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Against the 'Groomer' Smear
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Against the ‘Groomer’ Smear

It's not 'pro-pedophile' to back Ketanji Brown Jackson, and it's not 'grooming' to oppose Florida's new education law.

I remember the day I hit maximum anger about the extraordinary public and media firestorm surrounding Brett Kavanaugh. It was on September 27, 2018. This was exactly one day after a woman named Julie Swetnick had come forward with a facially absurd allegation that Kavanaugh had facilitated gang rapes while in high school. Swetnick’s claims fell apart almost immediately, but in the hours and days before she was decisively rebutted, Americans were treated to think pieces and tweet threads describing exactly why they were plausible and consistent with the ethos of the time (including this incredible example in Vox, using the movie Sixteen Candles to describe the purported “rape culture” of the 1980s). 

It was a remarkable moment. Spurious allegations of gang rape rocketed from coast to coast, and Very Serious People who should have known better not only instantly believed them, they furiously attacked anyone who expressed public skepticism. I should know. I was one of their targets.

I was working at National Review at the time, and I was still much more a part of the right-wing media ecosystem than I am now. I remember well the burning conviction on the right that not only was the evidence entirely insufficient to support any of the key claims against Kavanaugh, but also it was just vile to throw such horrific accusations against a husband and father without meaningful evidence. 

Now, what to make of this?

Or this?

For those who don’t remember, Hemingway wrote a book about the Kavanaugh nomination. She was livid at his treatment. 

You may not be aware, but right-wing media is swarming with allegations that anyone who, for example, opposes Florida’s House Bill 1557 (the bill misleadingly termed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill by Democrats and many in the media) is either a “groomer” or in league with groomers. A groomer is a person who specifically targets and uses “manipulative behaviors” to gain access to victims. The rhetoric is absolutely omnipresent. It’s relentless. For example, here’s Governor Ron DeSantis’s spokesperson. There’s nothing subtle about this:

What we’re witnessing is the continued moral devolution of a movement. Where once it was “vile” or “evil” to make frivolous claims of grotesque sexual misconduct, it is now considered “weakness” or “surrender” in some quarters not to “fight” with the most inflammatory language and the most inflammatory charges. 

Let’s first deal with the substance of the claims against Mitt Romney and Ketanji Brown Jackson. Before Judge Jackson’s nomination hearing, Sen. Josh Hawley claimed that Judge Jackson “has a pattern of letting child porn offenders off the hook for their appalling crimes.” Sarah Isgur and I took a close look at those claims in our Advisory Opinions podcast. My friend and former colleague Andy McCarthy did the same at National Review.

In fact, Andy (along with the Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler) walked through every single one of Judge Jackson’s controversial sentences for child pornography or for sexual abuse of children and found that her sentences were generally quite close to the sentences recommended by the U.S. Probation Department. Here was his bottom line:

The cases Senator Hawley cites do not show that Judge Jackson is an unusually soft sentencer in child-porn cases, much less that she is indulgent of “sex offenders” who “prey on children.” She is certainly not a harsh sentencer. The terms she has meted out, though, are compliant with the law and usually equal or exceed the sentencing recommendations of the court’s probation department. 

Not only is Andy a former prosecutor, he also opposes Judge Jackson’s nomination, and he was and is one of the most influential conservative legal commentators in right-wing media. Many of the very people who call Judge Jackson soft on sex offenders have relied on and repeated Andy’s legal analyses for years.

The idea that only “groomers” or those soft on groomers denounce Florida’s bill is similarly specious. I am absolutely against public school teaching young children about sex and fully understand parental concerns that teachers might introduce mature themes too soon, but the bill in question does not prohibit teaching young kids about sex. It instead, prohibits instruction “on sexual orientation or gender identity” in kindergarten through third grade “or in a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.”

In plain English, that means the law’s absolute prohibition on instruction applies only to grades K through 3 and only to a subset of sexual content, specifically involving LGBT themes. Beyond that, instruction on LGBT content is banned unless it’s “age appropriate” or “developmentally appropriate.” This language is not constrained to K3 instruction; it applies all the way up through high school. It may sound reasonable (who isn’t for “age appropriate” instruction?), but the term is difficult to define and leaves teachers with no concrete guidance.

And concrete guidance is exactly what they’ll need, since the law also empowers parents to sue school districts if they think the school’s instruction runs afoul of the law. Given the vagueness of the statute, that will largely be a matter of their subjective expectations. If they don’t like the curriculum, they can litigate. It’s a basic matter of constitutional law that a statute is “void for vagueness if its prohibitions are not clearly defined.” A person of ordinary intelligence is supposed to be able to understand and apply the law.

It’s not grooming or defending grooming to believe the Florida law does not meet that standard.

“Grooming” is a word with a real meaning. It refers to targeted behaviors that are exceedingly dangerous and precursors to actual child abuse. For example, when my wife Nancy and I investigated a horrific sex scandal at Kanakuk Kamps, one of the largest Christian camps in the world, victim after victim told us how the camp’s superpredator, a counselor and camp director named Pete Newman, engaged in specific actions that isolated young boys and normalized Newman’s inappropriate attention.

One of the most helpful descriptions of grooming comes from the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN). This what grooming actually is: 

  • Victim selection: Abusers often observe possible victims and select them based on ease of access to them or their perceived vulnerability.

  • Gaining access and isolating the victim: Abusers will attempt to physically or emotionally separate a victim from those protecting them and often seek out positions in which they have contact with minors.

  • Trust development and keeping secrets: Abusers attempt to gain trust of a potential victim through gifts, attention, sharing “secrets” and other means to make them feel that they have a caring relationship and to train them to keep the relationship secret.

  • Desensitization to touch and discussion of sexual topics: Abusers will often start to touch a victim in ways that appear harmless, such as hugging, wrestling and tickling, and later escalate to increasingly more sexual contact, such as massages or showering together. Abusers may also show the victim pornography or discuss sexual topics with them, to introduce the idea of sexual contact.

  • Attempt by abusers to make their behavior seem natural, to avoid raising suspicions. For teens, who may be closer in age to the abuser, it can be particularly hard to recognize tactics used in grooming. Be alert for signs that your teen has a relationship with an adult that includes secrecy, undue influence or control, or pushes personal boundaries.

I share the real definition for two reasons—first to note the absurdity of the grooming claims proliferating online, and second to note their real-world danger. While right-wing media personalities know their own game, the word lands differently in the general public. The word “grooming” triggers intense emotion and activates every decent adult’s protective instinct.

In fact, throwing around accusations of pedophilia, sympathy for pedophilia, grooming, or sympathy for grooming is a recipe for threats and violence. It connects with the vicious and deranged QAnon conspiracy, and it tells the public that you believe your political opponents are among the most vile people on the planet, the scum of the earth. And if you think that accusations of child abuse simply stay online, as part of the game people play for social media clout, you’ve forgotten the Pizzagate shooting. You’ve forgotten January 6. You’ve forgotten the avalanche of threats inflicted on those who oppose the radical right. 

As I wrote this week in The Atlantic in a piece that outlined the dangers of a sexual morality centered entirely around consent, I’m an Evangelical Christian who believes that sex is reserved for marriage. I’ve spent years reporting on sexual abuse in both secular and religious spaces. I am alert to the dangers children face in a hypersexualized culture. Pedophilia is evil. Grooming is evil.

Because those actions are so evil, throwing around accusations simply to score talking points in public debate is vile. It’s dangerous. And it illustrates the destructive reality that for some of America’s most prominent right-wing voices, there is no smear too gross, no claim too extreme, to destroy the reputations or risk the lives of the people they love to hate. 

David French is a columnist for the New York Times. He’s a former senior editor of The Dispatch. He’s the author most recently of Divided We Fall: America's Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation.