Moral Panic: Changing Concepts of the Child Molester in Modern
America by Philip Jenkins (Yale University Press, 302 pp., $30)
Erotic Innocence: The Culture of Child Molesting by James R.
Kincaid (Duke University Press, 352 pp., $24.95)
Pictures of Innocence: The History and Crisis of Ideal
Childhood by Ann Higonnet (Thames and Hudson, 256 pp., $39.95)
Kidnapped: Child Abduction in America by Paula S. Fass (Oxford
University Press, 324 pp., $27.50)
In August 12, 1983,
a woman named Judy Johnson placed a call to the police department in Manhattan Beach,
California. She had a crime to report: her two- year-old son had been sodomized at his
preschool. And that was how it started. What kept it going, what made Judy Johnson's
allegation virtually unkillable, even as it began to look more and more controvertible, is
another story, one whose implications we have neither reckoned with nor escaped.
Johnson, as it turned out, was not the most reliable of narrators.
Within two years, she had been diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. (This was shortly
after she had engaged the police in a stand-off, menacing them with a shotgun from her
front door.) Within four years, she had died of liver failure induced by alcoholism. By
then her stories had lurched into Gothic grotesquerie. Her son's ordeal at the McMartin
preschool, a family-run operation with a long and placid history in its prosperous
community, had included, she claimed, being made to watch the sacrifice of animals and
human infants, to ingest urine, blood, and feces, and to accompany his teachers on
airplane flights to Palm Springs and into a labyrinth of underground tunnels where one of
the accused "flew in the air" and the others "were all dressed up as
witches." By then, too, Johnson had accused various elected officials, along with
models whom she saw in advertisements and strangers passing in cars. The prosecutors on
the case--some of them, anyway-- regarded her as an unpleasant joke. "You want to
hear what Judy says happened now?" court records show one of them razzing his
colleagues. And later: "Jeez, I wish Judy would just disappear and leave us
Yet the chain of events that Judy Johnson's delusions set in motion
seemed, and almost was, unstoppable: an avalanche, a runaway train, all the tired
metaphors of inexorability come to mind. The McMartin school case eventually encompassed
354 counts, 41 witnesses, and 369 alleged victims. In an effort to locate the kiddie porn
for which the McMartin toddlers had allegedly been exploited, local investigators, along
with the FBI and INTERPOL, seized and reviewed thousands of blue movies and photos. In an
effort to find bones, bodies, burial sites, clothing--any evidence at all of the ritual
sacrifices that supposedly went along with the sexual abuse--they searched 21 residences,
seven businesses, 37 cars, three motorcycles, one farm, and a national park in South
Dakota where one of the defendants had once gone camping. Gloria Steinem put up money so
that a team of archeologists and geologists could excavate beneath the school looking for
secret tunnels. (Their existence was never established.) The police offered a $25,000
reward, no questions asked, for a single pornographic photo of a child taken at the
McMartin school. (None ever materialized.)
Therapists and social workers cocooned the parents of Manhattan Beach in
support groups, in which they were encouraged to vent their grief and to elicit further
"secrets" from their children. The result of such ministrations was that by
1985, as Debbie Nathan and Michael Snedeker write in Satan's Silence: Ritual Abuse and
the Making of a Modern American Witch Hunt(1995), "hundreds of South Bay
children were naming ministers, reporters, soccer coaches, aerobics instructors, grade
school teachers and babysitters as abusers.... If the charges were true, one could only
conclude that over the course of a decade, one-third of the children in the South Bay had
been molested, raped, and then terrorized so utterly that not one had dared to tell."
Indeed, under the coaching of satanicritual-abuse experts, who picked up the smell of
panic and jetted in from all over North America, some of the McMartin school parents
became convinced that any number of local celebrities, including members of the Anaheim
Angels baseball team, had been involved in the abuse conspiracy. Seven preschools in the
area were eventually shut down. And the trial itself was to last three years--from April
1987 to July 1990-- making it the longest-running (and the most expensive) criminal
proceeding in American history.
In the end, as we know, for the story has been told many times now, the
McMartin case did not yield a single conviction--only a welter of mistrials, acquittals,
and deadlocks. It turned up no forensic evidence to support the charges that the school
had been the scene of ritualized sex abuse. Nor, for that matter, did any of the other
prosecutions of alleged sex-abuse rings in American daycare centers--McMartin was the
first of about several dozen cases like it in the 1980s, including the notorious Little
Rascals and Wee Care prosecutions--turn up such evidence.
The defendants in these cases included a large number of women, which in
a way was not surprising, since most day-care workers are women. Still, this fact was
surprising--or it should have been--since women also make up a small percentage of child
molesters in general (about 12 percent, according to the National Incidence Study of Child
Abuse and Neglect) and a minute percentage of those who molest very young children. And
the sudden focus on day care was odd, too, since children are far more likely to be
sexually abused by adults who are related to them than by teachers or day-care workers.
Reliable studies based on reports from state agencies suggest that perhaps 2 percent of
confirmed child sex-abuse cases take place in day-care or foster-care settings, and
virtually all of those cases involve one perpetrator. The diabolically organized
conspiracy to molest--the crime posited by the day- care prosecutions of the late '80s and
early '90s--is a chimera.
And yet, even as the charges grew more and more implausible, and
corresponded more and more suggestively to a toddler's notion of unspeakable transgression
rather than to any known profile of adult sexual perversion--in Maplewood, New Jersey, a
26-year-old day care worker named Kelly Michaels was accused of playing "Jingle
Bells" on the piano in the nude and licking peanut butter from the genitals of her
young charges, and one of the McMartin children said a teacher had served her feces in
chocolate sauce--the child abuse professionals held fast to their mantra: "Believe
For several years, moreover, during which innocent people, many of whom
were themselves the parents of young children, were sent to prison, the press by and large
went along. "The horrors may only have started with sodomy, rape, oral copulation,
and fondling," Newsweek confidently reported of the McMartin allegations in
April 1984, and added the following consumer tip: " The Manhattan Beach case serves
as lesson for any parent: choosing a pre- school is an exacting decision--'as important as
choosing a college' says Pittsburgh childcare authority Marsha Poster Rosenbloom." Time's
account noted that a horse was slaughtered in front of the toddlers to intimidate them
into silence, but the magazine neglected to ask how this messy procedure was accomplished
without detection in a busy preschool in the middle of town, where parents and teachers
came and went throughout the day. "Parents," Time chided, "were
too trusting, assuming that separation anxiety was the reason their children cried when
dropped off at school."
By the late '80s, then, the notion that many, many day care workers went
into the field only to sate their Sadean lusts for small children, and that schools were
places fraught with sexual "stranger danger," and that childish innocence was
under unprecedented assault from the forces of evil, had sufficient credibility to darken
the nightmares of mothers and fathers across the country.
The question, of course, is why--and the
answer is not merely of historical interest. For while it is true that we have come to the
end of this particular cycle of prosecutions, we are still in the grip of the same
debilitating belief that kept those prosecutions alive. We seem to think that we can
protect children from sexual depredation chiefly by imagining them as chaste and empty
vessels--as though only if they were such figments of our frightened imagination would the
moral horror of their violation be great enough to call up society's resources on their
behalf. The innocence of young children--which is to say, the sexlessness of young
children--is a newly reclaimed article of faith for many child-abuse professionals, who
contend that overt sexual curiosity in children is often a sign of pathology or abuse. (To
adopt this point of view, they have had to beat back the ghost of Freud, but that hasn't
been so hard of late.) The de-eroticization of childhood is also a talismanic notion for
many of the rest of us, who want to believe that prelapsarian virtue may still be found
somewhere, clean and gossamer-white. Our children seem to provide a foundation for our
belief in the possibility of pure and perfect innocence, and what else can?
But this interpretation of childhood teaches more about American adults
than American children. Can we really not protect our children as they are? For children
need not be sexless in order to trigger our solicitude and our censorship of certain
aspects of adult life. They need only be what they are: smaller than us, newer to the
world, more easily frightened, not yet capable of certain kinds of cognition and will, and
so on. There is such a thing as infantile sexuality, even if sex is for grown-ups. And the
sentimental tenet that the value of our children lies in what they are not--corrupted,
sexual, us--entails some unkindness and some injustice to them. Molestation is not the
only terrible fate that can befall a child, though to read much recent fiction, or a large
sub-genre of self-help books, you might think otherwise.
The re-Victorianized hypervigilance about "good" touch and
"bad" touch that makes many teachers--even preschool teachers--wary about
holding or hugging small children is one sad and practical consequence of such attitudes.
So much can be read into a gesture now, so much assumed about its motivations and its
capacity for contamination. "We advise our members not to touch the children,
especially as the children grow older," the spokeswoman for a New Jersey teacher's
union told The New York Times last year. "We have to be careful because
there have been so many false accusations against teachers."
Similar policies at many day-care centers now prohibit workers from
changing a baby's diaper without another adult present and discourage them from holding
toddlers in their laps. Joseph Tobin, who teaches early childhood education at the
University of Hawaii, has written thoughtfully about the kinds of fears and precautions
that he encounters among students who are preparing to be preschool teachers now. In one
classroom discussion, about an exuberant four-year-old girl who liked to kiss little boys,
half of Tobin's students thought that such behavior "should alert us to the
possibility of sexual abuse." Tobin was disturbed that what seemed to him normal
behavior should automatically trigger such alarm.
I asked myself ... Why would something as
ordinary and innocent (at least to me) as a preschool kissing game strike so many of my
students as dangerous? In the weeks that followed students described other situations they
found problematic: children playing doctor; a field trip to a dairy farm; a male teacher
holding a little girl on his lap.... Children's sexuality, sexual play, sexual knowledge,
adults touching and being touched by children-- these struck my students as dangerous and
threatening to children, their caretakers, or both.
For their part, some parents, too, seem to take an unseemly pride in
policing the sensual pleasures--for both parties--of caring for young children. As one
father recently boasted on an Internet chat group, "I remember being scrupulous
to avoid any inappropriate stimulation of my infants while making sure they were
Our preoccupation with people who actually do assault children has made
us wary of people who never would assault them. These days we are all suspects. Of course,
most of us are not drooling in carnal thralldom to the very young. Most of us are
perfectly able to draw the line between an awareness of the erotic strand in the
relationship between parents and children and the callous exploitation of it. So we have
become suspects not so much by acting differently with our children as by acting the same,
while all around us, and especially in the helping professions, the definitions of
suspicious behavior change.
A child psychologist named Toni Cavanagh Johnson recently conducted a
survey of 369 mental-health professionals in which she asked various questions about what
sorts of family intimacy are "appropriate" and " inappropriate." When
she asked, "What ages are suited to children and parents being nude around each
other?" 55 percent answered "No age," suggesting a conviction that even
infants ought to be decently attired at all times. Almost 40 percent thought parents
should never take baths with their children, no matter how young those children are. To
label as puritanical the sort of domestic routine that this "scrupulousness"
would entail is almost beside the point. What really astonishes is the stringency of the
ideal, the almost utopian impracticality of it. How is a mother home alone with her baby
supposed to shower or dress? Should she leave him unsupervised in the other room lest he
catch a glimpse of her defiling nakedness?
When it comes to sex play between children, the attitudes of many
childabuse professionals these days can be even more censorious. They might be thought of
as pre-Freudian, so shocked are they by evidence of erotic curiosity and desire in
children, except that they are so often self- consciously post-Freudian: that is, prone to
indignant dismissals of the whole notion of infantile sexuality and brimming with
conviction that little kids who play doctor, as the euphemism has it, could only have
caught the idea from a nasty grown-up. These attitudes have spawned a new and intrusive
monitoring of so-called "sexually reactive" or "sexualized"
children--which in its worst guise can mean forcing kids who have engaged in consensual
exploration with siblings or friends to register as sex offenders or enroll in behavioral
There are now several hundred such programs treating
"molesters" younger than twelve, according to Judith Levine, a journalist who
has reported extensively on them. Levine has written about a twelve-year-old boy in New
Jersey obliged to register as a sexual offender after he groped his eight- year-old
brother in the bath and about a nine-year-old boy in San Diego who was placed in foster
care for two years after he admitted touching his younger sister's "vaginal and anal
areas" and "placing a pencil in her buttocks." His sister, too, was removed
from their mother's home for two years.
Of course, the sex-abuse panics of the 1980s also gave rise to a
backlash. Organizations such as the False Memory Syndrome Foundation and researchers such
as Richard Ofshe and Elizabeth Loftus tried to refute the theory that horrifying memories
of child abuse could be suddenly "recovered" intact, hauled gleaming to the
surface in the obliging net of total recall. Journalistic skepticism kicked in at last,
and helped produce books such as Satan's Silence and Lawrence Wechsler's Remembering
Satan, along with an extraordinary three-part documentary on the Little Rascals case
made by an Israeli journalist named Ofra Bikel. Wildly inflated statistics that had been
reported in the mid-'80s as fact--such as the claims that twenty to fifty thousand
children are abducted in the United States each year and never seen again, or that kiddie
porn comprises a $5 billion industry in the United States, or that 40 percent of American
girls were sexually abused as children- -were by the mid-'90s getting the critical
scrutiny that they deserved.
Yet the backlash has done damage, too. It has given aid and comfort and
ammunition to some of the more brutish opponents of the entire therapeutic profession, and
to Freud-bashers in particular. (That this always involved a profound misreading of
psychoanalysis-- it was Freud, after all, who introduced the notion that many memories of
childhood "seduction" were fantasies, not literal transcriptions of reality--has
not stopped Frederick Crews and others for whom the excesses of the recovered memory
movement have been a godsend.) It may also have stirred up undue skepticism about real
cases of sexual abuse. Backlashes are like that. They sweep up everything that came before
them, the sensible along with the bizarre; and they cannot really liberate us from the
logic of the previous regime because they are still arguing within its terms.
There were proximate causes, it is true, for
the great Satanic day-care scare of the '80s. Chief among them were the interviewing
techniques of some of the child-abuse professionals called in on these cases. It was not
merely that they routinely asked leading questions: "Can you remember the naked
pictures?" one of the McMartin interviewers prompts a child, though neither
picture-taking nor nudity has been mentioned in the interview. It was not merely that they
asked these questions over and over again, and with little apparent willingness to accept
"no" or "I don't remember" as an answer. It was not just that, with
brightly colored puppets and anatomically detailed dolls and wheedling hypotheticals, they
encouraged imaginative speculation about events rather than the free recall of them.
("Let's pretend and see what might have happened.")
No, they were even more egregious. They overtly rewarded those who
" disclosed" with hugs and lavish praise, and they bullied those who did not,
telling them that all the other "smart" kids had owned up to the "yucky
secrets" at McMartin. Even now, reading excerpts from those interviews can make you
suffer for the children all over again. "Are you going to be stupid, or are you going
to be smart and help us here?" the interviewer demands of an eight-year-old boy, who
has just denied having ever seen anyone play "Naked Movie Star" at the McMartin
school. After a few more vain attempts to winkle out an allegation, the interviewer turns
to the puppet who is supposed to be the boy's stand-in and says: "Well, what good are
you? You must be dumb." When a child twice says he has no memory of the "naked
pictures," his interrogator instructs him to "think about that for a while,
okay? Your memory might come back to you." Salacious details are often supplied by
the questioner him- or herself, as in the following exchange about the elderly director of
Interviewer: Who do you think played that game horsey ?
Child: Ray and Miss Peggy.
Interviewer: Ray and Miss Peggy? Did Miss Peggy take her clothes off?
Interviewer: I bet she looked funny, didn't she? Did she have big boobs?
Interviewer: Yeah. And did they swing around?
In many of the other day-care abuse cases across the country, too,
transcripts show social workers and police investigators cajoling and browbeating children
who said they were not molested, bribing them with promises that they can go home to mommy
and daddy or get their teacher out of prison if only they will tell. Sometimes the
emotional rewards offered to those who do "disclose" give off their own unsavory
odor. "Do you want to sit on my lap? Come here, I'm so proud of you," says one
social worker in the Kelly Michaels case. "I love big girls like you that tell me
what happened-- that aren't afraid because I'm here to protect you.... You got such pretty
eyes.... I'm jealous. I'm too old for you."
For the most part, these interviewers were not merely nasty or inept.
Many of them were deeply and sincerely committed to their mission of child protection.
Unfortunately, that mission often required them to accept the doctrine then in vogue that
a denial of abuse may be the best indicator that abuse has occurred. By that logic,
believing the child could mean believing what a child did not say, what, in fact--out of
fear or shame, the thinking went--he might insistently and repeatedly refute. Consider the
following exchange between two adult investigators on the Kelly Michaels case and a
Interviewer: Did she put a fork in your butt? Yes or no?
Child: I don't know, I forgot.
Interviewer: ... Oh come on, if you just answer that one, you can go.
Child: I hate you.
Interviewer: No you don't.
Child: Yes I do.
Interviewer: You love me I can tell. Is that all she did to you, what did
she do to your hiney?
Interviewer #2: What did she do to your hiney? Then you can go.
Child: I forgot.
Interviewer #2: Tell me what Kelly did to your hiney and then you can go.
If you tell me what she did to your hiney, we'll let you go.
Child: Okay, okay, okay
Interviewer: Tell me now ... what did Kelly do to your hiney?
Child: I'll try to remember.
Interviewer: What did she put in your hiney?
Child: The fork.
In other exchanges, the interviewers seem scarcely to listen, so wedded
are they to their own version of what must have happened. Consider this tone-deaf
back-and-forth between a social worker and a child, again in the Michaels case:
Child: Wasn't hurting me. I like her.
Interviewer: I can't hear you, you got to look at me when you talk to
me. Now when Kelly was bothering kids in the music room....
Child: I got socks off.
Interviewer: Did she make anybody else takes their clothes off in the
You don't have to believe that young children make inherently unreliable
witnesses, or even that they are significantly more suggestible than adults, to conclude
that this sort of grilling--especially when it takes place in an atmosphere of rising
panic, replicated at home by parents who can't seem to stop themselves from believing the
worst--is likely to elicit some falsehoods.
Recently, a group of psychologists led by Sena Garven at the University
of Texas in El Paso devised an experiment in which they tried to recreate the McMartin
interviewing techniques, based on their reading of the interview transcripts. Sixty-six
children between the ages of three and six received a visit at their preschool from a
jolly graduate student who introduced himself as Manny Morales. He read them a story,
placed a sticker on each child's hand, and gave each a cupcake. A week later, 36 of the
children were questioned about this incident by interviewers who used the full arsenal of
McMartin techniques. The other 30 were asked merely "suggestive" questions. Of
the kids in the first group, 58 percent made false allegations against Manny-- saying, for
instance, that he stole, threw a crayon, bumped a teacher, or told the child a secret that
she wasn't supposed to reveal to anyone else. By contrast, just 17 percent of those who
were asked merely suggestive questions, with no social incentives to fabricate, did so.
In the end, though, proximate causes only get
you so far. Bigger explanations are demanded. The interviewers in the day-care cases may
have been overzealous, and the stressed-out parents may have been easily spooked, but what
primed the rest of us to believe these stories? Surely there were larger reasons for an
entire culture's preoccupation with child sex abuse; and these are precisely what two
astringent and important books--Moral Panic by Philip Jenkins and Erotic
Innocence by James R. Kincaid--seek to provide.
Jenkins and Kincaid are less interested in addressing the objective
threat of child molesting than in asking why at particular historical moments--and with no
solid evidence that it is on the rise--it can seem so much more omnipresent and alarming
than at others. "Prominent among what are accepted as self-evident facts in
contemporary America," writes Jenkins, "is the belief that children face a grave
danger in the form of sexual abuse and molestation. This menace has certain well-known,
stereotypical characteristics. Sexual abuse is pervasive, a problem of vast scope;
molesters or abusers are compulsive individuals who commit their crimes frequently and
whose pathologies resist rehabilitation or cure. Sexually deviant behavior often escalates
to violence or murder. Sexual relations with adults invariably cause lasting damage to the
children involved; a battery of psychological explanations exists to account for any
failure by the victim to perceive harm from the abuse or to recognize its severity."
Yet none of these were accepted social facts a quarter of a century ago. And their
promotion to that status now is not necessarily a sign that the truth has finally
triumphed, that these beliefs are correct whereas the previous beliefs were incorrect.
Why, these books ask, does sexual molestation often dominate our
discussions of child abuse--and our talk shows, our TV movies of the week, our custody
battles, our middle-of-the-night anxieties--when physical abuse and neglect are far more
common and far more likely to kill a child? In a 1997 survey of substantiated child abuse
cases in 31 states, for example, the largest number of cases--54 percent--were instances
of neglect. 22 percent were cases of physical abuse, and 8 percent were of sexual abuse.
(The rest were considered cases of either emotional maltreatment or "other.") In
1996, a federal government survey (based mostly on data from the National Incident Study
on Child Abuse and Neglect) put the percentage of sex abuse at 12 percent of the
approximately one million substantiated or strongly suspected cases of child abuse and
For Kincaid, these sorts of observations warrant a much more audacious
attack on the ways in which "our culture has enthusiastically sexualized the child
while denying just as enthusiastically that it is doing any such thing." He has
produced an impassioned argument that, in construing children as "the species
incapable of practicing or inciting sex," we inevitably eroticize them, for
"defining something entirely as a negation brings irresistibly before us that which
we are trying to banish." The result is the oily fear th
Copyright 1999, The New Republic