The Right’s Grooming Panic

As those of you who follow me regularly may have realized, I tend to think and post in long-form. I think in paragraphs. It takes me a while to fully flesh out and explain an idea. Practically speaking that boils down to me really hating Twitter as a platform for discussion and debate, which is why I spend most of my time here on Facebook. For some issues, however, I feel it’s important to engage on Twitter, either because the information I’m posting is informing the public about something I feel is important and relevant, or because there’s a concerted disinformation campaign against the information I’m posting and I feel it’s important to fight back against that.

For example, I spent a fair amount of time on Twitter over the last month posting about the Krishevsky case and combatting the disinformation campaign lying about it claiming it was immediately dismissed (it wasn’t) making ridiculous, mutually exclusive defenses for him, and then recently with the disposition of his case with a low-level plea, the claim that the case was dismissed with a trespassing ticket (he plead guilty to disorderly conduct). I did this because it’s important that the community have access to accurate information about these cases and not have to rely on disinformation.

I’ve also spent a lot of time on Twitter this week arguing about the trans teacher who was fired from Magen David for being trans because there wasn’t a lot of awareness about the case, and because there was so much hate being spewed against her I felt it was important to show some support. As you can imagine it didn’t go very well, but there were a few things that happened over the course of these arguments that I wanted to unpack here.

The first being the repeated accusation that I hate the frum community, everyone in it, and want to destroy it. Why? Because the frum community doesn’t like trans people and I want them to have to hire them as teachers anyway. Tied in with this accusation is the fact that I post incessantly about sexual abuse in the community, and had an opinion about secular education in yeshivas that they found objectionable. It culminated in someone saying to me that I was to the Chassidish community what the Nazis were to the Jews, and what the KKK is to black people.

This happens to me a lot and it speaks to a fundamental difference of opinion between me and others about what comprises the frum community. To them the community is only the people who fit in perfectly, follow the rules not necessarily as they’re set forth in Halacha but as they’re set forth by the rabbonim. Anyone not perfectly in line with the rabbonim, regardless of how personally religious they are, is to them not a part of the community.

I fundamentally disagree. The community is for the most part not something opted into, its something born into, and given the fact that membership for most begins involuntarily there’s necessarily going to be, as with any population, a wide variety of people and experiences within it. There will necessarily be victims of sexual and physical abuse, there will necessarily be gay and trans people, there will necessarily be people with mental illness, and there will necessarily be people who despite following halacha and enjoying the culture will have differences of opinion on the exact application of that halacha and its cultural implications. There will also necessarily be people who no longer want to be a part of either the faith or the community or both.

The community to me is comprised not only of the people who perfectly fit in but also the people who don’t, which is what motivates a lot of my advocacy. Survivors of abuse are also members of the community even if the community generally wishes that weren’t true, or rather, wishes they didn’t have to contend with that fact. The community is also comprised of frum LGBTQ people who are as religious as everyone else they sit next to in shul, and as much a part of the culture and community as everyone else but happen to also be LGBTQ. It’s also comprised of those in the Chassidish communities who wish their children to receive a basic secular education.

I fundamentally don’t believe that the community gets to disclaim responsibility for those members and pretend they aren’t a part.

Others both inside and outside the community often disagree saying things like “well if you don’t like the way things are, leave. This is the way things are and this is the way they’re staying, and you can either get on board and conform or you can get out.” But it’s not that simple. Aside from the difficulty of leaving the community one was born into, it’s also entirely unreasonable.

A Chassidish or Yeshivish kid who’s spent their whole life in the community, went to yeshiva in the community, whose family and friends and entire experience is in the community, whose whole outlook on life, religion, and community is informed by being a part of the community, doesn’t suddenly give that all up because they realized they’re LGBTQ.  Their experiences and cultural and religious identity and beliefs don’t suddenly radically change.

To me this is the same as people who in response to Agunos engaging in activism within the community to free themselves and others and change the way Gittin work in the community tell them they should instead just stop being Orthodox, leave the community, and remarry whoever they like whether the Beis Din approves or not. It’s an entirely unreasonable suggestion that someone whose whole life was within a certain set of beliefs and cultural experiences immediately stop believing and relating to them because of one experience.

It also presupposes that the community has always been one thing since the beginning of time and will be the same thing to the end of time, immutable, and never changing. That’s not true. It’s never been true. The Charedi community as it exists today isn’t the same as it was 100 years ago, even 50 years ago. It isn’t even the same as it was 20 years ago. It’s constantly changing, in some ways becoming more stringent and, in some ways, becoming more open. No community is every stagnant and unchanging. That’s not how human beings work. Things are constantly changing in every community.

It also presumes to claim that the community as a whole is perfectly observant of halacha and that anyone who isn’t falls outside its parameters. That’s not true either and never has been. Out of any given shul there are probably at least 10 adulterers, a wife-beater or two, someone who doesn’t strictly keep kosher, a couple of mechallelei Shabbos, and a few people who have committed fraud and either went away for it or just haven’t been caught yet. No one could argue with a straight face that those people aren’t members of the community. They may not be the community’s shining examples, but for better or worse they’re members.

When I bring this up the counterargument is usually something like, “Well yes, of course they exist, but they at least agree that what they’re doing is wrong. LGBTQ people don’t. Their whole identity is contrary to halacha.” The implication there is that the community as a whole, even when they don’t practice halacha perfectly, have at least bought in to it. In other words, when they’re sinning they know they’re sinning, they acknowledge it, and they give deference to what’s right even if they cant do what’s right.

But that’s not true either. It’s not just individuals who pick and choose, it’s also communities. In my community in Boro Park growing up, it was perfectly normal to commit fraud, cover up sexual abuse, and treat victims of abuse like garbage, none of which is in accordance with halacha. And yet that’s the way it was, and many if not most of the people within the community would agree that those things weren’t big deals. Flagrant violations of halacha that the community as a whole not only engaged it but believed was right. Communities absolutely pick and choose in the same way individuals do, and they tend to be just as dishonest with themselves as individuals are with themselves about their picking and choosing.

Which brings me back to my point.

Whether LGBTQ people observe halacha is between them and Hashem and it’s not really our place to interrogate that any more than we interrogate the halachic observance of anyone else in the community who isn’t LGBTQ, and if you’re going to claim that your community is perfectly Halachically observant, or at least declares as its values the perfect observance of Halacha, you better damn well make sure that’s true before you try to ostracize members of the community on that basis.  

The other thing that happened yesterday was that someone called me a sexual predator because I believed that trans people shouldn’t be fired from frum schools for being trans. Specifically what was said was “Yet you can’t seem to get adults to support your gay/trans/progressive agenda so you favor targeting their children. That makes you the predator. There is zero difference between a rabbi asking a minor for sex and you pushing minors to be indoctrinated about sex.”

Before addressing the bigger problem with that statement, I want to address the very obvious problem with it. The idea that being taught by a trans teacher is a trauma equivalent to being sexually abused as a child is not only monstrous but laughable. The person who said that has clearly never been sexually abused as a child nor talked to anyone who was because if he did he wouldn’t make such comparisons. For starters, there isn’t a documented increase in the suicide rate among students of trans teachers. There isn’t a documented increase in the rates of PTSD, depression, anxiety, addiction, self-harm, and eating disorders among students of trans teachers. There is among victims of sexual abuse.

Being taught social studies by a trans teacher is not traumatic. It might be uncomfortable for some who were raised a home where trans people are vilified, but it’s not traumatic, certainly not on the level of being sexually abused. The idea that the two experiences are even within the same universe as each other, let alone equivalent is insane.

Next there’s the claim that being taught by trans teachers is somehow indoctrinating children about sex. This is a particularly nasty bit of bullshit that has been going around Republican and right wing circles recently. The basic idea being that anyone who supports LGBTQ people being around children is essentially supporting the grooming of children for sexual abuse. There’s a lot to unpack about this claim and most of the time when people encounter it, they choose to just shake their head at it and walk away from it because it’s patently ridiculous but time consuming to argue against in the same way that Holocaust denial is patently ridiculous but time consuming to argue against.

This starts off with the idea that since the “LGBTQ movement’s” whole purpose is essentially to normalize identities that are considered deviant by conservatives, they must exist to normalize *all* identities that are considered deviant by conservatives. This, to them, includes pedophilia. This is not a new accusation, it’s something that gets hurled at LGBTQ people all the time despite it having no basis in reality.  

However, that’s why you may see uproar every now and again about the “left” trying to normalize pedophilia. These days the primary arguments stem from discussions in books like A Long Dark Shadow: Minor Attracted People and Their Pursuit of Dignity, and similar academic papers on the subject of so-called non-offending pedophiles. The argument essentially is that there are people whose sexual orientation is that they’re sexually attracted to children who spend their lives fighting that attraction and they deserve not to be lumped in with the people who actually abuse kids.

This is not a widely accepted idea at all, is extremely controversial, and by and large exists only in a very limited number of academic discussions on the subject. The term itself, Minor Attracted Person, is used in academic studies on the subject, but use of the term is generally a term of precision rather than a value statement on the phenomenon. Studies referencing Minor Attracted Persons are not by definition in favor of destigmatization or normalization. They’re simply using a neutral term for the purpose of being precise.

Despite that, the Right likes pretending that the idea of normalization and acceptance of pedophilia is becoming more popular in society. To cite one example from January 2014, Rabbi Yair Hoffman wrote an article for the Five Towns Jewish Times (republished by Yeshiva World News) titled We Are Under Attack by the LGBTPed Community. Ped being pedophile. The article itself made no mention of pedophilia, nor attempted to explain a connection between LGBTQ people and pedophiles. It was mainly complaining about the banning of conversion therapy in New Jersey and the introduction of a bill in New York to legalize gay marriage.

The Right’s position on this is essentially a slippery slope argument. If you can normalize relationships between same-sex couples, and you can normalize gender identities that are incompatible with society’s accepted gender norms, why couldn’t you normalize pedophilia too? That, therefore, must be the real agenda!

The next part of this argument essentially hinges around the idea that LGBTQ identities are fundamentally sexual. To them the idea that gay people want the people around them to know that they’re attracted to the same sex means that the identity is entirely focused on gay sex. They don’t believe the same thing about being straight, though.

To them straightness is the default and gayness is the deviance, so when straight people appear in popular culture talking about things like dating, falling in love, getting married, having children and building families, they don’t read sex into any of that. When they see a straight couple holding hands they consider that wholesome and don’t register that as sexual. When they see a gay couple doing the same thing their minds immediately jump to sex. To the Right being gay is only about the sex that same-sex couples are having. They don’t acknowledge the relationships around same-sex couples. They don’t see the same desire for love, companionship, stability, and family. All they see is a desire to engage in gay sex.

They feel this way because the foundation of their disgust toward gay people is based on the passuk in Vayikra about homosexual anal sex. To them being gay starts and ends there because that’s why they don’t approve of it. To them the entire identity revolves around that act. This also extends, therefore, to trans and queer people. Basically, anyone with a gender identity or sexual orientation that deviates from what they consider acceptable gets boiled down to being entirely about sex.

Given that position they take the next leap to calling anyone who advocates for LGBTQ people being around children groomers, as in grooming children for sexual abuse. The way they reach that conclusion is by twisting the definition of grooming.

Grooming is a process by which an abuser slowly pushes the boundaries of their relationship with a child, slowly acclimating them to these things that are not appropriate until the boundaries between what is and isn’t appropriate between that adult and that child are so blurred that the child either doesn’t realize that what’s happening is abuse, or feels so responsible for the connection between them and the adult that they will be less likely to report what’s happening.

Grooming often starts by an adult showing a child special attention, and showering them with praise, and gifts. It then often moves on to trying to separate the child from the influence of the adults around them, their parents, other teachers, siblings, relatives, etc, in an attempt to draw them into a world where their only friend, the only one who cares about them, is this adult. It then often progresses to pushing sexual boundaries, often by making inappropriate jokes, talking about sex, showing the child pornography, etc. From there it progresses to touching, which then escalates to sexual abuse. By the time the grooming process has taken its course the child is too confused about what’s happening to tell the other adults around them.

Abusers who are grooming children will also often threaten them in various ways. Sometimes they’ll tell the children that their parents will be mad at them and punish them if they find out what happened. Sometimes they’ll tell the child that if anyone finds out about what happened the adult will lose his job, family, or that the adult will be physically harmed. The child at this point feels a confused allegiance with the adult and may not want that to happen. Sometimes the adult will outright threaten the child that they’ll harm or kill the child if word of what happened gets out, or that they’ll make sure the child will be punished, and that being the adult they’ll be believed over the child anyway.

Victims of grooming and subsequently abuse are often in some way disadvantaged and otherwise vulnerable. Predators will often choose victims who suffer from some kind of mental health or developmental issue, come from a divorced home or a poor or otherwise troubled family, or, ironically, LGBTQ children because their credibility is often lower in more conservative settings, and because their identity can be leveraged against them to prevent them from reporting the abuse.

In this light we can understand the perverse distortion of grooming that the Right relies on when it calls those who support LGBTQ rights groomers.

Because the identities of LGBTQ people are to them entirely about sex, and because the inappropriate acclimation of young children to sex is a part of the grooming process, therefore having LGBTQ people around children is an inappropriate acclimation of those children to sex, which makes them and the people who support them groomers.

It a stretch longer than a taffy pull.

LGBTQ identities are not inherently sexual even though being gay, for example, means that you’re likely to have sex with people of the same sex in the same way that being straight isn’t inherently sexual even though it means that you’re likely to have sex with people of the opposite sex. The endgame of existing as an LGBTQ person is not to abuse children, it’s to live life in the same way everyone else lives life, in pursuit of love, companionship, truth to oneself, and stability. To blanketly claim otherwise is absurd, and yet the Right just hurls this accusation at people as if the words mean nothing, as if they aren’t invalidating the experiences of every child who has ever actually been sexually abused and lived through that trauma.

It’s just disgusting.

When I called him out on that by saying that the overwhelming majority of actual abusers and groomers ZA’AKAH has dealt with have not been any kind of LGBTQ, he responded by saying what the Right always says when they want to disclaim any responsibility for actually caring about child protection and justice for survivors, “I believe all abusers should be castrated in the public square.”

I get this all the time from people, including from people who are in the process of telling my why someone I know for a fact abused kids didn’t abuse them. “Listen,” they say, “I support the work you do. Believe me, if this guy did it I’ll be the first person to castrate him.” It’s a meaningless statement because that’s not actually what happens to abusers. What tends to happen to them, especially in our communities, is that they’re protected by rules forbidding reporting, by people shouting down anyone talking about their cases by accusing them of Lashon Hara, and by claiming that they’re making I up for a host of different reasons.

More broadly speaking when the Right says things like that I point at states like New York, and Pennsylvania, where the Republican state legislatures for over a decade prevented any kind of statute of limitations reform for child sexual abuse from passing to protect religious institutions. Thankfully that changed in New York, but in Pennsylvania the fight is still ongoing. I point to the defunding of the Violence Against Women Act during the Trump administration. VAWA didn’t just fund domestic violence programs, it also funded many state and local programs and nonprofits that directly supported survivors through the reporting and healing processes. Those are just two examples of many where the Right belies its own claims of caring about the safety of children.

During the defunding of VAWA and in states where they fought statute of limitations reform I didn’t see those policies and programs replaced by a regime of mass castration in the public square.

There are concrete ways to help protect children from sexual abuse and secure justice for survivors, but attacking LGBTQ people and taking away their rights isn’t one of them, and doing so not distracts from the very real issues and policies on the table about child protection, but also makes LGBTQ kids more vulnerable to sexual abuse by the real abusers that actually exist in our communities.

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