Maneuvering Moral Panics: My experience at ASU’s Moral Panics of Sexuality Conference

Maneuvering Moral Panics: My experience at ASU’s Moral Panics of Sexuality Conference

Originally posted on the NSRC website, October 2011
By Robin Darling, MA Sexuality Studies, CREGS Staff

On Friday, October 7th, 2011 I had the pleasure of attending the Moral Panics of Sexuality Conference at Arizona State University. This one day conference was packed full of presentations from various students, faculty, and independent researchers on a wide breadth of research dealing with emotional issues that challenge the predominant social order. The conference organization team was made up of various students and faculty from multiple university departments and the conference drew attendees from various states across the U.S.

The day began with a keynote presentation by Dr. Deborah Tolman, Professor of Social Welfare and Psychology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, delivered to a room overfull with conference attendees. Through her presentation entitled “Tiny Prostitutes, Gyrating Tweens, and Teenage Sluts, Oh My!: Navigating the moral panic of sexualization of girls”, Dr. Tolman shared insights into the most recent manifestation of the  ever present moral panic about female sexuality. Using panic inducing media images and viral videos of girls ranging from tot to teen, Dr. Tolman outlined current sexual incitements, including issues of gender non-conformity, public LGBT movements, challenges to femininity conventions, increased awareness of sexual fluidity, technology, and our culture’s current obsession with youth. In addition to her explanation of the current panics, Dr. Tolman presented her work towards addressing the moral panic of sexualization of girls. She discussed the APA Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls, their findings, and the outcomes related to the APA report generated by that task force. Dr. Tolman also shared her work with SPARK Summit ( ) and the continued online SPARK movement involving young people and assisting in the movement towards a more positive image of sexuality for women.

After the first keynote, conference attendees had the choice of three panels addressing historical panics, media panics, and menstrual panics. Admittedly, I was easily drawn to the media panics panel because of the talk entitled “Scary sex: The moral discourse of Glee” by ASU graduate student, Sarah Flett Prior. As hoped, this talk was the highlight of the panel. Ms. Flett Prior directed the audience through an outline of the current abstinence only versus comprehensive sex education debate that is raging across the country. Using clips, images, and quotes about the various contradictory messages present in episodes of Glee, Ms. Flett Prior educated, entertained, and invoked thoughtful discussion of the simultaneous resistance to and reaffirmation of messages about female sexuality, virginity, and racial stereotypes portrayed in main stream media shows like Glee. Needless to say, this presentation invited an even more critical eye than I usually have for mainstream television.

For me, the highlight of the second session was the first presentation of the body panics panel, entitled “Body hair rebels: Inciting heteropanic in the classroom and beyond.” In this presentation Dr. Breanne Fahs, Assistant Professor of Women and Gender Studies at Arizona State University, outlined her extra credit assignment that asks women to grow out their body hair for ten weeks, keeping a journal of their conversations, feelings, and experiences with body hair throughout the project. This women and gender studies course assignment engaged the students in negotiations of power while resisting femininity norms. Students truly experienced how the “personal is political” when they navigated experiences with friends, romantic partners, and family that attempt to control their bodies through the management of hair. Dr. Fahs examined the different experiences of white students with lighter, finer hair and students of color who mention the additional resistance to their darker hair, demonstrating the continued regulation of women’s bodies through a racialized lens. She outlined the push towards heterosexual conformity, giving examples of homophobia in relationship to women’s hair. For some students, what at first appeared to be a benign extra credit project became an experience that incited the fear of violence, enforced gender norms, and elicited resistance in unexpected places. I couldn’t help but be reminded of my own hair and how I have used it at various points in my life to indicate my femininity, my queerness, my rebellion, and my conformity. Dr. Fahs presentation assured that I will never think of my own body hair the same again.

The second keynote speaker, Dr. Sara McClelland, Assistant Professor of Psychology & Women’s Studies  at the University of Michigan, engaged the audience in a thoughtful exploration of the ambiguous term “age-appropriate” in her presentation entitled “Sexuality Early and Late in Life: The impact and limitations of ‘age-appropriate’ frameworks.” Using examples from her research with women with terminal breast cancer, her research with girls, and the public discourse around age-appropriateness, Dr. McClelland forced us to think about the various definitions, meaning, projections, and visibility encompassed by one seemingly impartial phrase, particularly when thinking about female sexuality. The term ‘age-appropriate’ is used both to discourage and hide the sexuality of older women, while inducing fear around the projection of sexuality on the bodies of young girls. Dr. McClelland’s presentation drew interesting questions and conversation in part due to her use of examples from popular culture and her exploration of how “inappropriateness” serves to define what we see as appropriate.

robin michael brooke and rachel

From right to left: Robin Darling, Michael McNamara, Brooke Wilock, and Rachael Byrne

The final panel session included the postmodern panics panel that featured two of our own San Francisco State University students, Michael McNamara, Sexuality Studies, and Brooke Willock, Women and Gender Studies. In many ways, this panel was the most controversial because it addressed issues that could even incite moral panic in those who claim to promote sex positivity and healthy sexuality. Mr. McNamara’s presentation, “The problem of speaking for porn: Bareback pornography and gay subjectivity in the times of HIV/AIDS,” linked the three prevailing moral panics around pornography, homosexuality, and HIV/AIDS in his thought provoking and feminist look at the various arguments for and against bareback pornography in terms of viewers and actors. Ms. Willock’s presentation, “Black lace panties: Sexual surrogacy, disability, and pleasure,” examined the ableist assumptions that society makes about sexuality, the negation of sexual agency for disabled people, and the option of sexual surrogates as a means of that sexual agency. Both of these presentations pushed the boundaries of what was explored throughout the rest of the day, asking audience members to investigate their own attitudes about sexual agency, fantasy, and pleasure.

The busy and inspiring conference culminated in an interactive performance and art installation entitled “The Wendy House,” which explored the gender roles and sexuality of colonialism through the lenses of Tinker Bell and Wendy. The experience took place long after the childhood tale left Neverland. These characters engaged in high-art recitations and interacted with the audience in their ‘drug-addled’ states, both pining for Peter Pan and competing for the attention of the audience.  The performance piece asked us to rethink what we know about gender, female sexuality, and our own childhood fairy tales and was an interesting way to round out a conference of intriguing information.

As sexuality researchers know, sexuality is a tender topic in our society, with many feeling nervous at just the word. ASU’s Moral Panics in Sexuality Conference served to explore exactly what aspects of society cause uneasiness and how we, as sexuality researchers, sex educators, and sex-positive activists can start to unpack the moral panics of sexuality in society today in order to resist the present paradigm of repressive sexual ethics and moralism.

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robin_darling website

J. Robin Darling graduated from San Francisco State University with a Master’s in Sexuality in 2011. She obtained a Bachelor’s degree in Sociology from the University of California, San Diego in 2004. Her master’s thesis explored identity negotiation with and queer community integration for sexual minority women partnered with trans men. Robin’s research interests include weight and body image in relationship to female sexuality and an exploration of the ways that race, class, and disability intersect with sexual identity. She currently works for the CRGS as a research assistant and the NSRC as the Internship Program Coordinator. Ms. Darling received SFSU’s 2010 Jim Brogan Teaching Scholarship. Additionally, Robin volunteers with The Catalyst Project, a center for anti-racist political education and movement building in the San Francisco Bay Area.