Philip Jenkins



Threatened Children and the Politics of Morality




The reading assignment for this class consists of the second half of my Decade of Nightmares. One central theme of this course is how Reagan-era conservatism attempted to repeal the radical 1960s. Not coincidentally (as I will suggest), the 1980s witnessed an astonishing upsurge of public hysteria about child protection, with repeated child abuse scares serving as an all-purpose justification for the expansion of official powers, and for reasserting traditional sexual morality. In this class, we will explore questions such as:


How did children’s issues play such a critical role in this process of moral reconstruction?


How do attitudes towards children change in this era? 


How do fears over children feed into concerns over social change?


What is the legacy of the child abuse panics today, especially in the rhetoric of public problems?


How does the child protection movement position itself in opposition to critical values and themes of the 1960s? Such as what?


What demographic changes underlie these concerns? What is Generation X?


Is child protection a liberal or conservative theme? What does the issue do to traditional boundaries of left and right?


Why does activism over children and children’s issues so cluster in 1977, the
“summer of fear”? Why are the media so prepared to buy the tales they are offered of vast national conspiracies? What does this tell us about new patterns of gathering and presenting news, and the changing standards of what is acceptable for major media outlets?


What role do cults and cult scares play in the new social atmosphere? What is the impact of events such as Jonestown? How does this affect memories of the 1960s? Why are cults at the forefront of child protection panics in these years?


Where do the Satanic stories of the 1980s come from?


Why do the day care scandals explode how and when they do? Why is day care such a desperately sensitive issue at this time? Does the extent of the fear suggest that the stories strike a chord in women guilty about leaving their children in order to go into the workplace?


Note how therapy – so central a part of the “me decade” contributes a solid foundation for claims about threats to children, giving a large vested interest to the child protection issue.


Why were people prepared to believe such amazing stories about devil worship cults?


How do these themes surface in popular culture? What can we learn from the wave of slasher movies in the early 1980s? How about television specials, mini-series, issue-of-the-week TV movies, etc


How do serial murder stories fit into these various fears? How are they exploited by law enforcement? By women’s groups? How is serial murder constructed and contextualized to take advantage of this particular configuration of fears and concerns? Why does America experience such a grotesque serial murder panic in the early 1980s?


How is the idea of “gay serial killers” deployed against gay rights issues? (Think about the John Wayne Gacy case.)


I have talked about “using murder” – in what sense is murder “used” rhetorically and politically in these years? By whom?


How does the child protection issue survive and transform itself to the conditions of the 1990s and beyond?