Sex Panic and the Punitive State

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Anthropologist Roger N. Lancaster has written an important 2011 book on the current sexual hysteria emanating from the U.S.: Sex Panic and the Punitive State (1 ed.). California, USA: University of California Press. pp. 328. ISBN 9780520262065 (paperback).

Lancaster summarizes his perspective in a New York Times op-ed piece, "Sex Offenders: The Last Pariahs" (August 20, 2011)

More info about Sex Panic and the Punitive State is available here:

Chapter 1 available in PDF format:

Chapter 1 available as text:

From the inside flap: "Lancaster's approach is fresh, critical and engaging. Many scholars have examined America's 'carceral state,' but few so successfully combine personal narrative and passion with sober assessment. This is a landmark book--a dismaying, angry, but powerful analysis of America's justice system."--Michael Sherry, Northwestern University

"Sex Panic and the Punitive State is a passionate, wide-ranging analysis of a culture of American fear that takes shape as moral panic and a socially permeating knee-jerk vindictiveness--not just against the criminal but against anyone (therefore everyone) who could be cast as a potential perpetrator. Its focus on sex and crime is centrally on the male sexual predator, especially the pedophile figure: but its richly archived and narrated examples reach from 19th century victimology to the present, from slavery to terrorism, and their legitimation of the preemptive moral strike. A manifesto against the contemporary paranoid style and its hold on the law, media and you, this book is an important contribution to LGBTQ studies and to American studies in general."--Lauren Berlant, Department of English, University of Chicago

"Sex Panic is gripping and provocative. Lancaster effectively weaves historical and ethnographic accounts along with his own experiences to illuminate the dangerous tilt in America's legal system toward a presumption of guilt. This is an important book for anyone interested in how crime and justice are perceived in society."--Jonathan Simon, Berkeley Law, Berkeley Center for Criminal Justice

"A profound meditation on sex panics in the modern period, coupled with a biting polemic against the role of the punitive state in American culture. This is a must read for everyone concerned with the state of human rights, sexuality, and political economy. You may not agree with it all, but it will rattle your brain." --Gilbert Herdt, founder, Department of Sexuality Studies, San Francisco State University

"From the moral panics about child abuse to the war on terror, Roger Lancaster brilliantly explores the fears and anxieties of the United States in recent decades, showing how they continuously participate in the shaping of the nation. His vivid depiction of the paranoid style and bellicose rhetoric in politics gives remarkable clues to comprehend contemporary punitive governance." --Didier Fassin, James Wolfensohn Professor of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton University

"Sex Panic & the Punitive State is a sensationally smart integration of the ever-expanding regime of sex-offender surveillance and punishment with all those vexing phenomena you knew were related but couldn't figure out how: victim worship; parental paranoia; the racialization of crime; neoliberalism; the 'war on terror'--and more. Lancaster spares neither right nor left, feminist nor religious conservative; he privileges neither cultural nor economic theories. Meticulously historicized, complexly thought-out, and elegantly written, this exegesis of sexuality and the 'punitive state' will long be vital to academics, policymakers, and activists alike."--Judith Levine, author of Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex


Roger N. Lancaster is is director of Cultural Studies at George Mason University's College of Humanities and Social Sciences. He was born on a small farm in North Carolina and grew up during struggles around desegregation and the Vietnam War. A student activist on gay, race, and peace issues, he majored in anthropology at Chapel Hill.

He went on to receive his M.A. and Ph.D. at Berkeley, where his fields included social inequality, gender/sexuality, and Mexico and Central America. His doctoral dissertation, Thanks to God and the Revolution: Popular Religion and Class Consciousness in the New Nicaragua, was published by Columbia University Press (1988).

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