“Grooming” discourse will make sex abuse prevention harder

Conservatives have started calling their political opponents “groomers.” This term is shorthand for an accusation of sexualizing children or grooming them for sexual advances. The term has been used by online extremists since at least last year, but it has gone mainstream more recently as conservative writers have started using the term to defend Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill, HB 1557. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ press secretary described the bill as an Anti-grooming bill, and said that if you’re against the bill, “you are probably a groomer.”

In some ways “groomer” is different from previous political terms used by conservatives particularly because it is so extreme. It aligns well with false extremist conspiracy theories around sex trafficking that fueled the Pizzagate shooting and the Wayfair conspiracy theory. The label is also much closer to an accusation of a crime. For example, while “grooming” is not a crime per se, it is often mentioned in indictments of sex abuse, sex trafficking, and child molestation crimes. By using this term, conservatives are tapping into extremely emotive source of fear and hatred. Child abusers are hated and dehumanized to such an extent that they are known to be beaten and killed by their fellow prisoners. In fact, many Americans support the death penalty for sexual molestation of a child. In other words, this rhetoric links LGBT people and their liberal allies to one of the worst things imaginable, which could easily be used to justify partisan violence and escalate polarization.

However, setting aside the dark political implications, the “groomer” discourse is also doing major damage to the important work of preventing child sexual abuse. Something similar happened when the QAnon conspiracy #SaveTheChildren campaign disrupted real anti-sex trafficking efforts. The people working in this space describe how these lurid conspiracy theories overshadowed real efforts by spreading misinformation and politicizing anti-sex trafficking work. Myths and misinformation about human trafficking have led to vital services being clogged up with false allegations. These myths have also shifted attention to conspiratorial political cabals instead of where sex abuse actually takes place: in high adversity areas and often by care takers.

To the extent that this conservative push to fight “grooming” is truly animated by a desire to help children, it is sadly likely to have the opposite effect.

In a similar manner, the “groomer” discourse overshadows real issues in the world. First, it perpetuates myths about LGBT people. One such myth is that LGBT people are more likely to engage in sexual misconduct with a child. The truth is that children are no more likely to be molested by a homosexual person relative to a heterosexual person (after controlling for the fact that there are far more heterosexual people). Another myth is that trans and homosexual identities are somehow inherently sexualizing or obscene while cis and heterosexual identities are not. Of course, these myths just further the existing stigma and discrimination faced by sexual and gender minorities. 

The groomer discourse also overshadows evidence-based approaches to addressing child sexual abuse. One of the common refrains from people who support HB 1557 is “keep sex out of the classroom.” Unfortunately, if this were translated into a policy, it would be the exact policy that would exacerbate sexual abuse by keeping children unprepared and ignorant of how to respond to advances made by sexual abusers. Meta-analyses of child sexual abuse prevention studies have demonstrated that children in pre-school and elementary benefit from learning about sexual abuse concepts and self-protection skills. A retrospective study found that girls who haven’t participated in child sexual abuse prevention programs were about twice as likely to have experienced sexual abuse. Importantly, these trainings often involve explicit conversations about sex that go far beyond the simple explanations of homosexuality and trans identities that animated the Florida law and its defenders. For example, one training program for preschoolers (performed by parents or teachers) involved discussions of genitalia, where it is located, and how to identify inappropriate touching. To the extent that this conservative push to fight “grooming” is truly driven by a desire to help children, it is sadly likely to have the opposite effect.

The conservative push to “keep sex out of the classroom” has prevented sex education for decades. This blanket ban of sexual education has possibly exacerbated teen pregnancy rates particularly when the more conservative abstinence-only education doesn’t work. HB 1557 operates as a ban on LGBT issues being mentioned in the classroom but this has been the general approach in sex education settings. Only 15 states require the inclusion of sexual orientation and 5 of those states require negative information (e.g. “homosexuality is not a lifestyle acceptable to the general public”). Kids at schools with LGBT-inclusive curriculum also tend to experience less homophobia, so bans like HB 1557 will likely exacerbate LGBT bigotry. 

Sexual abuse, LGBT discrimination, teen pregnancy are all major problems. Unfortunately, all of these problems are likely to be made worse by laws like HB 1557 and the right wing approach to label LGBT people and their liberal allies “groomers.” Solving these problems requires an evidence-based approach in identifying the real problems and their solutions. Laws like HB 1557 will only be another divisive obstacle in solving these problems that draws us away from the evidence-based solutions. There is no evidence that LGBT inclusive sex education will “groom” kids to be easier to sexually abuse. In fact, the evidence goes in the other direction: Inclusive and evidence-based sex education is a vital part in preventing sexual abuse, anti-LGBT sentiment, and teen pregnancy. 

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