First taking hold in late 2017, QAnon is a conspiracy theory that maintains a clandestine, satanic, adrenochrome-fueled cabal of well-connected celebrities, politicians, “deep state” bureaucrats and businesspeople operates an expansive, global child sex trafficking network. QAnon proponents also insist that Trump and other high-ranking government officials are working to ferret out, expose and punish those who participate in this trafficking ring.
As outlandish, baseless and incoherent as QAnon might seem, it fits within a long genealogy of moral panics focused on child abuse perpetrated by “strangers” or “outsiders.” While young Americans do experience abuse and exploitation at the hands of people they don’t know, they are far more likely to be harmed by family members and acquaintances.
Yet like earlier panics, QAnon works to misdirect and misrepresent the very nature of child abuse. By portraying the idealized American family and household as bulwarks against child kidnapping, sex trafficking and exploitation, this conspiracy theory obscures the uncomfortable truth that the home serves as a key site of misery and harm for many young people. Further, these kinds of panics have spawned punitive policies that do little to help children and much to criminalize and dehumanize a broad swath of the American population.
The U.S. entered a prolonged panic over the “sexual psychopath” beginning in the 1930s. Longtime FBI director J. Edgar Hoover enthusiastically whipped up and exploited this scare, publishing magazine articles impugning “degenerate sex offenders” and “depraved human beings.” “How Safe is Your Daughter?” Hoover asked on the cover of American Magazine in 1947, clearly situating the threat outside of the romanticized early Cold War American household. As a result of this sustained scare, 26 states and the District of Columbia passed so-called sexual psychopath laws between 1937 and 1967, thereby facilitating the widespread pathologization and prosecution of people understood to be sexually deviant.
These laws primarily targeted men seeking sex with other men, who were deemed “perverted” and thus threatening to the “nuclear” household. Such measures worked to disincentivize sodomy (specifically “illicit” same-sex activity) and thereby incentivize heterosexual marriage, reproduction and family formation. In this way, sexual psychopath laws worked hand-in-glove with the regularized aggressive policing of “vice,” which flourished in American cities following the Second World War — also in the name of protecting children. So-called vice squads frequently conducted raids on gay bars and other spaces in which men could seek the companionship of other men. Individuals captured in these raids faced abuse at the hands of law enforcement, incarceration, institutionalization and public shaming, since arrestees’ names often appeared in local newspapers. Such efforts derived power from the potent stereotype of the sexual deviant — often coded as queer — preying on innocent children.
Although these state measures sought to discourage same-sex attraction and to “protect” the American family and the child at its heart, there is scant evidence to suggest they succeeded. Indeed, raids on gay bars and nightclubs helped catalyze the gay liberation movement, which slowly but surely worked to dispel the myths animating the sexual psychopath panic. Anti-gay activists from Anita Bryant to Jerry Falwell continued to portray gay men specifically as perverts who looked to “recruit” children and destroy families, yet these charges became less explicit and less socially acceptable as the LGBTQIA+ movement made headway in the late 20th century.
After the sexual psychopath scare waned in the late 1960s, high-profile child abduction and exploitation cases seized national attention in the late 1970s and 1980s, touching off yet another moral panic. Given the challenge posed by the women’s and LGBTQ+ movements to the patriarchal, heteronormative familial ideal, intensifying concerns about the sanctity and stability of the American family helped fuel this panic. High-profile cases like those of Etan Patz (1979), Adam Walsh (1981), Johnny Gosch (1982), Eugene Wade Martin (1984), Kevin Collins (1984), Jacob Wetterling (1989), Polly Klaas (1993) and Megan Kanka (1994) suggested to a frightened public that “stranger danger” represented a grave and growing problem.
Although child safety and victims’ rights activists in the 1980s claimed that some 50,000 children (if not more) were kidnapped by strangers annually in the United States, the actual figure stood somewhere between 100 and 400. Young people were (and remain) far more likely to fall victim to parental or familial abductions — or to run away from home, oftentimes to escape abusive or otherwise unfavorable domestic situations. As more and more women entered the American workforce, a parallel scare concerning ritualized satanic child sex abuse at day-care centers only heightened Americans’ fears over the (sexual) threats purportedly lurking outside the “traditional” family home.
In this historical context, politicians, bereaved parents, media figures, law enforcement officials and others doggedly pursued punitive policies designed to “keep kids safe” from the wildly exaggerated threats of stranger kidnapping, exploitation and murder — and to shore up the American family. Their efforts helped expand the carceral state by establishing national systems of sex offender registration, community notification and civil commitment. Such measures — which frequently take the form of “memorial laws” or “apostrophe laws” honoring missing or murdered children — have proven largely ineffective at preventing sexual violence. Indeed, sex offender registration and other protocols have “no discernible impact on the incidence of sex crimes.”
The legal and cultural obsession with “sex offenders” — who are generally understood to be lowly, antisocial loners (i.e., “strangers”) — mischaracterizes the realities of sexual harm and essentially absolves the family. Indeed, sex offender registries and community notification protocols, by definition, serve to inform families of potential sexual threats within their neighborhoods. Ultimately, sex offender registries and similar measures focused on deviant “strangers” function as “crime control theater,” defined by scholars as “a public response or set of responses to crime which generate the appearance, but not the fact, of crime control.”
Worst of all, the United States’ demonstrably ineffective network of sex offender registries now lists nearly 1 million people, including some 200,000 people forced to register for acts they committed as children. The very systems established to protect children and families from harm, then, inflict their own harm while failing to adequately address the abuses suffered at the hands of family members and caregivers.
QAnon inherits the legacies of earlier panics and operates in a similar register by demanding swift and sure punishment against folk devils. Without evidence, QAnon conspiracy theorists identify satanic elites as the foremost perpetrators of child sexual abuse and relish harsh state retribution meted out by Trump, who has been credibly accused of sexual assault by at least 25 women.
QAnon supporters also imagine the coronavirus as a “hoax” — a tool of mind control fiendishly wielded by powerful, pedophilic ghouls. Yet the coronavirus pandemic has indisputably exacerbated existing crises confronting American children and families. Amid mass death and mass unemployment, a potential surge in evictions will plunge precariously positioned families with children into greater uncertainty and misery. The physical and sexual abuse of children has reportedly increased since Americans began quarantining in March — not because of elaborate trafficking rings, but because of stress and isolation. Further, the U.S. government — helmed by QAnon hero Donald Trump — is actively and knowingly abusing children by denying them the right to seek asylum, caging them during a pandemic and expelling them from the country.
Supporting vulnerable young people requires addressing the structural, material conditions that immiserate children in the U.S. and worldwide — hunger, poverty, disease, war and inequality — and that turn families into hotbeds of abuse and suffering. Moral panics like QAnon work to distract from less outrageous, far more insidious sources of harm. Even worse, they contribute to punitive policies that separate and hurt families, perpetuate mass incarceration and keep people in a state of fear.