The Purge of the Deviants May Go Too Far

Sociologist Emile Durkheim would find validation for his theory of deviance in the fury surrounding sexual harassment and abuse by powerful men in politics, the media, business, and academia. More than one hundred years ago, Durkheim argued that the reason acts of deviance are identified and publicly punished is because defining deviant behavior reinforces social order, and inhibits future deviance. The kinds of public punishment and shaming that Hollywood celebrities and media stars have endured these past weeks affirms our collective beliefs and provides a stabilizing function for society. But, as in all moral panics, the innocent often become collateral damage—sacrificed to make amends for previous injustices.

Definitions of Deviance Change

Durkheim concluded that by defining some forms of behavior as deviant, we are affirming the social norms of the society. But, what puzzles many of us is why the definition of deviance varies so dramatically over time. We cannot always predict who will become defined as deviant, and when the definitions will change. We do know that power plays the most important role in identifying who gets to define deviant behavior.

Until recently, allegations of sexual harassment and abuse by powerful men were not taken seriously—they were not viewed as deviant because the acts were perpetrated by powerful men on less powerful women. Now, the power to define sexual deviance has shifted to women—those who have collaborated with the media to bring attention to the issue and reform how such behavior is perceived and dealt with by society.

Men on college campuses have been enduring the new definition of deviance, where due process protections have been withheld from them for nearly two decades. Title IX administrators on college campuses like Georgetown and Boston College admit that there is “no presumption of innocence” for males accused of sexual assault. It is ironic that the same congressmen—like John Conyers (D-NY)—who helped create the Title IX nightmare that pressed colleges and universities to withhold due process protections for students is now himself accused of sex abuse, and demanding due process.

Likewise, the same faculty members who failed to protect the students on their campuses from the kangaroo courts that were set up to deal with Title IX violations are now themselves caught up in that same dilemma. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported last week that two Stanford English professors—one retired and one deceased—have now been accused of rape. And, in even more alarming allegations, renowned professor Tariq Ramadan, a scholar of Islam at Oxford University, has been accused of rape by Henda Ayari, a French feminist author. Four Swiss women claim he made sexual advances to them when they were studying with him as teenagers in Geneva.

The UK Telegraph reports that one of the accusers claimed that Ramadan made unsuccessful sexual advances to her when she was 14 years old. Another alleged he had sexual relations with her in the back of his car when she was just 15 years old. Avari accused Ramadan of raping and assaulting her in a hotel during a conference they attended together in Paris in 2012. Ramadan has taken a leave of absence from Oxford University, where he holds an academic chair financed by Qatar. He denies all the allegations, claiming in a Facebook post that he is being targeted by a “campaign of slander clearly orchestrated by my longtime adversaries.”

There are indeed some adversaries. In 2010, Ramadan was fired from his teaching position at a Dutch University and from an advisory position with the City of Rotterdam amid allegations that his Iranian-funded television program Islam and Life, airing on Iran’s Press TV, was irreconcilable with his duties in Rotterdam. In 2004 Ramadan had to resign his faculty appointment at the University of Notre Dame’s Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies because his visa was revoked by the State Department. The grandson of Hassan al-Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Ramadan presents himself as a reformist and says he rejects terrorism. But, it seems the State Department thought otherwise.

The Notre Dame controversy triggered a series of protests against the Bush state department by professors throughout the country. The Rev. Edward Malloy, then the President of Notre Dame decried the decision claiming that “We have no reason to think he is a mole or an underground instigator…we see him as a really good fit for our peace institute.”

Well, perhaps not. With a culture shift that has empowered women, formerly acceptable behaviors are now newly defined as deviant. Sometimes the redefinition goes too far as in many of the false allegations of sexual abuse on college campuses like the Duke lacrosse case, and the University of Virginia false fraternity house rape allegations published in The Rolling Stone.  Durkheim would see these false allegations as a kind of “correction” –an over-reaction to formerly unpunished deviant behavior.

Related: Harvey Weinstein and Higher Ed

For decades—until the 1960s—sociologists viewed identifying deviant behavior as central to the process of generating and sustaining cultural values, clarifying moral boundaries and promoting social solidarity. But, defining by consensus what is acceptable conduct is exactly what had disappeared. In the aftermath of the radical egalitarianism of the 1960s, merely to label a behavior as deviant came to be viewed as rejecting the equality—perhaps the very humanity—of those engaging in it.

Most sociologists became convinced that the sociology of deviance was more about the selective censure by those with power—and the subject matter became contested. Once undergraduate students began referring to the college course in deviant behavior as the course in “nuts, sluts, and perverts,” most universities deleted the once-popular course from their catalogs. By the mid-1970s, the overt deconstruction of the concept of deviance was complete. Few university campuses offered the course, and even fewer books were written about the concept of deviant behavior.

But, in the early 1990s, a lone voice encouraged sociologists to consider these problematic behaviors once again. Addressing the 87th Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association in 1992, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan did the unthinkable – he spoke of a “worrisome increase in deviant behavior.” In a speech entitled “Defining Deviancy Down” the Senator warned that for the previous 25 years, society has chosen not to notice behaviors that would be otherwise disapproved or even punished. He complained that we had been redefining deviancy so as to exempt much conduct previously stigmatized and also quietly raising the level of what is considered normal in categories where behavior is now abnormal by any earlier standard.

The speech was received with subdued applause. Few sociologists were willing to be disrespectful toward one of “their own,” especially since the Senator favored the same progressive policies they endorsed. But most dismissed Senator Moynihan’s speech as the “nostalgic musings” of an old-fashioned sociologist who had lost his way during his years in politics.

Still, Moynihan’s turn of phrase became ingrained in our political vocabulary. Then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani invoked the phrase when discussing the ways in which he revitalized the City of New York. And, when the Monica Lewinsky scandal emerged in 1998, some conservative commentators accused President Clinton of having “defined the presidency down.” Everyone knew what that meant, even though few were willing to use the word “deviant” to refer to the President.

There will be dozens—perhaps hundreds more men identified as deviant. Many of them will be innocent, but in the midst of a moral panic like we are experiencing, moral entrepreneurs have the power. Eventually, as in the Salem witch trials, the accusers will begin to be accused and truly innocent people with power will be targeted. We will begin to realize that we need to temper our allegations and perhaps provide due process protections. For now, though, the power to define deviancy up has shifted to women—and the public punishments and shaming have just begun.


  • Anne Hendershott

    Anne Hendershott is a professor of sociology and Director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio.  She is the author of Status Envy: The Politics of Catholic Higher Education (Transaction Books) and The Politics of Deviance (Encounter Books). 

6 thoughts on “The Purge of the Deviants May Go Too Far

  1. “The Purge of Deviants may go too far”????
    No kidding?

    Isn’t the whole idea of an official “Purge” to go too far? To sweep whatever it is we like to label as ‘unwanted’ out with whatever real garbage does exist? How better to rid ourselves of our enemies than a good, old-fashioned, self-righteous Purge, filled with Virtue Voguing and much public shaming?!

    The question is not “will it go too far” – of course it will. The question is much more fundamental and much more frightening: how has the expression of normal, human sexuality become labeled and condemned as deviant??

    “What?” you may exclaim, “Do we consider Matt’s desk button, his ‘command’ to take off a blouse, Al’s butt grabs and attempted French Kisses (and yucky tongue), and Conyer’s sexual propositions, et al to be “normal”? The answer, of course, is yes. Normal is Wide, Deep, and Big.

    Men & Women are sexual creatures, each designed & built to appeal to the Other (and to find the Other sexually attractive). Thank God. That’s what makes the world go round; that’s why we’re all here still crawling about on the surface of the earth. Men find women to be naturally ‘interesting’; women find men to be equally so. Each typically (especially in public) prefers to present himself/herself to the Other’s Gaze in as positive a light as possible.

    Now given this ineluctable sexual attraction… we will inevitably encounter (as adults living in an adult world) sexual come-ons, sexual advances, flirtations (conscious and subconscious), and even explicit sexual invitations. And on each occasion, the one making the advance is seeking to leverage whatever assets and talents he or she has to get what he or she wants. They are seeking, in other words, an equitable ‘exchange’ within the sexual market.

    Are we surprised that wealthy, famous, successful men leverage their wealth, fame & success to ‘acquire’ sex, beauty, and youth? Are we surprised that young, sexy, beautiful women leverage all that to ‘acquire’ wealth, fame, and success? Of course not. This has happened forever….just as the HS Quarterback leverages what he has to date the Prom Queen, just as she leverages what she has to date the QB. This exchange & leverage/counter-leverage is constant. When we discovered that Tony Randall at 75 had married a 25 yr. old intern, we only thought it was mildly funny (perhaps a joke on Carson that night). But when we discover that Al slipped an unwanted tongue into a rehearsal kiss or Matt was having sex in a locked office with junior colleagues (“he told her to take off her blouse!!!”) – we are shocked,shocked that sex has once again raised its lustful head (“inappropriately”, we sniff)

    As for this mythological ‘power’… where does it really lie? Certainly Laurer, Weinstein, O’Reilly, Conyers, Clinton, etc all had the power which goes with a certain kind of wealth & position…. But equally obviously the women with whom they dallied (or sought to ‘dally’) possessed the power to destroy that wealth & position( as Laurer & Franken & Weinstein, et al, have learned). And both sides, obviously, possessed the ‘power’ to attract & leverage the other.

    Truthfully, every relationship is ‘power-imbalanced’. No one is ever politically, financially, socially, aesthetically, famously, personally the absolute equal of anyone else. If you want what I have MORE than I want what you have, then I am the more powerful (for now)…and if or when that changes, then the imbalance changes.

    All this is normal.
    Crudity is normal. Vulgarity is normal. People using people is normal. Sex is normal (even if it’s not stamped with the imprimatur of ‘marriage’ (a la Anna Nicole Smith & J.Howard Marshall). A celebrity locking his door to have sex with a colleague is normal (unless you truly believe that Matt Laurer actually raped his partner….or that a multi-month affair was NOT consensual). We may not like it. We may shake our heads and disapprove. But to label all this “deviance” from an acceptable social ‘norm’ is nonsense; it sits at the very heart of that norm. It always has.

    And every time a sexual advance is unwanted, an adult is fully capable of rejecting it (until or unless actual felony force is applied).

    This is not deviance; this is hysteria.

  2. With a culture shift that has empowered women, formerly acceptable behaviors are now newly defined as deviant.

    But these behaviors were not acceptable. They were not acceptable to the women who had them forced on them.

    It was not acceptable to me at age 5 to have a man show me his penis. Or at age 8. Or at age 12. It was not acceptable to me at age 18 to have a customer grab my butt while I was waiting tables. Or at age 23 to have a customer kiss me. Or a co-worker my father’s age start massaging my neck while I was on the phone with a customer. (And my stories are so, so mild compared to what other women have experienced.)

    These behaviors have never been acceptable to the people who had to endure them.

    1. Clearly your experiences were never acceptable. A better example of broadening the definition to absurdity is illustrated by the hubbub in Canada.

      A female member of parliament claims she’s been extremely traumatized by another MP joking during a photograph. His crime? Saying This isn’t my idea of a threesome,’

      His mild double-entendre was referring to members of different parties being together for a photograph. He apologized several times, but that’s still not enough for the victim industry.

      And so it goes. Women are so fragile, that a comment that’s at most mildly suggestive is cause for hysterics.

  3. Prof. Henderrshott–
    That was a really excellent (and timely) article. Thank you. This “moral panic” is already becoming absurd when just the accusation that “He did something inappropriate” is enough to destroy a man. Is it asking too much for the accuser to define exactly what specific act constituted “the crime”? Right now it’s mostly left up to our imaginations. I agree that we need some sort of due process protections.

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