The politics of protecting children

An illustration of two desks, with a long line in front of the one titled comforting lies and nobody at the one titled unpleasant truths

Our society’s puritan approach to child protection means that it is constantly made fun of as an excuse for censorship. Ironically, though, mainstream child protection efforts by the organizations you’ve heard of are more interested in arresting perpetrators than they are in censoring harmful content like child pornography. These organizations work closely with law enforcement who have been caught running sites hosting harmful sexual content of children “in order to catch people.” For many years, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and other social media companies have been heavily criticized for how readily harmful sexual imagery involving children is available on their platforms. The child protection organizations that many of these social media companies partner with are organizations that have not proposed solutions to make this harmful content harder to find on social media. Instead, they have formulated tools to catch offenders, not to prevent sexual crime. They are not the same thing.

These tools make it harder for people to come forward for help if they feel they need it, whether they are hurting children or not. To most people, there isn’t a distinction between an ordinary teenager who might need some education and resources on appropriate sexual behavior but hasn’t hurt anyone and someone who has raped a baby. To most people, there is no nuance between the two. Politicians and the media are notorious for exploiting this lack of nuance by coining popular phrases like ‘sex offender’ and ‘potential sex offender’ that intentionally blur the lines between someone who has harmed and someone who hasn’t and may have no desire to. They want the outrage and the lack of a close look. We’ll get into why that is in a moment.

The political selling points

The selling points that politicians like to use when it comes to sexual violence are nothing short of barbarism when compared to the facts and research. To understand why they are barbaric, we need to understand what they are. Usually, they involve assuring the public that the government is doing [insert policy here] to make sure that sex offenders won’t harm more people. The narrative is that we need these reactive policies for public safety because everyone knows sex offenders are dangerous and will just commit lots and lots of sex crimes if we don’t watch them carefully enough. So naturally, this leads to promoting surveillance policies that are then quietly expanded to other groups of people, all under the guise of protecting children.

They exploit our fear and willful ignorance of this topic because they know that if people pipe up with facts, the fear will win out. Anyone disagreeing must be in favor of sex crime! If you defend pedophiles, you must be one! Anyone defending sex offenders must be a rapist! People like that shouldn’t live here, and they should live on an island. Right-wing extremists love these divisive tactics and use them without fear of consequences.

These disingenuous tactics hinder our ability to process the issue rationally, and with all the facts, we need to come to a sound conclusion on what works. They are manipulative social tactics to ensure that the populace falls in line with the desired narrative and seeks to shun those who disagree. In fact, they’re outright fascist. Let’s walk through why that is. Let’s define fascism, according to the top dictionaries, as a governmental system whereby there is a belief in the social hierarchy and social order such that a single charismatic leader is in control of the people. It’s a fear of national and existential threats which justifies violence toward the targeted group of people.

In fascism, people don’t have individual rights or freedoms; they have the national community to think of first and foremost. People are watched, controlled, and feared as threats. At the same time, they are duped into thinking those threats are “them” when to the people doing the controlling, anything that disagrees with their narrative, their rule, or their existence is a threat that must be squashed by any means necessary. Mainstream child protection efforts, when they attempt to use punitive laws and fear to combat what we know to be a public health issue, are fascist.

The reality according to research

Uncle Sam holds a box labeled control of internet speech while a store clerk asks how he would like it wrapped. The two wrapping options are anti-terrorism and protect kids

In research, the realities of child sexual abuse are removed from the popular narrative of how and why child sexual abuse happens. As a result, we are woefully misinformed, just as we were about the dangers of smoking, drinking and driving, leaded paint, asbestos, gasoline and oil, and more recently, vaping. The reality of a typical instance of child sexual abuse is someone – adult or older juvenile – who slowly and repeatedly crosses boundaries in ways that they may not be consciously aware are leading them towards sexually abusing a child. This is commonly referred to as grooming, though grooming often is confused with outright child sexual abuse. This grooming takes anywhere from weeks to months. This means there is time to intervene when someone is at risk for sexually harming children. Both are separate from the actual act of abuse, and the person at risk may not even be aware of where their behavior is headed.

The single most earth-shattering statistic is that 90-95% of sex crimes are committed by people with no criminal record. By the time they’re arrested, they may have multiple victims – often they don’t – but they more commonly have no arrest or criminal history whatsoever. Think about what this means compared to the common narrative that we need to do everything we can to ensure that people who have committed a sexual crime and have a criminal history must be watched, incarcerated, and kept out of our communities. It means we are focused on a phantom threat with a few genuine threats sprinkled in. We might get a few real threats, mostly by accident, but we aren’t addressing the issue’s core.

The core of the issue is the simple fact that when people have resources and knowledge at their disposal, they usually make good use of them to improve their own situation and, sometimes, the situations of others. The fear-mongering politicians – and to be abundantly clear, I mean on both sides of the political aisle – do not want you focused on the complex, nuanced solutions. You’re all too happy to comply because to think critically about such an emotionally charged issue is hard. You’d rather let someone else do the thinking. We need to be sure that those we trust to do that thinking are focused on the facts and research and don’t pander to public opinion.

The reality is that we know how to prevent sexual violence. We knew how in the nineties. We had comprehensive reports by experts in these fields attesting to the motivations of offenders and the ways in which we could prevent sexual violence. We know that comprehensive sex, sexuality, and consent education helps people understand where the social and moral lines are with sexual behavior. We knew that as people understand more of the issue, they’re more equipped to intervene when they see something that isn’t right because studies done on bystander intervention show us how powerful it can be when we start conversations about concerning behavior well before a blatant sexual violation occurs.

The path forward

The path forward for true child protection that isn’t hindered by politics and fearmongering is to educate ourselves on the issue and to listen to what the experts and research have to say. We need to be sure that we are doing what is effective because the stakes are simply too high to fall for the cowardly fascist tactics of controlling what people think is effective. We cannot let our fear of the topic interfere with our ability to protect children, and to do that; we must put our rage and desire for revenge to the side and listen to what works. We need to trust experts but also think critically about the proposed solutions to solving the public health issue of child sexual abuse.

If we allow emotion and fearmongering to cloud our judgment, we won’t be protecting children, and we’ll be putting them at greater risk. That’s unacceptable, and it’s our moral imperative as human beings to follow the research.

Notable Replies

  1. While I agree with everything else in this post, I don’t think vaping makes a good analogy for things we were supposedly misinformed about when compared to the other items stated. The FDA, big tobacco, American Cancer Society, and anti-smoking lobbies have fought hard against vaping ever since it became mainstream in the mid 2010s. Despite UK research proving it to over 95% safer than smoking tobacco and having helped more people stop smoking than any other product in history, well that’s problem for programs that rely on extremely high tobacco taxes and treatment programs from pharmaceutical companies.
    Yea there was an problem a few years ago with people vaping black market vitamin E oil and THC. However vape devices are not much different than owning a smoking pipe, the end user is ultimately responsible for what they shove in a pipe and smoke.

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