The 19th Annual Cultural Studies Conference, “Global Moral Panics,” will take place in the Fall Semester. The concept of a “moral panic” has been enormously useful to students of social life across the disciplines. Moral panics are instances in which agents of social control, particularly the police, but also the media and other agents of government and the private sector, amplify a given deviance in the public imagination. Moral panics are not completely made up; they have concrete phenomena behind them. In identifying targets of collective anxiety, however, they are wonderfully diagnostic of prevailing fears, values and hopes.
A strong candidate for a consequential moral panic in our day is the question of human trafficking. The hype abounds with fury for the evil of the pimps and coyotes, sympathy for the innocent victims, often pictured as nubile and young, and fiery resolution to rescue. Hugely exaggerated numbers elevate the decibel level of outrage. From mainstream media representations, one would think that the vast majority of human trafficking is sex trafficking. The focus on sex work rouses prudish outrage and eclipses the view of laborers who cross borders to survive, performing non-sexual work that is as or more difficult, dangerous, and degrading than sex work, and much more poorly paid. Absent is any analysis of the global inequalities that send some part of the world’s poor into motion to find work. Few voices take the least bit notice of the inherent coercions of capitalism to force people to sell their labor anywhere, ensuring poor working conditions for many laborers native to a given country. Few observe how neoliberal capitalism pushes people harder and further to the world’s archipelago of margins. Within the discussion of sex trafficking itself, there is little to no sense of the structures of patriarchy and male privilege that make sex work tactical for women and young people of all genders, and of the fetishizing and exoticizing charge of orientalism that makes it more profitable for people from certain regions when they travel to labor in others.
This conference will examine global moral panics as the world’s dispossessed in motion, and consider the range of state, market, and cultural forces that shape their acts of border crossing. Applying conceptual tools from cultural analysis such as discourse and representation to critique the reformist models that dominate law and social science, the presentations in this two-day conference will offer alternate framings of human trafficking, migration, disease transmission, and criminality. They will introduce analyses of self and other, space and place, citizen and criminal, and national and foreigner into discussions of global moral panics. Presenters will interrogate how conventional framings of crises support specific governance projects by upholding particular visions of social order and global “security” that serve the needs of transnational capital.
To be announced