Moral panics, or instances of mass hysteria, have occurred throughout history. Two of the most notorious are the Salem Witch Trials of the 1690s and the Satanic Panic of the 1980s and '90s. The panics almost exclusively involve women and children and fears for their safety, especially from sexual abuse.
We are in the midst of another such panic, but despite the similarities to past episodes, we are still unable to recognize it as such. The current panic has been playing out in the military and on college campuses for nearly a decade, but with the advent of the #MeToo movement, the mass hysteria is creeping into our regular legal system as well. The following are five of the biggest signs that we are experiencing another bout of mass hysteria, this time over sexual assault and harassment.
1. Due Process Goes Out The Window
Due process is the cornerstone of our legal system, but in times of mass hysteria, it becomes the enemy. In Salem, those accused of witchcraft were presumed guilty and, in many cases, denied counsel. The only evidence presented against them was an accusation.
This was similarly the case during the Satanic Panic several decades ago. The only evidence presented against the accused were allegations from children, who alternated between plausible claims of sexual abuse (which lacked even limited physical evidence) to fanciful claims of Satanic ritual killings. Children who attended the Little Rascals day care in Edenton, North Carolina, for example, made accusations that they were taken out to the ocean and thrown overboard for sharks. Children at the McMartin Preschool claimed to travel to outer space in a hot-air balloon. These allegations, of course, were ignored while the accusations of sexual abuse were pursued.
Those accused at the time were considered “guilty until proven innocent.” Suggesting that evidence be weighed, or due process be followed, was met with scorn from those who insisted the accused were guilty. In his lengthy article for The New Yorker, Lawrence Wright followed a case of alleged sexual abuse and satanic ritual in Thurston County, Washington. The Under-Sheriff for the county, Neil McClanahan, said: “Our survivors are very traumatized. To question their credibility would cause them to be re-traumatized. They’re so fragile.”
We see this same claim being made now on college campuses. The Obama administration strongly discouraged cross-examination of students claiming to be sexual assault victims because allowing their alleged abuser (or his counsel or anyone else) to question them would “re-traumatize” them. Legal counsel for college students is often denied, and if an attorney is allowed in the hearing, they are barred from offering guidance or speaking on behalf of their client. Many students aren’t even provided the specific allegations against them before they’re told to defend themselves. Often, only campus investigators’ biased notes exist of interviews, instead of audio or video. This was also the case in the Little Rascals trial — only therapists' notes survived.
We’re now told, quite firmly, that due process keeps sexual assault victims from coming forward. Having to tell their story multiple times, having to face their accuser, having to provide evidence of their claims, being questioned about inconsistencies or fallacies — all these things are now considered harmful, but only for those making sexual assault accusations. Accusers of other crimes are still seen as capable of surviving the legal system.
2. “Believe The Victim”
This may be the biggest tell of a moral panic. An accusation, we’re told, is sufficient enough. With due process being considered anathema to victims, accusations are all the evidence needed. During the Little Rascals case in North Carolina, some jurors didn’t believe the accusations, but during deliberations were bullied by other jurors if they didn’t believe the children.
Parents of children involved in the Little Rascals case told Frontline: “No child would lie about something like this.” In Wright’s article about the Ingram case in Washington, he wrote:
“These two hypotheses form the intellectual frame of the Ingram investigation: first, that the depth of the repression is a function of the intensity of the trauma; and, second, that victims must be believed. Once a victim’s account is believed, the evidence in a case may be stretched to fit it. Often, it’s a big stretch.” Paul Ingram himself said of his daughters, who made the accusations against him: “They wouldn’t lie about something like this.”
During the McMartin preschool episode, parents formed a group called “Believe the Children,” even though no evidence of the alleged abuse existed.
Today, we hear “believe all women” or “believe the victims.” Politicians such as former Vice President Joe Biden and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton repeat this phrase. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) uses some form of this phrase a lot, even when no evidence exists.
They are not actually saying we should believe victims, because if we knew someone was a victim, we would know they’re telling the truth. What politicians and celebrities who use this phrase are actually saying is to believe every accusation. It is dangerous, and in high-profile case after high-profile case, they have been proven wrong; Duke Lacrosse and the Rolling Stone rape hoax being the most obvious.
3. Misleading And Faulty Statistics
In times of mass hysteria, people try to justify gutting due process by claiming the alleged problem — sexual abuse — is widespread and using statistics to back it up. But these statistics are not evidence and often the result of shoddy research or cherry-picked and misrepresented for effect.
Multiple surveys were created during the Satanic Panic. One limited survey conducted by psychologist Richard Peterson, who worked with police during Paul Ingram’s investigation, found about 25% of therapists in Tacoma and Seattle had treated alleged victims of satanic abuse. A survey from the American Psychological Association conducted in 1991 found that 30% of respondents had treated someone alleging ritual abuse, and 93% of those said in a follow-up survey that they believed the claims.
Another social panic, this one about child abductions and occurred around the same time as the Satanic Panic, used a grossly exaggerated figure to suggest children across the country were in danger of being kidnapped. The media and others claimed 50,000 children were abducted a year, when the actual number was around 600 (still frightening, but far from 50,000).
In today’s sex assault panic, we see multiple inflated statistics allegedly confirming an epidemic. We’re told that 20% of female undergrads, and 33% of women in the U.S. total, have experienced sexual assault. We’re told false accusations are rare (even though the statistic pertains to proven false allegations, which are difficult to conclude) and therefore the vast majority are true. The truth is that there are a range of categories for accusations, a small percentage are proven false, and a small percentage result in a guilty verdict. Everything in between is uncertain.
4. Evidence, Schmevidence
As due process goes out the window, so does the need for evidence. During these times of mass hysteria, things that would otherwise be considered evidence that a crime was not committed or that an accuser is lying in any other situation are dismissed as evidence of the crime itself.
In the Paul Ingram case, as doubts began to mount about his guilt, his daughter Julie presented a threatening letter addressed to her allegedly from her father. Detectives quickly recognized the handwriting as Julie’s own, but Under-Sheriff McClanahan insisted this forgery was evidence of the trauma Julie had endured and insisted this behavior was typical of victims like her.
Prosecutors also attempt to withhold evidence in high-profile cases that fall in line with moral panics. In the McMartin trial, district attorneys withheld a letter written by the original accuser, Judy Johnson, who was the mother of one of the children. The letter claimed that, in addition to physical abuse, the child was taken to see a “goatman,” and that one of the McMartin’s had “drilled a child under the arms.” In Ingram’s case, prosecutors attempted to withhold a report written by an expert they had brought in, psychologist Richard Ofshe, who had questioned the accuser’s claims. Prosecutors initially refused to turn this report over to the defense, claiming it was not real evidence, but were ultimately ordered to comply.
In today’s sexual assault panic, the dismissal of exculpatory evidence runs rampant. On college campuses, accusers who continue to socialize with men they later accuse of sexual assault and who sent flirtacious and friendly text messages are said to be showing signs of trauma. When Emma Sulkowicz (better known as “Mattress Girl”) accused a man of violently raping her, but continued to reach out to him and make plans to see him, she was allowed to explain that away as wanting to “talk” to him about the rape. At Vassar College, a female accuser told a man with whom she had sex that she had a “wonderful time” and apologized for leading him on. But once she accused him, she said those messages “did not correctly reflect her feelings” because she was in “shock and disbelief” about the sexual encounter. The Vassar student was expelled.
When witnesses contradict the accuser’s claims, they’re dismissed in favor of other witnesses — often friends of the accuser who were not actually present during the encounter — who claim she was distraught afterwards. When accusers admit they “may have stretched the truth” and only made the accusation because they were “pissed off” at the man they accused, they’re still considered victims and such statements are disregarded.
There is absolutely nothing an accused person can present that would actually be considered exculpatory. Meanwhile, any and all evidence just reinforces the accuser’s trauma and truthfulness.
5. Pseudo-Scientific Theories About Memory Reign Supreme
The science of memories always pops up during moral panics. During the Satanic Panic, child psychologists claimed children who didn’t remember the sexual abuse were repressing those memories. The psychologists simply needed to coax those memories out, but in the process they actually implanted false memories into the children by inadvertently bullying them into making outrageous claims.
In the Ingram case in Washington, even Paul Ingram was made to believe he was repressing memories — both of the abuse he committed and childhood abuse committed against him.
On college campuses, therapists, friends, and school administrators help corrupt accuser’s memories (which are often foggy due to alcohol) by telling them that a drunken hook-up was actually sexual assault. Once the idea is implanted, an accuser fills in the gaps in their memory with the idea that they must have been sexually assaulted, and interpret consensual acts in that way.
We also now see trauma “experts” insisting that everything is evidence of trauma and making claims that contradict other claims. We’re told that trauma makes memories more vivid, or that it can block out certain memories. We’re told that the closer to an event, the better someone remembers, while also being told that memories become clearer long after an event occurred.
In reality, none of this can be used to guarantee whether an accuser is being truthful or making a 100% accurate claim.
A traumatic experience does not create a factually accurate memory, as many suggest. These memories can be distorted in multiple ways. New details can be introduced through intentional or unintentional remembering and can then be absorbed into the original memory without the person realizing these details never happened. Remembering trauma can also make it more intense than it actually was.
A large volume of studies — spanning decades — consistently show that our memories are not a reliable source of information, and can be corrupted and distorted incredibly easily. Witnesses to traumatic events — such as those who witness a shooting or other horrific crime — are often wrong about what they saw. Thousands are wrongfully convicted based on incorrect eyewitness identifications.
Yet still, we’re told that accusations must be believed and that no one would lie about this sort of thing. Many people may not be lying, but simply misremembering something and believing that incorrect memory.