Child Brides and the "Grooming" Lie
How the latest front in the right wing's culture war puts America's children at risk
Edited by David Swanson
Some months ago I wrote about the “Critical Race Theory” panic sweeping school boards and slate legislatures, a fact-free but consequence-filled campaign of retrenchment against any progress in teaching America’s racial stratifications that has been waged since, roughly, the presidency of Rutherford B. Hayes. It’s a measure of the celerity, malice and breathtaking effectiveness of the right-wing propaganda machine—and the readiness of its troops to mobilize—that a separate and even grimmer campaign to besiege and surveil public education has arisen in the brief time since that column was written. The right’s latest salvo against public education is perhaps the most insidious and dangerous one in the decades since de jure school integration.
You have likely seen recent references in the news to a law passed in Florida, “HB 1557”—commonly known by its critics as the “Don’t Say Gay” law—and similar measures under consideration in a dozen states. While certainly homophobic, the law is really an attack on queerness as a whole: it functionally prohibits teachers from discussing gender identity, or sexual orientation, from kindergarten onward. This law and others like it force gay and trans teachers into the closet, keep students forcibly ignorant of their own and others’ identities, and marginalize or endanger queer parents. Since the beginning, the rationale has been a ferociously bigoted, and deeply wrongheaded, conflation of any teaching about queerness with the “grooming” of children. In the context of sexual assault and abuse, grooming is the act of readying a victim—through isolation, inappropriate physical contact, and other forms of behavioral conditioning—so that they will be less likely to resist or report such abuse. Like so many other terms (“woke” and “triggered” come to mind), the term “grooming” has been avidly adopted and warped beyond recognition by the right-wing media sphere. Needless to say, reading a book about trans rights, or learning that your female teacher has a wife, is nothing close to grooming, and the conflation of homosexuality or gender nonconformity with pedophilia is a shopworn, disproven avenue of prejudice.
Still, there was nothing stale about the ferocity with which proponents of the new law argued that anyone who opposed it must, ipso facto, be a pedophile or sympathetic to pedophilia. Christina Pushaw, press secretary for Governor Ron DeSantis, said as much. “The bill that liberals inaccurately call ‘Don’t Say Gay’ would be more accurately described as Anti-Grooming Bill,” Pushaw tweeted in March. “If you’re against the anti-Grooming bill, you are probably a groomer or at least you don’t denounce the grooming of 4- to 8-year-old children. Silence is complicity. This is how it works, Democrats, and I didn’t make the rules.” (A similar line was taken by Republican senators during the confirmation hearing of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson.) Never mind that the Florida legislation extends far beyond 4-to-8-year-olds, stating, as it does, that “classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur in kindergarten through grade 3 or in a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards”—a subjective consideration covering all schoolchildren, catering to conservative parents, and which can be enforced via monetary damages and administrative retribution.
Since Pushaw’s statements, the “groomer” libel has snowballed. The Walt Disney Company—a major Florida employer which faced internal protests from employees and external pressure from fans for financially supporting authors of HB 1557—eventually came out against the bill, stating that the law should be repealed, and pledging a modest $5 million to LGBTQ+ organizations. What followed was a surge of anti-Disney outrage by the loudest bigots this nation has to offer. Neo-Nazi adjacent loudmouth Jack Posobiec created a t-shirt for sale reading “Boycott Groomers” in Disney’s signature font, with “bring ammo” in smaller text. Journalist Julien Feeld captured a singularly unhinged protest at the gates of Disney World, full of QAnon paraphernalia and insinuations that Disney had joined the conspiracy’s global network of Satanic pedophiles. A typical sign: “CHILD INNOCENCE NOT LGBTQIA BRAINWASH [sic] PROTECT CHILDREN FROM DISNEY WOKE PSYCHOPS.” More grimly, Robert Foster, a former GOP state representative and gubernatorial candidate in Mississippi, tweeted that anyone who teaches children that “men are women” should be “lined up against [sic] wall by a firing squad to be sent to an early judgement.”
QAnoners have long made clear that “pedophile” is synonymous with their political opposition. Furthermore, QAnon's central fantasy of a day of reckoning—“The Storm”—involves the rounding up and mass execution of said alleged pedophiles at some point in the perennially near future. Extending that paradigm to anyone queer or trans—and encouraging the enraged to “bring ammo”—is an open-source instruction manual for violence. At stake, in the Manichaean worldview that has spread throughout the GOP from the fringes to gubernatorial mansions nationwide to the halls of Congress, is the “innocence” of children—idealized, middle-class, white children, anyway—which is an ideal worth killing for. (Plus ça change: in the 1990s, the ACLU issued a communique warning of right-wing parents’ attempts to derail “immoral” comprehensive sex education, from “censoring library books to attempting to pack school boards in order to control curricular decisions.” The principal difference, it appears, is one of tone.)
I wanted to try to understand what had prompted the jump from the CRT panic to the “groomer” panic—besides their convenient alignment with hard-right priorities, from restoring a whites-only social order to eliminating queerness from public life. So I listened to a recent episode of the “New Discourses” podcast by vituperative far-right pseudo-intellectual James Lindsay, a man whose opinion of his own intelligence is only exceeded by the speed at which he fabricates nonexistent connections. In “Groomer Schools: the Long Marxist History of Sexual Education,” Lindsay, a man of some standing on the right, issued forth an hour-long stream of words that sought to create a connection between anti-racist education and LGBTQ-informed curricula: both, in his widely shared viewpoint, destroy children’s innocence—from “racial innocence” to “sexual innocence”—in service of “the evils of Marxism.” (It is apparently Lindsay’s belief that peppering in the words “Antonio Gramsci” every five or so minutes lends one a crushing intellectual heft.)
As Lindsay maintains in his evidence-free diatribe: Neo-Marxists want to masturbate and engage in sexual deviance rather than work productively, and this drift into hedonism is being accelerated “at scale in our government schools,” a form of “grooming both sexual and political.” In fact, he says, children should be kept innocent of any knowledge of sex, in the interests of providing a stable basis for “the family” and “goodness” to pass from generation to generation. It is tempting to ignore frothing blowhards like Lindsay, but their ideas have currency, and there are those who mistake polysyllabic speech for intelligence—especially when it confirms their prior fears: that children are being politically and sexually taken advantage of by a cabal of pedophiles in the teacher’s lounge and their powerful allies in the White House.
There is, of course, a tremendous amount of danger inherent in the game ideologues like Lindsay, Posobiec, and DeSantis are playing: encouraging stochastic terror against teachers and political opponents, and against queer people in general. But what really sticks in my craw is the way in which this vile, paranoiac worldview uses the safety of children as a cudgel against anyone who does not conform to a white, straight, fundamentalist Christian order—and in the process, completely ignores the actual victims of child abuse. The idea that children should not be educated about the realities of sex, that abuse is most likely to be perpetrated by queer people or politicized strangers, all in the name of preserving “innocence,” leaves kids vulnerable to be taken advantage of by savvy, establishment-friendly figures.
The Sword and the Sandwich is a newsletter about serious extremism and equally serious sandwiches. Please consider supporting this work with a paid subscription:
I know this because I was just such a child. In some ways I, at 14, was everything the conservative ideologues of the world seek from a young girl: I was utterly chaste, completely ignorant of sex and its workings (sex ed took all of one hour in my school and featured a Tampax commercial and a picture of ovaries), ensconced in a fundamentalist religious community. And a man, a neighbor who was nearing twenty, took advantage of it, and my childish love, to treat me like a rag doll for almost a year, and I told no one for ages. My innocence left me vulnerable, my shame left me unable to speak, and it was years before I realized I was angry at the man, who “dated” at least one fourteen-year-old after me, and is now a married father of five. I remember him taking me to his Ivy League college, and his dormmates cracking awkward jokes about his “underage girlfriend,” and how they never told anyone a thing. That was the price of knowing nothing, and being the type of kid abusers target: lonely and odd and wanting to be loved.
The official name of HB 1557—“Parental Rights in Education”—lifts the mask on its true goal: it weakens the power of public institutions to intervene in family abuse while consolidating absolute power in the hands of those most likely to abuse kids: their relatives. (According to the CDC, 91% of child sexual abuse is perpetrated by someone known to the child or their relatives, including parents.) In the United States, it is parents that are empowered to approve child marriage: only six states prohibit all marriages under the age of 18. In 34 states, children under 18 can be married with parental consent (often of one parent only, not both). In 13 states there is no lower limit on marriageable age at all; in six more, the lowest age limit is below the age of 16, according to a 2019 analysis by the Tahirih Justice Center.
According to the anti-forced-marriage nonprofit Unchained at Last, 300,000 children were married in the U.S. between 2000 and 2018, some as young as 10. Most were girls wed to adult men, an average of four years older. (This doesn’t include men whose future spouses were children when they met, but who they waited to actually wed until it was legal.) Of course, none of this has anything to do with queerness, and it occurs with Parental Rights intact, so these 300,000 minors don’t fall under the aegis of the panic about protecting kids. I wouldn’t have, either, being afraid to tell anyone anything, and not knowing I could, just knowing I’d sinned somehow. In the party of Roy Moore, child marriage, and even heterosexually flavored child abuse, is contained comfortably within the bounds of fundamentalist patriarchy and is thus irrelevant.
The “groomer” panic would have you believe that it’s the people who are overtly different, who are marginalized, that are likely to abuse your children. In truth, the different and marginalized are far more likely to be the victims of abuse than the perpetrators. Abusers tend to utilize positions of power and community acceptance to hide their misdeeds: the Jimmy Saviles and Jerry Sanduskys of the world, and the Margaret Thatchers and Joe Paternos who protect them; the neighbor, the father, the friend-of-the-family, the pastor, the respectable businessman, the athletic trainer, the youth group leader, the coach.
Grooming isn’t telling kids that there are different kinds of people in the world. It’s telling them they’re worth nothing if they’re different, that they are fundamentally alone, that no one will help them, that they shouldn’t understand what’s happening, and why it hurts. Increasing the amount of shame kids feel increases the likelihood they won’t speak about their wounds. That’s the vision of the “Don’t Say Gay” bill and its world, and it is one that will hurt children, and make it easier to silence them. Even now you can’t hear them, the kids who are being hurt, over the din of protestations by the people who claim to be saving them.