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  • Emma Behrens

Grooming, Pedophilia, and Sexualization - A Lesson in Semantics

A March 2022 Protest in St. Petersburg, FL over the Passage of HB 1557

In recent years, conservative American ideologues have launched a new rhetorical attack on the members and allies of the LGBTQ+ community. Accusations of grooming, pedophilia, and hyper-sexualization are constantly levied against Democrats in discussions surrounding queer youth, the acceptance and endorsement of the LGBTQ+ community perceived as a threat to child safety and traditional moral values.

As Republican Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene outlined in an April interview on 60 Minutes, “Democrats support, even Joe Biden, the President himself supports children being sexualized and having transgender surgeries. Sexualizing children is what pedophiles do to children.”

Georgia House Republican Marjorie Taylor Greene

Hundreds of bills have been proposed to combat the perceived threat that pro-LGBTQ+ messaging poses to children, including Florida’s infamous HB 1557 or “Don't Say Gay” law that precludes the “instruction” of “sexual orientation or gender identity [...] in kindergarten through grade 3 or in a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.”

Shortly before the bill was signed into law, Florida gubernatorial press secretary Christina Pushaw tweeted, “The bill that liberals inaccurately call ‘Don’t Say Gay’ would be more accurately described as an Anti-Grooming Bill,” and, “If you’re against the Anti-Grooming Bill, you are probably a groomer or at least you don’t denounce the grooming of 4-8 year old children. Silence is complicity. This is how it works, Democrats, and I didn’t make the rules.”

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis

Like many conservatives, Pushaw labels the discussion of the LGBTQ+ community as grooming. To conservatives, the allusion to, let alone the endorsement of, non-heteronormative romantic or sexual feelings that one may experience is inherently sexual and pedophilic when done in the presence of children.

This accusation is semantically insidious.

The words “grooming,” “pedophilia,” and “sexualization” simply do not mean what these conservative pundits imply. As defined by the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, “grooming” references the “manipulative behaviors that [an] abuser uses to gain access to a potential victim, coerce them to agree to the abuse, and reduce the risk of being caught.” The DSM-5 diagnostic criteria for “pedophilic disorder” includes “recurrent, intense sexually arousing fantasies, sexual urges, or behaviors involving sexual activity with a prepubescent child or children (generally age 13 years or younger).” The Oxford English Dictionary defines “sexualization” as “the process of sexualizing,” or attributing male or female characteristics to someone. By the OED’s definition, both liberals and conservatives alike constantly engage in the practice of sexualization by assigning gendered norms to arbitrary concepts like colors or fashion trends.

Blue and Pink Baby Clothes for Boys and Girls Respectively Imply Sexualization, or the Acknowledgement of Sex

While language is constantly evolving and meanings are always subject to change, conflating the endorsement of pro-LGBTQ+ values and child sexual abuse negatively impacts the queer community in innumerable ways. Multiple studies have revealed that members of the LGBTQ+ community do not molest children at higher rates than cisgender and heterosexual people. The claim that LGBTQ+ individuals and their supporters are pedophilic in nature is provably false, though this has not stopped decades-worth of rumors about their sexual degeneracy.

A more apt term for conservatives’ criticism of the prevalence of queer acceptance and pro-LGBTQ+ education would be “indoctrination,” or “the process of repeating an idea or belief to someone until they accept it without criticism or question.” Teaching young schoolchildren about the existence of the LGBTQ+ community could be viewed as indoctrination if children are taught unquestioningly that queer preferences and values are the only correct ones to hold.

However, schools aren’t teaching children to be gay. A teacher cannot teach a student to identify as LGBTQ+ so much as they can teach an LGBTQ+ student to identify as cisgender or heterosexual.

What teachers do teach - and what laws such as HB 1557 target - are messages of tolerance, love, and acceptance. Students need not identify as gay or straight, but are taught to be accepting of others’ romantic and sexual preferences, no matter age, color, or creed. Children are taught to value diversity, to question the status quo. This is the exact opposite of indoctrination, or being taught to unquestioningly accept an ideal.

Compare this messaging to that teaching children to exist only within the narrow confines of a heteronormative gender binary. Which sounds more like indoctrination?


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