It has become impossible not to notice the trend. Whether it’s banning the word “gay” or banning books that contain topics related to human sexuality, or the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down a woman’s federal right to abortion, the war against human sexuality and those who are sexually divergent is intensifying on several fronts. Even I was the target of this war. Because of my outspokenness for LGBTQ+ youth, I’ve been referred to as a “groomer” by a few far-right figures.
Being called a “groomer” in our society has a specific weight. When the far right brands someone with this nickname, it is meant to associate them with pedophiles and pedophiles. A “groomer” in this context refers to someone who conditions and accustoms children to accepting or normalizing abuse or exploitation. The term comes from actual cases of child abuse, but recently it has been used against virtually any LGBTQ+ person or ally. And its use has increased since anti-gay legislation passed by far-right Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. The intention is to terrify and silence those who oppose a very narrow understanding of human sexuality. And this smear tactic has been employed against a wide range of people, from teachers and librarians to healthcare providers and drag queens.
Real child abuse is a serious and corrosive societal disease that needs to be addressed with empathy and well-funded support and protection structures. Most occur at home by someone well known to the child. Much of it was perpetrated by religious figures, such as priests or pastors. But this recent war on human sexuality has nothing to do with protecting children. In fact, thanks to conservative governance, many social supports for victims of abuse have been systematically cut and consistently underfunded or understaffed. This has a reason: rigid social control.
There are several fronts in this war against human sexuality. Some are in the classroom, others are in the doctor’s office. Whether in censorship of certain words or terms or in transgender or women’s health legislation, the far right taps into an old American angst about ridiculous and impossible notions of purity and deviance. And the Anti-Porn Crusade has emerged to capture that angst in a relatively easy way.
Since the spread of pornography in the modern era, there have been efforts to censor or ban it altogether. Besides religious fundamentalists and evangelicals, there are also several radical feminists, including the late Andrea Dworkin, who have sought a legal end to the production and distribution of porn. For these particular feminists, the objection was primarily due to the dehumanization and denigration of women that plagues the industry. Their argument, while flawed in many ways, was understandable. Misogyny runs rampant in the porn industry as it runs rampant in society at large. But the bulk of the anti-porn crusade has been dominated by ultra-conservative evangelicals whose animus toward pornography is based solely on an extremely narrow understanding of human sexuality and its expression. And they wish to impose this worldview on all other members of society, by any means necessary.
In a society based on rigid social and religious doctrines and mores, this subject was bound to cause friction. And not just in religious circles. Some see themselves as “material realists” who reject any new understanding of our sexual diversity. But this has too often become an excuse for bigotry, discrimination and cruelty. It is also a misapplication and misunderstanding of how science actually works. The more we discover about a certain thing, the more our understanding of what is “materially real” changes accordingly. These “materialists” have often unwittingly become allies of racists, anti-Semites and fascists.
A popular conspiracy theory in many white supremacist circles is that the porn industry is a Jewish conspiracy to undermine white men and exploit white women through the normalization of race relations. Infamous white supremacist David Duke said that Jews “saw pornography as a weapon of revenge for real or imagined European wrongs against Jews from the time of the Romans down to the present day.” On top of that, the anti-masturbation campaign, which is apparently a thing, is part of the larger anti-porn crusade. And that too has ties to white supremacy. In fact, sexual panic among racists is no small feat. The Proud Boys, for example, require their members to completely stop viewing pornography and limit masturbation to once a month.
The current sexual panic must be understood as a legacy of American Puritanism. And the alleged protection of the “purity” of white women and children is at its heart. There are many examples of how this legacy has unfolded over the centuries, from Jim Crow’s demonization of black men as “sex bullies” to the persecution of gay people during the Red Scare. In 1977, beauty pageant winner and orange juice spokesperson Anita Bryant immediately said what it was all about when she launched the “Save Our Children” campaign, which aimed to discriminate LGBTQ+ people in housing and employment.
Today, panic is most often reflected in chat rooms, Bible studies, camp meetings, and political rallies. Many have been ensnared by the lopsided cult of QAnon that elevates it all to another level of conspiratorial madness, one where satanic pedophile rings in the upper echelons of the Democratic Party traffic children for abuse and extraction of a “life-extending” chemical known as “adrenochrome”. But it has also become mainstream, with ultra-conservative pundits like Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham and Candace Owens using their platforms to peddle heinous and misleading tropes and stereotypes about queer people.
It cannot be underestimated that sexual minorities have borne the brunt of this Puritan cudgel. By connecting with other far-right fascists like Orban of Hungary, Bolsonaro of Brazil or Putin of Russia, ultra-conservative evangelicals hope for a larger global movement to purify and purge the world of everything and everyone they consider as “sexually deviant or perverted”. “That’s why the queer theory evokes such rage among them and galvanizes their animosity. And that brings me to the controversy over Maia Kobabe’s award-winning book “Gender Queer.”
“Gender Queer” is the author’s honest and intimate memoir about the journey from adolescence to adulthood. It explores the complex feelings one experiences during these often difficult times, but from a strange perspective. Unsurprisingly, it was portrayed as sexually explicit or even pornographic by ultra-conservatives because it contained graphic images. It was never intended for young children, but for older teenagers and young adults who may struggle with their identity and sexuality. None of that mattered. The rallying cry against the supposed “sexualization of children” has become a popular motto to censor discussions of human sexual development. And instead of giving young people knowledge and power over their own bodies, it creates a culture of fear and repression that will undoubtedly lead to even more abuse, exploitation and self-harm.
As a teenager and teenager, I know I would have enjoyed Kobabe’s book as I navigated these confusing times, especially since I grew up in a conservative religious environment where human sexuality was rarely discussed. And queer sexuality was never addressed at all. I knew I was different from the age of 7, and I was not “groomed” or abused. I had loving parents. But my growth and development would have been so much easier if I had had access to queer-affirming literature and adults with whom I could be open and honest.
And that’s another reason the “groomer” smear is so disgusting and infuriating. More than ever, gay children need adults they can be comfortable with. But the current Puritan crusade is creating an atmosphere that will only alienate vulnerable young people from a society that is sliding back into the Dark Ages every day. They deserve better. They deserve a safe, assertive and supportive culture provided by gay adults and their allies. The one I never had.