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Sex scandals are widely assumed to be tales of individual transgression, serving as reminders of the normative sexual order. This paper, a qualitative multiple-case comparison of three contemporary media-conveyed sex scandals narratives, suggests otherwise. Drawing on extensive news documents, the study considers three stories, each revolving around the same sexual behavior, but each playing out in a different institutional environment: televangelist Jimmy Swaggart's encounter with prostitute Debra Murphree in 1988, actor Hugh Grant's encounter with prostitute Divine Brown in 1995, and presidential advisor Dick Morris' encounter with prostitute Sherry Rowlands in 1996. On the one hand, within the same overarching narrative, different themes become dominant. In one case, the relationship with a prostitute gives rise to a story primarily focused on hypocrisy; in another, to a story focused mainly on recklessness; in the last, to a story focused mainly on amorality and disloyalty. On the other hand, the stories share a common dynamic and common themes: the discussions of sexual "misbehavior," which kick each story into gear, are rapidly edged out by themes of inauthenticity, and by suggestions that hypocrisy, risk, or disloyalty are facilitated by the man's particular institutional environment. Sex scandal stories, rather than remaining stories of individual sexual transgression, are transformed into institutional morality tales. Such a pattern, the author argues, results from pronounced needs on the part of mainstream media organizations to both mimic and distinguish themselves from tabloid media, and from journalists' interest in transforming "soft" into "hard" news stories. While they draw on and buttress familiar "cultural givens" about masculine sexuality, these scandal stories offer an even more theoretically challenging twist: an unexpected cultural reversal, in which sexual "sins" as narrated by American news media, reveal not individual, but institutional pathologies; not a normative order, but institutional decay.


Published as Normal sins: Sex scandal narratives as institutional morality tales in SOCIAL PROBLEMS, Vol. 48, No. 2, pages 185–205. ISSN: 0037-7791 © 2001 by Society for the Stud y of Social Problems, Inc. All rights reserved. Copying and permissions notice: Authorization to copy this content beyond fair use (as specified in Sections 107 and 108 of the U. S. Copyright Law) for internal or personal use, or the internal or personal use of specific clients, is granted by Society for the Stud y of Social Problems, Inc. for libraries and other users, provided that they are registered with and pay the specified fee via Rightslink® on JSTOR ( or directly with the Copyright Clearance Center,"

Article DOI: 10.1525/sp.2001.48.2.185

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