Experts say misinformed 'groomer' attacks hurt real efforts to prevent child sex abuse

Over the past few weeks, the term “grooming” has emerged as a buzzword of the political right, appearing everywhere from Fox News to Republican fundraising emails. Initially lobbed at opponents of a controversial Florida law prohibiting public school teachers from discussing gender identity or sexual orientation with young children, “groomer” has quickly evolved as the new go-to insult for those opposing aspects of the Republican education agenda.

For child sexual abuse experts who’ve been working to educate the public about grooming, the right’s recent adoption of the term is cause for concern. The problem, said Elizabeth Jeglic, a psychology professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York who researches issues related to sexual grooming, sexual abuse and sexual violence prevention, is that the current discourse around grooming is largely inaccurate.

Jeglic explained that “grooming” is a relatively new term used to described tactics that have long been used by sexual abusers, mostly against young children but also vulnerable adults, to gain access to potential victims, coerce them into abuse and then avoid getting caught. Such tactics may include giving potential victims gifts, attention and sharing secrets in order to develop trust, as well as using hugging, tickling and other seemingly harmless forms of touching to desensitize victims to increasingly sexual contact. One study co-authored by Jeglic in 2021 found that elements of sexual grooming were involved in 99% of all cases of childhood sexual abuse.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, surrounded by children and adults, signs the Parental Rights in Education bill.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signs the Parental Rights in Education bill at Classical Preparatory School in Spring Hill, Fla., on March 28. (Douglas R. Clifford/Tampa Bay Times/TNS via ZUMA Press Wire)

But rather than address some of the real signs of grooming, which experts like Jeglic say is crucial to preventing child sex abuse, most of the “groomer slinging” that’s been in the headlines lately seems based on a decades-old attack on LGBTQ people that wrongly conflates gayness with pedophilia.

The term began to spread on the right last month in relation to Florida’s controversial “Don’t Say Gay” law, a vaguely worded statute that prohibits teachers from discussing sexual orientation and gender identity with children in kindergarten through third grade that critics say targets LGBTQ teachers. Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis’s press secretary, Christina Pushaw, said that anyone who opposed the bill was “probably a groomer.”

Days later, “grooming” began being used in graphics on Fox News, with right-wing media focusing on LGBTQ teachers, fueled by accounts like Libs of TikTok, which provide steady grist for the outrage mill. The targeting of LGBTQ teachers is being promoted by Chris Rufo, the same activist who hyped concerns over teaching about race. Rufo has said that the efforts are part of a larger initiative to dismantle public education as a whole by discrediting it as an institution. Transgender youth have specifically become targets of Republicans, with a number of states pushing legislation that would charge parents who allow their children to seek gender-affirming care with a felony.

“Sexual assault is in no way related to the sexual orientation of the perpetrator or the survivor, and a person’s sexual orientation cannot be caused by sexual abuse or assault,” Erinn Robinson, a spokesperson for the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), said in a statement to Yahoo News. “Anyone can be a perpetrator of child sexual abuse, and it’s important that parents monitor any adult that has access to their children.”

According to RAINN, common grooming behaviors include selecting victims based on ease of access and perceived vulnerability. Abusers will then attempt to physically or emotionally separate victims from those who could protect them by developing trust and sharing “secrets” to develop bonds while desensitizing them to the discussion of sexual topics and touch.

A poster headed Found in Florida depicts something called the Genderbread Person.
An image of "the Genderbread Person," a teaching tool used for breaking the concept of gender. (Douglas R. Clifford/Tampa Bay Times via Zuma Press Wire)

Research suggests that one of the most effective tools for preventing child sexual abuse is comprehensive sex education, including for young children. Jeglic argued that measures discouraging age-appropriate sex education, as well as misinformed rhetoric that muddies the public’s understanding about what grooming actually is, ultimately harm legitimate efforts to prevent sexual abuse.

“Anytime that [grooming] is confused with other behaviors that are not sexual grooming, I think, endangers people who are being sexually groomed from understanding that that’s what’s happening to them, [and] it confuses adults who could prevent the abuse from happening,” Jeglic said. “If people get confused about what it is, that then can increase the likelihood that people can get away with perpetrating abuse against minors.”

Nonetheless, Republicans have continued to conflate grooming with anti-trans fears, with three GOP candidates fundraising off this potentially harmful misconception last week.

Michigan state Sen. Tom Barrett, who is running for the U.S. House, sent out a message stating that the recipients’ children were set for gender reassignment surgery as a fear tactic. A colleague of his, state Sen. Lana Theis, wrote that Democratic legislators wanted to “groom and sexualize kindergarteners.” Arkansas congressional candidate Neil Kumar sent out an email in which he wrote, “These sodomite predators are grooming, brainwashing, and mutilating our vulnerable children. These demons are defiling innocence itself, and they must be stopped.”

Michigan state Sen. Mallory McMorrow. (Senate TV via Twitter)
Michigan state Sen. Mallory McMorrow. (Senate TV via Twitter)

Michigan Democratic state Sen. Mallory McMorrow, who was directly named as a groomer in Theis’s email, responded in a speech Wednesday that has gone viral. The four-minute video has been viewed more than 14 million times on Twitter and is being pushed as a model for how Democrats nationwide should respond to the attacks.

“I didn’t expect to wake up yesterday to the news that the senator from the 22nd District had, overnight, accused me by name of grooming and sexualizing children in an email fundraising for herself,” McMorrow said. “So I sat on it for a while wondering: Why me? And then I realized: Because I am the biggest threat to your hollow, hateful scheme. Because you can’t claim that you are targeting marginalized kids in the name of ‘parental rights’ if another parent is standing up to say no.”

McMorrow raised more than $250,000 in the first 24 hours following her speech, and sent out a fundraising email urging donations to the Michigan Senate Democrats and Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee.

Marjorie Taylor Greene
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., speaking to supporters of former President Donald Trump in Commerce, Ga., in March. (Megan Varner/Getty Images)

The recent GOP grooming attacks are the latest iteration of a trend among politicians and pundits on the right who seek to paint their political opponents as supporters of pedophilia.

Some of the most high-profile accusations came in the confirmation hearings of incoming Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson in late March, where a number of GOP senators used the proceedings to label Jackson as soft on child porn offenders despite repeated analyses showing that her rulings were within the mainstream of her fellow judges. When three Republican senators said they would vote to confirm Jackson, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., called them “pro-pedophile.” The following day, she referred to Democrats as the “party of pedophiles.”

Greene’s comments and the general trend toward accusations of pedophilia echo the QAnon conspiracy theory, which has been supported by Greene in the past, alleging that former President Donald Trump was working to take down a powerful cabal of child traffickers typically portrayed as the Democratic elite. Believers in the debunked theory frequently allege that their political opponents support pedophiles. Those pushing the accusations have a large audience — a recent survey from the Public Religion Research Institute found that 16% of Americans believed that “the government, media, and financial worlds in the U.S. are controlled by a group of Satan-worshipping pedophiles who run a global child sex-trafficking operation.”

A QAnon supporter dressed as Lady Liberty
A QAnon supporter dressed as Lady Liberty at a rally in Olympia, Wash. (Ted S. Warren/AP)

Jared Holt, a resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab who researches domestic extremist movements in the United States, told Yahoo News he has observed how “QAnon communities online have excitedly regurgitated and cheered rhetoric from mainstream Republican figures accusing their political opponents of supporting child sex abuse and ‘grooming.’”

For those communities, Holt explained, this kind of rhetoric “appeals to two of their long-standing passions: demonizing those who they perceive to be against them and duking it out on the frontlines of the right-wing 'culture war.'”

The worries about baseless grooming accusations hurting actual victims is reminiscent of how QAnon adherents’ obsession with fictional child trafficking hurt organizations that were battling the real thing by swarming Facebook groups and hotlines while promoting false fears. The accusations of pedophilia have led to incidents of violence from believers, including a father who killed his two children after being “enlightened by QAnon” and believing they were monsters. In December 2016, a man shot his gun inside a Washington, D.C., restaurant he believed was tied to a child sex ring, part of the so-called Pizzagate conspiracy that was a QAnon predecessor.