CRT? Tired. Groomers? Wired!
The latest strategic moral panic from the far right
Last Wednesday one of our occasional conservative commenters left the following as part of a comment on a post about the recent Federal Court decision against John Eastman: “But Democrats obsess over this (from 1997) to defend LGBTQIAMXYZ++ groomers.” [emphasis mine]
If you’ve been paying attention to recent online political discourse, this is probably not the first time you’ve seen the term “groomer.” Groomer/grooming refers to adults who seek out and condition minors for sex. In the past month, it has become a rallying cry on the right to attack a range of targets from members of the LGBTQIA community (see the witty number above), to politicians opposing laws restricting the ability to discuss sexual orientation in public schools, to the Disney Corporation, to Republican Senators who voted in favor of advancing Justice Jackson’s nomination, to the Supreme Court.
The term appears to have reentered the popular consciousness about a month ago, when Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s press secretary Christina Pushaw used the term to describe opponents of the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ law (which states “[c]lassroom 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.”).
“The bill that liberals inaccurately call ‘Don’t Say Gay’ would be more accurately described as an Anti-Grooming Bill,” Pushaw wrote Friday on Twitter.
“If you’re against the Anti-Grooming bill, you are probably a groomer or at least you don’t denounce the grooming of 4-8 year old children,” she wrote in another tweet. “Silence is complicity. This is how it works, Democrats, and I didn’t make the rules.”https://thehill.com/changing-america/respect/equality/597215-gov-desantis-spokesperson-says-dont-say-gay-opponents-are/
The linking of the gay community to grooming* is, sadly a longstanding phenomenon in US culture. As Mical Raz and Paul M. Renfro write in the Washington Post:
Fears of sexual “psychopaths” preying on children animated a prolonged panic in the United States from the 1930s to the 1960s. During this time, over half of all states passed laws targeting sexual practices deemed “deviant,” including same-sex relations. In 1947, California created the first state-level sex offense registry, which largely targeted gay men. Many of these same men, who were convicted of lewd conduct or sodomy, would be forced to register as “sex offenders” in the 1990s, when registries and community notification protocols became federally mandated. Such policies deepened the presumed links between nonnormative sexual identities and predatory behavior.
As various liberation movements — including the civil rights movement, the women’s movement and the gay rights movement — made strides in the 1960s and 1970s, traditionalists mounted a backlash. An ascendant religious right took aim at abortion, women’s liberation, gay rights and other perceived threats to the American family and children. In 1977, singer and Florida orange juice spokesperson Anita Bryant launched the highly publicized and ultimately successful Save Our Children campaign to repeal a Metro-Dade County (representing today’s Miami-Dade County) ordinance barring discrimination against gay, lesbian and bisexual people. Bryant explicitly connected homosexuality and child sexual predation.https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2022/04/04/fringe-cries-anti-grooming-measures-can-sway-policy/
In addition to the above, in the last few years, the Q-Anon movement was in part motivated by the “Pizzagate” fantasy which accused high-level members of the government of pedophilia and child trafficking via a *checks notes* popular pizza restaurant. So, sadly, this isn’t new, especially at the fringes of the Right-Wing Media Complex (like the Federalist* or Rod Dreher at The American Conservative) or extreme Representatives like Marjorie Taylor-Greene and Lauren Boebert.
What makes “groomer” noteworthy is the amount of mainstream Republican Party support it appears to be garnering. Beyond Governor DeSantis’s press secretary’s tweets, last month saw Josh Hawley and others make demonstratively false claims that Judge Jackson was unduly lenient with pedophiles during her confirmation hearings. More recently Fox News commentary shows, like Laura Ingrahm, have begun to run segments on the topic.
And, perhaps most importantly, in the last week, Chris Rufo has gone full in on it, launching continuous attacks on Disney, among others, as a pro-groomer organization over its tepid opposition to the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. Rufo’s role in this is noteworthy. If his name sounds familiar, it’s because he, arguably more than any other commentator, was responsible for the Critical Race Theory panic.*** In fact, Disney was one of his early targets in that quest as well. The question is will Rufo be able to achieve the same level of success with “groomers?”
As CRT seems to be losing steam for Republicans–for example, Republicans failed to represent Judge Brown as a CRT extremist–the outrage machine appears to be looking for a next moral panic. If recent history is any guide, we should all get ready to hear a lot more about “groomers” in the weeks to come. For folks who study or are interested in how these sorts of strategic moral panics unfold, this will be an interesting case study on what does or doesn’t take hold.
Unfortunately, as the case is with Comet Ping Pong and abortion providers when it comes to “protecting the children,” people will often go to violent extremes. If Rufo and others get their way and the GOP embraces “groomer” in the same way it did “CRT” I fear the potential real-world consequences it could have.
* – In a bit of an “isn’t it ironic” twist****, at the same time GOPers are trying to make “groomers” happen and apply to gay folks, party members in Tennessee are advancing legislation that would remove age restrictions from heterosexual marriages.
** – In the case of the Federalist, it has been pointed out that their apparent, deeply held concerns about groomers did not prevent them from writing multiple articles in support of accused groomer Roy Moore. Go figure.
*** – It’s again worth bringing up that by his own admission on Twitter, Rufo had little concern for how accurate his attacks were in representing actual CRT. His goal was to make it a strawman to aid in an ideological agenda:
“We have successfully frozen their brand — ‘critical race theory’ — into the public conversation and are steadily driving up negative perceptions. We will eventually turn it toxic, as we put all of the various cultural insanities under that brand category.”
Rod Dreher has taken a similar redefining approach with “grooming”:
“I think it is coming to have a somewhat broader meaning: an adult who wants to separate children from a normative sexual and gender identity, to inspire confusion in them, and to turn them against their parents and all the normative traditions and institutions in society. It may not specifically be to groom them for sexual activity, but it is certainly to groom them to take on a sexual/gender identity at odds with the norm.”
**** – That’s “isn’t it ironic” in the Alanis Morrisette form because, sadly, it’s not ironic at all.