Prostasia’s Biggest Success

Editor’s Note: Prostasia is reprinting useful material from our newsletter for blog readers. This article first ran in September 2020. To keep up to date on everything happening at Prostasia, you can sign up for the newsletter here.

If you subscribe to our newsletter, you probably already know that Prostasia has been undergoing a wave of bad publicity since this weekend. Stemming from a Twitter call-out against one of our staff members, the criticisms that we continue to receive range from the serious (claims that supporting a prevention-focused peer support group for minor-attracted adolescents is putting them at risk), to the silly (that our mascot Effie wears no pants).

The most gleeful in their attempts to takedown Prostasia have included some of the worst people on the Internet. For example, Laila Mickelwait who posted CSAM to Twitter as part of her anti-sexworker hate campaign; Michael Salter, the Satanic Ritual Abuse conspiracy proponent who supported the Childs Play sex abuse website being left online for 11 months by Australian police; Anna Slatz, the proud TERF who published a Nazi manifesto; and Collective Shout, the Australian purity brigade whose major advocacy campaign is to have adult fetish gear removed from Etsy.

It’s easy to dismiss criticisms from these long-time Prostasia opponents; not because everything that they are saying about us is untrue (although a lot of it is), but because what they object to most include positions that we proudly admit to. For example, we are accused of defending the legality of cartoon pornography and sex toys: hell yes, we do! With a backlog of real child sexual abuse cases going unprosecuted, the diversion of enforcement resources into prosecuting people over fantasy outlets is absolutely shameful and does harm real children, irrespective of the separate prevention benefits that these outlets may have.

However, these extremists are not our only critics. There are some who are otherwise politically aligned with Prostasia, but who criticize us for our approach. One of the most common such good-faith criticisms is over our advocacy to dismantle the stigma that attaches to accurately discussing pedophilia and child sexual abuse, and promoting help-seeking behaviors by those who are committed to not offending. For some, this is misunderstood as a tolerance for pedophilia. But these are absolutely mainstream positions among public health professionals, that are not at all controversial in that field. Our views align, for example, with those of major public health institutions such as the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. Our critics may not like the fact that  preventing child sexual abuse involves working with MAPs—many people didn’t like that preventing COVID involved wearing masks—but that’s simply how things are, and we make no apology for taking an expert-led approach to these difficult issues.

The most nuanced takes among our critics are those that don’t criticize us for our public health approach, nor for our advocacy for sex-positive communities, but for our approach to tackling both problems at once, and thereby tainting each cause by association with the other. A typical Twitter criticism along these lines reads “why is an org that brands itself as primarily about child protection more invested in making sure adults can watch ageplay porn than in anything to do with actually protecting kids?”

It’s not true that we’re more invested in associated human rights causes—we would never champion a human rights cause that conflicted with our primary mission of child protection—but yes, we do champion human rights that are put at risk by extremism in the child protection movement, simultaneously with our advocacy for prevention-based approaches. That’s always been the case, and contrary to some of the claims being made against us, we’ve been very open about it from the outset.

That’s not to say that our decision to walk this tightrope hasn’t been contentious. During our original formation discussions, one of our co-founders suggested that we should either be a watchdog on the child protection sector or a child protection group, but not attempt to be both. However our reasoning for ultimately deciding to combine these missions was that the causes are complementary.

Child protection must—legally and ethically—be conducted within the bounds of international human rights law. And human rights advocacy must be not only trauma-informed, but also prevention-informed. The reason why the digital rights movement failed to prevent FOSTA/SESTA was because rights groups don’t have a credible voice when it comes to offering non-carceral solutions to the problem of child sexual abuse. Through our positive prevention mission, Prostasia does. So while others may disagree with our hybrid approach, it was made both consciously and strategically. 

Although we stand by our decision, it may now be time to revisit it with our stakeholders and experts. We’ll shortly be holding a meeting of our Board to discuss whether restructuring Prostasia would make it more effective. Whatever decisions are made and whatever lessons will have been learned, we remain proud and unrepentant for attempting something that had never been done before: to demonstrate that an organization devoted to child protection doesn’t also have to be one that stands by or is complicit in the abuse of human rights.

That’s why despite the personal and professional pain that the current controversy continues to exact upon our staff, volunteers, and allies, we still regard it as representing a significant and historically important success. Without us, the current discourse around child sexual abuse and human rights would never have been sparked. Sifting through the current discourse, one can find experts unaffiliated with Prostasia (and some of them remaining critical of us for our mis-steps) who are amplifying our core messages: that thoughts shouldn’t be equated with abuse, that support and education achieves more than stigmatization, and that child sexual abuse isn’t committed by unknowable monsters, but by human beings who can be convinced to make a different choice. The fact is that we brought these important conversations into the mainstream—something that no other group had managed to do—and we are immensely proud of that.

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