The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Fringe cries for ‘anti-grooming’ measures can sway policy

Such ideas have long led to widespread panic about dangers to children and are rooted in Texas and Florida legislation

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) questions Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson during her confirmation hearing March 22 on Capitol Hill. (Alex Brandon/AP)
Comment

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

QAnon falsehoods have generated increasing attention over the past several years, many involving outlandish claims concerning organized networks of pedophiles in the top echelons of government. For example, the “Pizzagate” shooter believed that he was rescuing children from an underground network of pedophiles.

But what begins on the ideological fringe can easily move into the mainstream and ultimately into policymaking. Although few mainstream politicians openly embrace QAnon’s radical ideology, these same ideas can be folded into the malleable language of child safety and protection as a means to promote reactionary policies. This has become abundantly clear in Texas, where Gov. 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 portrayed recently signed legislation 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 have deployed similar “anti-grooming” language, emphasizing the presumed link between the LGBTQ community and child sexual abuse. Such rhetoric taps into a dark history of smearing members of certain marginalized communities — particularly gay men 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 to the 1960s. During this time, over half of all states passed laws targeting sexual practices deemed “deviant,” including same-sex relations. In 1947, California created the first state-level sex offense registry, which largely targeted gay men. Many of these same men, who were convicted of lewd conduct or sodomy, would be forced to register as “sex offenders” in the 1990s, when registries and community notification protocols became federally mandated. Such policies deepened the presumed links between nonnormative sexual identities and predatory behavior.

As various liberation movements — including the civil rights movement, the women’s movement and the gay rights movement — made strides in the 1960s and 1970s, traditionalists mounted a backlash. An ascendant religious right took aim at abortion, women’s liberation, gay rights and other perceived threats to the American family 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 (representing today’s Miami-Dade County) ordinance barring discrimination against gay, lesbian and bisexual people. Bryant explicitly connected homosexuality and child sexual predation.

The next year, antigay organizers emboldened by Bryant’s success in Florida looked to enact the Briggs Initiative in California. The proposed measure would have prohibited gay and lesbian people from working in California schools. Although the proposal failed — in no small part due to the advocacy of San Francisco City Supervisor Harvey Milk and grass-roots activists — it underscored the political utility of linking “deviant” sexuality with child sexual abuse, a tactic that many are employing now.

In the 1980s, a moral panic focused on stranger kidnapping took hold. Tragic but rare cases like those of Etan Patz and Adam Walsh generated national attention and convinced many Americans that stranger abduction represented a grave 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 by strangers in the United States annually, but this number is low compared with the number who are taken by a parent (about 3,000) or the millions who run away each year. Still, commentators — usually without credible evidence — implied that pedophilic gay “strangers” had hurt Patz, Walsh and others.

Ultimately, the “stranger danger” mythos directed attention away from the idealized family home and trusted community institutions (in which the overwhelming majority of harm to children takes place). It encouraged concerned parents and community members to focus instead on racial and sexual “others.”

The satanic sexual abuse panic unfolded alongside the “stranger danger” scare in the 1980s. Broad swaths of American society became convinced that a satanic network of people, which included both men and women, had sexually abused preschoolers.

Perhaps the most famous case involved the McMartin day-care center. In 1983, the small, family-run preschool in Manhattan Beach, Calif., found itself at the center of a national controversy, after one mother claimed that her preschooler had been sexually molested. Fueled by gullible and prurient media outlets, parents became convinced that their children had fallen victim to a large-scale child sexual abuse operation. Over 400 children affiliated with the preschool were interviewed. Parents, guided by the mantra “believe the children,” alleged that preschool officials had engaged in bestiality and ritual slaughter, and had used underground tunnels to facilitate their crimes.

These accusations were unbelievable, and no corroborating physical evidence of tunnels, dead animals or blood rituals ever materialized, despite prolonged investigations. The only evidence was the coerced testimony of preschool children, who were badgered into participation, and poor physical evidence, later discredited.

Testifying before Congress in 1984, Kee MacFarlane, who had questioned 400 preschoolers in the McMartin case, described children who had allegedly been “exposed to bizarre rituals involving violence to animals, scatological behavior and what they perceived as magic,” and had been “threatened into silence with the use of weapons, threats of harm and death to family members, and observing the slaughter of animals.”

The power of these arguments resided in their implausibility. Or, as MacFarlane put it in her testimony before Congress: “If these things seem unimaginable to you, you are not alone. They have been unimaginable to us as well.”

The idea that satanic ritual abuse might be occurring on a regular basis was accepted, or at least considered plausible, across swaths of American society. This was evidenced in training” for law enforcement to deal with victims of said abuse, prosecutions resulting in innocent individuals sentenced to prison time and certain therapeutic approaches recommended by physicians. In fact, when one FBI investigator issued a report on the credibility of claims of large-scale satanic ritual abuse, 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 helped stoke mistrust of day cares and other shared spaces in which children might be cared for, and in which citizens could come together, engage and build communities. The panic promoted constant individual vigilance, fostered a suspicion of one’s neighbors and discouraged mothers from seeking out-of-home employment.

Furthermore, this panic shifted attention away from real problems concerning the affordability, availability and quality of child-care facilities for working parents. This was particularly salient during the Reagan administration, which made significant cuts to subsidized child-care options. In 1981, Dorcas Hardy, assistant secretary for human development services, proudly proclaimed that the federal government was “out of the day-care business.” But while the government stepped back from regulating quality and access, policymakers played a pivotal role in perpetuating this moral panic.

Over time, public opinion soured on sweeping claims related to satanic child abuse and they were quietly abandoned. Some convictions were overturned, although 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 come roaring back through the QAnon phenomenon. Politicians such as Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and even former president Donald Trump have expressed sympathy and even aligned themselves with QAnon, thereby portraying themselves as the righteous protectors of children and families.

These developments — alongside the panics related to critical race theory, gender-affirming care for trans children and the discussion of gender and sexual identity in the classroom — illustrate the enduring appeal of child protection politics, as well as the ease with which utterly outlandish ideas about the threats facing children migrate from the political fringe into the mainstream.

Such seemingly absurd ideas serve a greater political purpose: laying the groundwork for reactionary policies that ultimately make children less safe. This is why it is so critical to strongly reject all attempts to revive the moral panic concerning child sexual harm, and not just push back against the most extreme and risible accusations. Rather than highlighting the extremely rare situations in which young people are hurt by strangers, advocates for children should push for safe environments, communities and classrooms in which all children can thrive.

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