareness of sexual assault and make survivors feel less isolated. It had nothing to do with punishing perpetrators, and in fact many of the women speaking up on the hashtag left work or school instead. This doesn’t fit a moral panic at all.

… Evidence which couldn’t stand up the slightest scrutiny: If there was actual evidence of widespread Satanic ritual sacrifice cults, it wouldn’t be a moral panic at all. So if you’re arguing #MeToo is a moral panic, you’re forced to argue that sexual assault isn’t as common as most people think, or isn’t as bad, or (in the extreme) nonexistent. That’s a very tall order, as it puts you at odds with decades of scientific research, several well-reported news reports, and in some cases confessions by the perpetrator themselves.

One way to throw Tavris a lifeline is to point out that moral panics don’t need to be 100% false. Remember her bit about the “suppression of lesbian books, sex-ed books, and plain old sexypleasure books that someone thought offensive?” That was Canada in the 1990’s. In R. v. Butler, the Supreme Court held that pornography in general was protected under free speech laws, but porn that was “degrading or dehumanizing” against women promoted gender inequality against them and could be banned by Parliament. Catherine MacKinnon, the feminist pushing hardest for such pornography bans, condemned the results.

Canada Customs has a long record of homophobic seizures, producing an equally long record of loud and justifiable outrage from the Canadian lesbian and gay community. There is no evidence that whatever is happening at the border now is different from what happened before the Butler decision–except that Butler has made moralizing, homophobic customs seizures illegal. For instance, when one court issued an outrageously homophobic decision against some gay male material, another court, citing Butler, specifically repudiated the moralism of that decision. […]

Canada’s criminal obscenity law since Butler–like all prior laws that put power in the hands of government prosecutors rather than harmed plaintiffs has not actually been used effectively to stop the pornography industry. This we predicted.

When considering MacKinnon’s crusade against pornography, it’s also important to remember how she defines the term. It’s not what you think.

We define pornography as the graphic sexually explicit subordination of women through pictures and words that also includes (i) women are presented dehumanized as sexual objects, things, or commodities; or (ii) women are presented as sexual objects who enjoy humiliation or pain; or (iii) women are presented as sexual objects experiencing sexual pleasure in rape, incest or other sexual assault; or (iv) women are presented as sexual objects tied up, cut up or mutilated or bruised or physically hurt; or (v) women are presented in postures or positions of sexual submission, servility, or display; or (vi) women’s body parts—including but not limited to vaginas, breasts, or buttocks—are exhibited such that women are reduced to those parts; or (vii) women are presented being penetrated by objects or animals; or (viii) women are presented in scenarios of degradation, humiliation, injury, torture, shown as filthy or inferior, bleeding, bruised, or hurt in a context that makes these conditions sexual. Erotica, defined by distinction as not this, might be sexually explicit materials premised on equality. We also provide that the use of men, children, or transsexuals in the place of women is pornography.[14]

For the most part, the scientific consensus is that pornography effect’s men’s views of women and in turn alters their likelihood of perpetrating sexual assault,[15][16][17] but there is dissenting work out there.[18] Nonetheless, this technically meets the criteria for a “moral panic;” yes, MacKinnon has a reasonable amount of evidence on her side, and I think we can all agree that glorifying dehumanization is bad, but Canada’s Parliament and Canada Customs went further than the evidence warranted.

Having tossed this lifeline, though, note that Tavris again doesn’t leave room for shades of gray. Her primary example is “Satanic ritual abuse cults,” something demonstrably false, and even the bit about pornography equivocates “sexist” in scare quotes with “degrading or dehumanizing,” grossly distorting what happened to sound more like an evidence-free panic. Yet again, she’s engaging in the binary thinking she advocates against, but this time she’s setting up a much tougher evidential hill to climb:

Is sexual assault less common than most people think, or isn’t as bad, or nonexistent? Tune in next time to find out.

[1] Amir, Menachem. Patterns in forcible rape. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971.

[2] Koss, Mary P., and Christine A. Gidycz. “Sexual experiences survey: reliability and validity.” Journal of consulting and clinical psychology 53.3 (1985): 422.

[3] Davis, Kelly Cue, et al. “How to score the Sexual Experiences Survey? A comparison of nine methods.” Psychology of violence 4.4 (2014): 445.

[4] Koss, Mary P. “Hidden rape: Sexual aggression and victimization in a national sample of students in higher education.” (1998).

[5] Black, Michele C., et al. “The national intimate partner and sexual violence survey (NISVS): 2010 summary report.” Atlanta, GA: National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 25 (2011).

[6] Abrahams, Naeemah, et al. “Worldwide prevalence of non-partner sexual violence: a systematic review.” The Lancet383.9929 (2014): 1648-1654.

[7] Emma Fulu, Xian Warner, Stephanie Miedem, Rachel Jewkes, Tim Roselli, and James Lang. “WHY DO SOME MEN USE VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN AND HOW CAN WE PREVENT IT?: Quantitative Findings from the United Nations Multi-Country Study on Men and Violence in Asia and the Pacific.” Partners for Prevention, 2013.

[8] Testa, Maria, and Michael J. Cleveland. “It Depends on How You Look at It: The Role of Alcohol in Men’s Sexual Aggression Perpetration.” Journal of studies on alcohol and drugs 78.1 (2016): 18-19.

[9] McDermott, Ryon C., et al. “College male sexual assault of women and the psychology of men: Past, present, and future directions for research.” Psychology of Men & Masculinity16.4 (2015): 355-366.

[10] Suarez, Eliana, and Tahany M. Gadalla. “Stop blaming the victim: A meta-analysis on rape myths.” Journal of Interpersonal Violence 25.11 (2010): 2010-2035.

[11] Kaestle, Christine Elizabeth, Carolyn Tucker Halpern, and Jane D. Brown. “Music videos, pro wrestling, and acceptance of date rape among middle school males and females: An exploratory analysis.” Journal of Adolescent Health 40.2 (2007): 185-187.

[12] Edwards, Sarah R., Kathryn A. Bradshaw, and Verlin B. Hinsz. “Denying Rape but Endorsing Forceful Intercourse: Exploring Differences among Responders.” Violence and Gender 1, no. 4 (2014): 188–193.

[13] Struckman-Johnson, Cindy, and David Struckman-Johnson. “Acceptance of Male Rape Myths among College Men and Women.” Sex Roles 27, no. 3–4 (1992): 85–100.

[14] MacKinnon, Catharine A. Feminism unmodified: Discourses on life and law. Harvard university press, 1987. pg. 176

[15] Davis, Kelly Cue, Jeanette Norris, William H. George, Joel Martell, and Julia R. Heiman. “Men’s Likelihood of Sexual Aggression: The Influence of Alcohol, Sexual Arousal, and Violent Pornography.” Aggressive Behavior 32, no. 6 (November 1, 2006): 581–89. https://doi.org/10.1002/ab.20157.

[16] Malamuth, Neil M., and James VP Check. “The Effects of Aggressive Pornography on Beliefs in Rape Myths: Individual Differences.” Journal of Research in Personality 19, no. 3 (1985): 299–320.

[17] Foubert, John D., Matthew W. Brosi, and R. Sean Bannon. “Pornography Viewing among Fraternity Men: Effects on Bystander Intervention, Rape Myth Acceptance and Behavioral Intent to Commit Sexual Assault.” Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity 18, no. 4 (2011): 212–231.

[18] Ferguson, Christopher J., and Richard D. Hartley. “The Pleasure Is Momentary… the Expense Damnable?: The Influence of Pornography on Rape and Sexual Assault.” Aggression and Violent Behavior 14, no. 5 (2009): 323–329.