How the Right Perverts and Weaponizes Child Protection

The following is the text of the speech I gave for the Secular Coalition for Arizon’s “Who’s Grooming Who” series on May 19, 2023. You can watch the speech in full here.

A quick content warning before I begin: this talk will discuss child sexual abuse and pedophilia at length. As a result, please be sure to take care of yourself as you listen if you find those topics triggering.

I would like to begin by thanking Linsay Evans and the Secular Coalition for Arizona for inviting me to speak to you all today. There are some excellent advocates and experts scheduled to speak for the Coalition’s “Who’s Grooming Who” speaker series, including my friend, Dr. Chrissy Stroop. She will be speaking next month on June 2 about why abuse scandals are so common in conservative Christian institutions. I would encourage you to join and listen to these other advocates and experts as well; I am honored to be included among them. So thank you, Linsay and Secular Arizona—and many thanks to all of you for joining me today.

Today I will discuss something that deeply concerns me. The world has shifted in a very troubling way over the last two years: there is a noticeable, significant effort by the Right to accuse anyone who disagrees with them of being a groomer, a pedophile, or an actual child predator—in other words, either an enactor of, or an accomplice to, child sexual abuse. While the exact wording of these accusations varies from situation to situation, the basic idea remains the same: if your actions and beliefs do not align with the Right’s narrow worldview, you open yourself up to being accused online of some aspect relating to the crime of child sexual abuse. Even if the issue you’re talking about has nothing to do with child sexual abuse, members of the Right will find some way to bring the conversation around to that topic and then associate you with the crime.

This impacts me personally: almost every day, some stranger on the internet accuses me of being one of those things (a groomer, a pedophile, or an actual child predator) simply because I advocate for children. Even though I am personally a survivor of child sexual abuse, even though I have a Masters degree in Child Protection and have dedicated my career to protecting children from child abuse, even though I am a straight white man who loves Jesus and writes Christian theology, even then I am still accused of those horrific actions and crimes on a daily basis. 

While this can be frustrating and triggering, I want to point something out: As a cis white man in a heterosexual marriage in the United States, I am privileged and protected in many ways from online harassment and other forms of abuse. But if even I, a cis white man in a heterosexual marriage in the United States, am daily being accused of sickening crimes against children,  imagine what LGBTQIA people experience daily! As we will discuss, queer people in the United States have been accused of crimes against children for decades. My increasingly common experiences of being accused of the same only started a couple years ago, truly only becoming frequent as of about one year ago. But queer people have dealt with this exact bullshit for, again, decades.

My talk today will address two issues related to this subject: first, the Right’s dangerous resurrection of malicious child predator myths—specifically, the myth that LGBTQIA people are more likely to be child predators; and second, the Right’s misuse and abuse of child protection vocabulary—especially the words “grooming,” “pedophile,” “predator,” and “child abuse.”  Please note, though, that while I use the word “resurrection” in relation to these myths and abuses of language, the fact is they never went away. These myths and abuses of language have always been around in one version or another. It would be more accurate to say these myths are always present but are emphasized more or less depending on their efficacy for any given situation for the Right.

A Brief History of How the Right Uses Child Protection 

We will begin with a brief history lesson. The purpose of this history is to show you exactly how the Right’s myths and abuses of language surrounding child sexual abuse are perpetual. They are not new and they are not really even “resurrected” because they honestly never completely died at any point. What is true, though, is that they have surged significantly in the last two years in documented ways. 

I think the best way to understand this history is to go backwards. So we’re going to start with right now, where words like “grooming” and “pedophile” have been both reduced to baseless insults as well as weaponized against half the country, and we will work our way backwards to understand how exactly we got to this point today.

So where are we at right now? I think nothing better encapsulates the present moment than the fact that a member of Congress went on a widely respected national television show and accused half the country of being pedophiles. I am speaking, of course, of House Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene. Last month, on April 2, 2023, on 60 Minutes with award-winning journalist Lesley Stahl, Greene made the following claims: “Democrats are a party of pedophiles.” “They support grooming children.” “Democrats, even Joe Biden the president himself, supports children being sexualized and having transgender surgeries. Sexualizing children is what pedophiles do to children.”

When Greene rightly received significant pushback for claiming that Democrats—who make up 46 percent of the population of the United States—are “a party of pedophiles” who “support grooming children” and “support children being sexualized”—she did not back down. In fact, she doubled down. Four days after her 60 Minutes interview, she affirmed her belief via tweet that Democrats are the party of “grooming” and “pro-pedophile politics.”

So how did we get to this point? How did we get to a moment in time where a member of Congress can claim on national television that 46% of the American people are either child sexual abusers or people who support child sexual abuse?

Let’s start by rewinding a year. A year before Marjorie Taylor Green made this audacious, defamatory claim about Democrats, there was a massive increase in similar rhetoric being used against LGBTQIA people. This explosion of anti-queer language became so prevalent that anything and everything could be accused by the Right of being grooming or pedophilic if it was even somewhat supportive of queer people or queer children. Everything from public school to Disney became suspect. On March 9, 2022, for example, Laura Ingraham said on Fox News that public schools are “grooming centers,” while on-screen text proclaimed that “liberals are sexually grooming elementary students.” And on March 28, former American Conservative blogger Rod Dreher wrote a post with the title, “Disney Goes Groomer.”

So what happened a year before Greene’s claim that caused this massive increase in anti-queer rhetoric associating queerness with grooming and pedophilia? Well, on March 8, 2022, the State of Florida passed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, sending it to Governor Ron DeSantis to sign. That bill prohibited public schools from teaching about gender identity or sexual orientation to children in kindergarten through third grade. And the month after Florida passes the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, guess what happens? According to the Human Rights Campaign, “The average number of tweets per day using slurs such as ‘groomer’ and ‘pedophile’ in relation to LGBTQ+ people surged by 406%.”

Now, you might wonder, why exactly did the passage of the “Don’t Say Gay” bill inspire this spike in accusing queer people of being  “groomers” and “pedophiles”? The answer is simple: the Right encouraged this association. Four days before the bill passed, Christina Pushaw—at the time the Press Secretary for Governor DeSantis—explicitly framed the bill as an “Anti-Grooming Bill” and went so far as to claim that, “If you’re against the Anti-Grooming Bill, you are probably a groomer.” Pushaw thus directly linked education on and knowledge of gender identity, sexual orientation, and sexuality with grooming for sexual abuse. This renders all queer people dangerous simply for existing and being human.

But people like Marjorie Taylor Greene and Christina Pushaw, people who are directly advocating for associating queer people and anyone else who disagrees with them with child sexual abuse, they are not advocating for these associations in a vacuum. They are carrying on a long and dark tradition.  The Right has been doing exactly this for a long, long time. This is seen in the fact that, as of February 2022, one month before Pushaw’s successful attempts to link knowledge of queerness with grooming, already nearly one in five Americans were QAnon believers. 

For those unfamiliar with QAnon, it is a conspiracy theory that claims a cabal of Satanic child predators run a global sex-trafficking ring and conspired against former President Donald Trump during his presidency. So nearly 1 in 5 Americans—which comes to 41 million Americans—already believed this rightwing conspiracy that accuses Democrats and many others of being child predators, even before Pushaw revived the line of rhetoric.

But the history of this rhetoric keeps going back. And it’s not just the seemingly wild QAnon conspiracy theorists who believe it. It’s also rightwing strategists who understand exactly how they are misusing the rhetoric but persist anyway because they know this rhetoric is inflammatory and thus attention-grabbing. To see an example of this, let’s rewind now by a year to 2021. On August 31, 2021, Christopher Rufo—a rightwing activist against critical race theory—began counseling other conservatives about “winning the language war” against liberals and progressives. And one key way of winning the language war, Rufo said, was to “use the term ‘political predators’ for describing teachers who indoctrinate their students and treat the public school system as a recruiting ground for their private ideologies.” Rufo went on to say this alleged indoctrination should be called “ideological grooming.” 

Rufo was not the only person in August of 2021 who was trying to associate education about gender identity, sexual orientation, and sexuality with grooming and child sexual abuse. Another proponent of this rhetoric is Live Action, the anti-abortion organization founded by evangelical homeschool alumna Lila Rose (Rose is now Catholic). On August 5, 2021, Live Action published an article on their website that claimed Planned Parenthood “sexualizes children and grooms them to be future abortion clients” because the organization promotes comprehensive sex education to children. According to Live Action, “Comprehensive sexuality education is all about grooming children, and using it as a marketing tool to lead to abortion.”

That was 2021. Let’s rewind a couple years now back to 2019. And let’s leave the United States for a second and travel across the Atlantic Ocean to Europe. In December 2019, Irish sitcom creator and anti-transgender activist Graham Linehan was repeatedly confronted online by young transgender activists due to his anti-transgender bigotry. According to Linehan, the young people who confronted him would dismiss his views by saying “Ok, boomer”—a phrase popularized by Millennials online to respond to angry rants by Boomers about “kids these days.” Rather than taking the hint, Linehan was inspired to flip the phrase against the young activists by responding with the phrase, “Ok, groomer.” While Linehan was perhaps the first person to use to phrase “Ok, groomer” as a dismissive insult against people disagreeing with him, he was certainly not the last. And other rightwing activists helped to popularize the phrase. One such activist is conservative atheist James Lindsay, who has taken credit for creating the phrase “Ok, groomer” despite Linehan having used it for years prior.

But neither Linehan nor Lindsay are really the ones who first came up with the idea to call people they disagree with groomers or child sexual abusers. The history keeps going. So let’s keep following it. We will go now from 2019 back to 2017. The QAnon conspiracy theory about an international cabal of Democrat and other anti-Trump pedophiles began in November 2017, inspired by the postings of the mysterious “Q” on the website 4chan. QAnon’s roots, though, go back to another conspiracy theory popularized during the 2016 U.S. presidential race: Pizzagate. 

In March 2016, someone hacked into the personal email account of Hillary Clinton’s campaign chair, John Podesta. Later that year in November, WikiLeaks—the whistleblowing organization founded by accused rapist Julian Assange—released emails from Podesta’s account. Pizzagate proponents claimed that Podesta’s emails contained coded messages linking Democrats and a variety of American restaurants with a child sex trafficking ring.

One of the restaurants allegedly at the center of the child sex trafficking ring was a Washington, D.C. pizzeria called Comet Ping Pong. Over the course of 2016, Comet Ping Pong received repeated death threats, culminating in a man from North Carolina traveling to the pizzeria, wielding an assault rifle and firing it three times. Later, the man told police that he “read online that Comet restaurant was harboring child sex slaves and that he wanted to see for himself if they were there.”

Pizzagate was not the first time, however, that the Right saw child predators where there are none. This history continues further. Back in 2012, Lisa Cherry—a leader in the evangelical homeschool movement in which I grew up—published a book titled Unmask the Predators, co-written with her daughter Kalyn Cherry Waller. The book was not especially popular, but it is important to mention because it reveals the reasoning behind the Right’s association of non-rightwing people with sexual abuse. 

Unmask the Predators is purportedly about sexual abuse prevention. Endorsed by Contemporary Christian Music legend Michael W. Smith, the book formed the foundation of Cherry’s “Sexual Abuse Training for Homeschool Families” program. While the book does contain occasionally good advice about sexual abuse prevention, it also contains some horrible elements. As I have detailed elsewhere, “The most irresponsible aspect of Unmask the Predators is that Lisa Cherry redefines the meaning of ‘sexual predator’ in the context of teaching sexual abuse prevention.” Cherry starts doing this from the very beginning of the book on page two, where she writes the following:

“The predators are not just the psychiatrically diagnosed pedophiles. The middle-school sex-education health teacher, the friendly cohabitating young couple next door that your daughter babysits for, and the clean-cut homosexual teller at your bank who just adopted a baby from Africa are chipping away at our core values and beliefs while we naively think our kids are still with us in the Sunday school. Until we unmask the spiritual forces working behind those ‘nice people’ and dismantle their spiritual weapons, we will continue to lose our children.”

In this quotation, we see how Cherry intentionally expands the meaning of what a “predator” is. Instead of being someone who commits an act of sexual abuse, a predator has become anyone who is “chipping away at our core values and beliefs” regarding gender and sexuality. This makes predators out of anyone and everyone who (1) acts in a way that Cherry believes is sexually immoral and/or (2) teaches people sexual morality in a way Cherry believes is sexually immoral. That makes most of American culture dangerous. As Cherry explains, “Predator forces can attack our children through sexual molesters or through a host of cultural invaders” (p. 13).

Now, note that we have only traveled a short amount of time: a decade, from 2023 back to 2012. But it has taken a while because this theme of the Right twisting and weaponizing child protection ideas and language is clearly neither new nor novel. It’s been going on a lot and for a long time. And we’re only scratching the surface of this history. I could keep going and going. 

We could talk about the Satanic Panic that began in 1980 with the publication of the book Michelle Remembers.  The Satanic Panic lasted for years and still persists today. It promoted the idea—much like QAnon and Pizzagate—that there is a global Satanic cult engaging in sexual abuse of children, this time at daycare centers across the United States.  

We could talk about the 1977 “Save Our Children” campaign, created by American singer and anti-gay activist Anita Bryant in Florida. In 1977, 8 years after police violence against queer people in New York City inspired the Stonewall Riots, a Florida county approved a law that would outlaw discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in various sectors like employment and housing. Bryant, worried that the law would mean her children would be taught by gay teachers in school, created “Save Our Children”—considered the first organized opposition to the movement for LGBTQIA equality. And as Aoife Gallagher and Tim Squirrell explain for the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, it also involved “the first mainstream attempts to claim that queer people are a danger to children” in the United States. Bryant’s campaign argued that, “Homosexuals cannot reproduce, so they must recruit. And to freshen their ranks, they must recruit the youth of America.”

We could also talk about—and should talk about—something even further back in time. Around 1902, Russian anti-Jewish propagandists published The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, considered by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum to be “the most widely distributed antisemitic publication of modern times.” According to genocide scholar Gregory Stanton, The Protocols “collected myths about a Jewish plot to take over the world that had existed for hundreds of years. Central to its mythology was the Blood Libel, which claimed that Jews kidnapped and slaughtered Christian children and drained their blood to mix in the dough for matzos consumed on Jewish holidays.” These propagandists also argued that Jewish people “promote homosexuality and pedophilia.”

The Protocols were spread wide and far beginning in 1920. That year, American business magnate Henry Ford began publishing a weekly series on the front page of his newspaper called “The International Jew: The World’s Problems.” The weekly series was based on The Protocol’s false claims. Ford’s newspaper series became so popular that it reached Adolf Hitler and personally inspired him. Historical journalist Becky Little notes that, “Hitler was a fan of Ford’s antisemitic writing, mentioning the carmaker by name in his own 1925 anti-Jewish manifesto, Mein Kampf.”

We could talk about many other historical moments like these stretching back centuries. But I do have other things to talk to you about today as well. So I will close this historical review with this thought: this history demonstrates that the Right’s equivocation between education on and knowledge of gender and sexuality on the one hand and grooming and child sexual abuse on the other hand is not a fringe belief or rare rhetorical flourish. It is a widespread, deeply rooted, and intentional practice. This co-opting and weaponizing of child protection vocabulary in order to attack marginalized people groups, most especially children themselves but also queer adults and adults of color, is not an aberration. It is normative. And most normative is the myth of the queer child predator, to which we turn to next.

On the Myth of the Queer Child Predator

The idea that LGBTQIA people are more likely to be child predators compared to other people is a myth. It is untrue. We know it is untrue because of at least three facts: First, most child predators are fixated on children as their sexual orientation; most child predators are not fixated on the gender of their victims. Second, the average child molester is not a queer person but rather a religious adult male in a heterosexual marriage. And third, LGBTQIA children are more likely to be victims of sexual predators compared to other children. Let’s look at each of these facts in turn:

The first fact we need to keep in mind when addressing the myth of the queer child predator is that most child predators are fixated on children as their sexual orientation, not gender. Dr. Gregory M. Herek, a psychology professor and an internationally recognized authority on prejudice against sexual minorities, explains that, “Many child molesters don’t really have an adult sexual orientation. They have never developed the capacity for mature sexual relationships with other adults, either men or women. Instead, their sexual attractions focus on children – boys, girls, or children of both sexes.”

To understand this point better and why it is significant, let’s define some terms. We’ll dig into these definitions more in depth later, but we need some basic definitions right now to help us grasp the full implications of Herek’s point. Let’s start with the word “pedophilia.” 

What is pedophilia? Speaking generally, pedophilia is a psychiatric disorder. It is a paraphilia. Paraphilia are experiences of intense sexual attraction to atypical people or objects. In the case of pedophilia, the objects of attraction are children. So pedophilia is when adults experience either exclusive or primary sexual attraction towards children—prepubescent children (children who have not gone through puberty), specifically. There are other paraphilias—such as hebephilia and ephebophilia—that refer to adults being sexually attracted to older children.

Now, notice what words I am using to describe pedophilia: it is “sexual attraction.” Sexual attraction is a state, of course, and thus does not necessarily mean that one has to act due to that state. There are some people who experience pedophilia—who experience sexual attraction to children—and experience that sexual attraction as either distressing or something they (rightly) believe acting on would be abusive. So we need to make a distinction between pedophiles who commit the act of sexually abusing a child and pedophiles who experience the same sexual attraction but do not abuse anyone. So we use different words, words like “child sexual abuse” or “child molestation,” to refer to the act of sexually abusing a child. So pedophilia is the state of sexual attraction whereas child sexual abuse or molestation is the act of harming a child.

Now that we have covered some basic definitions, let’s go back to Dr. Herek’s point: “Many child molesters don’t really have an adult sexual orientation. They have never developed the capacity for mature sexual relationships with other adults, either men or women. Instead, their sexual attractions focus on children.” What Herek is saying is that studies of adults who actually commit the act of sexually abusing a child have shown us that we cannot group those adults into categories like “heterosexual” or “homosexual.” This is because these adults’ primary or exclusive sexual interest is directed towards children and not one or another gender. 

There is another group of adults who sexually abuse children that we have not covered: adults who abuse children but are not sexually attracted to children. Some experts refer to this group of adults as “situational generalists,” because they are abusers who take advantage of whatever situation presents itself to them. They are happy to abuse people of any age or any gender; it is the sense of power that abuse gives them that turns them on the most, not the age or gender of the person they are abusing. They will abuse whomever they find in their path. 

In an article for the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, Aoife Gallagher and Tim Squirrell explain how, “In the 2000s, when revelations of widespread child abuse committed by the clergy in the Catholic Church became public knowledge, attempts were… made to forge links between homosexuality and pedophilia. The investigations into the abuse found that the majority of victims were male, therefore efforts were made to blame homosexual priests for the abuse. In fact, many of the abusive priests were found to be ‘situational generalists,’ who chose their victims based on who they had access to. Research has consistently found no link between homosexuality and child sexual abuse.” 

Indeed, research on the causes and context of child sexual abuse by Catholic priests in the United States from 1950 to 2010 has found that 72.3% of Catholic priests who sexually abuse children are situational generalists and do not consider themselves homosexual. Even among priests who sexually abuse boys exclusively, the National Research Council found—decades ago—that, “Most molesters of boys do not report sexual interest in adult men.”

If LGBTQIA people are not more likely than other people to sexually abuse children, who is? What people group makes up the most cases of child sexual abuse?

If you said a man with big glasses, a mustache, a windowless cargo van, and a bowl of candy, you would be on to something—but you would not be on to the truth about child predators. What you would be on to is another very common myth in our society: the myth of “stranger danger.” Many people believe that child predators are creepy, evil strangers lurking in the shadows, waiting to pounce on unsuspecting children. But most children are not abused by strangers. Most children are abused by people they know. In fact, the Southern Poverty Law Center notes that, “90% of child molesters target children in their network of family and friends.” Child protection expert Boz Tchividjian puts this another way: “Most children are not sexually victimized by strangers.  In fact, one study found that only 10 percent of child molesters molest children that they don’t know.  We must come to terms with the heartbreaking reality that those who pose the greatest risk to our children are within our families, churches, and circle of friends.”

So the average child predator is neither a queer person nor a stranger. These are myths, stereotypes. Who, then, is the average child predator? Child predators, it turns out, resemble the average American male in outward characteristics. As the Child Molestation Research & Prevention Institute says, “We know that child molesters are as equally married, educated, employed, and religious as any other Americans.” In other words, the average child predator is a religious adult male in a heterosexual marriage. Anywhere from 80 percent to 96 percent of child predators identify in their public lives as heterosexual. 

Additionally, it is important to realize that child predators specifically highlight church or other forms of faith communities as preferred places to find victims. As one predator said, “Church people [are] easy to fool… They have a trust that comes from being Christians.” This sentiment is particularly terrifying when you realize that over 90% of child predators describe themselves as “religious.” Tchividjian points to the end result of this: “There are studies that demonstrate that the faith community is even more vulnerable to abuse than secular environments… Other studies have found that sexual abusers within faith communities have more victims and younger victims.”

The final fact that we must consider in response to the myth of the queer child predator is that LGBTQIA children are actually more likely to be victims of sexual predators compared to other children. As I explained in my article for Religion Dispatches that inspired this talk, “​Queer people—rather than being sexual predators—are more likely to be victims of sexual harassment and assault than other people. This includes queer children. Queer children experience sexual abuse at a rate of 3.8 times the rate of other children. When [members of the Right] scapegoat queer people as sexual abusers, they are scapegoating the very victims most in need of support and understanding.”

This last fact is why this myth is especially malicious: it turns the people most in need of help and support into the enemy, into people to whom we would never lend help and support. And this is ultimately the goal of all of this anti-queer language associating queer people with child sexual abuse: to extinguish every lifeline of support to queer people, to chase them out of and eradicate them from public life. 

That is why this anti-queer language is rightly called “genocidal.” As I detailed in my Religion Dispatches piece, “Genocidal language is language used to ‘convince a significant portion of their citizens that the eradication of an identity or ethnic group is justified.’ And, as Annika Brockschmidt points out, the identity or group to eradicate is ‘anybody… whose existence endangers what they see as the God-given order of the world—like LGBTQ, and especially trans people.’ During Nazi Germany, for example, it was common to link queer people to child sexual abuse to argue for their eradication. Adolf Hitler himself worried about how ‘a homosexual will generally seduce a whole host of boys, so that homosexuality really is as infectious and dangerous as the plague.’”

We have thus far seen how the Right has employed the myth of the queer child predator. But the Right goes even further than that. And that’s the second issue I would like to address today.

On the Misuse and Abuse of Child Protection Vocabulary

The second issue I would like to address today is the Right’s misuse and abuse of child protection vocabulary. Not only is the Right trying to associate queer people and other people with whom they disagree with child sexual abuse, they are also trying to co-opt and weaponize language that child protection professionals and other child advocates use to conduct their vital work against abuse. This is seen most prominently in how members of the Right have appropriated words like “groomer,” “grooming,” “pedophile,” “predator,” and even the phrase “child abuse” itself. The Right has appropriated these words so that they can wield them against marginalized groups like queer people and people of color. Because of this co-opting and weaponizing, I want to go over some of these words with you and discuss (1) how child protection professionals use the words, (2) how the words have been corrupted in meaning by the Right, and (3) why this corruption of language actually matters.

For the sake of time, let’s focus on the words “groomer” and “grooming.” What does it mean to “groom” someone, or to be a “groomer”?

The concept of grooming is critical to child abuse prevention. Child protection professionals spend significant time and energy helping communities understand exactly what grooming is, how to recognize it in real life, and best practices for responding to the red flag behaviors of which grooming consists. (The child abuse prevention non-profit Darkness to Light uses the phrase “red flag behaviors” synonymously with “grooming.”)

So what is it?

Put simply, grooming is the process by which sexual predators manipulate and entrap their victims and victims’ communities for the purpose of sexual molestation and rape. As I have written elsewhere, “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.”

To understand grooming better, let me give you a couple examples of how child protection professionals define the word. 

The first definition I’ll share with you is from the U.S. Department of Justice. The Justice Department defines grooming in the following manner:

“Grooming is a method used by offenders that involves building trust with a child and the adults around a child in an effort to gain access to and time alone with her/him. In extreme cases, offenders may use threats and physical force to sexually assault or abuse a child. More common, though, are subtle approaches designed to build relationships with families. The offender may assume a caring role, befriend the child or even exploit their position of trust and authority to groom the child and/or the child’s family.”

So grooming is a process or method. It is a process or method aimed at both a child as well as the people close to the child. Groomers groom whole communities. This is key to understanding grooming. The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (also known as RAINN), the largest anti-sexual violence organization in the United States, explains that

“Grooming behaviors are not only used to gain a victim’s trust, but often are used to create a trustworthy image and relationship with their family and community. Child and teen sexual abusers are often charming, kind, and helpful — exactly the type of behavior we value in friends and acquaintances. You don’t need to be suspicious of everyone who is kind to your child; most people are well intentioned and trustworthy. But you should be on guard that this type of behavior is sometimes just a mirage, a way for an abuser to gain your trust so they have more direct access to your child (and make it less likely that the child will be believed if they speak up about the abuse).”

So that is how child protection professionals define and use the words “groomer” and “grooming.” How have those words been corrupted in meaning, however, by the Right today? Today I have seen the Right apply the words to just about anything and everything—from sex education to theology. The Right has essentially redefined grooming to mean something along the lines of indoctrination. When non-Right adults teach children not only about gender and sexuality, but also political and religious lessons with which the Right disagrees, that is grooming in the minds of the Right. Some members of the Right have gone so far as to develop something they call “critical grooming theory” to mirror and satirize critical race theory, arguing that “all progressives are groomers” who “benefit politically” from harm done to children.

Conclusion: Why This Matters

In raising the alarm about how the Right is misusing and abusing words like “grooming,” I frequently encounter the argument that, “Language changes.” “So what if grooming used to mean ‘the process by which sexual predators manipulate and entrap their victims and victims’ communities for the purpose of sexual molestation and rape’? That was then, this is now. Now grooming means all these other things, too. Deal with it.”

The problem here is that this ignores how vital it is to have clear, understandable language with which to express one’s experience of child sexual abuse. As a survivor of child sexual abuse, I know this personally and deeply. I was homeschooled from kindergarten through high school graduation by conservative evangelical parents. While my parents did not personally abuse me, they avoided sex education like it was evil and contagious. As a result, I never had language to understand or express the abuse that did happen to me until I was much older. That kept me trapped and silent. And that’s exactly why child predators want children to remain ignorant and embarrassed about their bodies, their gender identities, and their sexuality. It makes grooming and abusing easier.

Survivors of child sexual abuse have fought for decades, centuries even, to establish the words to describe the crimes perpetrated against them. They have fought to be seen, to be heard, and to be taken seriously—fought, every step of the way, because there has always been significant, overwhelming resistance and backlash to their progress—oftentimes from the Right.

Survivors of child sexual abuse, and the professionals who advocate for us, are not willing to let bad-faith actors from the Right co-opt and pervert the ideas and language of child protection in the name of language evolving. We are well aware of how the Right has always tried to twist and weaponize child protection to oppress and even murder queer people and anyone else with whom they cast out as apostates. Queer people and queer children are fellow survivors and we will not abandon them to the Right’s genocidal rhetoric.

We will not abandon them to the Right’s rhetoric and we also will not stand by idly as the Right enables and empowers actual child predators. Because that is the end result of everything I have talked about today: when survivors of child sexual abuse and their advocates cannot speak clearly about what grooming and sexual abuse really are, when we encourage communities to fearful of outside threats to children despite inside threats being a far greater problem, child predators are the winners. Predators win every time there is confusion and ignorance about abuse.

This is why I speak up and why I am glad that organizations like Secular Arizona are addressing these vital issues. I refuse to let child predators continue to win. So I will continue to call out these myths and abuses of language surrounding child protection. And I hope this talk has inspired you to perhaps start speaking up, too. Thank you all very much for your time.

Published by R.L. Stollar

R.L. Stollar is a child liberation theologian and an advocate for children and abuse survivors. The author of an upcoming book on child liberation theology, The Kingdom of Children, Ryan has an M.H.S. in Child Protection from Nova Southeastern University and an M.A. in Eastern Classics from St. John’s College.

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