Right-Wing Media’s ‘Grooming’ Rhetoric Has Nothing to Do With Concern for Children

In front of a graphic of fluffy pink handcuffs and “Kink for Kids” spelled out in blocks and crayon font, a red-faced Tucker Carlson (Fox News, 9/19/22) ranted about the story of a transgender Canadian high school teacher whose photos went viral on social media for wearing comically large prosthetic breasts to work.

This is a specialty of Carlson’s: taking one weird example of an individual’s behavior and attributing it to an entire movement or community to stoke moral panic. Carlson declared:

It’s hard to believe this is happening, but we’re sad to tell you it’s not just happening in Canada. You see versions of it everywhere, including in this country. And to be clear what this is, children being used as props in the sexual fantasies of adults.

From this single Canadian teacher’s cartoonishly inappropriate outfit, Carlson leaps—to teachers on social media talking about how they validate children when they disclose their sexualities and gender identities to them.

Then he leaps back to talking about pedophilia. This conflation is where the danger lies, both for LGBTQ individuals, and children who are actual survivors of sexual abuse.

What ‘grooming’ is—and isn’t

The term “grooming” has become a favorite of anti-LGBTQ politicians and right-wing media. Carlson said in the segment:

Some people describe what was happening, it is grooming. We’re not exactly sure what that means. But if it’s sexually abusing children, yes, that is what’s happening.

In fact, we do know what grooming means. The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) describes grooming as “manipulative behaviors that the abuser uses to gain access to a potential victim, coerce them to agree to the abuse, and reduce the risk of being caught.” It involves isolating victims, gaining their trust, and desensitizing them to inappropriate touch, sex and other forms of abuse.

Teaching children that some kids have two moms, or that certain people identify with a gender that does not match the one assigned to them based on their body parts, is not grooming. Having a drag queen in theatrical makeup read books to them is not grooming.

 Ellison Confronts the Endless Lies of Democrats

Vince Everett Ellison, on Tucker Carlson Tonight (1/24/23) to talk about “endless lies,” claims Democrats “want you to castrate little boys and cut off the breasts of little girls.”

Age-appropriate discussions about bodies, boundaries and relationships have been a regular part of school curriculums. It’s the introduction of LGBTQ-related topics in these discussions that sparked hysterical headlines and TV rants. A Carlson guest, author and documentarian Vince Everett Ellison—whose latest film is about how voting Democrat will keep you from Heaven—said in a January screed (Fox News, 1/24/23):

This is a party that believes in this transgender grooming thing to a point where…they want you to castrate little boys and cut off the breasts of little girls, and they’re telling people they’re not going to be held responsible for this.

Not only is the depiction of young children being castrated and receiving mastectomies graphic, it’s also untrue. If “little” children—i.e., those entering puberty—express a desire to transition, doctors may put them on reversible puberty blockers (which have been shown to reduce suicidal ideation in trans youth). Surgeries for youth under the age of 18 are relatively rare, and generally only done with the consent of the patient, their guardian and a doctor. And of course the language aired on Fox isn’t only meant to suggest child abuse; it also deliberately denies the gender identity of the young person requesting the gender-affirming surgery.

‘Your kids are ours’

 Parents Wake Up to Education Nightmare

Fox‘s Jesse Watters (9/23/22) interviews Mario Presents about his “Groom Dogs, Not Kids” T-shirt.

Fox‘s Jesse Watters, towards the start of his September 23 show, discussed the story of a Florida teacher convicted of sexually assaulting her 14-year-old student (Media Matters, 9/23/22). He moved on to bemoaning Covid school closures interrupting children’s education, then rounded out his segment by arguing that educating children about LGBTQ issues, like Critical Race Theory, is a form of Democratic indoctrination:

Sex and CRT become the new math and science. Kids are learning racism instead of reading. Do you think parents are pissed off about this? Of course, why wouldn’t they be? But, when they speak up, Democrats tell them to sit down, shut up and stay out of education: “Your kids are ours.”

To help him make his argument, Watters brought on Mario Presents, a “concerned uncle” who condemned LGBTQ education at a California school board meeting. Watters asks Presents about his shirt—which read, “Groom Dogs, Not Kids.”

“We love a pretty pet, but we don’t love kids being sexual,” Presents replied. “We don’t love…confusing them. We want kids to just be themselves.”

Presents also praised the work of “Gays Against Grooming” a conspiracy theorist, far-right operative -run anti-trans group masquerading as a grassroots organization (Media Matters, 2/7/23).

Validating a child’s stated identity, preferred name and pronouns is not “grooming.” There is, of course, nothing more inherently sexual about being homosexual or transgender than there is about being heterosexual and cisgender.

Dehumanizing myths

 Anti-Trans “Grooming” and “Social Contagion” Claims Explained

Julia Serano (Medium, 11/29/22): “The ‘grooming’ charge—as well as the related accusation that we are ‘sexualizing children‘—insinuates that LGBTQ+ people (but not cis-hetero people) are inherently sexually ‘contaminating’ and ‘corrupting.'”

But these far-right tropes aren’t new. Baselessly accusing a group of people of one of the worst crimes imaginable is a pretty surefire way to dehumanize them. Stigmatizing queer people by claiming they are sexually deviant is an age-old tactic. As Julia Serano notes in her blog for Medium (11/29/22), the “groomer” accusation recalls late 19th-century pseudoscience that claimed stigmatized people—like queer people, sex workers, poor people and disabled people—were evolving backwards, and that the mere exposure to them could make you evolve backwards, too.

The idea that merely learning about LGBTQ people and identities “causes” children to become queer has also been debunked. As Serano points out, several peer-reviewed studies have debunked the concept of transgender “social contagion,” an idea coined by a trans-skeptical parent online in 2016 and elaborated in a 2018 paper, “Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria (ROGD),” by Lisa Littman. Flaws in the paper were called out in three peer-reviewed studies (Restar, 2020; Ashley, 2020; Pitts-Taylor, 2020), and the journal that published it later issued an apology and correction (PLoS, 3/19/19).

Serano also draws on earlier research to point to the likelihood that children like those in Littman’s study were most likely already trans or gender-diverse in some way, and seeking out access to information and support from peers similar to them. At least one study debunked the idea that same-sex attraction “spreads” among peer groups (Brakefield et al., 2014).

Serano also discusses the phenomenon of reduction of restraint. When a behavior is stigmatized, people who are inclined to engage in it are more likely to refrain:

In a 2017 essay, I argued that the current increased prevalence of trans people is akin to the increase in left-handedness (from 2% to 13%) during the 20th century once the stigma and punishment associated with being left-handed abated.

Hypocrisy and hatred

 The incorrect use of the term “groomer” is rooted more in thinly veiling right-wing media’s anti-LGBTQ hatred than it is in an actual desire to protect children from sexual content—or other dangers. As Serano astutely summarized in her blog:

They also often use “grooming” in reference to completely non-sexual things, such as rainbow flags hanging in classrooms, efforts to accommodate trans students, or when schools have nondiscrimination policies protecting LGBTQ+ people. While anti-trans/LGBTQ+ campaigners may frame their interventions in terms of “safeguarding children,” they rarely if ever express similar concern over actual cases of grooming and [child sexual abuse], the overwhelming majority of which are perpetrated by cis-hetero men who are family members or close acquaintances of the child.

The issue clearly isn’t about discussions or experiences involving cis-heteronormative sexuality or gender. It’s queerness itself that’s believed to be perverted. The Murdoch empire demonstrates this.

 I took my 9-year-old son to Hooters to celebrate good grades — trolls say I’m ‘creepy as f–k’

A father bragging about taking his nine-year-old son to Hooters didn’t prompt concern from the New York Post (11/23/22) about sexualizing children, but rather an array of boob puns.

A New York Post article (11/23/22) profiled a British father who took his 9-year-old son to Hooters to celebrate his good grades. “Tit for tot?” the article begins, later describing the restaurant as a “ta-ta temple.” It highlighted both critical and supportive responses to the stunt.

Teaching kids about gender diversity causes hosts like Fox’s Laura Ingraham to beat their chests in preparation for a culture war (Fox News, 4/7/22), and parents taking their kids to a drag show “normalize[s] the sexualization of kids” (10/19/22), yet this story evokes nothing more than a few lighthearted boob puns from Murdoch’s New York Post.

Meanwhile, children’s actual physical safety takes a backseat to “Don’t Say Gay” hysteria on Fox. Media Matters (4/1/22) documented Fox hosts melting down over Disney’s public opposition to Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill in at least 53 segments over a week in 2022, accusing the company of grooming, indoctrinating and sexualizing children.

To compare, in December, a bipartisan bill supporting the welfare of child sex abuse victims was introduced in the House. Twenty-eight Republicans—including Lauren Boebert and Marjorie Taylor Greene, who have both referred to pro-LGBTQ advocates as “groomers” (CPR News, 11/22/22; Sacramento Bee, 11/25/22)—voted against the now-passed Respect for Child Survivors Act, which seeks to improve how the FBI handles cases of child sexual abuse (Newsweek, 12/22/22). FAIR’s Nexis search of the legislation’s name turned up no results on Fox News in the weeks preceding and following the voting.

The New England Journal of Medicine (5/19/22) found that gun violence had become the No. 1 cause of death in children and adolescents in 2020. A Nexis search of Fox transcripts found no mentions of that report in the week following its release. Only after the Uvalde elementary school shooting, which occurred on May 24, was the report mentioned in passing (Fox News, 5/29/22, 5/30/22).

Centrist media complicity 

Centrist and neoliberal media have also been slow to call anti-LGBTQ advocates’ bluff. While the New York Times (4/7/22, 5/31/22) has published op-eds that confront the term “groomer” as harmful to both the LGBTQ community and victims of child abuse, its news section continues to both-sides the issue, quoting Republican use of the term with little critique.

In a piece that sterilely chronicled right-wing political attacks on LGBTQ rights, the Times (7/22/22) reported:

Officials and television commentators on the right have accused opponents of some of those new restrictions of seeking to “sexualize” or “groom” children. Grooming refers to the tactics used by sexual predators to manipulate their victims, but it has become deployed widely on the right to brand gay and transgender people as child molesters, evoking an earlier era of homophobia.

 Teachers who mention sexuality are ‘grooming’ kids, conservatives say

Washington Post (4/5/22): “In the charged debate over what and how children should learn about sexual orientation and gender identity, some mainstream Republicans are tagging those who defend such lessons as ‘groomers,’ claiming that proponents of such teaching want children primed for sexual abuse.”

The article later went on to briefly cite a survey by the Trevor Project that showed the staggering suicidality rates of gender non-conforming youth. However, the piece ultimately treated the issue as a political game, outlining Republican tactics and the risks they face of losing centrist votes due to homophobia. It ended with a quote by Michigan Republican gubernatorial candidate Tudor Dixon, who is calling for legislation that allows parents to sue school districts that host drag shows (despite no evidence of any district doing so). “We’re taking the first step today to protecting children,” Dixon said, getting the last word.

At the Washington Post (4/5/22), the article “Teachers Who Mention Sexuality Are ‘Grooming’ Kids, Conservatives Say” devoted its first 12 paragraphs to coverage of anti-trans bigots using “groomer” rhetoric. As FAIR (4/12/22) pointed out:

It barely matters that the Post brought in some “experts” later to offer the “other side”—that actually talking about these things in fact helps curtail sexual abuse (which in schools primarily happens at the hands of heterosexual male teachers, noted all the way down in the 37th paragraph of the Post article) and bullying against LGBTQ+ kids. In giving the GOP the headline and the (extraordinarily lengthy) lead, Natanson and Balingit gave a bigoted and dangerous campaign the right to frame the story as a debate with two somehow comparable sides.

Other outlets are sometimes even worse. NY1 (6/16/22) platformed a Queens council member who called drag queen story hours in schools “grooming.” The Salt Lake Tribune (10/21/22) dedicated a whole article to outlining Utah politicians’ moral panic about drag shows. It quoted write-in Washington County clerk/auditor candidate Patricia Kent in the unhinged headline: “They are grooming our children for immoral satanic worship.”

The real danger

 What is ‘grooming’? Why misusing the term could help sexual predators and hurt victims

NBC‘s Today (5/9/22) on “grooming”: “Misusing the term also puts people, particularly children and teenagers, at risk of being groomed and eventually victimized.”

LGBTQ people are nearly four times more likely to be victims of violent crime—including sexual assault—than their non-LGBTQ counterparts. They’re nine times more likely than non-LGBTQ people to be victims of violent hate crimes. The November 2022 mass shooting at Club Q in Colorado Springs is only one recent example of this danger.

Misusing the term “groomer” is also counterproductive to helping real victims of child sexual abuse. While it didn’t directly address LGBTQ education, a Psychology Today piece (4/10/22) asserted that referring to Disney movies, sex education and other sexual content as “grooming” is clinically inaccurate, and has the potential to make it “more difficult to detect and identify actual manipulative behaviors and prevent actual sexual offending.”

NBC’s Today (5/9/22) published a laudable piece on the topic based on an interview with Grace French, a former dancer and gymnast whom USA Gymnastics national team doctor Larry Nassar groomed and molested. She explained why careless use of the term is harmful to survivors like her:

It’s so incredibly important to use this term correctly, because if we don’t understand it—and we have these assumptions about what it can or can’t be—then it’s harder and harder for grooming to be identified, and perpetrators are going to be able to get more access to children and to victims.

The New York Times (5/31/22) echoed this sentiment with a guest essay from a survivor, who concluded:

If we can’t agree that the use of these words is sacred and worth protecting from daily politics, we are telling one another that our deepest, most intimate, heart-wrenching wounds are empty—and that we may as well be, too.

Conservative politicians’ and right-wing media’s reckless use of the term “grooming” is intentionally inaccurate and dehumanizing. It not only harms LGBTQ people, but also the children these figures claim to be fighting to protect.