Sex-Crime Panic: A Journey to the Paranoid Heart of the 1950s

Miller, Neil. 2002. Sex-Crime Panic: A Journey to the Paranoid Heart of the 1950s. Los Angeles, CA: Alyson Publications.

In 1955 in Sioux City, Iowa, two children were sexually assaulted and killed. These crimes spurred one of many sex-crime panics from the 1930s to 1950s, including the passage of a sexual psychopath law and a roundup and institutionalization of men seen as potential large offenders due to having sex with other men. In this book, Miller explores this particular sex-crime panic, including the conditions that led up to it, the personal experiences of people involved, and what happened to those people afterward.

Amidst the American paranoia of the 1950s, attempts to address the crimes stirring the sex-crime panics of the era were struggling. Arrests were difficult, and when someone was actually imprisoned, the rehabilitation rate was low. Preemptively identifying people at risk of committing a sex crime, and attempting to address the issue in a mental hospital instead of in a prison, was seen as an enlightened, progressive step. Indeed, the ideas are good: this was an attempt to address mental health issues with mental health resources, to address social problems outside of a prison, and to provide preventative resources for people who are considered at higher risk for legal offense. However, the laws themselves were implemented in order to lock up socially undesirable people without requirement of a legal conviction and or resources for those incarcerated. To be released, a psychiatrist would have to determine that the detained person was not a threat to society.

This same era was also a time of vast academic and medical study of sexuality and gender; in 1948 the Kinsey Reports were published, and Alfred Kinsey got in touch with Harry Benjamin regarding a patient that started Benjamin’s entire research career on transsexuality. Criminologists were interested in sexuality as well, hoping to find better ways to deal with sex crimes, and in the 1930s the term sexual psychopath was put forward, suggesting that someone unbound for any reason by common standards and morals might be similarly unbound sexually. A person who was transient might also look at pornography, or have sex with other people of the same gender; and if they did those things, they might have sex with children, might rape, might kill. In 1952 the first Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) was published, setting standards for mental health diagnoses; homosexuality was listed as a sociopathic personality disturbance. Sexual behavior lacking social acceptance was perceived as threatening, sexual behavior between people of the same gender particularly so. Homosexual was often used interchangeably with terms like pervert, pedophile, and sexual psychopath as well.

The sexual psychopath bill passed in 1955 wasn’t the first of its kind, nor the ensuing roundup, and these efforts had not been previously successful. However, criticisms of these efforts were either ignored or perceived as arguments in favor: for example, since the idea of the bill was to screen minor offenders before they committed bigger crimes, the usage of previous laws to primarily punish minor offenders was seen as proof of the laws’ success.

The bill became a law, a mental health ward was established, and the roundup began. The Sioux City police force called on patrolman Dick Burke for sting operations, and Burke was particularly good at targeting homosexual activity, figuring out techniques like doing a sting on a holiday weekend so that they could hold off on filing charges, and put off how long news of the sting got to the newspaper. The county attorney, Don O’Brien, was under pressure from the public to start doing something about the sex crimes, so he had the men arrested in the stings declared “criminal sexual psychopaths” to be treated under the new law. They weren’t responsible for the sexual assaults and murders of these two children, and nearly all of them were guilty only of seeking out consensual sex with other men, but they were seen as the committers of future terrible sex crimes. O’Brien was new to office and determined to prove his competence to his city, and he succeeded at that.

The mental health ward was, of course, a failure. Unlike some other mental health hospitals trying to cure homosexuality, Mount Pleasant did not subject these men to electroshock therapy, lobotomies, hormone therapy, aversion treatments, or castration. But the hospital was expected to perform some sort of treatment, and the psychologists attempted to cure their patient’s homosexuality based on psychological standards of the time: were their mothers overbearing? Were these men seeking affection inappropriately? These men figured out different ways to survive this, while the Mount Pleasant psychologists and attendants developed doubts about the idea that their patients had anything to be “cured” in the first place.

The ward was closed in less than a year, as the psychologists couldn’t provide any evidence of progress toward a cure or potential for it. The men who had been sent there were released on parole, and at least one was billed part of the costs for his incarceration, a practice which is legal but rarely practiced. They struggled to pass background checks for employment, and most moved away from their friends, family and history in Sioux City. An arrest was made for the first of the two murders, with highly questionable evidence; no arrest was made for the second.

Miller’s writing is engaging and well balanced between more impersonal history and personal stories. It’s a great analysis of how laws develop based on social trends of the time, of how that development can fail, and of what happens to people when it fails. It’s also a fascinating piece of criminology history, and deals sensitively with one of the more complicated moving boundaries within crime definitions: who is a sex criminal, and what actually happens to people defined that way by our legal and social systems? I recommend it.

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