Elon Musk, CEO of Twitter since October 2022, talks big about prioritizing child safety on the platform. Yet his actions towards Twitter’s own Trust & Safety team members suggest that he is motivated by an unsavory form of virtue-signaling, rather than a sincere concern for the safety of children. Musk has joined a disingenuous chorus of far-right actors falsely associating their political enemies with sexual deviancy and child abuse.
On December 10, Musk insinuated that the company’s former Head of Trust & Safety, Yoel Roth, was guilty of sexualizing minors, creating an online and media pile-on that forced Roth to flee his home. In the same week, he accused members of Twitter’s own Trust & Safety Council of refusing to take action on child exploitation, before disbanding that group altogether. If Musk truly cared about the well-being of children, he would not seek to punish those who advocate for their protection and safety within the company.
Year of the groomer
While there is more to be said about Musk’s erratic behavior as Twitter CEO, his penchant for accusing people of child sex crimes shouldn’t be minimized as a personal idiosyncracy. Indeed, it has lately become fully normalized for conservatives to lob tawdry smears of “grooming” against their opponents. So much so that 2022 might well go down as the year of the groomer.
This isn’t because sexual grooming of children suddenly become a bigger problem than it had been in any previous year. Grooming – that is, carrying on a relationship with a child with the intention of sexually abusing them – is and remains a widespread problem. Indeed, its scale has been little diminished over several decades in which the prosecution of sex crimes against children has been a well-funded law enforcement priority.
But the accused “groomer” of 2022 was less likely to be an abuser, and more likely a teacher, a parent to a transgender child, or a medical professional. Conflating those who care for children with those who would abuse them has long been a convenient and potent propaganda trick for bigots and tyrants. Today, a word that ought to be used soberly and precisely in the fight against child exploitation has instead been corrupted into a weapon of cultural warfare.
Justin Peters writes for Slate:
For decades now, American right-wing discourse has been rooted in two bedrock principles. The first is that the American right is under attack, constantly, from all leftward angles. The second principle is that there is a lot of money to be made in convincing low-information values voters that they are under attack, and that Hollywood, government, the academy, big business, and the media are now and always have been conspiring against them.
This holds true, to the extreme, when it comes to the right’s penchant for spreading the groomer slur. Over the past 18 months, this smear has touched representatives of all the institutions mentioned by Peters – Hollywood (targeting Maïmouna Doucouré, French Senegalese director of the film Cuties), government (Ketanji Brown Jackson and more recently Rep Katie Porter), the academy (most grievously Dr Allyn Walker, as explained below), big business (Balenciaga, Walmart, and many others), and the media (most notably Noah Berlatsky, along with too many YouTubers to name).
Trust and safety professionals
Most ironically, as in the case of Twitter’s Yoel Roth, the smear also extends to those who work professionally to keep children safe from sexual exploitation and harm. Although the ouster and pedojacketing of Roth is an illustrative example, it is merely the latest in a long line of attacks against child safety professionals and charities.
In October 2022, the U.K. trans charity Mermaids was forced to suspend services in the wake of online and verbal attacks against its volunteers, who were falsely accused by anti-transgender activists of facilitating child grooming. In the United States, similar tactics were employed by anti-LGBTQ+ extremists against the Trevor Project, which runs a LGBTQ+ youth suicide helpline.
Individual professionals, especially those who are themselves sexually marginalized or who serve sexually marginalized populations, have also been targeted. In August 2022, sex therapist Miranda Galbreath was accused of grooming by anti-LGBTQ+ Twitter account LibsOfTikTok and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, among others. The accusations turned on a selectively-edited (now private) video in which Galbreath correctly pointed out that “The term pedophile has moved from being a diagnostic label to being a judgmental, hurtful insult that we hurl at people in order to harm them or slander them.”
But to date the biggest wave of right-wing attacks against an anti-abuse professional came in 2021, targeting Dr Allyn Walker, then of Old Dominion University. Dr Walker’s unwanted notoriety arose from their research into strategies to help prevent offending by those who are sexually attracted towards minors. Ultimately, as misinformation about their work escalated to right-wing media outlets such as Fox News and even became a talking point for Senator Ted Cruz, Walker was forced to resign.
Grooming libel as moral panic
To address and ultimately repudiate the grooming smear, we have to see it for what it is – a moral panic. A moral panic is a widespread and irrational social fear that a stereotyped group of people pose an existential threat to the values and safety of society. Child safety has been a flashpoint of moral panics through the ages, ever since medieval times when Jews were targeted by the “blood libel” that they were consuming the blood of children.
Child molestation continued to be an important anti-Semitic motif during the rise of the Third Reich in Germany, as historian Katrin Kämpf explains. But homophobia and transphobia also became interwoven into the child safety moral panic of that time. The Habitual Criminals Act (Gewohnheitsverbrechergesetz), passed in 1933, provided for the indefinite imprisonment of those deemed dangerous to society, and for the castration of sex offenders. It is estimated that 100,000 gay men were arrested under this law, about 15,000 of them eventually being incarcerated in concentration camps.
Today, the groomer smear, and more broadly the American right’s vulgar preoccupation with conspiracy theories around pedophilia, are modern expressions of a similar moral panic over sexual “degeneracy”, which continues to include a strong strain of fascist anti-semitism, homophobia and transphobia. (It is no coincidence that Yoel Roth is gay, that Allyn Walker is nonbinary, trans, and Jewish, and that Noah Berlatsky is Jewish and father to a trans daughter.)
Thus although the accusation of “grooming” is a mask for generalized bigotry against sexual minorities, the moral panic that underlies it is indeed a reaction to the threat that modern sexual and gender norms pose to authoritarian patriarchal hegemony. As Laurie Penny writes in her recent book, Sexual Revolution: Modern Fascism and the Feminist Fightback:
This sexual revolution is, by its very nature, a threat to heterosexuality, to male supremacy, to white supremacy, to traditional ways of dividing labour, organising bodies and distributing wealth. And those who are invested in these power structures are fighting back.
This illuminates an important point: that it is not merely (or mainly) the spectre of so-called “groomers” that arouses the fascist’s fear and provokes their violent response. Rather, their deepest anxiety concerns the sexuality of children as this emerges naturally in a society that is tolerant, diverse, and which bases its sexual ethics around consent rather than conservative sexual mores.
By penalizing the dissemination of dangerous ideas, such as that children have a right to bodily autonomy, by stigmatizing non-normative gender expressions such as drag, and by promulgating falsehoods such as that there is no such thing as a trans child, the fascist reveals the true source of their anxiety – not that their children might be sexually abused, but that they might turn out to be gay, trans, or queer.
The fight back begins
If anyone ought to be fighting back against the misuse of the terminology of grooming and pedophilia to impede the work of child safety professionals, it’s the child safety sector itself. Yet with only a few exceptions, organizations in this space have kept silent on the issue. Indeed in 2019, Britain’s National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) chose to purge itself of its LGBTQ+ representatives rather than showing solidarity with them in the face of anti-LGBTQ+ smears against the organization.
In a sense, the reticence of mainstream organizations and commentators to come to the defense of marginalized victims of far-right grooming smears is understandable. It’s safer, when fascist violence is afoot, to stay quietly out of sight. But how much longer can those who know better tolerate the groomer smear being used to mislead the public and to imperil child safety professionals?
Thankfully, as bad as recent months of grooming hysteria have been, the redemption of Allyn Walker this year provides a signal that the tide may be beginning to turn. In the same month that Dr Walker was suspended from Old Dominion University among an unrelenting barrage of smears and threats, over 60 researchers and clinicians in the fields of sexual abuse prevention, mental health, human sexuality, and criminology affirmed that their approach towards providing support to those at risk of offending was mainstream prevention science.
A scant six months later, Dr Walker was appointed to the position of Postdoctoral Fellow with the Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse in the prestigious Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. The announcement lauded them as “a leader in the field of perpetration prevention research, which is essential for developing a comprehensive public health approach to addressing child sexual abuse and effective prevention programs.”
At the October 2022 conference of the Association for the Treatment and Prevention of Sexual Abuse (ATSA), Walker gave a keynote about why engaging in research and practice to prevent child sexual abuse should not be controversial. They included an analysis of what they termed the “extreme, negative reactions to my research” which revealed its strongly transphobic character. The following month, Dr Walker was honored with a Research Award from the Queer Criminology Division of the American Society of Criminology.
The right-wing moral panic that underpins the “groomer” smear, and to which Elon Musk has unwisely attached himself, is not an authentic expression of concern for child safety. It is inseparable from a regressive ideology that holds all sexual “degeneracy” to blame for challenging the primacy of the patriarchal family unit, and undermining the social structures that have been built upon its authority.
While Elon Musk’s demonization of Yoel Roth has drawn wide condemnation by mainstream commentators, these same commentators erred in failing to come to the support of child safety professionals sooner. Perhaps they unwisely assumed that, so long as the far-right attacks were limited to pedophiles and those seen as supporting them, there was no reason to make a fuss.
But when the roots of the groomer libel in fascism are appreciated, the folly of assuming that groomer panic could ever be confined to just one form of “sexual degeneracy” should be obvious. Indeed, those who wield the groomer smear pay little attention to the real problem of child grooming and abuse – a phenomenon that is disproportionately present in the very institutions, such as the family home and the church, that they venerate as sacrosanct. Instead, the inevitable targets of the groomer smear are LGBTQ+ people, sex educators, sex workers, and child safety professionals.
If Musk is to learn any lessons at all during his tenure as Twitter’s chief executive, he would do well to pay less heed to his entourage of far-right provocateurs, QAnon adherents, and sex-negative grifters, and more heed to experts. He could do worse than starting with Twitter’s alumni, such as Del Harvey, who founded, built, and led Twitter’s global Trust & Safety operation.
In Harvey’s keynote address at TrustCon, the first global conference dedicated to trust and safety professionals, she affirmed the importance of the profession situating its work within a public health framework – the same framework that informs Dr Walker’s research. The responsibility of a trust and safety professional, according to Harvey, is to address underlying systemic conditions that give rise to a risk of harm, to eliminate or reduce risk factors that do exist while enhancing protective factors, and to intervene early to detect, halt, and mitigate harm. All the while, it is important to ensure that our interventions do not cause more harm than good.
Elon Musk has done far more harm than good by casting his lot in with the lowest trolls and bigots on the Internet, whose hollow “groomer” slurs poorly conceal their own fear, hatred, and intolerance. While the LGBTQ+ community has been ably defended against these slurs, few public figures have shown similar solidarity with child safety professionals who have come under attack. It’s long past time that we all denounced the cooptation of the language of child protection by fascists, and stood up for the child safety professionals whom Musk and his sycophants have impugned.
I think it should be noted that this ever flexible term “moral panic” has also been applied by the likes of Gayle Rubin and Pat Califia to people who supported the imposition of age of consent laws with the likes of W.T Stead and Josephine Butler being accused in Rubin’s “Thinking Sex” as religious hysterics. You were saying?
I know only a little about the pioneering and essential work that Stead and Butler performed in the 19th century to raise the age of consent. But from what I do know, I recall that it veered off into a moral purity movement that aimed to criminalize adult sex work, to suppress information about birth control, and to ban bawdy entertainment at music halls. This is an analogue of today’s moral purity movements that use child safety as a pretext for illiberal restrictions on sex education, adult media, and digital rights.