Moral panics everywhere

One of the interesting things to come out of my research was the snapshot of the tone of moral panics in New Zealand pertaining to women’s sexuality, and how the media chooses to frame it (reflecting  political editorial agendas).

A pertinent example is the media coverage of Dr Albert Makaray, an Egyptian-Christian gynecologist who has had considerable airtime from the media.  His most classic description of young women analogises them to paddock-mating sheep.    In this video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YuVP9GW8Hlc) , he talks mostly about the problem of promiscuity and alcohol as related to female subjects – women are the most promiscuous, the most at risk.  What he doesn’t consider is the cultural discourse we have around teaching women that they have to protect themselves from being sexually assaulted, and not our young men about not sexually assaulting, and how New Zealand drinking cultural performances are particular to us as a country (and therefore not solely determined by chemistry and physiology).   What he is not referencing are the realities of the drink/sex culture, and how they are taken up by young people, beyond the ones he sees in his clinic.  Makary’s opinions are inaccurate and extreme fear-mongering: for example, he says that young people get drunk and have sex with whoever is beside them at the time.  If this was the case the the number of lifetime partners New Zealanders would have would far outstrip the 20 reported by Durex (whose survey may not necessarily represent a fair sampling of the nation).   And the young women I talked to would have had hundreds more sexual partners than they reported, as many were out drinking most weekends.

Beyond what he is saying, the fact is, he is quickly being picked up by the media and his voice disseminated through the social discourse as an attractor point of conversation.  A quick Google search of his name brings back over 100,000 results, highlighting the amount of media airtime he receives, and the number of those who are in some way engaged either in propagating his opinions (and using him as (what I consider to be) an ill-qualified expert (he is a practitioner, not a researcher)), or attempting to talk back to him/his proponents.

What also needs to be referenced is the use of his voice by the media and its moral/political agenda .  Media is a mechanism for shaping social discourses and they do so in a number of particular ways.  Because we as individuals often have no experience of the many of the events happening in the world we rely on stories from others and frequently use media sources to fill information gaps(1), often with an idea that there is a knowingness that presents information in a way superior to our own individual analyses – they are after all the experts/professionals, and we accept what they present as such.  What is, however, often washed out of the presentation of news events is the atypical nature of stories that make it to the headlines.  They are headlines because they are unusual, not common events. To make these suitable for inclusion in the drive to present more in less time, stories are cleaved of that very important point, along with other contextual information that would allow the judging/viewing public to make better assessments of the salience of stories, their reflections of the commonly lived experience, and their bearing on personal realities.

These issues are made more problematic when we consider how the media frames story-kinds.  Examination of, for example, how media frames stories of crime points to a predominance of punitive and individualist slants that place the cause of crime at the feet of the individual rather than examining its broader social issues (2). Framing of feminism and feminist activities also shows negative framing, away from the positive social impacts to a reduction of feminist agents/agency to harpies making mountains out of molehills.   These frames reflect political agendas – moral panics focus on risk towards political ends, and risk-focus always reflects a politics of social control and political investment.  When we hear about risk, we should ask ourselves, if we comply with risk-averse behaviour such as that being suggested, what does that mean in terms of broader social outcomes?

In this regard, what can we say about the over-representation of Makary in the media, especially in formal news sources, in comparison to those voices that would refute his claims, or argue differently regarding social issues?   The preference for sensationalising stories is obvious – headlines that describe young New Zealand women as mating in paddocks like sheep is bound to capture anyone’s attention.  Makary is aware of this – as a professional he does not use the language of his cohort, but chooses to use terms that will inflame and negatively frame in an attention-seeking way.  As do all of those with a cause.  His framing of young women reflects a highly vocal and powerful conservative politics in New Zealand that is very interested in maintaining a status quo of power differentials that locate efficacious social power and control primarily not in the hands of minority groups such as Maori, those with disabilities,  those in lower socio-economic bands, women, LGBTIQ,and so on, but in the hands of (most often) white, educated conservatives (usually men).  This political context provides significant privileges attached with not belonging to a minority, even if those that access those privileges are not active in enforcing them.

What is Makary supporting then?  He is not talking about a general adjustment of society – he is talking about a behavioural adjustment of one section of the population.  In his 2010 interview he noted that young women needed to return to their roles as sexual gatekeepers to keep a sexually uncontrolled male population in control. That promiscuity is the moral and social responsibility of women, in curbing their own sexual access and as a result curbing men’s.   To do this he stokes the moral panic that suggests young women have declining morals and self esteem, that they are promiscuous (doesn’t it take two people to have heterosex that results in unwanted pregnancy??).  Where in the past the moral panics around male sexuality and STIs put the onus on prostitutes as the source of the moral scourge, now Makary’s comments suggest that the problem of promiscuity is all about young women to the exclusion of young men – men now are less promiscuous – suggesting that instead of a few women servicing many men we now have a small number of men servicing many women.  Lucky chaps.  But more importantly, what this discourse suggests is a population of young women who are out of control.

We conceive of male sexuality as a biological drive that can be difficult for men to handle – it takes a strong and rational man not to succumb to his sexual urges, the dominant discourse goes.  But our discourse also places women as in control of a sexuality that is not as rampant and biologically driven – it is not obsessional or overwhelming and once it is turned on it it is not seen as a foregone conclusion that something must be done about it.  How then to account for these rampantly promiscuous women if they have no recourse to biology?  The evils of alcohol, lack of morality, low self-esteem, poor values system, lack of agency.  The list goes on.  Very few conversations come back to women wanting to have sex as rational agents.  Rather their many partners is a kind of moral or psychological pathology.  We don’t talk about those 20 partners as chosen, but only as the result of drunken one-night stands.   Needless to say, I didn’t talk to anyone who thought that their wanting to sleep with a variety of different men made them psychologically unwell, though many were aware that they may be judged that way.

What Makary is wanting is to curb the behaviour of young women and return us to a society where fewer people crossed his office threshold with STIs and unplanned pregnancies.  (Fair enough.)  And the way to do this is to reduce the number of people we sleep with.  I doubt the young woman who catches an STI from her first and only sexual partner would think that this strategy is of much help to her, however.  What Makary should be pushing for is a greater level of education about self-care and self-protection in sexual encounters.  And equally importantly he needs to push for education that teaches people how to care for and about those they are sleeping with.  When we consider that a large majority of negative complaints from young women regarding casual sex outcomes are to do with being poorly treated by either their casual sex partner, or their peer group (or fear of these things), it would suggest that how we treat people as experiencing ‘others’ is of primary importance.

Unfortunately care for the other directly contradicts moral panics and risk-culture propagation  where we are taught to consider the ‘other’ not as someone to be cared about but as someone who is a potential danger, a risk-vector of disproportionate negative consequences, that is it best to practice risk avoidance altogether than reap (disproportionately) negative outcomes.  So, don’t sleep with non-relationship partners, because he or she may have an STI, may not use protection, may sexually assault you, may negatively talk about you, may …. this is a very long list of cons.  The reality of course not so horrific.  Yes we do need to be mindful of our own safety, and that of others.  But to live in a culture of fear is to close down avenues of education and learning, of experience and enjoyment, of agency  action, response, evaluation, criticality, and common sense.  There is not room to care when fear is the disproportional emotional state.  And care, ethical self-care and care of the other, seems to me a much better solution to the problems inherent in contemporary western sexual culture than running around, drecying women who like to have sex with someone who isn’t a relationship partner.

Refs on request: Beale (2006);  (Green, 2009).

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