To my mind, it began with the milk cartons-- not the Washington pages.
One day, my breakfast bowl of cereal was no longer accompanied by a back-of-the-box advertisement for secret decoder rings or action-toy figurines.
Instead, the graphic that held my attention was the back of the milk container, where a little face peered out at me, a missing child, with her name listed urgently alongside a set of statistics about her age, hair color, and the time she was last seen.
Next week, next breakfast, there was another face. It was heartbreaking and anxiety-provoking all at once-- every week, every gallon, there was another missing kid. Who was stealing the children?
The implication was that some despicable monster had made off with these tots, and now their family's only hope was that one of us, one of the decent people at the breakfast table, would spot young Timmy or Sandy and get on the line to 1-800-MIS-SING.
Why would someone want to steal a child? Our imaginations led us to envision a sexual, sadistic purpose. Evil must come to mind--for there is simply no "innocent" reason to take a child from their home.
The alarm of the "Missing Milk Carton Kids" was so dynamic, so successful in its titillation of American fears, that while the campaign was still in its infancy, reporters, social workers, and cynics of all types started to question its assumptions. Were these children really missing? Or were they the ransom notes of a child custody fight? Or runaways with urgent agendas of their own?
As sex panics go, the milk carton campaign was investigated rather early, and the resulting revelations yielded depressing-- if not exactly evil-- results. Sexual sadists were not kidnapping children in record numbers--that was revelation number one. But children were in turmoil at home in ways that reflected ugly gaps between both genders and generations.
For starters, outlaw child custody battles have become a regular business, in which parents "kidnap" the kids back and forth from each other like so much jewelry, as much to strike blows against their estranged mates as to protect the child's best interests. Courts, social workers, and extended family members are often faced with parental tugs-of-war which, more than anything, raised the question: where does a parent's ego end, and a child's life begin?
Furthermore, teenagers were leaving their families, intact or not, of their own accord, looking for a way out: "Yes, I've been abducted, and I'm never coming home." If another adult didn't offer these young adults an escape, they were following the tribe-- other teenagers offering a family apart from the birth family.
Not all of those kids were abandoning a physically abusive situation; some had just realized their families could no longer support them, emotionally or financially. In a sense, the parents were the ones who ran away--or were in a state of parental catatonia.
Finally, you had the blessedly emancipated: teenagers who are living in their own households, of whatever sort, with the affection and support, on some level, of their birth parents.
I was one of those. I dropped out of high school my second year, got my own apartment, and my father not only bought me an old stove and refrigerator, but he also carried them up two flights of stairs to lay them down in my very own roach-infested kitchen.
Whenever I think of my father groaning under the weight of that refrigerator, I remember how I thought my heart would burst with love for him. I don't know why he didn't insist that I ought to be kept on a short leash, but his support-- installing the stove and then getting out of the way-- made the difference between my being an emancipated minor versus a runaway teenager.
Of course, not every milk-carton-kid can be explained away by the alternative circumstances I've laid out. The case of even one child who has been dragged off by a crazy stranger is a horror of unfathomable depths. Those stories are what galvanize the public consciousness. We make monsters out of a couple of deviant characters, but if we had to match every "missing" kid's face to the primary adult in their lives, we wouldn't be looking at a line-up of outsider degenerates--we'd be facing ourselves and our own family histories.
We can't pretend as if all the "decent" people are all on one side of the breakfast table, and all the shitheads are on the other. Their indifference to their children, or their exploitation of them, may make us blanch; but don't call this "unnatural."
Grown-ups have been fucking kids and fucking them over, creating them and protecting them and letting go of them, treating them like property, loving them badly and loving them inadequately and loving them mindlessly--FOREVER. If we wanted to change the face of abandonment and abuse, we'd give more respect and power to young people than we do to fetuses.
It's difficult to imagine a revolution of sons and daughters. The context around me is the story of Oedipus's revenge, which is usually merged with the fashion of blaming everything that's new and shiny around us. I am accustomed to viewing child-nappings and missing victims from our late twentieth-century bogeyman perspective.
When a child-robber, the culprit, is found, I'm not at all surprised to hear that he has a porno collection in his closet, for example. Maybe a priest, too. It bothers me, but I'm not surprised, since so many non-culprits have porno collections and religious backgrounds as well. I run to my own soapbox to reassure all who will listen that porno doesn't lead to sexual crimes any more than the fact that the offender also eats mashed potatoes.
But then other habits of the porn deviant come to light, and there are even more objects that evoke our suspicion and I-told-you-so's: The perpetrator ate... junk food. He frequented... gay bars. He spent a lot of time in... AOL chat rooms. In his glove compartment were found traces of... "drugs." Sound familiar?
There must be a zillion sociable gay men who eat Doritos, smoke marijuana, and use a computer, who would no sooner hurt a fly than harm a child. But we tend to magnify these aspects of people's modern lives when someone is accused of something sordid and kinky. We look for the things that appeal to the senses, our notions of vice, as well as our dread of new technology that presumably brings those same vices ever closer.
Technology and modern culture are the top reasons for today's sex panics: the Internet pedophile scares, the violent movies, and obscene music that they say turn our youth into soulless bastards. We are warned of the easy availability of sex toys, tattoos, and black latex g-strings. Yet these bright and stinging targets have as ephemeral a connection to sex crimes as the tabloids they're written up on.
For comparison, let's take a nostalgic look back at three frightening sex crimes against children that roused the entire country's outrage:
"On November 14, ... Linda Joyce Glucoft, aged six years, was sexually assaulted by an elderly relative of the friend she had gone to visit in her Los Angeles neighborhood. When she cried out, her assailant, a retired baker who the police had already charged in another child molestation case, choked her with a necktie, stabbed her with an ice pick, and bludgeoned her with an ax, then buried her body in a nearby rubbish heap.
"Only a few days later, a drunken farm laborer assaulted and murdered a seventeen-month-old baby girl outside a dance hall in a small town near Fresno. That same week, the Idaho police found the body of seven-year-old Glenda Brisbois, who had last been seen entering a dark blue sedan near her home; she had been murdered by a powerful assailant who had heaved her body fifteen feet into an irrigation canal.
"The gruesome details of these murders and of the hunt for their perpetrators were telegraphed to homes throughout the country by the nation's press. According to police statistics, such assaults were proportionately no more common than in previous years, but ... these three murders epitomized to many Americans the heightened dangers that seemed to face women and children... Many regarded them not as isolated tragedies but as horrifying confirmation that a plague of "sex crime" threatened their families."
If the details of these crimes are fresh in your mind, then you must be old enough to be my mother.
These murders happened in 1949, a half century ago, and are related as a history lesson from George Chauncey Jr.'s article, "The Postwar Sex Crime Panic" (True Stories From the American Past). Obviously, given the time frame, there was no fast food, dope, rap music, or gay congressmen to pin the blame on. No porn videos, or even Playboy magazine. People did not say "fuck" in The New Yorker at the time these kids were murdered.
Nevertheless, these deaths spurred parents and legislators into a first-class sex panic, the first real doozy after the war. How could these things happen in America? How could we fight enemies abroad and then face this in our neighborhoods? This wasn't the face of communism or fascism; it was something much more frightening, a group of predators destroying the very littlest, the most innocent.
By our society beliefs, culled from our understanding of man's relationship to God and each other, the perpetrators who committed these acts must have thought about them beforehand, and the reason they thought about them was because the devil was in their minds, they had been corrupted by something that was not in The Spaghetti Monster's plan.
God, country, and righteousness seemed to reach their apex after the sex crimes of 1949, when J. Edgar Hoover published an article in The American Magazine called "How Safe is Your Daughter?" A barrage of subsequent articles on sex crime seemed to confirm that she wasn't safe at all!
Alongside the F.B.I. director's cautionary tale, a poster with the same headline was produced, featuring three girls of different grade-school ages cringing and fleeing from a giant wart-covered hand hovering in the air over them.
Conjuring up every parent's greatest fear-- that some harm might come to their child-- this propaganda urged support for the policing of a wide range of sexual non-conformists. The picture's giant hand also suggested the period's sci-fi horror films, which depicted the threats posed to America by alien ways of life; the implication was that every "sex deviant" was equally alien to traditional American values.
The whole smell of "Is Your Daughter Safe?" was that of evil strangers, motivated by "deviant" impulses, people who looked like they didn't belong in "our neighborhood," with all the jingoistic and conformist attitudes that implies.
The group, however, that took the brunt of society's paranoia was gay men, adult homosexuals who were just beginning to develop a real counterculture after the war-- but who were in no way out of the closet.
Hoover's maniacal persecution of gay people belied his own 44-year homosexual relationship, and ironically revealed all of America's consciousness, terrified and simultaneously titillated by the crumbling status quo.
The Stonewall Riots were light years away in the 50s; as in many apathetic eras, people were dieting, not rioting. Homosexuals were thought of as opportunistic pedophiles for all occasions who would just as soon violate a little girl as a little boy. Hoover's call to arms, which pinpointed "daughters" as the likely victims (the "helpless female" mind-set) was also a covert call to attack "abnormal" queers-- understood to be effeminate men.
A straight-line extrapolation of that deviant paranoia would go something like this: Protect your sons and daughters by rooting out femininity in grown men!
Funny how some things never change...
Whatever the inhumanities forced on disposable children of the post-war years-- or the similarly treated children of today-- their legacies and lessons have been drowned out by the cry of "Hunt Down the Pervert!"-- the pervert being anyone who doesn't fit a gender-role straitjacket.
Sex panics offer a wake-up call for social change ahead. Rather than looking at one story of suffering, one victim, we have the opportunity to understand why everyone is rending their garments. Where is the crystal ball that tells us what today's sexual panics mean?
Well, for one, you have to work your kinky mojo just a little bit harder today to qualify as a "social undesirable." You can't just be gay anymore; it doesn't cut the mustard.
People feel their children (that is, their own innocence, their own sexual anxiety) aren't so much threatened by gay identity as by the specter of the weird loner, the closet case. We dread the person holed up in the ex-urbs, or out in the country somewhere, making up their own existence and using other people's bodies to help them achieve their catharsis.
From the Unabomber, to Tim McVeigh, to Jeffrey Dahmer though not all these men were "sex" criminals) the public is aware, as the F.B.I. profiles suggest, that these guys had "relationship problems."
They couldn't connect to guys or gals, and their desire to have total control over everything around them means they never suffered the pains of compassion, empathy, or, for that matter, mature lust.
It's a relief that the public sensibility of what makes someone dangerous is not that they're effeminate--but rather that they're dangerous because they're ALIENATED. That's quite a switch. The deviant of the twenty-first century is the man who doesn't know how to give or receive love.
This discovery has the potential to horrify us even more than their deeds. Is this the end product of our civilization, the dumping ground for the price of progress? What have we gained materially that was worth it?
When I was a teen in the 70s, I had a couple episodes of strange men frightening or threatening me a sexual way. One of them was a perfect candidate for the sex panics at the time (businessman who picks up hitchhikers from the beach), and the other positioned himself in the bosom of normality (an undergrad studying in the public library).
As it turned out, the one who harassed, stalked, and threatened me for months was the guy who asked to borrow my pencil at the library. The man who exposed his penis to my girlfriend and I while he drove us down Sunset Boulevard, got frightened and pulled over to let us out of the car the moment we ordered him to. I never saw him again.
The man in the library was handsome and chatty. The man in the car was ugly and soundless; the only thing they had in common was that they preyed on someone, a young woman, whom they felt was appealing and nonthreatening.
The lesson I took from these episodes at the time was that I had gotten in trouble at the library because I had been deferential and polite, whereas my girlfriend in the car had countermanded the situation by giving the driver a direct order to pull over. She looked like she'd as soon pistol-whip him as speak to him. I thought if I cultivated that look of hers, I'd be much better prepared for the world.
It's hard to prepare when you are predisposed and trained to be a nice girl. When I took my first self-defense class, I was amazed to see a 60-year-old classmate of mine show off what she was made of by swinging her purse like a banshee's broom at a pretend assailant. Meanwhile, my first instinct when attacked was to mentally leave my body and become effectively paralyzed.
My senior classmate was ready to fight; I wasn't, and it was partly because I was unwilling to be territorial, to control the situation, to take over. In other words, to defend yourself against pricks, you have to act a little more like them. I didn't like that lesson, but I couldn't see any alternative except avoidance.
In my television guide last week, I saw a movie review about a mother and her child who're stalked, terrorized, and almost rubbed out by a man who's tracing their every move on the Internet.
The villain looks just like the cute guy who started researching me in the library. In the TV Guide, the behind-the-scenes article interviews the lead actress who supposedly refused the first script because it was just another helpless female tied to the tracks, screaming and freaking every time Snidely Whiplash made another modem step in her direction.
"I didn't just want to be the typical female role, where I would only REACT," said the star.
Yes, but if she took charge, she would ruin the panic, ruin the empathy! Someone's got to be "the girl" and scream her head off, so we know we're still alive! And some courageous girl, "The Final Girl," as film theorist Carol Clover calls her, has got to be the one who holds up a bright white shield and faces the monster down.
This is today's feminist twist to the sex-panic monster: instead of your husband or J. Edgar Hoover saving you, all the men in the story become consumed in the slime, and only the original symbol of innocence can save herself.
Meanwhile, many men these days are infuriated by the notion that everything bad is placed at their feet, that a fleet of injustices blamed upon the nearly extinct white male-- but the annoying part of their complaint is that THEY created it.
Guilty men think the worst of other men; they can't be their own heroes anymore, especially when they believe that their sexual impulses can't be controlled. As long as they think they're barely-suppressed beasts who can only be controlled by a woman's gentle hand, or the arm of the law--they are prisoners of gender.
I predict that sex panics of the future will continue to demonize male sexuality and flirt with the ideas of women's domination--or rather of femme domination, a sort of Amazon class of dykes, virgins, mothers, and drag queens.
Meanwhile, the "missing" children are better described as angry and impatient-- sick of narcissistic boomers appropriating their lives to feed their own neuroses. The youth culture knows there's a gender revolution going on, and they design their bodies and their tribe to express it. They will continue to travel in packs to defend themselves, and don't try to dissuade them by preaching against "gangs"-- they know that's just a bourgeois way of dissing someone else's family.
America will boomerang from "Fear of a Black Planet," a Youth Planet, and a Genderfuck Planet to the opposite horror: that of a lone man with a big gun-- the older, white, had-all-the-opportunities-guy who now comes equipped with a bomb, no dates, and a pathologically self-centered attitude.
"Oh!" we'll say, "if he'd only been in the Crips!" If only he'd been a drag queen, if only he'd pierced his dick and gotten high on dope!
Any of those would be preferable, a million times more humane. We can understand a counter-culture, but what are we suppose to do with a counter-human? We can't stand to look at the cult of alienated masculinity and wonder how we got there.