Fringe cries for ‘anti-grooming’ measures may influence politics


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During confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) repeatedly and wrongly claimed that Jackson had been lenient toward those convicted of possessing child pornography. This baseless argument was not designed to spur debate on federal sentencing guidelines or to assess Jackson’s qualifications to serve on the Supreme Court. Rather, it seemed like an attempt to smear Jackson, while courting a growing Republican constituency: QAnon members, an extremist ideology based on a sprawling set of false claims that the FBI deemed a threat of domestic terrorism.

QAnon’s lies have garnered increasing attention in recent years, with many involving outlandish allegations about organized pedophile rings at the highest levels of government. For example, the “Pizzagate” shooter believed he was rescuing children from an underground pedophile ring.

But what starts at the ideological margin can easily cross over into the mainstream and eventually into policy-making. While few mainstream politicians openly embrace QAnon’s radical ideology, those same ideas can be embedded in the malleable language of child safety and protection as a way to promote reactionary policies. This has become very clear in Texas, where Governor Greg Abbott (R) and Attorney General Ken Paxton (R) have worked to criminalize gender-affirming care for trans children, and in Florida, where officials have outlined legislation recently signed restricting LGBTQ discussion. as an “anti-grooming” measure.

To express their support for these efforts, some conservative commentators such as Rod Dreher and James Lindsay deployed similar “anti-grooming” language, highlighting the alleged link between the LGBTQ community and child sexual abuse. Such rhetoric taps into a dark history of vilifying members of certain marginalized communities – particularly gay and trans people – as sexual predators who must “recruit” children.

Fears of sexual “psychopaths” preying on children animated a prolonged panic in the United States from the 1930s through the 1960s. During this time, more than half of all states passed laws targeting sexual practices deemed ” deviant”, including same-sex relationships. In 1947, California created the first state-level sex offense registry, which largely targeted homosexuals. Many of these same men, who were convicted of lewd conduct or sodomy, were forced to register as “sex offenders” in the 1990s, when registries and community notification protocols became mandatory. at the federal level. Such policies have deepened the presumed links between non-normative sexual identities and predatory behaviors.

As various liberation movements – including the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, and the gay rights movement – ​​advanced in the 1960s and 1970s, traditionalists provoked a backlash. A rising religious right targeted abortion, women’s liberation, gay rights, and other perceived threats to American families and children. In 1977, singer and Florida orange juice spokesperson Anita Bryant launched the highly publicized and ultimately successful Save Our Children campaign to repeal a Metro-Dade County ordinance (representing the present-day Miami-Dade County) prohibiting discrimination against gays, lesbians, and bisexuals. Bryant explicitly linked homosexuality and the sexual predation of children.

The following year, anti-gay organizers emboldened by Bryant’s success in Florida sought to implement the Briggs Initiative in California. The proposed measure would have banned gays and lesbians from working in California schools. Although the proposal failed – largely due to the advocacy of San Francisco City Supervisor Harvey Milk and grassroots activists – it underscored the political utility of linking “deviant” sexuality to sexual abuse. children, a tactic that many employ now.

In the 1980s, a moral panic focused on kidnapping by a stranger took hold. Tragic but rare cases like those of Etan Patz and Adam Walsh have garnered national attention and convinced many Americans that stranger abduction poses a serious and growing threat. In fact, children were – and remain – far more likely to be kidnapped, sexually abused, or otherwise harmed by family members and acquaintances. About 100 children are abducted each year by strangers in the United States, but this the number is low compared to the number of people taken by a relative (approximately 3,000) or millions who run away every year. Yet commentators – usually without credible evidence – have suggested that gay pedophile “outsiders” have harmed Patz, Walsh and others.

Ultimately, the “stranger danger” myth has diverted attention away from the idealized family home and trusted community institutions (where the overwhelming majority of harm to children occurs). He encouraged parents and concerned community members to focus instead on racial and sexual “others.”

The satanic sexual abuse panic ran parallel to the fear of “stranger danger” in the 1980s. Large sections of American society became convinced that a satanic network of people, which included both men and women, had sexually abused preschool children.

Perhaps the most famous case involved the McMartin Daycare. In 1983, the small family preschool in Manhattan Beach, California found itself at the center of a national controversy, after a mother claimed her preschooler had been sexually abused. Fueled by gullible and lustful media electrical outlets, the parents became convinced that their children had been the victims of a large-scale sexual abuse operation. More than 400 children affiliated with the nursery school were interviewed. Parents, guided by the mantra “believe the children,alleged that nursery school officials engaged in bestiality and ritual slaughter, and used underground tunnels to facilitate their crimes.

These accusations were unbelievable, and no corroborating physical evidence of tunnels, dead animals, or bloodthirsty rituals ever materialized, despite lengthy investigations. The only evidence was coerced testimony from preschoolers, who were harassed to participate, and poor physical evidence, later discredited.

testify before Congress in 1984Kee MacFarlane, who interviewed 400 preschoolers in the McMartin case, described children who were “exposed to bizarre rituals involving animal abuse, scatological behavior and what they perceived as magic”, and had been “threatened to silence with the use of weapons, threats of violence and death against family members and observation of the slaughter of animals.

The power of these arguments lay in their implausibility. Or, as MacFarlane put it in his testimony before Congress: “If these things seem unimaginable to you, you are not alone. They were unimaginable for us too.

The idea that satanic ritual abuse might occur on a regular basis has been accepted, or at least considered plausible, by large swaths of American society. This was highlighted in training” for law enforcement to care for the victims of the said abuselawsuits resulting in the sentencing of innocent people to prison terms and certain therapies approaches recommended by doctors. In fact, when an FBI investigator released a report on the credibility of large-scale Satanic ritual abuse allegations, he noted that he had been accused of being a “Satanist” who had “infiltrated” the FBI. .

These bizarre claims served a clear political purpose. They have helped fuel distrust of daycares and other shared spaces where children could be kept and where citizens could gather, engage and build communities. Panic encourages constant individual vigilance, fosters distrust of neighbors and discourages mothers from seeking employment outside the home.

Moreover, this panic has diverted attention from the real issues around the affordability, availability and quality of child care for working parents. This was especially evident under the Reagan administration, which made major cuts to subsidized child care options. In 1981, Dorcas Hardy, Undersecretary for Human Development Services, proudly proclaimed that the federal government was “out of the child care business.” But as the government has retreated from regulating quality and access, policymakers have played a central role in perpetuating this moral panic.

Over time, public opinion soured on the radical claims related to satanic child abuse and they were quietly dropped. Some convictions have been reversedalthough some people accused of satanic ritual abuse remain in prison to this day.

But the panic over Satanism, sex trafficking and child sexual abuse has returned through the QAnon phenomenon. Politicians such as Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) And even former President Donald Trump has expressed sympathy and even aligned with QAnon, portraying themselves as the righteous protectors of children and families.

These developments—along with panics over critical race theory, gender-affirming care for trans children, and discussion of gender and sexual identity in the classroom—illustrate the enduring appeal of the politics of protecting childhood, as well as the ease with which completely outlandish ideas about the threats children face migrate from the political fringe to the mainstream.

Such seemingly absurd ideas serve a larger political purpose: laying the groundwork for reactionary policies that ultimately make children less safe. This is why it is so important to firmly reject all attempts to rekindle the moral panic about child sexual abuse, and not simply push back against the most extreme and laughable accusations. Rather than highlighting the extremely rare situations in which young people are harmed by strangers, child advocates should push for safe environments, communities and classrooms in which all children can thrive.

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