A moral panic is an intense feeling expressed in a population about an issue that appears to threaten the social order. Moral panics are in essence controversies that involve arguments and social tension, and in which agreement is difficult because the matter at its centre is taboo. The media are key players in the dissemination of moral indignation, even when they do not appear to be consciously engaged in crusading or muckraking. Simply reporting the facts can be enough to generate concern, anxiety or panic.
The term first appeared in the English language in 1830 in The Quarterly Christian Spectator.
- 1 Historic use of the term
- 2 Characteristics
- 3 Examples
- 3.1 2010s: Sexual assault on college campuses
- 3.2 2000s: Human trafficking
- 3.3 1990s–present: Sex offender panic
- 3.4 1980s–1990s: Satanic ritual abuse
- 3.5 1980s–1990s: Dungeons and Dragons
- 3.6 1980s–present: AIDS
- 3.7 1980s–present: Video games
- 3.8 1970s–present: Crime increase
- 3.9 1970s–present: War on drugs
- 4 Criticism
- 5 See also
- 6 References
- 7 Further reading
- 8 External links
Historic use of the term
The Quarterly Christian Spectator, a publication from 1830, wrote:
- Do they not speak as men do on other subjects, when they express activity? And is it not the natural language of these expressions that the mind is as far as possible from stagnation, or torpor, or "moral panic?" 
It was used again in the following year, with the same meaning as the term used in modern social sciences:
- Magendie a French physician of note on his visit to Sunderland where the Cholera was by the last accounts still raging praises the English government for not surrounding the town with a cordon of troops which as "a physical preventive would have been ineffectual and would have produced a moral panic far more fatal than the disease now is".
Marshall McLuhan gave the term academic treatment in his book Understanding Media, written in 1964. 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'.
British vs American
Many sociologists have pointed out the differences between definitions of a moral panic for American and British sociologists. In addition to pointing out other sociologists who note the distinction, Kenneth Thompson has characterized the difference as American sociologists tending to emphasize psychological factors while the British portray moral panics as crises of capitalism.
British criminologist Jock Young first used the term in his participant observation study of drug taking in Porthmadog between 1967 and 1969. In Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State and Law and Order (1978), Stuart Hall and his colleagues studied the public reaction to the phenomenon of mugging and the perception that it had recently been imported from American culture into the UK. Employing Cohen's definition of moral panic, Hall et al. theorized that the "...rising crime rate equation..." performs an ideological function relating to social control. Crime statistics, in Hall's view, are often manipulated for political and economic purposes; moral panics could thereby be ignited to create public support for the need to "...police the crisis." 
Moral panics have several distinct features (many of which are discredited in the sociological literature). According to Goode and Ben-Yehuda, moral panic consists of the following characteristics:
- Concern – There must be belief that the behaviour of the group or category in question is likely to have a negative effect on society.
- Hostility – Hostility towards the group in question increases, and they become 'folk devils'. A clear division forms between 'them' and 'us'.
- Consensus – Though concern does not have to be nationwide, there must be widespread acceptance that the group in question poses a very real threat to society. It is important at this stage that the 'moral entrepreneurs' are vocal and the 'folk devils' appear weak and disorganised.
- Disproportionality – The action taken is disproportionate to the actual threat posed by the accused group.
- Volatility – Moral panics are highly volatile and tend to disappear as quickly as they appeared due to a wane in public interest or news reports changing to another topic.
2010s: Sexual assault on college campuses
2000s: Human trafficking
Many critics of contemporary anti-prostitution activism argue that much of the current concern about human trafficking and its more general conflation with prostitution and other forms of sex work have all the hallmarks of a moral panic. They further argue that this moral panic shares much in common with the 'white slavery' panic of a century earlier as prompted passage of the Mann Act.
1990s–present: Sex offender panic
Some argue that sex offenders have been selected as the new realization of moral panics concentrating on sex, stranger danger, and national paranoia. People convicted of any sex crime are "...transformed into a concept of evil, which is then personified as a group of faceless, terrifying, and predatory devils...", who, despite scientific evidence to the contrary, are perceived as constant threats in our neighborhoods, habitually waiting for an opportunity to strike. Consequently, sex offenders are often brought up by media on Halloween, despite the fact that there has never been any recorded case of abduction or abuse by a registered sex offender on Halloween. Academics, treatment professionals and law reformist groups such as RSOL and WAR have been vocal in their criticism that current sex offender laws are more based on moral panic and "public emotion than good science", and have expanded over time to cover non-violent and low-level offenders, and treating them essentially the same as predatory offenders, often leading to disproportional punishment of being added on public sex offender registry, sometimes for life; and being subject to strict ordinances restricting their movement and places of living. Critics often point out that, contrary to popular media depictions, abductions by predatory offenders are very rare and 95% of child abuse offenses are committed by a someone known to the child; studies by the U.S Department of Justice found sex offender recidivism to be 5.3% which compares as second lowest of all offender groups, only those convicted of homicide having lower rate of recidivism. Critics claim that, while originally aimed towards the worst of the worst, the laws have gone through series of amendments, often named after child victim of a highly publicized predatory sex offense, expanding the scopes of the laws to low level offenses. The media narrative of a sex offender highlighting egregious offenses as typical behavior of any sex offender; and media distorting the facts of some cases, has increased the panic leading legislators to attack judicial discretion, making sex offender registration mandatory based on certain listed offenses rather than individual risk or the actual severity of the crime, thus practically catching less serious offenders under the domain of harsh sex offender laws.
1980s–1990s: Satanic ritual abuse
A series of moral panics regarding Satanic ritual abuse originated in the US and spread to other English-speaking countries in the 1980s and 1990s. In the 1990s and 2000s, there have been instances of moral panics in the UK and the US related to colloquial uses of the term pedophilia to refer to such unusual crimes as high-profile cases of child abduction.
1980s–1990s: Dungeons and Dragons
At various times Dungeons & Dragons and other fantasy role-playing games have been accused of promoting such practices as Satanism, witchcraft, suicide, pornography and murder. In the 1980s and later, some groups, especially fundamentalist Christian ones, accused the games of encouraging interest in sorcery and the veneration of demons. Throughout the history of roleplaying games, many of these criticisms have been aimed specifically at Dungeons & Dragons, but touch on the genre of fantasy roleplaying games as a whole.
The theme of a meeting of the British Sociological Association's South West and Wales Study Group on 21 September 1985 was 'AIDS: The Latest Moral Panic'. This was prompted by the growing interest of medical sociologists in AIDS, as well as that of UK health care professionals working in the field of health education, at a time when both groups were also beginning to voice an equally increasing concern with the growing media attention and attendant scare-mongering that AIDS was attracting.
1980s–present: Video games
It has been suggested that the recent drive to regulate video games is another instance of moral panic over the content of popular culture. The industry response has been to create a self-regulatory ratings system similar to that used by the film industry.
1970s–present: Crime increase
Research shows that fears of increasing crime is often the cause of moral panics (Cohen, 1972; Hall et al. 1978; Goode and Ben-Yehuda 1994). Recent studies have shown that despite declining crime rates, this phenomenon, which often taps into a populations' "herd mentality," continues to occur in various cultures. Japanese jurist Koichi Hamai explains how the changes in crime recording in Japan since the 1990s caused people to believe that the crime rate is rising and that crimes were getting increasingly severe.
1970s–present: War on drugs
Some critics have pointed to moral panic as an explanation for the War on Drugs. For example a Royal Society of Arts commission concluded that "the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, ... is driven more by 'moral panic' than by a practical desire to reduce harm."
Some have written that one of the many rungs supporting the moral panic behind the war on drugs was a separate but related moral panic, which peaked in the late 90's, involving media's gross exaggeration of the frequency of the surreptitious use of date rape drugs. News media have been criticized for advocating "grossly excessive protective measures for women, particularly in coverage between 1996 and 1998", for overstating the threat, and for excessively raising it in women's minds for the rest of their lives. For example, showing excessive concerns extending even into the late 2000s, a 2009 Australian study found that of 97 instances of patients admitted to the hospital believing their drinks might have been spiked, drug panel tests were unable to detect any drug in any of the cases.
In a more recent edition of Folk Devils and Moral Panics, Cohen outlines some of the criticisms that have arisen in response to moral panic theory. One of these is of the term "panic" itself, as it has connotations of irrationality and a lack of control. Cohen maintains that "panic" is a suitable term when used as an extended metaphor.
Another criticism is that of disproportionality. The problem with this argument is that there is no way to measure what a proportionate reaction should be to a specific action. Jarrett Thibodeaux (2014) further argues that the criteria of disproportionality erroneously assumes that a social problem should correspond with some objective criteria of harm. The idea that a social problem should correspond with some objective criteria of harm, but is a moral panic when it does not, is a 'constructionism of the gaps' line of explanation.
In "Rethinking 'moral panic' for multi-mediated social worlds", Angela McRobbie and Sarah Thornton argue "that it is now time that every stage in the process of constructing a moral panic, as well as the social relations which support it, should be revised". Their argument is that mass media has changed since the concept of moral panic emerged so "that 'folk devils' are less marginalized than they once were", and that 'folk devils' are not only castigated by mass media but supported and defended by it as well. They also suggest that the "points of social control" that moral panics used to rest on "have undergone some degree of shift, if not transformation."
The British criminologist Yvonne Jewkes has also raised issue with the term 'morality', how it is accepted unproblematically in the concept of 'moral panic' and how most research into moral panics fails to approach the term critically but instead accepts it at face value. Jewkes goes on to argue that the thesis and the way it has been used fails to distinguish between crimes that quite rightly offend human morality, and thus elicit a justifiable reaction, and those that demonise minorities. The public are not sufficiently gullible to keep accepting the latter and allowing themselves to be manipulated by the media and the government.
Many sociologists and criminologist (Ungar, Hier, Rohloff) have revised Cohen's original framework. The revisions are compatible with the way in which Cohen theorizes panics in the third Introduction to Folk Devils and Moral Panics.
- Jones, M, and E. Jones. (1999). Mass Media. London: Macmillan Press
- Kuzma, Cindy. "Rights and Liberties: Sex, Lies, and Moral Panics". AlterNet. September 28, 2005; accessed September 5, 2008.
- Cohen, S., p.16
- The Quarterly Christian Spectator: Conducted by an Association of Gentlemen (1830) Vol. II. A. H. Maltby. New Haven/ New York
- The Journal of Health Conducted by an Association of Physicians (1831) p. 180
- McLuhan, Marshall (1994). Understanding media: the extensions of man. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press. ISBN 9780262631594.
- Hayes, Hennessey; Prenzler, Tim (2012). Introduction to crime and criminology. Frenchs Forest, New South Wales: Pearson Australia. ISBN 9781442545243.
- Cohen, Stanley (1973). Folk devils and moral panics the creation of the Mods and Rockers. Paladin. p. 9.
- Thompson, Kenneth (2006) . "The history and meaning of the concept". In Critcher, Chas. Critical readings: moral panics and the media. Maidenhead England New York: Open University Press. pp. 60–66. ISBN 9780335218073.
- Thompson, Kenneth (1998). Moral panics. London New York: Routledge. ISBN 9780415119771.
- Young, Jock (1971), "The role of the police as amplifiers of deviance", in Cohen, Stanley, Images of deviance, Harmondsworth: Penguin, ISBN 9780140212938; Young, Jock (1971). The drugtakers: the social meaning of drug use. London: MacGibbon and Kee. ISBN 9780261632400.
- Hall, Stuart et al. (2013) . Policing the crisis: mugging, the state and law and order. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 9781137007186.
- "Rape Culture is a ‘Panic Where Paranoia, Censorship, and False Accusations Flourish". Time Magazine. 15 May 2014. Retrieved 12 March 2015.
- "The new panic: campus sex assaults". The Boston Globe. 20 February 2015. Retrieved 12 March 2015.
- McArdle, Megan (28 January 2015). "Moral Panics Won't End Campus Rape". Bloomberg. Retrieved 16 March 2015.
- Kay, Barbara (19 January 2015). "Rape culture proofiness feeds moral panic over non-existent epidemic". The National Post. Retrieved 16 March 2015.
- Tyre, Peg (15 December 2014). "Don't Blame The Frats". Politico Magazine. Retrieved 8 April 2015.
- Johnson, K. C. (29 March 2015). "Rebalance the campus sex assault scales: After the University of Virginia rape hoax, we must put the brakes on the crazed crusade against campus sexual assault". N.Y. Daily News. Retrieved 8 April 2015.
- Harris, Samantha (7 May 2014). "One in Five? The White House's Questionable Sexual Assault Data". Forbes. Retrieved 8 April 2015.
- Young, Cathy. "The Year the Crusade Against 'Rape Culture' Stumbled". Reason.com. Retrieved 8 April 2015.
- Doezema, Jo (Ph.D. Candiate) (December 1999). "Loose women or lost women? The re-emergence of the myth of white slavery in contemporary discourses of trafficking in women". Gender Issues (Springer) 18 (1): 23–50. doi:10.1007/s12147-999-0021-9. Pdf version. HTML version.
- Weitzer, Ronald (September 2007). "The social construction of sex trafficking: ideology and institutionalization of a moral crusade". Politics & Society (Sage) 35 (3): 447–475. doi:10.1177/0032329207304319. Pdf version.
- Milivojević, Sanja (2008), "Women’s bodies, moral panic and the world game: sex trafficking, the 2006 Football World Cup and beyond", in Cunneen, Christopher, Proceedings of the 2nd Australian & New Zealand Critical Criminology Conference, pp. 222–242. Milivojević, Sanja; Pickering, Sharon (2008). "Football and sex: The 2006 FIFA World Cup and sex trafficking". Temida (National Library of Serbia) 11 (2): 21–47. doi:10.2298/TEM0802021M. Pdf version.
- Davies, Nick (20 October 2009). "Prostitution and trafficking – the anatomy of a moral panic". The Guardian. Retrieved 29 November 2009.
- Extein, Andrew (25 October 2013). "Fear the Bogeyman: Sex Offender Panic on Halloween". Huffington Post. Retrieved 26 November 2014.
- "The Registration and Community Notification of Adult Sexual Offenders". http://www.atsa.com. Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers. April 5, 2010. Retrieved 14 November 2014.
- Rogers, Laura (July 30, 2007). "Comments on Proposed Guidelines to Interpret and Implement the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA)" (PDF). http://www.atsa.com/. Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers.
- "Our History". http://nationalrsol.org. Reform Sex Offender Laws, Inc. Retrieved 25 November 2014.
- Levin, Sam (5 September 2013). "Missouri Sex Offenders: "Women Against Registry" Says Labels Unfairly Destroy Lives". Riverfront Times. Retrieved 26 November 2014.
- Spohn, Ryan (31 July 2013). "Nebraska Sex Offender Registry Study Final Report" (PDF). University of Nebraska - Omaha. p. 51. Retrieved 21 November 2014.
- Lancaster, Roger (20 February 2013). "Panic Leads to Bad Policy on Sex Offenders". The New York Times. Retrieved 26 November 2014.
- Langan, Patrick; Schmitt, Erica; Durose, Matthew (November 2003). "Recidivism of Sex Offenders Released from Prison in 1994" (PDF). U.S. Department of Justice. Retrieved 26 November 2014.
- Langan, Patrick; Schmitt, Erica; Durose, Matthew (November 2003). "Recidivism of Prisoners Released in 1994" (PDF). U.S. Department of Justice. Retrieved 26 November 2014.
- Fox, Kathryn J. (28 February 2012). "Incurable Sex Offenders, Lousy Judges & The Media: Moral Panic Sustenance in the Age of New Media". American Journal of Criminal Justice 38 (1): 160–181. ISSN 1936-1351. doi:10.1007/s12103-012-9154-6.
- Goode, Erich; Ben-Yehuda, Nachman (2009) . Moral panics: the social construction of deviance (2nd ed.). Oxford: Blackwell. pp. 57–65. ISBN 9781405189347.
- Jenkins, Philip (1998). Moral panic: changing concepts of the child molester in modern America. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press. pp. 207–231. ISBN 9780300109634.
- Victor, Jeffrey S. (1993). Satanic panic: the creation of a contemporary legend. Chicago: Open Court Publishing Company. ISBN 9780812691917.
- Young, Mary (2004). The day care ritual abuse moral panic. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland. ISBN 9780786418305.
- Waldron, David (Spring 2005). "Role-playing games and the Christian Right: community formation in response to a moral panic". Journal of Religion and Popular Culture (Questia Online Library). HTML version.
- Gilligan J H and Coxon A P M (eds) 1985 AIDS: The Latest Moral Panic, Occasional Paper No 11, December, The School of Social Studies, University College of Swansea
- Byrd, Patrick (Summer 2007). "Comment: It's all fun and games until someone gets hurt: the effectiveness of proposed video-game legislation on reducing violence in children". Houston Law Review (Houston Law Foundation). Pdf version.
- Ferguson, Christopher J. (2008). "The school shooting/violent video game link: causal relationship or moral panic?". Journal of Investigative Psychology and Offender Profiling (Wiley) 5 (1–2): 25–37. doi:10.1002/jip.76.
- Gagne, Kenneth A. (27 April 2001). "Moral panics over youth culture and video games" (BLOG). gamebits.net. Retrieved 10 June 2010.
A Major Qualifying Project Report submitted to the Faculty of the Worcester Polytechnic Institute in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the Degree of Bachelor of Science
- "About ESRB". Entertainment Software Rating Board. Retrieved 24 November 2014.
- Koichi, Hamai (October 2004). "How 'the myth of collapsing safe society' has been created in Japan: beyond the moral panic and victim industry (rising fear of crime and re-building safe society in Japan: moral panic or evidence-based crime control)". Japanese Journal of Sociological Criminology (NII Scholarly Services) (29): 4–93.
- "Drugs Report". Royal Society of Arts Action and Research Centre. March 2007. Retrieved 24 November 2014. Pdf.
- Jenkins, Philip (1999). Synthetic panics: the symbolic politics of designer drugs. New York, New York: New York University Press. pp. 20 and 161–182. ISBN 9780814742440.
- Goode, Erich; Ben-Yehuda, Nachman (2009) . Moral panics: the social construction of deviance (2nd ed.). Oxford: Blackwell. p. 217. ISBN 9781405189347.
- Webber, Craig (2010). Psychology & crime. Los Angeles London: Sage. p. 67. ISBN 9781412919425.
- Quigley, Paul; Lynch, Dania M.; Little, Mark; Murray, Lindsay; Lynch, Ann-Maree; O'Halloran, Sean J. (June 2009). "Prospective study of 101 patients with suspected drink spiking". Emergency Medicine Australasia (Wiley) 21 (3): 222–228. PMID 19527282. doi:10.1111/j.1742-6723.2009.01185.x.
- Cohen, Stanley (1980) . Folk devils and moral panics: the creation of the Mods and Rockers (2nd ed.). Oxford: M. Robertson. pp. xxvi–xxxi. ISBN 9780855203443.
- Thibodeaux, Jarrett (August 2014). "Three versions of constructionism and their reliance on social conditions in social problems research". Sociology (Sage) 48 (4): 829–837. doi:10.1177/0038038513511560.
- McRobbie, Angela; Thornton, Sarah L. (December 1995). "Rethinking 'moral panic' for multi-mediated social worlds". British Journal of Sociology (The London School of Economics and Political Science) 46 (4): 559–574. JSTOR 591571. doi:10.2307/591571.
- Jewkes, Yvonne (2011) , "Media and moral panics", in Jewkes, Yvonne, Media & crime (2nd ed.), London Thousand Oaks, California: SAGE, pp. 76–77, ISBN 9781848607033
- Goode, Erich; Ben-Yehuda, Nachman (2009) . Moral panics: the social construction of deviance (2nd ed.). Oxford: Blackwell. ISBN 9781405189347.
- Jasper, James M. (2001). "Moral Panics". In Smelser, N. J.; Baltes, Paul B. International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences. Oxford: Pergamon. pp. 10029–10033. ISBN 0-08-043076-7.
- McRobbie, Angela; Thornton, Sarah L. (2000) , "Rethinking 'moral panic' for multi-mediated social worlds", in McRobbie, Angela, Feminism and youth culture (2nd ed.), Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Macmillan Press, pp. 180–197, ISBN 9780333770320
- Pearce, Julia M.; Charman, Elizabeth (December 2011). "A social psychological approach to understanding moral panic". Crime Media Culture (Sage) 7 (3): 293–311. doi:10.1177/1741659011417607.
- Rohloff, Amanda; Wright, Sarah (May 2010). "Moral panic and social theory: beyond the heuristic". Current Sociology (Sage) 58 (3): 403–419. doi:10.1177/0011392110364039.
- Ward Jr., Russell E. (September 2002). "Fan violence: social problem or moral panic?". Aggression and Violent Behavior (Elsevier) 7 (5): 453–475. doi:10.1016/S1359-1789(01)00075-1.
- Section 3.4: "Interpreting the crime problem" from Free OpenLearn LearningSpace Unit DD100_1 Online Open Education Resource Creative Commons by-nc-sa Licensed (originally written for the Open University Course, DD100, 2000)