This is an essay I shouldn’t have to write.
Yet the recent right-wing misuse and abuse of the word “grooming” has reached a boiling point. Far-right individuals are now applying the concept of grooming to everything from sex education to theology. Phrases like “Ok groomer” and “critical grooming theory” are becoming commonplace thought-terminating cliches used to other and demonize queer people, child abuse survivors, and child protection professionals who object to this misuse and abuse of the word grooming.
I say the word is both misused and abused because people are doing both to it. Some conservatives are unaware of what they are doing. They see their friends and leaders using the word a certain way and so they just imitate them. This is a careless misuse of the word. They are responsible for what they do, but they are ignorant, not wicked.
Other conservatives, however, know full well that they are appropriating a highly charged word (highly charged for important, valid reasons) in order to increase division and polarization. You can sense their glee when they fling the word around as an epithet. Tell them they are causing real harm to children and child abuse survivors and it merely turns them on. These individuals are abusing the word intentionally. And it is evil.
Grooming (or testing) is a word used by child protection professionals to describe the process by which sexual predators manipulate and entrap their victims and victims’ communities for the purpose of sexual molestation and rape. It is not, as a viral social media meme suggests, related to political or social indoctrination. It is a word that means something and it serves a vital purpose: to help protect children from sexual abuse.
We use the word grooming in the child protection profession to help communities and their members, including parents and children, to identify the techniques and tricks of child molesters. We create lists of warning signs and behavioral indicators, or tells, so that communities can know when a dangerous or tricky person is in their midst. Being able to identify grooming is a key tool for proactively protecting children from sexual predators.
When conservatives misuse and abuse this word, they are doing several things:
First, they are muddying the meaning of the word. When grooming can be applied to everything from sex education to theology to being queer to critical race theory to what it actually means (sexual predation techniques), it means everything and thus nothing at the same time. This renders the word useless. Children will grow up without being able to identify the signs of grooming, because adults will be telling them grooming is things it is not.
Second, they are weaponizing the word. Let us be clear about this: many right-wing individuals are weaponizing the word grooming against queer people specifically. This is not new. Conservatives have a long and ugly history of accusing queer people of being sexual predators—even though the average child molester is a religious man in a heterosexual marriage. Indeed, 96 percent of the perpetrators of child sexual abuse identify as heterosexual.
What is new is that conservatives are now emboldened to weaponize the word against anyone who disagrees with them on anything. This is particularly dangerous because of the first reason we discussed: it renders the word useless in the very real and pressing fight against child sexual abuse.
Third, they are enabling and empowering child molesters. Child molesters want exactly what conservatives are doing: for children to be unable to identify what grooming is, for children to not receive sex education, for children to not know about their bodies, and for children to stay quiet if they are queer or different in ways conservatives disapprove of. Child molesters use each of those to their advantage and conservatives are freely giving them every tool they need just to spite liberals and progressives.
Fourth, they are encouraging children to fear helpers like child protection professionals, whether that’s the public school teacher in charge of sex education or the social worker giving a presentation on body safety at church. This is something conservative evangelicals in particular are very familiar with, as they have long promoted myths about helping professionals. When children grow up fearful of Child Protective Services or mandatory reporters or their bodies or their sexuality, they are perfect victims for child predators.
The misuse and abuse of the word grooming is sadly yet one more example—the evangelical obsession with breaking children’s wills is another—of how many conservatives couldn’t care less about protecting children from actual grooming by child predators. In fact, by destroying the meaning of grooming, by making it more difficult to identify grooming, conservatives are becoming abusers’ wingmen. They are directly setting up abusers for success.
Considering the popularity of child and early marriage in conservative circles, I cannot say this is unintentional. It seems, rather, that much of these accusations are projection. As media and the public begin to realize how rampant child abuse is in the “family values” communities, conservatives are responding by distracting, by creating moral panics instead of addressing the very real immoralities happening in their own backyards. This is trickery—and trickery is not a good sign.