Updated: Sep 28, 2023
We are, in fact, their safeguards
According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), grooming is defined as a set of manipulative behaviors a person committing sexual violence uses to access a potential victim, coerce them into unwanted sexual contact, and reduce the risk of being caught.
Unfortunately, this term has been weaponized against inclusive sexual health education as well as folks who identify as LGBTQ+ at the detriment of our children. As recent legislation in states such as Florida attests, policymakers with prejudicial agendas have misappropriated the concept by labeling age-appropriate discussions on sexual and gender orientation in schools an act of grooming. This is a gross misuse of abuse-related terminology. It distracts our focus from instances of actual harm and the behavioral patterns leading to them, as well as the systemic causes of unhealthy sexual behavior. To prevent grooming, child sexual assault and sexual coercion, we must set the record straight and use our words rightly.
Grooming consists of an individual selecting a victim, typically based on ease of access or assumed vulnerability, gaining access to the victim, and physically or emotionally isolating them. The person responsible for the abuse will continue grooming by developing trust, keeping secrets, desensitizing touch, discussing sexual topics, and illustrating their actions as normal. Grooming is a process to gain control and perpetuate harm.
Age-appropriate, inclusive sexual health curricula in schools are key to the work of preventing child sexual assault, enabling students to understand healthy sexual behavior in the context of consent and to identify and deescalate threats to their safety. They also give parents, caregivers and teachers tools to support our children as they claim autonomy over their own bodies. Scapegoating sexual health education as well as LGBTQ people for predatory behaviors distorts public perceptions of grooming and puts children at increased risk of being overlooked and thus harmed.
As Madison Czopek reports in an article published through an independent fact-checking institute, PolitiFact, experts in the fields of psychology and child development “are not aware of any evidence showing that increased exposure to LGBTQ people or topics makes children more likely to join the LGBTQ community.” Instead, it is “an environment of increased acceptance [which] allows people to more openly consider whether they might be part of the LGBTQ community.”
While Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and the constituents he represents may feel otherwise — cue 2022’s Florida HB 1557 legislation (or Parental Rights in Education bill) to forbid instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity from kindergarten through third grade as well as the anti-trans laws in place there and throughout the country — the facts tell a different story.
His narrative would have us believe that sexual and gender identity discussion in classrooms is a form of grooming and that gay, lesbian, and bisexual people are mostly responsible for engaging in a set of manipulative behaviors that coerce children into sexual activity with an adult. Yet credible research “gives no indication that these behaviors are more often associated with people who identify as LGBTQ than those who do not,” Czopek reports. “To the contrary, studies of child sexual abuse have revealed that most child molesters identify as heterosexual, according to the Zero Abuse Project. Abuse is about power, not sexual orientation or desire, experts say.”
What’s more, abusers are typically not strangers but often family members or those already in the child’s circle of trust.
Drawing on insight from Charol Shakeshaft, a professor of educational leadership at Virginia Commonwealth University, who studies sex abuse by adults who are employed in schools, Czopek continues:
“[Shakeshaft] said research undermines the idea that LGBTQ people working in school settings pose a significant threat to children. School employees who perpetrate child sexual abuse are most likely to be white, heterosexual, male adults.”*
Shakeshaft notes researchers who study child sexual abuse report a “monopoly” by male abusers and that same-sex misconduct does not equate to homosexual identification.
“Same-sex sex is not the same as sexual identity,” Shakeshaft writes. “For instance, in Shakeshaft and Cohan (1994), of the 24 percent of males who targeted other males, all of the offenders described themselves as heterosexual, with most living in married or heterosexual relationships.”
What the conservative attack on LGBTQ+ people amounts to is a form of sexual- and gender-based violence that seeks a scapegoat for behaviors rooted in systems of oppression for which fascist public policies are in fact responsible. People who are non-heteronormative in mind and body are easy targets as they, we, represent an abject “other” — a veritable “them” in the eyes of a ruling class and its duped populace fearful of social change. The regressive and highly reptilian response to what folks on the queer spectrum signify in the scared minds of conservatives caught in Puritanical moral panic is in fact putting children at greater risk of being abused — especially those laying claim to minoritarian identities. The irony is painful here as politicians identifying as Republican tout their concerns about safeguarding the young.
Speaking to recent anti-LGBTQ legislation out of Florida that prohibits gender-affirming care for children, punishes businesses that allow minors into drag shows and criminalizes transgender people for using the wrong bathroom, Fine gives underhanded insight into the paranoid mindstate currently infecting demagogues like him:
‘We heard that this bill is about the right to decide what is appropriate for your child. I got news for parents. You don’t have that right today. You can’t decide to not send your kid to school. You can’t decide to starve them. You can’t send your kid to an NC-17 movie, for all those folks who said there’s no standards in the movie business. There’s all kinds of decisions. There’s all sorts of guardrails that the government has put in.’
Homophobia is defined as “negative attitudes and behaviors directed toward individuals who identify as or are perceived to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender” (Espelage et al., 2011). The gender and sexual norms informing homophobia are associated with hypermasculinity and the need for control and dominance which underlies bullying. These norms infuse policies that overlook an entire subpopulation of youth for the sake of “protecting the children.”
According to a study of United States middle school children conducted by Espelage et al. (2011) and published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, bullying perpetration and homophobic teasing are significant predictors of sexual harassment perpetration over time. They go hand-in-hand, having a compounded effect on nonconforming kids in particular, kids whose budding identities are not only the foil for peer-to-peer attacks, which often revolve around questions of sexuality and gender, but the specific targets as well.
“[N]ame-calling, being hit or kicked, as well as teasing, were frequent forms of bullying experienced by lesbian, gay and bisexual students (60 percent, 82 percent and 58 percent, respectively),” Espelage et al. (2011) report, echoing another study. Students who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer or questioning are meanwhile at higher risk for violence victimization than their straight and cisgender counterparts (Cruz et al., 2023).
When it comes down to it, the laws emerging from places like Florida and the government oversight they demand, further marginalize young people already at high risk for a number of adverse outcomes, including violence (Cruz et al., 2023). It essentially commissions bullying behavior that coincides with sexual harassment and, eventually, assault. It opens up a vacuum in adolescent gender and sexual identity formation, leaving questioning students silenced and thus vulnerable to policy-sanctioned attacks on their personhood from peers who deem homophobic teasing normal because, well, the law legitimates the culture in which it festers.
Researcher Therese Cruz (2023) and her colleagues posit in a recent article in the Journal of School Health, that school policies and programs are inconsistent across the nation when it comes to creating safe spaces for LGBTQ+-identified students to thrive:
Although comprehensive sexual health education is recommended by the [Centers for Disease Control], only 42.8 percent of high schools in the United States teach all recommended topics. In schools that do teach sexual health education, there are often district or administrative pressures to exclude teaching about homosexuality or other LGTBQ-related content. Furthermore, there are no standardized polices or curricula for delivering sexual health education inclusive of LGB and TGNC [transgender non-conforming] students, and many educators feel ill-equipped to provide this education.
While Cruz et al. did not find that inclusive sexual health education was associated with reduced bullying among high school students, contrary to previous studies that demonstrated reduced bullying associated with school anti-discrimination/anti-harassment policies, their study does suggest that schools can become safe spaces. In order to accomplish this, they must do more to support gay-straight alliances (GSAs) within and outside of the immediate school community.
This includes resisting legislation that does actual harm to young people and lobbying for laws that establish meaningful protocols for procuring their safety. It means getting together with sexual and gender nonconforming students to organize campaigns for awareness and prevention. It demands we revise our hiring practices to include LGBTQ+ staff. It means asking for peoples’ pronouns and respecting them, using nonbinary and ungendered language in education and outreach, and creating trans-inclusive language in our administrative forms. Finally, it means implementing LGBTQ inclusion as a core curricular aim and outcome within schools and throughout districts.
There must be consistent messaging across the board that says, “You belong here and we will do whatever we can in our power to accompany you.” Otherwise, who or what are we to our young people but some generationally outmoded blowhards with nothing better to do than perpetuate bully culture? That’s not the kind of legacy I want to leave behind.
*Shakeshaft’s research does not use race as a category to type offenders. According to national statistics around the race of people who commit child abuse, however, we can surmise that school employees who offend are predominately white.
If you are or someone you know is having a sexual health crisis, contact the National Sexual Assault Crisis Hotline here.
To learn more about sexual assault, visit Helping Survivors of Sexual Assault.
To learn more about child sexual abuse and what you can do to intervene and prevent, or for legal advocacy, visit https://hermanlaw.com/child-sex-abuse/.
Additionally, to get more information about the specifics of hiring a child sex abuse lawyer check out this guide: hermanlaw.com/child-sex-abuse-lawyer/.