Moral panic, states of denial, and child abuse
How concepts intended to improve understanding can be misused to deny reality
Moral panic is a term that is frequently misused nowadays as a slogan to dismiss concerns about the consumption of online pornography, or about risks to women’s and children’s safety from paedophiles or from men entering women’s spaces. This misuse has become so commonplace that I’m finding it impossible to read those two words nowadays and not be immediately suspicious of the motives of whoever is writing them.
The term moral panic was coined by sociologist Stanley Cohen, in his book Moral Panic and Folk Devils (1972). Cohen used exaggerated media accounts of the conflict between Mods and Rockers (1960s youth cultures) to illustrate how concerns about a group’s behaviour can be manipulated to become an irrational fear, to the extent that the group’s very existence is perceived as a threat to social values. But what Cohen intended as a concept that can open up debate about the reality of a perceived threat has become, in recent years, a slogan used to shut down debate and deny the reality of an actual threat.
Google ‘pornography and moral panic’ and more than 3 million results come up. Most claim that concerns about pornography’s impact are expressions of moral panic. A much smaller number claim that such concerns are real, and not a moral panic, or (interpreting the concept rather differently) that the evidence should trigger a moral panic. This framing around moral panic almost always diverts the focus away from assessing evidence to doubting the motives of anyone who is concerned about it, or to criticising the media who sensationalise it. Much the same is starting to happen with concerns about the rising number of children being referred to ‘gender’ clinics.
A coalition of charitable foundations, the Global Philanthropy Project, produced a document in 2021, titled Manufacturing Moral Panic, which claimed that “the manufacturing of moral panic through child protection rhetoric has become a Trojan horse for immense prejudice against women’s, children’s and LGBT rights and their advocates.” As STILLTish has demonstrated, here, here, and here, the document is a thinly veiled attack on feminism and child safeguarding, supported by funders with a vested interest in promoting ‘gender identity’ ideology. The only moral panic that the report demonstrates is the one it manufactures itself, with totally unsubstantiated claims that feminists who reject synthetic sex identities are part of a far-right global conspiracy.
States of Denial
Stanley Cohen was also the author of States of Denial: Knowing about Atrocities and Suffering (2001). His book identified a variety of ways in which we protect ourselves from truths which we do not want to recognise. Whether it’s political issues like Holocaust denial, or personal ones like pretending you don’t have an alcohol problem, Cohen demonstrated the need to understand why we want to deny reality, and the importance of discovering and acknowledging the truth, however painful, of that reality.
In the case of political atrocities such as the torture of political prisoners, Cohen identified a process whereby perpetrators and bystanders alike deny reality by seeing themselves as the victims - what is often referred to (though not by Cohen) as DARVO - Deny, Attack, Reverse Victim and Offender.
In general, Cohen was a staunch defender of reality, critical not just of those who deny reality but also of postmodernist notions that there is no objective truth, only conflicting truth claims. But when it came to the sexual abuse of children, particularly when the victim is too young to understand what is being done to her, the tone changed - here, Cohen insisted, “not everything that is denied must be true”. Denial of men’s sexual abuse of children was the only form of denial which Cohen suggested might be justified. He appeared to suggest that it’s impossible for a child to forget that she has been abused, ignoring that forgetting may be how her mind has coped with what has been done to her. And he came close to seeing alleged perpetrators as victims of therapists who have a vested interest in suggesting that their clients have been abused.
‘False Memory Syndrome’
False Memory Syndrome (belief in having experienced a trauma that didn’t actually happen) is a phenomenon, real or imagined, which touches on both moral panic and states of denial. Believers in the validity of FMS deny that adults who recover forgotten memories of childhood abuse actually experienced that abuse. And many of those believers go on to question the extent to which such abuse occurs, and to doubt the motives of those who raise the issue - they see it, in other words, as yet another instance of moral panic.
Cohen referenced a couple of books which claim that ‘False Memory Syndrome’ is not only a real condition, but that false memories are fabricated by misguided therapists. He failed to mention that the term was coined by a couple, Peter and Pamela Freyd, specifically to discredit one of their daughters for believing that Peter Freyd had abused her as a child. Pamela Freyd claimed that their daughter had believed that she had recovered memories of being abused, because, among other things, she had experimented with drugs in her teens, had seen a therapist, and had read The Courage to Heal (a healing resource from 1988 by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis which many survivors of abuse have found helpful. Cohen quoted a sentence from that book, omitting the context that gave it meaning, to make it appear ridiculous).
Peter and Pamela Freyd set up the False Memory Syndrome Foundation in 1992. It became enormously influential, and was largely responsible for creating the myth that adults who recovered memories of having being abused as a child did so because feminist therapists had implanted false memories of abuse into them. Two of the Foundation’s advisory board were pro-paedophile advocates, and its associates have been prolific providers of expert witness statements in court trials to defend celebrities facing charges of historic sexual abuse (including Harvey Weinstein). The Foundation’s dissolution in 2019 was celebrated by survivors of child sexual abuse, but its pernicious influence lives on, not least in the development of the related concept of ‘parental alienation’ to justify mothers losing custody of their children in family courts.
Not only did Cohen not question the dubious origins of ‘False Memory Syndrome’, he failed to acknowledge an important rebuttal of the concept in a special issue of the Feminism and Psychology journal that was devoted to the the ‘false memory’ debate. This appeared in 1997, four years before States of Denial was published. It was written by the woman who had coined the DARVO acronym to describe the reaction of abusers to being held accountable - psychologist Jennifer Freyd. If that surname seems familiar, it’s because she was the daughter whose parents launched the False Memory Syndrome Foundation to support their denial that she had been abused by her father. In this article, Jennifer Freyd described how if one starts from the perspective of a child who has been abused by a trusted caregiver one can begin to understand how this might affect her memory, causing her initially to forget what had been done to her, but later to recover her memory of it.
“For the child who depends upon a caregiver, the trauma of abuse by that caregiver, by the very nature of it, demands that information about the abuse be blocked from mental mechanisms that control attachment and attachment behavior. The information that gets blocked may be partial (for instance, blocking emotional responses only), but in many cases the information that gets blocked will lead to a more profound disruption in awareness and autobiographical memory. In addition, this continued blockage of information about betrayal may make it difficult for us to accurately assess the trustworthiness of people in particular, and to accurately assess aspects of interpersonal and intrapersonal reality in general.”
(Jennifer Freyd - Violations of Power, Adaptive Blindness and Betrayal Trauma Theory, Feminism and Psychology, Feb 1997).
Discussing how humanitarian workers avoid being overwhelmed, Cohen noted that “the really effective people are self-consciously selective about which problems they take on”. It is possible that, like these humanitarian workers, Cohen had self-consciously chosen not to take on the problems faced by abused children, in order to be able to more effectively challenge other aspects of denial. It is much more likely, though, that his selectivity was symptomatic of a more widespread unwillingness (like that shown by Robert Bly and John Stoltenberg) to face up to the enormity of the sexual abuse of children.
“Writers and practitioners working on sexual abuse continue to elaborate a mythology which is extremely effective in perpetuating child sexual abuse. The most likely reaction a child will get if she is able to tell someone what is happening is disbelief. This disbelief protects men. Professionals - social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists - take the view that it is better to disbelieve (and allow the abuse to continue) than to interfere, particularly in the family”
(Angela Hamblin and Romi Bowen, Sexual abuse of children, Spare Rib, May 1981)
In my next post I was intending to discuss the patriarchal colonisation of nature. But before that I will respond to the current interest in the detention in a Romanian prison of misogynist ‘influencer’ Andrew Tate. I will examine in particular how Tate’s influence builds on grooming by pornography, and assess the extraordinary recent claim by ‘reactionary feminist’ Mary Harrington that the Tate phenomenon should be blamed not on patriarchal constructions of masculinity but on the philosophy of John Stuart Mill.
This substack, unlike many others, is 100% free, and I intend it to remain so.