We are a public forum committed to collective reasoning and the imagination of a more just world. Join today to help us keep the discussion of ideas free and open to everyone, and enjoy member benefits like our quarterly books.
Alex Morse, the openly gay thirty-one-year-old mayor of Holyoke, Massachusetts, is not a pedophile, an accusation that a recent media storm danced around—but now you’re thinking he might be. This is the power of suggestion. The most suggestive suggestions are sexual; the most damaging insinuate predation. Sex panics run on sexual suggestions, insinuations of predation, and lies, so they are astonishingly effective political weapons. Rarely—too rarely—sex panics backfire, and, when they do, it is spectacular.
Sex panics are not organic products of community concern; they are stoked and manipulated.
In addition to being Holyoke’s progressive mayor, Morse is also running a primary challenge against Democratic incumbent Richard Neal, one of the most powerful, entrenched members of Congress. Morse’s platform focuses on the Green New Deal, free universal health care, and racial and economic justice. Neal, who is chairman of the House Ways and Means committee, is the darling of the health care, pharmaceutical, and fossil fuel industries, opposes Medicare for All, and has taken in more corporate PAC dollars than any other member of Congress.
Alongside his mayoral duties, Morse has occasionally moonlighted as an adjunct instructor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, a role that involved no departmental duties or student advising. On August 7—momentously, only weeks before the Massachusetts September 1 primary election—Morse became the target of a sex panic after the Daily Collegian, the student newspaper of UMass Amherst, published an unbylined story that aired sections of a letter penned by members of the College Democrats of Massachusetts and its affiliate chapters at UMass Amherst and Amherst College. The letter disinvited Morse from future College Dems events, and accused him of consensual (yes, you read that correctly) sexual relations with students—not his students—attending UMass Amherst and nearby colleges. The letter further asserted that Morse had used “his position of power for romantic or sexual gain,” and that he had attended campus Democratic events to meet potential partners. What the letter lacked in specifics it made up for in innuendo and dog-whistled homophobia. And it harped on an old trope, the homosexual male as a predatory recruiter of youth.
Without pausing to kick the tires, a number of major news outlets jumped on the nonstory, making it a story. LGBT and feminist public figures denounced Morse. From the Daily Beast to academic Twitter, queers and feminists expressed moral outrage at the fuzzy, and ultimately false, allegations. For the allegations were bunk, as we soon learned thanks to the journalistic efforts of The Intercept. In three stunning exposés (here, here and here), the outlet reported that the story had been concocted to torpedo Morse’s bid for Congress, drummed up primarily by two students who hoped the maneuver would gain them employment with Congressman Neal once the incumbent carried the election. More shocking still, The Intercept’s latest installment shows that the College Democrats coordinated the attack with the brass of the Massachusetts Democratic Party, who allegedly sought to destroy evidence of their collusion.
So that is the why of the scandal, but what about the how? What is a sex panic and why, too often, does it work? The term “sex panic” comes out of the sociology on moral panics. The idea of moral panic, oversimplified: community leaders and media outlets exaggerate or make up a threat to community safety or social order (e.g., superpredators, rap music, violent video games, Marilyn Manson, and most recently Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s “WAP”). The trumped-up threat is used to stoke public fear, fear that is politically and financially profitable. Lurid stories of child molesters, for example, might boost network news ratings, jumpstart a politician’s candidacy against a seemingly soft-on-crime opponent, mobilize ineffective but tough-looking sex offender registries, and pressure working mothers to return home and protect their kids (even though it is almost always dads, stepdads, mothers’ boyfriends, and uncles doing the abusing).
The idea of moral panic is not without critics, and it indeed begs important questions: How does one measure the difference between wrongful panic and rightful concern? What is the “right” amount of anxiety about a murderous pedophile? Might the charge of “panic” glibly trivialize sexual violence?
Yet what we find appealing about sex panic as a diagnostic is that it names the confluence of stakeholder manipulation, media sensationalism, and political, regressive fallout too easily triggered by sex—stubbornly and especially queer sex. Sex panics are not organic products of community concern; they are stoked and manipulated. And nobody is immune, for they appeal equally across the political spectrum. “The left needs to stop falling for absurd sex panics,” enjoined Liza Featherstone, as she skewered both the students’ lies about Morse and pundits’ righteousness that fueled the scandal. Yet the left not only fell for this sex panic but also fanned its flames. Amidst the Twitter storm, progressive voices on the left were among the loudest declaring Morse “creepy” and “predatory.”
Several commentators deleted their condemnatory tweets in light of The Intercept’s reporting. But if The Intercept had not undertaken the journalistic labor that its mainstream peers shirked, where would we be? What if the next folk devil is not as shiny or up-and-coming as Mayor Morse?
In the absence of a principled media that would thoroughly vet stories such as the Morse scandal before making hay of them, we offer the following four tips to help detect and deter sex panic.
• • •
1. When there’s only smoke, look for a smoke machine.
The letter against Morse, signed by students but thoroughly vetted (and perhaps ghost written) by an influential Democratic Party lawyer, asserts that the mayor leveraged his “power for romantic or sexual gain.” The students’ follow-up statement doubles down, claiming Morse “abused his power for sexual relationships.” There is not a single subsequent example that documents said abuse. The letter reports “numerous incidents” of inappropriate conduct but fails to describe any impropriety. Morse matched with students on dating apps and added them to his Instagram. Where are the lurid messages? The quid pro quo offers? Graphic images gone viral? A student quotation, even anonymous, about being pressured into sex? Nothing. Just smoke.
Be wary of sentences without subjects.
“Where such a lopsided power dynamic exists, consent becomes complicated,” instructs the College Democrats. Be wary of sentences without subjects. “Lopsided power dynamics” between whom? Monica Lewinsky has publicly emphasized, twice, that her sexual relations with President Bill Clinton as a twenty-two-year-old White House intern were mutual and consensual. In 2018, mid-#MeToo, she asked whether, in her circumstance, “consent might well be rendered moot.” Maybe. What intern says “no” to the president? But in this instance, where there is no charge that the small-town mayor had sexual relationships with a subordinate, an intern, or one of his students, consent is none too complicated. Unless, that is, “abuse of power” is equivalent to “having sex if you hold a modicum of power,” in which case Mayor Morse should be forbidden from sex with any citizen of Holyoke, lest spurned he might shut off the electric and sewer lines of former lovers.
These formulations were purposefully fuzzy, designed to captivate the public without committing to any substantial, real allegation.
2. Reread the accusations.
“When the terms ‘sexual abuse’ or ‘sexual harassment’ are replaced with ‘sexual misconduct’ or ‘inappropriate sexual behavior,’ that is a red flag that we are leaving the arena of critical politics for the landscape of moral judgment,” opines cultural studies professor Lisa Duggan.
One does not need to have an Instagram account nor even know what a “Close Friends Story” is to conclude that this is neither assaultive nor harassing behavior.
What were the terms of the charge? The leaders of the College Democrats relay that they “heard countless stories of Morse adding students to his ‘Close Friends Story’ and Direct Messaging members of College Democrats on Instagram in a way that makes these students feel pressured to respond due to his status.”
The formulation, “in a way that makes these students feel pressured,” is smoke-not-fire, for surely we would be told what that “way” was, had there been one. Louis C.K. did not act “in a way,” unspecified, that made female comics uncomfortable. He whipped it out. But what exactly is the accusation here? One does not need to have an Instagram account nor even know what a “Close Friends Story” is to conclude that this is neither assaultive nor harassing behavior.
Here is another accusation that fails the sniff test: Morse “sought out students . . . on social media, in a manner widely understood by our generation to indicate intimacy.” We used to call “indicating intimacy” flirting. Thus, even if this charge had turned out to be true, to what would it have amounted? Neither the passive voice (“widely understood”), nor the generalization (“our generation”), nor the sexlessness of the sex charge (“intimacy”) pass muster. Likewise “matching on Tinder,” another behavior the College Dems found objectionable: matching is an expression of mutual interest; it is not a sex predator trolling messenger apps for your child.
A sticking point for pundits and some of our colleagues is that Morse has had sexual relations with college students, and they feel this is, in a word, gross. Even though Morse appears not to have violated UMass Amherst’s sexual misconduct policy because he never slept with his own students, this exoneration-by-technicality makes it no less gross in the eyes of many.
People can reasonably disagree about how best to regulate consensual sex on college campuses—the two authors of this article differ about whether to favor university bans on sexual contact with all undergraduates (“categorical”) or only those you personally instruct (“supervisory”). Yet it is worth considering a bit more closely the motivations behind the categorical version of the policy that our condemnatory colleagues seem to implicitly favor (not in effect at UMass Amherst). The best case for a categorical ban, we think, is that sex with professors might complicate life down the road: what if the student later realizes she would like the professor to be her thesis advisor? What if other students learn of the affair, and fear they are being treated less favorably? These are issues that concentrate not on forced sex but on deprived opportunities (and for some students, perhaps especially queer ones looking at smaller dating pools, the categorical ban may itself be a deprivation). The categorical policy seems more pertinent for tenure and tenure-track professors who are embedded in the intellectual community of campus than for an adjunct who teaches a one-off seminar—in this case, a single gay adjunct residing in Western Massachusetts, not known for a popping gay dating scene. Note, too, that on its face, a categorical ban disallows, for example, a graduate student teaching assistant in chemistry from dating an undergraduate in economics.
Wherever we or you come out on regulating consensual sex, there is simply not one iota of evidence in this half-witted scandal that disqualifies Mayor Morse from either holding or running for office. There is no supposition, and there never was, that Morse acted malevolently, coercively, or even unkindly to his partners. There is no supposition, and there never was, that any student from any of the colleges and universities in the Holyoke area was denied educational or professional opportunities.
How many members of Congress would be forced to resign if having sex with younger partners at some point in one’s life became grounds for dismissal? How many professors have married their former graduate students? And dating your graduate student, we think, is a lot more ethically questionable than sex with a twenty-year-old stranger.
3. Be uncomfortable with “uncomfortable.”
The College Dems repeatedly flagged their discomfort at Morse. “Our letter was not politically motivated. It was written at the direct request of students who were personally made uncomfortable by the Mayor’s behavior.” “Mayor Morse has made students uncomfortable and abused his power for sexual relationships.”
Nobody has a right not to be uncomfortable. The rhetorical conversion of discomfort into harm and abuse can only serve a sex-negative culture that heaps scorn and shame upon queers, women, and gender minorities.
Nobody has a right not to be uncomfortable. The rhetorical conversion of discomfort into harm and abuse can only serve a sex-negative culture that heaps scorn and shame upon queers, women, and gender minorities, whose bodies and pleasures will too often be sources of “discomfort” under prevailing norms of propriety, monogamy, and coupledom.
The Boston Globe, without irony, reported that Morse did not come out about his mayoralty to his partners: “One student who had a sexual encounter with Morse found out afterward that Morse is a mayor and university lecturer, the letter said, and the student felt uncomfortable at learning this information.” In a recent episode of HBO’s I May Destroy You, a white woman feels uncomfortable, betrayed, and violated when she discovers that the black gay man she just had sex with is, well, gay. He did not disclose his homosexuality to her before the sex. We want to be as clear as possible on this point: we think the character, Kwame, like Morse, did absolutely nothing wrong. Our sexual partners are not entitled to our gender or sexual histories, our biographies, our net worth, our political party affiliations, and so on. Certainly, there are some circumstances where nondisclosure, not just deception, is disconcerting: it might be wrong for a psychologist to knowingly sleep with her patient’s wife, for example, or a lawyer to not disclose having sex with a juror. Morse is not required to come out as a mayor whenever he flirts or has sex. It is the weaponization of discomfort that criminalizes trans men for not having “proper anatomy” in their sexual relations; that disproportionately criminalizes Black men for HIV nondisclosure; that legitimates, or used to, straight men’s violence against transgender women; and that licenses “gay panic” as a criminal defense.
Discomfort may signal when something is awry, but it might equally reiterate bias, stereotype, and prejudice. Feelings aren’t facts.
4. Look around for a political contest.
From the get-go, the timing of the scandal was suspicious. The now debunked revelations against Morse came to light three weeks before the contested congressional primary.
Of course, a political contest raises the stakes of truth-telling, so the application of this guideline requires subtlety. “I feel like my civic responsibility is outweighing my anguish and terror about retaliation,” explained Christine Blasey Ford, who reported to Senator Diane Feinstein that soon-to-be-Justice Brett Kavanaugh had sexually assaulted her. Blasey Ford’s allegations were detailed, specific, and substantiated; the protestations against Morse were nebulous and groundless but well timed.
• • •
Discomfort may signal when something is awry, but it might equally reiterate bias, stereotype, and prejudice. Feelings aren’t facts.
What are the stakes of sex panics and who bears the costs? The cost of this panic for Morse himself, we imagine, is deeply painful; the cost for his political career will be clearer in a few weeks. But beyond their intended targets, sex panics metastasize. A story from early in the career of Senator Feinstein is instructive.
On April 26, 1980, CBS Reports aired the news documentary Gay Power, Gay Politics. The documentary promised to detail the influence of LGBT community leaders on municipal politics in San Francisco in the late 1970s. To the surprise of probably nobody, the documentary turned out not to report upon the struggles of a despised community accessing social goods. Gay Power, Gay Politics was a smear campaign against Feinstein, deployed to incite a sex panic and amp up CBS’s ratings.
Feinstein allowed San Francisco to become a city of uncontrollable vice, purported the documentary, where children were witnessing gay sex in public and where, in a ludicrously false statistic proffered by the city’s coroner, kinky gay men and leatherfolk were responsible for 10 percent of homicides. Just as Politico and the Washington Post ran with the students’ fabrications against Morse, TIME, the Peoria Journal Star, and the San Francisco Chronicle circulated the 10 percent murder statistic without scrutiny.
After the documentary aired, the LGBTQ nonprofit Community United Against Violence reported a 400 percent increase in antigay violence in San Francisco. The Moral Majority posted images from the documentary on billboards in San Jose, California, with the slogan “Don’t Let It Spread!” and successfully mobilized a repeal of the city’s gay civil rights ordinance.
But antigay panic was not only the prerogative of the right. Prominent gay and lesbian political leaders denounced cruising in parks and called for the closing of porn shops and leather bars. The Lesbian Rights Committee of the National Organization for Women (NOW) drafted the 1980 Delineation of Lesbian Rights, which condemned public sex, sadomasochism, intergenerational sex, and pornography as exploitive, violent, and antifeminist. The 1980 Delineation anchored a decade of feminist politics that was anti–sex work, anti-kink, and anti-pornography. Few remember, though, that the flash point of this politics was a sensationalist, homophobic news report.
This is to say: a local, fabricated antigay scandal sparked a generation of sloppy, phobic thinking about sex and power. Feinstein was unscathed, but queers and feminists felt the fallout for decades. Morse has been exonerated; what of the rest of us, whose intimacies are not always coupled, monogamous, vanilla, heterosexual, marital, procreative, or closeted?
Kevin Henderson is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He is also a student in the program for Advanced Feminist Studies through the Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies Department at UMass.
Joseph J. Fischel is an Associate Professor of Women’s, Gender, & Sexuality Studies at Yale University. His research traverses normative political theory, feminist and queer studies, and public law. He is the author of Sex and Harm in the Age of Consent and Screw Consent: A Better Politics of Sexual Justice. He is currently working on his next book project, Sodomitical Justice: A Solicitation, which investigate the life and afterlife of sodomy law in New Orleans and beyond.
…we need your help. Confronting the many challenges of COVID-19—from the medical to the economic, the social to the political—demands all the moral and deliberative clarity we can muster. In Thinking in a Pandemic, we’ve organized the latest arguments from doctors and epidemiologists, philosophers and economists, legal scholars and historians, activists and citizens, as they think not just through this moment but beyond it. While much remains uncertain, Boston Review’s responsibility to public reason is sure. That’s why you’ll never see a paywall or ads. It also means that we rely on you, our readers, for support. If you like what you read here, pledge your contribution to keep it free for everyone by making a tax-deductible donation.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
in your carpeted office you lay my life down / and say open up to that small room in my sternum.
In his new book, the former Fed chair cuts through economic orthodoxy on central banking. But he fails to reckon deeply with its political consequences.