A conversation about the social media attacks on Prostasia

Early in September Prostasia was the center of a social media firestorm on Twitter. The attacks started with opponents of sex workers, but soon spread across the political spectrum, including some progressives, some centrists, and many people with strong connections to alt right networks.

Prostasia has been targeted before. This attack was larger and more violent than some in the past. We decided to have a discussion with some of Prostasia’s leadership about the motivation for these social media pile-ons, the accusations themselves, and how they have affected Prostasia. The discussion included Prostasia’s Executive Director Jeremy Malcolm,  Prostasia’s Program Director Meagan Ingerman, and Prostasia’s Director of Communication, Noah Berlatsky.  The conversation has been edited for clarity and length. You can find video of the conversation here and audio here.

Noah: Why does Prostasia’s work around child sexual assault result in so much controversy and in these repeated attacks, which are often just straight out slanders?

Meagan: I think the first answer is fear. People approach this subject with fear. And if you’re approaching from that angle, you don’t have an open mind. You’re not interested in learning more about the subject. You’re just taking what you have read or what you have heard, and you’re taking that at face value. And this is a really nuanced subject that really requires a lot more thought to be put into it.

Because we really like to think there’s a really obvious bad guy, that there’s a Snidely Whiplash, with the moustache and that it’s just obvious who we’re against. And it’s just not like that. There’s no physical profile to look for.

Jeremy: It would be comforting, if there was a black and white divide, where we could say, here are the people we need to worry about, and everyone else is safe. And unfortunately, it’s not that way. As Meagan said, there is no profile of someone who commits child sexual abuse. The majority of people who do don’t have pedophilia.

And so the approach that we’ve taken, we knew that it would be controversial from the outset. But we can’t really do anything but go where the experts tell us. Because only by doing that can you avoid some of these pitfalls of putting resources into the wrong areas, or worrying about the wrong things and failing to worry about the things that we should be worrying about.

So I guess [this sort of backlash] is going to keep happening until we can get that message out broadly enough that people will twig and say, “You know what, I actually don’t think that these stereotypes about sex trafficking and pedophilia are true.” And I think that’s going to take a while longer until that really disseminates as widely as it needs to.

Meagan: I will also say that sex negativity has a lot to do with this.

Jeremy: Yeah, I mean, that is one of the reasons why the stigma spreads so far, right? Because this isn’t just a stigma against people who have pedophelia. It’s a stigma that spreads towards many different groups in society that are painted with that same brush. If you’re into kinky sex, if you’re a sex worker, if you’re queer, then people will attack you by using the same rhetoric that they use against people who are assumed to be child sex abusers.

And so that’s really one of the main reasons why Prostasia came together in the first place. Because we saw the damage that was being done to diverse communities by this harmful fear-based rhetoric that Meagan was talking about. And that’s why we have a pretty broad base of supporters from all of those communities. Because they’re the ones who are damaged by this rhetoric. And taking the more evidence-based approach will actually be beneficial to a broad number of groups in society.

Noah: You’re both talking about good faith concerns.  But some of the sort of most disturbing attacks were from the far right. I think that there are also just people who as Meagan were saying are actually just sex negative and want to hurt marginalized people.

To them, the idea that you would question whether child sexual abuse is perpetrated by outsiders, or that you would point out abuse within many traditional families, or point out problems in the ways that we think about traditional families— there are people who are just opposed to that idea on its face, and want to crush anyone who says that.

There are some good faith concerns. But then, also there are a lot of really inflammatory bad faith attacks, which make it much more difficult to respond to concerns or to have a conversation

Meagan: Those [bad faith actors] are the ones that come out in numbers, those are the ones who show up and pile on and have terrible things to say. I agree with you, a lot of the worst attacks come from that side. And sometimes things that they’re willing to say and the things that they’re thinking about—it’s frightening.

Jeremy: Those attacks serve a purpose. They fuel bigotry, and that is why we see alt-right communities latching on to this issue. This is why Qanon latched on to this issue. Because it is fuel for their broader campaign of bigotry against minorities.

And unfortunately, the messages that they put out there then get picked up by people who are may be more moderate, and who are just risk averse, and who, just because of the sensitivity of this area, and because almost everyone really does care about protecting children, they think “If these allegations are out there, then maybe they’re true.” And so that’s how you get more progressive voices actually repeating some of the misinformation that’s come from the alt-right sphere.

Noah: I think people sometimes don’t realize how much the sort of bad actors influence  their thinking and the conversation. And also it just becomes really difficult to engage with good faith criticism at all if you’re worried that far right people are going to send you death threats or doxx you. It makes it impossible to speak publicly when you’re under that kind of fire.

One of the big questions people have about Prostasia is why we work with MAPs (minor-attracted people) or pedophiles. A lot of people see MAPs as inherantly dangerous or as a threat to children. And so the question is why is it important to engage with research about them or to try to work with them at all?

Meagan: For me, it just seems really obvious that if you’re trying to keep something from happening, you would talk to the people who are most likely to make it happen and find out what they need to not do that.

But I also came [originally] from a place of that not being obvious. And so I get some of the fear, I get some of the misinformation and assumptions people make based on their feelings.

But, I mean, as far as prevention goes, if you want to take a holistic approach, which is what you have to do with any systemic problem, you have to look at MAPs. You have to look at the research being done about them, you have to look at the lived experiences they’re offering and what has worked for them in not offending.

Jeremy: Another point is that even though the majority of sexual offending against children isn’t by people who are minor attracted, nevertheless, it’s harder to reach opportunistic offenders because they’re not the ones who will come forward for help.

Whereas if there’s someone who realizes that, “Oh, my God, I’m attracted to children,” they’re more likely to actually come forward and seek out support. And so that’s one of the reasons why the research community and the clinicians do try and work with MAPs specifically, because there’s the most chance of doing some good there.

And another reason why Prostasia supports [researchers working with MAPs] is because that work is the most stigmatized in this field. There’s plenty of money for anti sex-trafficking information campaigns and criminal justice interventions and inserting spyware into technical tools to try and detect abuse online. There’s so much money going towards all of that, and nothing, virtually nothing, like a trickle of funding goes towards working with this stigmatized community.

It really shouldn’t fall to Prostasia foundation to be funding basic scientific research in this field. And yet, it does. We’ve contributed more than $50,000 of research money into child sexual abuse prevention this year alone. And if you know the size of our budget, and how little our staff are working for, that’s an enormous amount. And it’s just shameful that stigma requires experts to do their work on a shoestring and to have to defend themselves against trolls online. And this really does scare a lot of people away from this work, funders and researchers and clinicians and activists alike.

Meagan: Because why do this if it’s going to be that hard.

Noah: One of the things that people were especially concerned about was the MAPs support group that Prostasia works with, and especially with the fact that the group is open in some capacity to younger people, because people often start to recognize that they’re pedophiles when they’re adolescents. So could you talk about why we work with that group and what kind of safeguards are in place?

Jeremy: It’s a peer support chat group. And it’s there because experts have told us that having social supports such as peer support, reduces the risk that people will go into an emotionally bad space where they’re more at risk of offending.

So what we’ve done to support the group is—it already had very strict policies. You’re not allowed to talk about children in a sexualized way, you’re not allowed to post photos of them. And we’ve backed that up with some additional safeguards. For example, we’ve put in place scanning of images to make sure that there’s no child abuse images. We’ve made sure that minors and adults can’t direct message each other.  Messages are reviewed to make sure that there’s no funny business going on.

And most importantly, perhaps, is a partnership that we established with Stop It Now, which is another charity that works on abuse prevention. They have trained helpline operators in the forum to provide a gateway to professional support, which, of course, is very important to and very inaccessible to a lot of people who have this problem. Because not many professionals want to deal with this population. Some professionals will report them to CPS even in the absence of them acting on their desires in any way.

And as you sort of alluded to, the reason why adolescents are included is because people start to realize their sexual attraction towards younger children when they are in their own adolescence. But also, if you look at the most common age for sexual offending against a child, it’s normally committed by someone who is as young as 14 years of age. So if we don’t serve that population, then there’s a huge potential that young people will fall into these bad patterns of offending before they’ve had the opportunity to receive any help.

Meagan: I think also, another thing that we hear a lot is that we don’t support therapy for MAPs. And I feel like the MAPs Support Group is a really good example of how we do actually support professional help. And we have our own Get Help page that has therapy, resources, free options, various options for like sliding scale, that kind of thing. We put so much work into putting resources out there.

Jeremy: We also raise money to provide professional support for free as well. We’ve got a fundraising campaign, so that if you want to get a professional therapist, and you can’t find one, or can’t afford one, then we can help out with that.

Noah:  So is the criticism that Prostasia is not supporting conversion therapy? Is that the issue? Because I know that many MAPs themselves would like there to be a cure, so that they were no longer attracted to children. But there isn’t really any evidence that there is anything that does that, as far as we know, right?

Meagan: Definitely the fact that we don’t believe in conversion therapy comes up because a lot of people say get therapy or get help and what they mean is get cured. And as you said, as far as we know, as far as science says right now, there’s no cure. We get people saying you don’t believe in therapy when the reality is, we believe in a lot more therapy from trained professionals.

Jeremy: And the idea that that is being pro-pedophilia is just nonsense. I mean, it’s really a question of, let’s do what works and what works is to help people to control their own behaviors, rather than trying to control what goes on in their heads.

The other thing about trying to control what goes on in people’s heads is that, again, it affects a whole lot of other communities. Because if you can control what goes on in some people’s heads, maybe you can stop trans people from being trans. Maybe you can stop kinky people from being into whatever kinky sex they’re into. And so thought control is just—it’s strange that I even need to say this, but not only is thought control impossible in the way that a lot of people would like it to be, but it’s also really harmful to try. Criminalizing people over their thoughts—you just don’t want to go there.

Noah: This is another thing that people brought up. There’s a concern that Prostasia’s social justice commitments to sex workers rights, or to the rights of people in the kink community, or to trans rights or to queer rights—there’s a concern that those are just some sort of a cover for,  trying to normalize MAPs, or for the advocacy around MAPs issues.

But the truth is, this stigma is weaponized against other communities all the time. Queer people are always called child sexual abusers. Sex workers  are constantly being blamed for child sexual abuse. One of the main ways of attacking trans people is by claiming that they’re corrupting youth or that a child transitioning is effectively child sexual abuse.

Jeremy: And the idea that we don’t represent the communities that were part of our formation is, difficult to understand. We are co-led and were co-formed by survivors, by sex workers, by queer and kinky people, by  all of these communities that supposedly are just a mask for our hidden pro-pedophile agenda. In fact don’t have MAPs on our staff or board or advisors. So the idea that we’re actually representing MAPs—they’re the one group that we’re not representing.

I think there should be groups to represent MAPs, but you know what, I think they should be MAP led. And there are groups like that.  B4UAct is one example of an organization that explicitly exists to preserve the rights for MAPs to access therapy, and, and to do so not with the objective of preventing child sexual abuse, but for its own sake. Which is not to say that they support child sexual abuse. It’s that they want to be treated as human beings first and foremost, and then to leave child sexual abuse prevention as a separate issue.

Now, Prostasia isn’t in that same position, because we do have child sexual abuse prevention as our main goal. And so we will always only promote a human rights agenda where it is supportive of a child protection agenda. And what we’re really trying to do is to reconcile the two and to point out that you don’t have to, and in fact, you shouldn’t be complicit in the abuse of human rights of anyone, just because “let’s think of the children.” We should be able to find ways of protecting children that don’t require the infringement of anyone’s human rights.

Meagan: And I can’t overstate enough, and they don’t like it when we say this, but some MAPs are minors, some are quite young. And so we have to protect those children too. Lumping them in with this larger Boogeyman thing means that we’re not protecting those children.

Noah:  How have these attacks affected Prostasia going forward?

Meagan: We’ve been attacked before. And it usually gives us a week or two of trouble, and then we go on our merry way with our mission. I don’t see that that’ll change this time.

I’d definitely like to speak to the human side of what has happened and of what we’ve been through—the antisemitism, the anti-queer sentiment, just all of it. For me, it’s definitely a little harder to do my job, it’s definitely a little harder to envision what happens going forward.

Because when you have so many people telling you, you’re wrong, you’re evil, you’re awful, you’re Jewish—there were a few days where it was hard to get out of bed, and I locked down my account, and I just felt really unsafe. And I’m still working on feeling safe again. We’re, what a month into this, and I’m still working on feeling safe. So it’s hard. It’s definitely hard. And it’s impossible to not talk about the death threats that we get. That’s definitely a thing. That really, really sucks.

But as far as the overall impact for Prostasia—like I said, I see us going forward with our mission.

Jeremy: Yeah, I don’t think that it has affected Prostasia in anything like the way that our attackers hoped it would. Our Twitter following is as large as it ever was, we’ve gotten more donations than before. Someone’s come up and offered to double donations up to $25,000. We’ve had a flood of new memberships. And we’ve been offered new consulting work as well as a plenary session at next week’s meeting of ATSA, the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers, specifically to talk about how discourse around this topic is shut down and distorted.  We wouldn’t have had that platform without this controversy. And it’s a big platform, there’s going to be like 1600 people in the audience.

So in a way, every cloud has a silver lining, and I think Prostasia foundation is definitely going to be going forward just as strong as before. But in saying that, I don’t want to belittle the personal cost on you yourself Noah, on Meagan and, and others on our team. It’s not the first time that we’ve been targeted and it won’t be the last. But we’re not going away.

Notable Replies

  1. Here in the UK, I often watch afternoon quiz shows; sometimes they have ‘Celebrity’ versions.

    Although I have no idea to what extent it’s mandated, but as celebrities they always play for a charity where any money they make goes to that charity - and often, the celebrity is an official patron.

    I keep imagining that if when, say, ‘Bradley Walsh’ or ‘Stephen Mulhern’ asks the celebrity contestant which charity they’re playing for, and they say “Prostasia” and then proceed to describe the cause, how might that play out, how would the host/show producers react?

    Of course, as ‘Prostasia’ isn’t UK based this would be a pretty unlikely scenario, but it perhaps illustrates why ‘Prostasia’ lacks any real credibility amongst many well-intentioned people who would otherwise support the principled goals of researching how to end child abuse and protecting human rights. (Whether one should add the adjective ‘sexual’ to either of those goals is debatable.) Their “Gods” are highly likely to be the famous celebrities of their world, and without this endorsement they are going to shun any cause, especially that which could be misconstrued or misunderstood, and the celebrities themselves are going to be advised similarly.

    Only when a public icon is of sufficient belief in the principles of what ‘Prostasia’ is trying to achieve might they ignore their advisers and be prepared to publicly support us.

    Of course, this would be a significant challenge, not to say risk, for all involved. A higher profile, especially when accentuated by mainstream media, will inevitably also result in higher, more intense, adversity. (Reading of Ernest Henley’s ‘Invictus’ may have to become a required daily ritual.)

    The best, if not only, way forward is maybe to highlight the courage, commitment and sacrifices of the people who work here. In truth that cannot be disputed.

    Maybe in time, a personality not hitherto involved in this field, who is of sufficient standing, and who’s character and reputation is beyond reproach, will have the courage to associate themselves publicly with us in the face of persistent, unconscionable and intentionally deceitful misrepresentations. There’s always hope I suppose.

  2. Flatly stating that P is not about X, is not the same thing as a conversation about WHY P is perceived, out there, as being about X.
    ----Sb

  3. I would add one thing here, Jeremy, based on my militating against Covid disinformation trolls (and occasional people) on Twitter. This topic also helps the white-nationalists and their aligns in and around the Q movement to pursue their “broader campaign of bigotry against” science. Science has been a bad-news-bear for these people, telling them first that gay and trans are outside the moral sphere, and then that their industrial interests are destroying the world as an ecosystem, and now that they have to react to a pandemic that slows down money-making for many upper-level people. The classic spin move, in such a situation, is to find the assertion by the other side that can be made to look the worst, and spin it hard to demonize it maximally. Thus, a scientific assertion of ‘minor attraction also has a biological basis’ provides an opportunity that can be used against the entire enterprise of science. Maintaining the idealized 1950s white culture that these groups dream of demands being able to eliminate science wherever it causes discomfort, saving only enough of it to engineer new weapons and toys with, while the rest of epistemology returns to the comforts of medieval wishfulness.

  4. Thing is, the left attacks us just as much as the right. They just use different words. To me, there is no significant difference between being labeled a “degenerate” vs. being labeled “problematic”.

  5. Finnish version of Prostasia would be Sexpo, but they have the benefit that they exist since the 1960s and work together with the gov. and children organizations like Save the Children and international Universities. Back in 2016 when CLSD were reported by customs they were asked and said that these items should not be criminalized. Also actively being invited to legal procedings (e.g law making etc. guidance). They have a very good reputation and people actually value their work.

    Prostasia is not viewed as credible, because it lacks the connections and age.

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