In the United States, the right wing has managed to associate social and political opposition to LGBTQ communities with sexual perversion by relying on the “grooming” insult. All of this is a textbook case of moral panic with enterprising and ambitious moral entrepreneurs who want to make societal change through the use of fear, misinformation, and overt disinformation. Most moral panics, if not all, feature kernels of false or misleading information presented as evidence indicating that the panic is justified.
In this context, the “grooming” scare is nothing more than conservatives instigating moral outrage over policies they openly oppose. Teachers and school administrators are called “groomers” because they may teach sexual education in class, per a state’s health curriculum. Or, librarians or independent bookstore clerks are called “groomers” for carrying queer young adult literature like “Gender Queer: A Memoir” by Maia Kobabe or some other type of LGBTQ subject matter. It runs the gamut of the criteria for someone to be called a “groomer” by members of the outraged party. The outraged party, or the moral entrepreneurs, have identified their folk devils or those responsible for the moral ills plaguing society. In this case, there is a pervasive belief among moral entrepreneurs that left-wing “wokeness” is a tool to expose kids to harm in the name of extreme views.
Nevertheless, the grooming moral panic isn’t new. Nor are moral panics involving left-wing versus right-wing politics and so-called threats to society. Involving sexuality or not, a history of moral panics shows these periods of public fear greatly impact culture and politics — positively and negatively. Elements of society have used loaded terms and populist messaging as a means to remove a specific class of individuals from day-to-day life. Media, grassroots organizing, and elected officials all connect to create fear and to out and shame a particular group. Stanley Cohen, the late criminologist credited with defining the definition of moral panic, approaches panic from the view of media dominance and its impact on public opinion.
To do so, the work of the fear-mongering moral entrepreneurs includes a reliance on public shaming, censorship, and state intervention to phase out members of a particular group or social class and the practitioners or advocates of a particular behavior or belief. For example, while cigarettes are a leading cause of preventable death, tobacco control groups successfully lobbied the government to sue and hold big tobacco companies accountable. One of the tactics used by lung health advocates included the activity of stigmatizing problem smokers by using rhetoric that enticed others in public to ostracize smokers by calling them out for smoking or fake coughing in public spaces. Further, stigma was codified by adopting policies that directly penalized smokers with civil and criminal punishments, including threats of an ordinance violation or criminal trespassing while smoking.
Some other examples include the Red Scare, the Lavender scare, the war on drugs, mods, and rockers, reefer madness, the devil’s music scare, violent video games, “Harry Potter” and witchcraft, and the war on Christmas. Topics dealing with sexuality face similar treatment. For example, the current right-wing “grooming” narrative is a multifaceted talking point to lodge viewpoints against LGBTQ marriage, gender identity studies being taught in public schools and the prevalence of queer art and literature in mainstream culture. Those who typically call one a groomer in public automatically insinuate, through the use of this single term, that the one being accused has no regard for public decency or the role of the parents having a say in what a child should view on TV and the internet and what they should learn in school or at social gatherings.
Consider an example. Suppose a middle school teacher is called a groomer for simply teaching state-mandated curriculum like comprehensive sexual education. In that case, the accuser is likely frustrated with the general concept of gender studies being taught in public schools in the US. And, given the human need to blame, the accuser would blame the teacher, the teacher’s department head, the school’s principal, district leadership, and state officials for propagating concepts that the accusing parents view their young teens should not learn from a public school. That outrage feeds into the movement of moral entrepreneurs to counter “grooming,” and this proliferates into a grassroots effort to punish the so-called groomers. Grooming can be a legitimate issue. But, when it is used simply as an insult to stoke moral panic, the real issues are drowned out by outrage. This prevents discussions on prevention and non-carceral mental and behavioral health interventions.
The reality would turn into heated protests, personal threats against individuals simply doing their jobs, and intimidation tactics like social media doxxing, harassment, and (in some cases of parental outrage) violent physical assault. The “scarlet lettering” strategy, I call it, is employed by moral entrepreneurs to ensure a punitive ouster from public life for the accused folk devils. This would include the demand for resignations, threats of professional misconduct or criminal inquiries, the recall election of a school board member, the passage of local or state law, and several other actions. The ideal labeling of the ousted individuals would be groomers or “pedophiles,” or “leftists.” Even though these are very terse and rude labels, they have no basis or are presented as intentionally misleading to stoke fear and feed the narrative argued by the moral entrepreneurs.
It’s a narrow-minded approach, given that most states permit parents to have some sort of say in what their children learn with regard to topics about sexual wellness and health education. But, the nature of moral panic is that public outcry is prone to be conflated with entirely different issues. Moral panic is consistent. Once a moral entrepreneur identifies someone or something as morally ill in society, there will be a sustained movement to rid it of public life, no matter the cost. This is the basic anatomy of a moral panic. Fear is powerful. Mass fear is nearly unstoppable. Even with truth, fear permeates and can overtake even the truest assessment of a societal issue.