Around the world, democratic governments are attempting to establish a new norm that they should have the power to read your private messages. This is happening now in the United Kingdom, where WhatsApp, Signal, and the Wikimedia Foundation have telegraphed to the UK government that they would leave the jurisdiction rather than place their users under surveillance, as a pending Online Safety Bill could require.
It’s also happening in Europe, where all three European Union institutions have condemned similar plans for a Chat Control 2.0 regime that could require Internet platforms to perform AI-based scanning for child grooming and sex abuse images in your private messages, photo albums, and online storage. Performed voluntarily by some platforms already, such scanning has resulted in innocent people being reported to the police.
In the United States Congress, the proposed EARN IT Act would push Internet platforms towards conducting surveillance of their users – and/or massively further censoring discussion of sex online – to prove that they are not negligently failing to protect children. This month human rights groups warned, “The EARN IT Act would have devastating consequences for everyone’s ability to share and access information online, and to do so in a secure manner.”
In all of these cases, child safety is used as a justification. Keeping children safe online is a worthy challenge, and one that I am devoted to personally and professionally. But as a trust and safety professional, when the government comes knocking and asks me to snoop on the users of my platform, or seeks to micromanage the way that the platform moderates its content, I’m inclined to ask some hard questions.
Who is asking the hard questions?
Six years ago, the law then being touted as a solution to online child exploitation was FOSTA-SESTA, a law similar in principle to the EARN IT Act, but putatively targeted towards child sex trafficking. During a debate on this law at the UN Internet Governance Forum (IGF) in Geneva in 2017, I voiced some of the digital right’s communities concerns about the law – concerns that indeed came to pass once the law was enacted.
Present at the same event was a conservative advisor on child protection policy to the UK government and to the international child protection group ECPAT. During my intervention, this advisor interjected with the claim that many thousands of children were being sex trafficked over the Internet, and that FOSTA-SESTA was required to stop this. ECPAT’s repetition of such claims – citing false statistics – was a key factor in the ultimate passage of FOSTA-SESTA.
That same year, an international law enforcement operation settled on Queensland, Australia as the base for police to operate a darknet CSAM (child pornography) website called Child’s Play. During the following eleven months, police not only stood by as the website grew, but even actively uploaded new CSAM images to it, all for the sake of a handful of arrests. The operation was condemned by UNICEF and Amnesty International as unacceptable under human rights law – but it was supported by ECPAT, the UK advisor, and by an advisor to the Australian and Canadian governments.
I harbored many of the same concerns then, as I do now, that child safety was being used by government actors to justify measures that infringed human rights. I had previously worked on digital rights advocacy from a development perspective and from a consumer perspective, working for nonprofits such as Consumers International and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). I began to wonder whether there was a need to work on digital rights from a child protection perspective also.
Speaking to others at the IGF that year, I found broad agreement on two points: first, that conservative groups and lobbyists had captured the discourse of child protection at an international level to promote a harmful agenda of censorship and criminalization, and second, that a challenge to this agenda was urgently needed.
Any organization seeking to mount such a challenge would need to act as a watchdog on government and corporate actions presented in the name of protecting children, and call them out when they crossed a legal or ethical line. Sometimes it would have to butt heads with the law enforcement sector. It certainly would have to listen more carefully to scientists than to lynch mobs. And it would have to be able to offer alternative solutions to counter the government’s demands, rather than just being a “party of no.”
Five years of Prostasia Foundation
To cut a long story short, the organization that I formed and led to mount that challenge was Prostasia Foundation. Announced in the week that FOSTA-SESTA passed into law, it brought together a group of experts, activists, and survivors to advance an evidence-based public health approach to the prevention of child sexual abuse, while simultaneously fighting for the dignity and rights of those marginalized communities who were the inevitable casualties of a razed-earth carceral approach.
Five years later, I am filled with much pride as the appointment of my successor in the role of Executive Director of Prostasia Foundation, Professor Gilian Tenbergen, is announced today. Dr Tenbergen is a renowned scholar and expert in sexual violence prevention. In addition to being appointed the Executive Director of Prostasia Foundation, Dr. Tenbergen serves on the Board of Directors of the New York State Association for the Treatment and Prevention of Sexual Abuse and the New York State Alliance for the Prevention of Sexual Abuse.
Quite rightly, the official announcement of Dr Tenbergen’s appointment is forward-looking. The organization that she now helms has taken on a formidable mission in seeking to eliminate child sexual abuse while upholding fundamental human rights, and the progress made towards that end during my tenure was interrupted and left incomplete. I look forward to celebrating Dr Tenbergen’s greater successes in the role from my comfortable position of an outsider over the coming years.
With that said, I believe that if any looking backward from this milestone is to be done, I’m probably the right person to attempt it. So buckle in for an overview of the tumultuous years between Prostasia’s formation in 2018 and my resignation as its Executive Director in 2021 – a story that has never been fully told before.
Prostasia’s early wins mount up
Prostasia’s earliest years gave little indication of the tumult that was later to come. With no seed funding, it grew quickly from a crowdfunded solo advocacy project, into a thriving and diverse grassroots organization, with a team of 25 at its peak in 2021. A few of the group’s earliest achievements included the following:
- In collaboration with the Woodhull Freedom Foundation, Human Rights Watch, the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom, the Free Speech Coalition and others, Prostasia fulfilled its early promise to combat unjust laws like FOSTA-SESTA by filing a joint amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief in a constitutional lawsuit against the law.
- During its first two years of advocacy work, Prostasia sent ten submissions to public consultations, six petitions, and fifteen letters to policymakers. These included a petition of over 17,000 signatories opposing a United Nations proposal to water down the legal definition of child pornography, along with campaigns to support the Invest in Child Safety Act (which would have injected $5b into child protection programs) and against the EARN IT Act.
- Prostasia also held Internet companies to account. It was instrumental in the removal of a child abuse gateway from Bing and DuckDuckGo in 2019, and campaigned for Yandex to follow suit. It called out Facebook for allowing sexualized child spanking groups, Tumblr and Twitter for censoring child abuse prevention professionals, and Apple for its plan to put CSAM-detecting spyware on its phones. In addition to these public interventions, companies engaged with Prostasia in private meetings and at human rights convenings such as the Freedom Online Coalition.
- By the end of its first full year in 2019, Prostasia had reached over a quarter of a million individuals with deterrence search ads on Google. These ads, targeted at those who displayed behavior indicative of an intention to seek out CSAM online, redirected them towards resources enabling them to get help to stop this harmful behavior.
- In 2019 Prostasia brought together Internet platforms, nonprofits such as the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), and subject matter experts at a Multi-Stakeholder Dialogue on Internet Platforms, Sexual Content, and Child Protection hosted by Patreon. Its output was an influential set of Best Practice Principles emphasizing transparency, accountability, and the need for platforms to adopt a harm prevention approach while evaluating the impacts of their policies.
- Prostasia also held events for and in partnership with other stakeholder groups, including a series of child protection workshops for the consensual kink/BDSM community, professional workshops at conferences such as the Association for the Treatment and Prevention of Sexual Abuse (ATSA) and the IGF, and screenings of films such as the documentary The War on Whores. This tradition will continue at Prostasia’s June 2023 relaunch, which will include a screening of the documentary The Recall: Reframed.
- Capping off its second successful full year in 2020, Prostasia was awarded a grant from the Just Beginnings Collaborative (JBC) to fund its work in support of a prevention-focused peer support group. This work included the conclusion of a memorandum of understanding with a partner nonprofit Stop It Now which provided group counseling, and a rigorous upgrade to the group’s safeguarding practices, including a Prostasia-developed plugin to scan and remove any CSAM that might be uploaded to the group’s chat server.
Angering the establishment
It didn’t take long for the waves that Prostasia was making to spill over and upset the establishment groups and lobbyists who had inspired its formation. At a government-organized event hosted by Microsoft in November 2018, participants hacked on a “grooming detection” bot that was later ruled unlawful in Europe, and discussed adding spyware into devices that would enable them to report suspected CSAM to law enforcement. Prostasia intervened to raise concerns about the human rights impacts of both measures. Law enforcement representatives were unhappy, and Prostasia was not invited back to subsequent events.
The following June at the annual conference of INHOPE, the association of CSAM reporting agencies, Prostasia caused another upset. The representative from NCMEC, the U.S. government appointed reporting agency, described as a “success” an operation that saw a teenager being imprisoned for 30 years for abusing his brother. Attending for Prostasia, I posted a mildly critical tweet in response, suggesting that it would have been more of a success if the abuse had been prevented in the first place. I was threatened with a defamation lawsuit unless I deleted the tweet, and even after doing so, I was ejected from the meeting.
The following year, Prostasia joined the National Coalition Against Censorship, Article 19, and the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund in demanding that INHOPE members cease reporting LGBTQ+ artists and fans to law enforcement over cartoon artwork. INHOPE rejected the demand and has ignored subsequent correspondence.
Prostasia also experienced pushback for its position that the fight against child abuse does not justify outlawing secure communications technologies such as end-to-end encryption. In an unsuccessful attempt to have Prostasia ejected as a member of the Global Encryption Coalition, a technologist with ties to the government advisors mentioned above launched a vicious misinformation campaign. He contacted the employers of team members, told its suppliers, partners, and the IRS that Prostasia supports “illegal or terrorist activities,” and published a smear website. The same individual had previously been banned from the ICANN community for engaging in similar tactics during a previous vendetta against colleagues there.
Prostasia hits the mainstream
As an explicitly anti-establishment activist organization, receiving pushback from law enforcement authorities was neither unexpected nor particularly unwelcome for Prostasia. If anything, it validated Prostasia’s criticisms of the establishment’s myopic, carceral approach to the problem of child sexual abuse, and increased the organization’s stature as a proponent of alternative approaches centered around prevention and harm reduction.
Indeed, growing recognition of Prostasia’s challenge to the hegemonic mainstream led to it receiving a foundation grant of $100,000, which it put towards staffing, micro-grants to community organizations, and a research project into understudied methods for the prevention of child sexual abuse. This unique research project was to be the first to empirically investigate claims made by groups such as ECPAT that victimless materials such as cartoons, stories, and roleplay could contribute to child sexual abuse, and to investigate an alternative hypothesis that they could have value in prevention.
Prostasia began to be cited in critical mainstream media coverage of purported child protection laws, citing harms to sex workers and other marginalized groups whose interests were previously deemed irrelevant, if not antithetical, to the battle against child exploitation. Prostasia hired as its Communications Director a high profile progressive journalist, Noah Berlatsky, who had previously exposed the abuse of sex trafficked minors by police, and who shared the organization’s vision of less harmful approaches based around education and prevention.
Prostasia’s reputation also grew in professional circles, thanks to a series of high profile guests speaking on its podcast series, and a number of conference appearances during the year. A particular highlight came when not one but three of its team members presented at a special opening plenary session of the 2021 ATSA conference, the world’s largest annual conference and leading educational venue for professionals working on issues related to the treatment, management, and research of sexual abuse.
Prostasia’s reputation and influence were growing among civil society activists, also. It held a successful webinar in March 2021 to inform the public about privacy rights violations in the interim European Chat Control proposal, featuring Member of the European Parliament Patrick Breyer, Internet Infrastructure Coalition Chairman Christian Dawson, and clinical psychologist and researcher Crystal Mundy.
That June it held a successful workshop at RightsCon, the world’s leading summit on human rights in the digital age, at which participants resolved, “We encourage policymakers to adopt a comprehensive approach to combating CSA that is guided by public health principles and human rights standards.” Events were also held at the Asia Pacific Regional Internet Governance Forum (APrIGF) in September, and planned for the global IGF in December.
Finally, Prostasia had planned to hold a second, larger Multi-Stakeholder Dialogue in September, this time on Consent and Safety in Adult Content Distribution. The event was intended to allow participants to develop and share best practices for the elimination of image-based sexual abuse, while upholding the rights and freedoms of marginalized communities. A 22-page background paper had been prepared, and diverse representatives from across a spectrum of 18+ communities and industry sectors were preparing to come together.
But that was when disaster struck.
The far-right backlash
Commencing at the end of August 2021, a viral social media misinformation campaign against Prostasia Foundation threatened to overturn everything that it had achieved. Key figures in these online attacks included a far-right social media influencer with 1.2 million followers known for his association with hate group the Proud Boys, a self-styled journalist who had once published a Nazi manifesto, and an alt-right YouTube personality known for her viral content implicating LGBTQ+ people as groomers. At its height, major right-wing political and media figures with even larger followings, such as Tucker Carlson, Jack Posobiec, James Lindsay, and Ted Cruz, also piled onto the attacks.
With such massive platforms, these far-right provocateurs were able to establish false beliefs about Prostasia that quickly became taken as established fact among many well-meaning people who unwisely took them at face value. Although some progressive and centrist opinion leaders did independently investigate and side with Prostasia, their dissenting voices became magnets for attacks of their own, which soon caused most of Prostasia’s would-be allies to lapse into an uneasy silence.
There were two particular flashpoints for the controversy. The lesser of these was the appointment of Noah Berlatsky, already a controversial and outspoken figure. His association with an organization that proposed non-carceral interventions for the prevention of child sexual abuse provided the perfect opportunity for his online detractors to resurrect previous false smears of pedophilia against him, and to take Prostasia down with him.
Building upon and ultimately eclipsing this controversy, in November, was Prostasia’s platforming of queer child sex abuse prevention researcher, Dr Allyn Walker, on its podcast and blog. I’ve previously written extensively on how Dr Walker’s work challenged the simplistic political narrative about child sexual abuse favored by fascists and transphobes, and how they have been fully vindicated and honored by their peers for their groundbreaking work. With that said, truth is the first casualty of war, and in the far-right’s culture war, Dr Walker’s name, along with Prostasia’s, ironically become synonymous not with the prevention of child sexual abuse, but with its normalization.
Unlike the previous backlash against Prostasia which had come (largely) from within established groups in its sector, this new coordinated backlash was unabashedly part of a fascist political program to associate LGBTQ+ people and the progressive organizations that supported them with pedophilia and grooming. As I have previously described, other LGBTQ+ supportive charities such as Mermaids, the Trevor Project, and Scarleteen were also attacked by grooming allegations from the far-right, and one group that had closely worked with Prostasia – the Global Prevention Project – was even forced to shut its doors in 2021.
To ensure the safety of our team and partners, Prostasia cancelled its planned September 2021 Multi-stakeholder Dialogue, and let its staff go – one even resorted to changing her name in an effort to escape harassment. For my own part, I was hounded relentlessly for months: I was doxxed, I lost clients, my social media accounts attracted foul comments and accusations, and my mental health suffered. Finally, publishing an unrepentant 2021 Annual Report followed by a final podcast interview, I announced my own resignation as Prostasia’s Executive Director in December 2021.
Since then, Prostasia Foundation has become a shell of the organization that it once was. While a new, dedicated volunteer team deserve great credit for maintaining its social media presence and its prevention programs, in the wake of the debilitating attacks it suffered the organization has no longer engaged in political advocacy, has held no events, made no new grants, and discontinued a number of its former programs.
What made this all the more tragic was that there had never been a more important time for an organization like Prostasia Foundation to exist.
Moral panic against LGBTQ+ communities weaponized
For homophobic adults to use “child protection” as a pretext for anti-LGBTQ+ laws is nothing new. In 1977, singer Anita Bryant led a successful campaign under the disingenuously-named Save the Children coalition, to overturn a local ordinance protecting gay people from discrimination. Throughout the campaign she mischaracterized homosexuals as child abusers, notoriously arguing, “The recruitment of our children is absolutely necessary for the survival and growth of homosexuality.”
Today, incredible as it seems after so many decades of apparent progress, the state of political discourse on child protection and LGBTQ+ issues in the United States has regressed so far as to make Anita Bryant seem positively liberal:
- While some Republican politicians are now openly calling their political opponents pedophiles, others are supporting laws that would allow adult rapists to marry twelve year olds.
- While arguing for cuts in funding to schools that provide comprehensive sex education, teenage pregnancies in politicians’ own families starkly illustrates the consequences of such policies.
- While red states jostle to pass laws that prohibit transgender students from participating in sports consistent with their gender identity, a law promoting community based education and training for teachers, caregivers, and students to prevent child sexual abuse languishes in Congress for a third time.
- While anti-abuse peer support groups are banned from Elon Musk’s Twitter, anti-trans hate groups such as Gays Against Groomers and LibsOfTikTok are given free reign to direct stochastic harassment against LGBTQ+ youth, directly inspiring acts of fascist violence.
While extremists may now be driving this discourse, establishment groups cannot wash their hands of it. True, they have for the most part steered clear of anti-LGBTQ+ bigotry. Yet in their public communications, government-linked actors have consistently stooped to presenting similarly simplistic myths about child abuse and grooming, such as “stranger danger“, Superbowl sex trafficking, sex offenders preying on trick-or-treaters, and the Satanic Panic. In an article that I wrote for Prostasia, I traced the growth of the QAnon conspiracy movement from this fertile soil.
Something else that government-linked actors have all had in common with the far-right is their framing of child protection in terms of opposition to an overly broad conception of “deviant sexuality”. Thus for example the UK advisor mentioned above has smeared the consensual kink community as predatory pedophiles, the Australian advisor has argued for expansion of criminal law to cover consensual adult pornography, and ECPAT has sought to criminalize adult performances and fantasy artwork.
These are the very same government advisors now supporting blanket government surveillance of communications under Chat Control 2.0 and the Online Safety Bill. This is no coincidence. Sex-negativity – of which the U.S. right’s homophobia and transphobia are an extreme expression – is not a separate problem from global moves towards authoritarian censorship and surveillance. These are two facets of the same reactionary political movement. Fascist authoritarianism is driven, in large measure, by fear of sexual deviance.
It was inevitable that the only organization calling this out on both fronts would face challenge. While not all its critics identify as part of this reactionary movement, the hobbling of Prostasia’s effectiveness as an advocacy organization has played directly into the hands of authoritarians and fascists. Now with no effective check on their agenda from within the child protection sector, they are opportunistically and actively exploiting public fears about child safety to pursue an extreme misogynistic, homophobic, transphobic, and authoritarian agenda.
Sexuality is not the problem
From the outset, Prostasia billed itself as an organization like no other, and that remains true today. No other organization has presented a coherent, holistic response to the rise of a reactionary political movement that cloaks itself in the mantle of concern for children, while promoting regressive policies that harm children and adults alike. Prostasia’s response challenges two interlocking components of the mainstream narrative of child sexual abuse: its centering of sexuality as the problem, and its centering of criminal justice as the solution.
There are three reasons why child sexual abuse should not be framed as a problem of deviant sexuality. First, doing so is factually wrong: almost three quarters of child sexual abuse is committed by those whose sexualities are considered “normal”, and over a third is committed by young people of similar age to their victim. Thus, a sizable majority of perpetrators neither identify nor would be diagnosed as pedophiles.
Third, framing child sexual abuse as an issue of sexuality harms LGBTQ+ communities, who are themselves treated as sexual deviants due to homophobia and transphobia. Even within LBGTQ+ communities, too many self-defeating “pick-me queers” choose not to repudiate this framing, but simply to redefine the category of deviancy so that it doesn’t include them. In this way, queers at the margins such as furries, drag queens, and kinksters are rendered as acceptable targets for fascist dehumanization and violence.
Criminal justice is not the solution
The second challenge that Prostasia’s approach poses to the mainstream narrative of child sexual abuse is to de-center the criminal justice system as its solution. While there are other groups that oppose illiberal surveillance laws such as the EARN IT Act, they have too often offered nothing but other populist carceral measures as alternatives, while failing to interrogate the limitations of such measures, or to offer a positive agenda to prevent children from experiencing sexual harms in the first place.
There are three reasons why child protection should not be centered around the criminal justice system. First and most fundamentally, it intervenes only after harm has already been done. By recognizing the possibility of preventing abuse before it happens, we should be treating criminal justice as a last rather than a first resort.
Second, the criminal justice system often criminalizes sexual deviancy more harshly than sexual violence, especially when the perpetrator is “respectable” (compare the six month sentence for privileged white rapist Brock Turner, to the forty year sentence imposed against a publisher of taboo short stories and drawings on the Internet.)
In summary then, the instinct to define the problem of child sexual abuse in terms of sexuality rather than action, and the instinct to turn first to the criminal justice system for solutions, are both wrong. They deflect harm, rather than attempting to reduce it. They place no value on the harm that children could be spared by prioritizing the prevention of sexual violence over the punishment of sexual deviance. They also reinforce each other, maintaining a cycle of toxic discourse that renders any other framing of the problem of child sexual abuse unspeakable, and any other solution unsupportable.
Put simply, our society’s dominant narrative around child sexual abuse, which is more concerned with sexual deviance than sexual violence, is a product of rape culture.
A paradigm shift towards public health and prevention
When I formed Prostasia Foundation, it was with the intention of exposing this toxic and simplistic narrative, while popularizing a counter-narrative based upon sound science, human rights, and public health. Taking a public health approach means addressing the problem in its totality, by tailoring appropriate, evidence-based, stigma-free interventions that can reduce the various risk factors for sexual violence perpetration, and bolster a variety of protective factors.
For example, we can reduce the risk of child sexual abuse perpetration by addressing unmet needs for mental health, substance abuse, and employment services. We can strengthen protective factors by investing in comprehensive sex education, housing and childcare, and social support networks.
This public health paradigm simultaneously challenges the sex negativity that fuels far-right hatred of LGBTQ+ people, and also our society’s prioritization of carceral responses to sexual violence. Yet despite its support among experts, public health interventions for the prevention of child sexual abuse have long been neglected by policymakers. America spends $5.4 billion annually to incarcerate child sex offenders, and only $2 million on prevention.
Bringing about a paradigm shift towards public health within the child protection sector is integral to the mission of Prostasia Foundation. It has executed on this mission by helping to raise mainstream awareness of prevention science, by platforming its leading practitioners, funding research, and pioneering public health interventions that others have neglected due to stigma and lack of funding.
This has already seen much success. When Prostasia began, there was little public awareness of prevention science. Today, accurate information on this topic is being featured in mass media and charitable foundations are funding prevention work at an unprecedented scale. But so much more is needed, and so many who need to listen have instead been turning away.
With the appointment of public health expert Dr Gilian Tenbergen as Prostasia’s new Executive Director, it is finally now led by a professional with unchallenged expertise in this field. In her own powerful words,
My passion is child protection. This is what I research, what I have taught at university, what I live every day – especially now that I am a new mother myself. … When I look at my child, I see the future and I see all the children who deserve happy, healthy, harm-free lives. My mission is to see this become reality, and together we will achieve this.Gilian Tenbergen
As citizens of democratic societies are being asked to accept mass surveillance of their communications, and as LGBTQ+ communities scramble for survival amidst smears of complicity in child abuse, it’s vital for society to understand that there is an alternative to both dark paths. Prostasia Foundation is now helmed by a professional who can persuasively communicate that alternative. For the organization that she now leads, and for a world in search of solutions to sexual violence, Dr Tenbergen’s appointment comes not a moment too soon.
Simplistic narratives about child sexual abuse are harmful. Perhaps the most harmful of all is the false belief that it is unpreventable – that it is an inevitable and inextricable concomitant of individual sexual deviance. But we don’t criminalize people for being sexually deviant, we criminalize them for committing sexual abuse. This is an important distinction for multiple reasons, but the language that we use to talk about child sexual abuse inherently blurs it. In doing so, it erases the very possibility of prevention while placing child protection and civil liberties at loggerheads.
This shows that a paradigm change is needed. One that flips the discourse around so that it no longer centers the sexuality of perpetrators, but the harm that we want to avert. Too much of the mainstream child protection movement has been about policing the boundaries of sexual deviance, and too little about preventing actual harm to children from whatever source.
Paradigm shifting child protection organization Prostasia Foundation stands allied with child sexual abuse professionals such as Dr Gilian Tenbergen, who formally takes over its leadership today. Under Dr Tenbergen’s courageous and principled leadership, Prostasia will continue to ask hard questions that others refuse to ask – and to propose better, evidence-based solutions that uphold the human rights of all.
I’d like to encourage you to join Dr Tenbergen along with other past and present Prostasia team members and allies at Prostasia’s relaunch event on June 8, where you’ll be able to talk with her directly about her inspiring vision of prevention today for a safer tomorrow (you can also pose questions to me in the comments section of this blog). Meanwhile, if you would like to support Prostasia’s important work, there are many ways that you can do that which I’d encourage you to check out.