Who should be excluded from child protection?

Traditionally, child protection law and policy has been the domain of sexually conservative organizations with close ties to organized religion. In researching a recent article that she wrote following our #SexContentDialogue in San Francisco last month, journalist Violet Blue developed a map showing some of these links between religious groups and one of our counterpart organizations, Thorn.

Thorn is hardly exceptional in this regard; other groups have even stronger ties. The Child Dignity Alliance was formed by the Catholic Church, and includes anti-LGBTQ groups. The National Center on Sexual Exploitation was founded by an interfaith group of clergy, and claims that pornography is linked with child sexual abuse. The National Coalition to Prevent Child Sexual Abuse and Exploitation, in which various groups including the Salvation Army are members, promotes an anti-pornography and anti-sex work message.

While there is nothing wrong with these faith-linked groups participating in child protection, it becomes a problem when they claim a monopoly on the development of child protection laws and policies. It has become more and more apparent that the promotion of religious sexual mores is no guarantee against child sexual abuse, and on the contrary, that there are significant risks of those who commit abuse using organized religion to provide cover for what they do.

By scapegoating stigmatized communities such as sex workers, adult entertainers, LGBTQ+ people, and others whose sexual practices church-linked groups don’t approve of, their approach has also sent them a very clear message to these prospective allies against child sexual abuse—you are not welcome. Yet as more evidence has emerged, the links that church groups draw between sex work or pornography and child sexual abuse—which often seem to rely on made-up statistics—have increasingly come under scrutiny by experts.

Individually, the stigmatized groups that the establishment wishes to exclude (sex workers, adult performers, registered citizens, and so on) do have advocacy groups of their own—we work with many of them, and include some of them on our Advisory Council. But before Prostasia Foundation was formed, these groups were seen as unqualified to be talking about child sexual abuse prevention within their own communities, because unless they simply capitulated to what the church-linked groups were saying, they were perceived as promoting their own self-interest.

Prostasia Foundation was formed by a diverse group of experts and stakeholders who saw this situation as unsustainable. We heard unfactual messages from the establishment groups such as NCMEC and Thorn reinforcing prejudices against sexual minorities, and resulting in harmful and ineffective laws such as FOSTA. We heard representatives of these minorities who were as strongly opposed to child sexual abuse as religious groups, and who had their own insights into child sexual abuse prevention and child safeguarding practices—especially within their own communities. But their voices were being ignored.

So, we brought them all together to form a new, human rights focused and sex-positive child protection organization called Prostasia Foundation. Joining with these stigmatized groups are child protection experts who approach the problem from a scientific, and not from a moralistic or religious standpoint—people whose expertise and neutrality is above reproach. Our team includes experts in the mental health dimension of child sexual offending, experts from the sex industries, criminal justice experts, human rights activists, child development experts, and representatives from Internet platforms.

If we are infringing on human rights in order to protect children, then we are doing it wrong.

What is it that brings these diverse stakeholders together? Firstly, a firm commitment to the elimination of child sexual abuse: we all agree that sex between adults and children must never be tolerated, and that neither can the dissemination of illegal sexual images or videos of real children. Secondly, we believe that human rights are universal and that if we are infringing on human rights in order to protect children, then we are doing it wrong. Thirdly, we take a sex-positive approach.

It’s this last limb of our values that has generated the most controversy, mainly among those who feel that “sex” is a shibboleth that cannot be spoken in the same phrase as the word “child.” But in fact sex positivity and child protection are inseparable. You are probably sex-positive yourself, if you are LGBTQ+ friendly and believe that what consenting adults do behind closed doors is their own business. Essentially, that’s all it means. It is also the foundation of comprehensive sex education, which teaches children that they and other children enjoy bodily autonomy that must be respected—an important lesson for them to carry into adulthood.

Sex negativity, transphobia, and the online outrage mill

In June 2019 Britain’s National Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) terminated the appointment of its first-ever transgender spokesperson Munroe Bergdorf, under pressure from transphobic online activists who labelled her (falsely, as it happens) as a “porn model” (the NSPCC subsequently apologized, but without reversing its decision). When Prostasia Foundation tweeted an admittedly cheeky suggestion that those who disagreed with the NSPCC’s treatment of Ms Bergdorf could transfer their patronage to us, because we are more inclusive of the LGBTQ+ community (as well as sex workers and the consensual kink community), all hell broke loose.

“So children allowed to work as sex workers? I’m outraged,” one commenter exclaimed. “Child protection is not about ‘sex negativity’ or ‘sex positivity’, sex shouldn’t factor in at all,” raged another. Ironically some of these same online activists, whom even the NSPCC characterized as “bullies”, continued to target it also, calling for them to fire the gay employee who had hired Ms Bergdorf, over photos they unearthed of him masturbating. (No children were involved, but remember, the establishment is full of people who believe homosexuality, masturbation, and pornography to be sinful.)

We don’t intend to give too much weight to the opinions of these people, many of whom are openly homophobic and transphobic. But, stripping away their most fanciful mischaracterizations of our approach, it is possible to discern a serious point behind some of the objections. Essentially, it is supposed that by listening to the approaches of groups who have their own interests against the over-regulation of private sexual conduct, speech, and expression, we are placing their desires above the needs of the child. There are three misconceptions in that that need to be corrected:

  1. It assumes that the establishment child protection groups aren’t also taking account of the interests of adults in determining their approach to the best interests of children. As explained above, most of the dominant groups working in this field are advancing an overt agenda against pornography (not just illegal child abuse images), and against all sex work (not just child sex trafficking). The only difference is that we incorporate a broader range of interests into our work than other groups do, and that we focus particularly on those such as the LGBTQ+ and sex-positive communities that are stigmatized and sidelined by mainstream groups.
  2. A second misconception is that promoting the rights of consenting adults and preventing child sexual abuse are mutually exclusive postitions, when in fact they are complementary. Child protection laws and policies that infringe human rights do not deserve our support—or anyone’s. But by the same token, we have a shared responsibility to ensure that the way we exercise those rights does not put children in harm’s way. That’s exactly why it’s imperative for us to ally with sex-positive groups that prioritize safety and consent, and who have proven expertise in safeguarding and evangelizing about child protection within their own communities.
  3. The third misconception is that promoting a sex-positive message is only for the benefit of adults who are able to consent to sex, and isn’t relevant to children who can’t. But this is also a misguided and false assumption. We want our children to grow up in a world in which they are not oppressed for their own consensual sexual interests. But even while they are still children, the sex-negative approach that other groups take causes harm. It increases the stigma that makes it difficult for children to recognize and report abuse, it results in children perpetrating sexual harm upon each other, and it results in teenagers being registered as sex offenders for sexting with their peers.

Who should be excluded from child protection?

The online sex-negative backlash against our mission stems from an assertion that certain groups in society ought to be excluded from allyship in our mission of child sexual abuse prevention, because they have nothing of value to contribute, or because their mere involvement could somehow be harmful to that mission. So, let’s take a look at some of those groups one by one, to determine whether there is any merit to this assertion.

Should we exclude sex workers? Our society currently does exclude them; that’s how we ended up with FOSTA; a law supported by the establishment child protection sector, that has actually made it more difficult to prosecute child sex trafficking, while putting sex workers of all ages in physical and financial peril, and resulting in substantial censorship of lawful Internet content, including resources for child sexual abuse prevention. As sex worker Maggie McNeill explained in our podcast interview with her, the criminalization of sex work leaves youngsters who are caught in this situation with nowhere to turn, as well as making it more dangerous for adults to obtain help for them. Sex workers who were underage when FOSTA passed say that life has become harder and more dangerous since then. If only we had listened to them sooner.

Should we exclude those who create or consume culturally transgressive art? Artists, especially those whose art ends up pushing the boundaries of what is typically openly accepted artistic expression, are no strangers to censorship and other restrictions on their rights. But as the 17 thousand signatories to our petition to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child recognized, there is no factual or moral basis to scapegoat artists and writers for child sexual abuse simply because sexual situations or nudity involving minors may appear in their work. Doing so is harmful because it directs resources away from genuine attempts to protect children, while also removing a safe outlet for processing sexual feelings that many people, including child sexual abuse surivors, report as beneficial. We are fundraising to support further research into these claims.

Should we exclude people with previous convictions for sexual offences? The easy answer would be yes. We could be a lot more popular if, like groups such as NSPCC, we hurled words like vile, monster, and beast at those who have offended. We prefer to call them human. As human beings, with the same rights and responsibilities as all of us, they deserve to pay for their misdeeds, and abusing a child is about as bad a misdeed as they come—which is why the punishments these people receive are about as harsh as they come. But even retribution must have limits. As a child protection organization, it is not our job to call out all of the failings of the criminal justice system. But it does fall within our remit when those failings actually harm children; for example if they result in teens being prosecuted for developmentally normal and harmless behavior, create a false sense of security, or dissuade children from reporting abuse by family members.

Should we exclude the consensual kink community? This is the category that caused the most dissent from our post in the NSPCC Twitter thread, with some people expressing apparently honest confusion as to why this group should be included. The model for consent that the mainstream is finally talking about has existed for a long time in the kink community, and the #metoo conversations we are all having were built from the BDSM community’s work to define and enforce consent. The kink community does a great deal to offer education regarding consent and risk awareness to legally consenting adult members, including events and classes dedicated to this topic. They are strict about keeping minors away from kink spaces until they are adults because it protects everyone. They also have a heightened awareness about abuse within some of the edgier practices that fall under the kink umbrella. (We are holding a free webinar about this on July 18 for those who would like to learn more.)

Finally, should we exclude minor-attracted persons (MAPs)? We don’t have to work with them directly—Prostasia chooses not to do so, apart from through primary prevention outreach on social media—but we do support the researchers who work with them to prevent them from committing abuse. We could avoid doing this if we were to focus exclusively on the acts of child sexual abuse that non-pedophiles commit. However this makes no sense at all, other than as a self-serving attempt to avoid stigma. Since we all want to prevent pedophiles from committing offenses, and since scientists believe that peer and professional support helps to make this possible, we are willing to invest in that approach. It is inevitable that false smears of “pedo-apologism” and threats to life and limb will come along with this, and the experts we work with are very familiar with these. The intellectual depth of the smears and threats is never high, because they are driven by emotion, not by reason. But we would be derelict in our duty if we did not clearly repudiate them. We do not support pedophilia; we do support preventing pedophiles (and others) from committing abuse.

Conclusion

The only way to avoid the adverse outcomes of a moralistic approach to child protection is to include those whom the religious establishment considers immoral—provided that they are on board with our mission of child sexual abuse prevention. In fact Prostasia Foundation believes that nobody should be categorically excluded from this mission. As such, we are committed to shearing the child protection establishment of its sex-negative baggage, to shining a light on its darker corners, and to paring it back to its essentials—which are to prevent children from being sexually abused, and to prevent abusive and illegal images and videos of children from being shared.

We collaborate productively with a number of other organizations in this sector—several of whom share our primary prevention approach—and we hope to strengthen our collaboration with them. At the same time, there are other groups that have resisted working with us or have actively turned us away. In our role as a watchdog on the child protection sector, we will never stop holding our peers accountable when they promote harmful, sex-negative stigmas, when they disregard human rights, or when they attempt to work in darkness.

We will never stop holding our peers accountable when they promote harmful, sex-negative stigmas, when they disregard human rights, or when they attempt to work in darkness.

And in our role as an advocate for the primary prevention of child sexual abuse, we remain steadfast in our determination to promote a positive message that child sexual abuse can be prevented, even when that message attracts hate from those who cling to stereotypes about people whose sexuality differs from their own. Groups that court such people, as the NSPCC did by dismissing Maggie Bergdorf, are the same groups that tend to emphasize the regulation of private conduct and speech, and to under-emphasize prevention. We believe that our inclusiveness better allows us to promote a better, more balanced, and more evidence-informed approach that was sorely missing in this sector before now.

Whoever agrees with our mission and has a valuable contribution to make towards it is welcome to stand beside us as an ally, even if they are not welcomed by other groups. We don’t expect everybody to agree with our uniquely inclusive approach to child sexual abuse prevention. However, please understand one thing: as the stigma-busting child protection organization, we will not yield to bigotry, or stand silent in the face of sex-negative smears or innuendo. Standing up to and defying these harmful attitudes and behaviors is one of the reasons we exist. Like us or not, Prostasia Foundation is not going away.

Thanks to Connor Hardenburgh and Ryan A S Cook for their feedback and editing.

Start the discussion at forum.prostasia.org