restricted access 3. Moral panics
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Moral panics In 1941 the English novelist SylviaTownsend Warner wrote to an American friend comparing the German propaganda machine to "a clown with homicidal mania - ludicrous and terrifying both at once".1 However we may personallyrespond to the general sleep of reason surrounding Aids, we are nonetheless obliged to try to make some wider sense of the social climate in which we find ourselves. Writing in London Portrait earlier this year, John Withington described the number of people with Aids in the United States as "fairly small" (16,000), a figure which in itself offers a profound and significant underestimate. The 300 British cases were regarded as "small beer" compared to the notorious influenza epidemic which killed some twenty million people worldwide after the First World War. Such judgements and comparisons are all the more odious for the casual, matterof -fact way in which they are presented, as if Aids and the influenza epidemic of 1918 co-existed in some timeless dimension of abstract medical statistics, as well as mischievously conflating the very different issues of infection and contagion. Withington suggests that the HIV virus "seems to behave completely differently" in Africa where, we learn, it "seems to affect men and women equally", concluding that "perhaps the virus just behaves differently in the tropics." It is nonsense such as this which makes up the greater part of Aids commentary in the West, with an ideological stethoscope stuffed firmly in its ears to block out any approach to Aids which does not conform in advance to the values and language of a homophobic science - a science, that is, which does not regard gay men as fully or properly human. Thus, according to Peter Seitzman, a Manhattan doctor, American "hospital policies have more to do with other patients' fears than a concern for the health of Aids patients".2 Five years into the epidemic, the "commonsense" of Aids commentary continues to register endless concern at the (non-existent)threat of infection by casual contact, to the complete disavowal of the real and constant threat which other sick people in hospitals present to people with Aids, whose 38 3 MORAL PANICS damaged immune system render them so vulnerable to other people's disease. Thus, commentary produces expectations, and expectations fan out into lived experience. "An eighteen year-old Coventry man, who thought he had caught Aids after drinking from the same bottle as a gay man, punched and killed him, Warwick Crown Court heard on Friday." The man received a three-months sentence in this "wholly exceptional case''.' "Theatre cleaners are threatening to boycott a group of gay actors because they are frightened of catching Aids".4 Such stories are invariably accompanied by denials that Aids can be contracted via casual contact, but their framing is always top heavy, focusing on fear rather than allaying it, dramatising anxiety rather than alleviatingit. The most widely favoured explanation amongst lesbian and gay commentators of the social climate surrounding Aids lies in the theory of moral panics. Drawing on the influential school of "new" criminology from the 1960s, which tried to explain the social context of crime and "deviance", Stanley Cohen described in 1972 how societies "appear to be subject, every now and then, to periods of moral panic. A condition, episode, person or groups of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests; its nature is presented in a stylised and stereotypical fashion by the mass media; the moral barricades are manned by editors, bishops, politicians and other right-thinking people; . . . Sometimes the panic passes over and is forgotten, except in folk-lore and collective memory; at other times it has more serious and long-lasting repercussions and might produce such changes as those in legal and social policy or even in the way that society perceivesitself."' For Cohen the mass media provides "a main source of information about the normative contours of a society . . . about the boundaries beyond which one should not venture and about the shapes the devil can assume."' The mass media is understood to construct "pseudo-events" according to the dictates of an unwritten moral agenda which constitutes newsworthiness. Thus "rumour . . . substitutes for news when institutional channels fail",7 and in ambiguous situations "rumours should be viewed not as forms of distorted or pathological communication: they make sociological sense as co-operative improvisations, attempts to reach a meaningful collective interpretation of what happened by pooling available resources."8 39 POLICING DESIRE Subsequent writers such as Stuart...