Posts Tagged “moral panic”

Jack-o-lantern Pumpkins, via PubliDomainPictures.NetFolks my age will remember the panics that kicked up, back in the ’70s and ’80s, about trick-or-treat candy being tampered with at Halloween. Either they were injected with poison or drugs, or had razor blades shoved in them. Every year, the media ran stories about this “danger” and advised parents to check their kids’ Halloween candy (as though the average parent would be able to easily detect any sabotage). That this annual scare was an urban legend with no basis in truth, didn’t matter; reporting on this danger was a reliable annual affair.

Over the last few years, with several states permitting the sale of marijuana, including what are called “edibles” containing the herb, the focus of this annual panic has shifted a bit. As reported, for example, in Philadelphia magazine, warnings are out that kids might be given marijuana treats (Archive.Is cached article):

New Jersey officials are warning parents to beware of a little “trick” this Halloween – marijuana-laced candy.…

According to the state Department of Health, there is “a significant presence of marijuana candy and other edible forms in New Jersey and nearby states.”

Wes Culp, a spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Department of Health, said the department “is on high alert for any number of things that could affect children” during this time of year, but the department hasn’t seen any issues with weed-laced candy yet.

I appreciate that Culp admits officials haven’t “seen any issues with weed-laced candy yet.” But that’s the real point here: There’s no evidence any children have ever gotten “edibles” in their trick-or-treat bags (cached). None!

People really need to stop with all of this bullshit. Yes, it’s at least plausible that, given the existence of pot-laced “edibles,” some idiot might give it out to a trick-or-treater. Yeah, it could happen. But that it’s plausible does not mean it will happen. It just doesn’t. Let’s stop panicking already over something that’s never even happened. OK?

Photo credit: PublicDomainPictures.Net.

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Jack O' Lantern - Witches' BrewHalloween seems to bring out the ridiculous in a lot of Americans. And the mass media have more than a little to do with it. A common mantra every year is that children are sickened and sometimes killed by trick-or-treat candy, every year, because they ingested a “treat” that had been poisoned. Unfortunately for this all-too-common myth, it simply is not true (WebCite cached article). This year, the concern voiced by local media here in Connecticut is not toxic treats, but sex offenders. For instance, WTIC-AM 1080 in Hartford offers this proud announcement that the state plans to head off this danger (cached):

Connecticut Department of Correction parole officers will be conducting unannounced home visits and surveillance of the roughly 250 sex offenders under their supervision, for Halloween.

Offenders have been advised to have no contact with minors, keep their outside lights off, and not answer the door for trick or treaters.

And the venerable Hartford Courant dutifully carries a virtually-identical story (cached):

Trick-or-treaters may not be the only ones showing up on Connecticut doorsteps this Halloween.

Parole officers will make unannounced visits to sex offenders’ homes, although the offenders may not know it, the Department of Correction announced Thursday.

They’ll be watching to make sure offenders are not having contact with minors — even those who show up at their homes. The sex offenders have been told to keep their outside lights off and refrain from answering their doors, the agency stated in a press release.

Right at the start, let me state that there is clearly a potential danger here, that some child might unknowingly knock on the door of a sex offender. Clearly that’s possible. I don’t deny it, not in the slightest.

But let’s put this in perspective. It’s exceedingly rare for any child to go trick-or-treating alone, not to mention unsupervised. (We used to go out by ourselves when I was a kid, but that never happens these days. More’s the pity.) The chances that any given sex offender might answer the door and be faced with a lone trick-or-treater he might be able to molest, are extremely remote.

Making this an even more improbable scenario, please note that we’re talking about 250 sex offenders. Yes, that’s 250 … in a state with a population in excess of 3.5 million! The average child in Connecticut will not even go near a sex offender’s home in the first place. A child trick-or-treating at 25 homes (for instance) has a 0.179% chance of encountering a sex offender. That’s right, not even .2 percent of a chance.

(Updated to add: My figures here are wrong. CT has an average household size of 2.52. This means the odds of a trick-or-treater encountering a sex offender while visiting 25 homes, is actually 0.45%. Higher than I cited, but still certainly not significant.)

Talk about a ridiculous non-story. Give me a fucking break!

P.S. In the world of Christian religionism, it turns out that some of them are more than a bit miffed that Halloween is too non-Christian a holiday. So they’ve launched a campaign to celebrate Jesus Ween instead (cached). Yes, you read that right: Jesus Ween (cached). The less said about that, the better, I think … !

Photo credit: De’Nick’nise.

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Never underestimate the power of a moral panic to turn a society upside down. One example of a kind of moral panic which often gets out of control and leads to violence and death, is the phenomenon of the witch hunt. Other kinds of moral panics are a little less disruptive, such as the craziness over Satanic ritual abuse (which never really happened anywhere on the scale that was claimed back in the 80s). Another moral panic in the 20th century a bit less disruptive and sillier than that, is the campaign against comic books.

We may think we’ve risen above irrational moral panics, but the fact is that human nature has not changed, and — even though we live in the Information Age, with the entire Internet available to us — we are still vulnerable to “the madness of crowds,” as much as we ever were.

The most recent example of this is the vilification of “sexting,” or the sending of erotic images via electronic means (usually by cell-phone picture message), usually by minors. For instance, the Hartford Courant filed this “scare-journalism” report on this insidious trend which threatens to destroy America’s moral fiber and subject teens to the whims of the criminal justice system (WebCite cached article):

Sexting’s Pervasiveness, Dangers Detailed As Police, Lawyers Offer Ways To Shield Students

As if booze, drugs and tell-all Facebook profiles weren’t sufficiently alarming, parents should now add “sexting” to their well of worries.

That was part of the message Wednesday night at a district-sponsored public forum on technology and teens that drew about 200 people to the Conard High School auditorium. They were mostly parents, some of whom brought their kids, but it was the police officers and attorneys in the crowd and onstage who underscored the topic’s gravity.

As if to hammer home the horrific nature of this unconscionable crime, the Courant goes on to report:

“Sexting” is sending or receiving text messages that include nude or sexual images, and as Lt. Donald Melanson, a West Hartford police spokesman, told the hushed crowd, such images can be criminal.

Sexually explicit images of a child under age 16 are considered child pornography, and law enforcement finds itself “in a very difficult place” when dealing with sexting cases, Melanson said.

This article dutifully adds polling data which — supposedly — demonstrates how pervasive and damaging “sexting” is:

A report on sexting last month from the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, based on a survey of 800 minors, stated that 18 percent of youths aged 14-17 with cellphones reported receiving “sexually suggestive” nude or semi-nude images of someone they know. Moreover, 17 percent of teens who pay their own cellphone bills said they have sent provocative images via text messaging.

Unfortunately, polling data such as this … based as it is on self-reports … doesn’t actually prove anything. Teens have been known to make stuff up so they can brag about their behavior. (Really!)

To make this “scare” even worse, the Courant gratuitously adds that it’s not just a phenomenon of poverty … sexting is a plague that affects everyone:

State police spokesman Lt. J. Paul Vance said Wednesday afternoon that complaints about sexting have popped up across Connecticut, “across socioeconomic borders,” because young people don’t seem to realize that “a message can last for an eternity on cyberspace.”

“Once an image is sent, it cannot be retrieved,” Vance said. “You lose control over it. … Parents just don’t believe this goes on. But it does. It does.”

I could go on and relate the many scare tactics in this article. The facts of the matter, however, are two:

  1. Teens will be teens. They do occasionally trade erotic pictures. They once did this with snapshots. They now do it with camera phones. There’s nothing new here except the method they use. Figure it out, people.

  2. “Sexting” between minors is against the law in Connecticut (and I assume other states) solely because the laws against child pornography are absolute; there’s no reason an exception can’t be added for willing minors sending pictures of themselves to other people they know. Laws forbidding the sending of other children’s erotic pictures, even by other children, can be allowed to remain as is.

Really, there’s nothing to this except to encourage parents to be aware of what their kids are up to. Then again, it’s always been the case that parents should do this; nothing has changed in this regard!

Move along, folks. There’s nothing to see here.

P.S. Note that I am not in favor of kids sending erotic pictures to each other. It is a very stupid thing to do and they’re likely to regret having done it almost as soon as they hit “Send.” Nevertheless, there is no way I know of, to utterly prevent teens — or anyone of any age for that matter — from engaging in stupid behavior. The fact is that we need not frighten people or turn society upside down over it. It’s a problem that can easily be solved by proper parenting, but there is no reason why proper parenting should not be the norm, rather than the exception.

P.P.S. Memo to the Courant: I know circulation is off, but “scare journalism” is beneath Connecticut’s newspaper of record and the oldest paper in the country. Just stop already.

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Halloween inevitably creates “danger” scenarios, especially regarding trick or treat. Back when I was a kid we heard about poisoned candy. With maybe a couple of exceptions — including one in which a child was poisoned by a family member, not a stranger he’d solicited candy from during his trick or treat outing — these stories are pretty much unfounded.

The scare has moved on to new targets since then. Now the danger is sex offenders who will — the presumption goes — prey on visiting kids. CNN, among other media outlets, breathlessly reports:

During the week before Halloween each year, Lt. Steve Rose of the Sandy Springs Police Department in Georgia knocks on the doors of every registered sex offender in his jurisdiction.

Rose set out in his unmarked Dodge Charger Wednesday with a printout of 20 names to verify that the people on the list live where they say they live.

His mission brings him and members of his force to subdivisions, houses, hotels and and apartment buildings in this Atlanta bedroom community of about 85,000 people.

“We do this to give people a level of comfort so they know we’re keeping tabs on them,” said Rose, a former sex crimes detective with 34 years of police experience.

Gee, that’s so nice and comforting. The only trouble is, the whole thing is a crock! LiveScience reports, via Yahoo News:

Each year at Halloween, parents have concerns about trick-or-treating, and many believe that a danger far graver than chocolate overdose awaits their children in quiet neighborhoods: sex offenders.

This scare is fueled by alarmist news reports and police warnings. In many states, convicted sex offenders are required not to answer the door if trick-or-treaters come by, or to report to jail overnight. In many states including Texas and Arkansas offenders will be required to report to courthouses on Halloween evening for a mandatory counseling session. …

A new study shows that the public has little to fear from sex offenders on Halloween. The research, published in the September issue of Sexual Abuse: A Journal of Research and Treatment, examined 67,307 non-family sex offenses reported to law enforcement in 30 states over nine years. …

“There does not appear to be a need for alarm concerning sexual abuse on these particular days,” the researchers state. “Halloween appears to be just another autumn day where rates of sex crimes against children are concerned.”

The bottom line is that resources and money are being wasted:

Not only is the hype and fear unwarranted, but the study also suggests extra taxpayer dollars spent monitoring sex offenders on Halloween are wasted. All the mandatory counseling sessions, increased police presence, and so on had no effect at all on the incidence of sexual abuse on Halloween.

It’s time to grow up and stop already with moral panics and the scare tactics. That goes for the police departments looking to ratchet up their overtime budgets, and reporters in the mass media who know better than to frighten people without good reason. OK?

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