When does a watershed become a sex panic?

But the boundaries are already blurring. The perpetrators who have suffered consequences now range from Harvey Weinstein, who allegedly committed multiple assaults and deployed an army of agents to keep women silent, to Matt Taibbi, the journalist, who co-edited an aggressively misogynistic newspaper in Russia and co-wrote a fictionalized memoir which contained bragging about feats of sexual coercion. No woman has accused Taibbi of actual sexual coercion. In between lies Louis C.K., who had no physical contact with his victims. That is not to say that, in C.K.’s case, no assault took place—all available information indicates that his actions were sadistic and frightening. But the distinctions between rape and coercion are meaningful, in the way it is meaningful to distinguish between, say, murder and battery. Some of the names on the supposedly secret list of “shitty media men,” which everyone in the media world has seen, are of men who appear to be merely awkward, unskilled communicators, while others are alleged to have committed actual acts of violence and coercion.

A moral panic is always a reaction to something that has been there all along but has evaded attention—until a particular crime captures the public imagination. Sex panics in the past have begun with actual crimes but led to outsize penalties and, more importantly, to a generalized sense of danger. The object of fear in America’s recent sex panics is the sexual predator, a concept that took hold in the nineteen-nineties. The sexual predator is characterized by his qualities perhaps more than his actions—hence the need for preventive detention and sex-offender registries. The word “predator” is once again, unnervingly, becoming central to the conversation.