Qanon Misdirects Our Attention Away From The Real Threats To ChildrenRoundup
tags: conspiracy theories, sexuality, children, moral panics, public safety
Paul M. Renfro is assistant professor of history at Florida State University and author of Stranger Danger: Family Values, Childhood, and the American Carceral State (Oxford University Press, 2020).
As outlandish, baseless and incoherent as QAnon might seem, it fits within a long genealogy of moral panics focused on child abuse perpetrated by “strangers” or “outsiders.” While young Americans do experience abuse and exploitation at the hands of people they don’t know, they are far more likely to be harmed by family members and acquaintances.
Yet like earlier panics, QAnon works to misdirect and misrepresent the very nature of child abuse. By portraying the idealized American family and household as bulwarks against child kidnapping, sex trafficking and exploitation, this conspiracy theory obscures the uncomfortable truth that the home serves as a key site of misery and harm for many young people. Further, these kinds of panics have spawned punitive policies that do little to help children and much to criminalize and dehumanize a broad swath of the American population.
The U.S. entered a prolonged panic over the “sexual psychopath” beginning in the 1930s. Longtime FBI director J. Edgar Hoover enthusiastically whipped up and exploited this scare, publishing magazine articles impugning “degenerate sex offenders” and “depraved human beings.” “How Safe is Your Daughter?” Hoover asked on the cover of American Magazine in 1947, clearly situating the threat outside of the romanticized early Cold War American household. As a result of this sustained scare, 26 states and the District of Columbia passed so-called sexual psychopath laws between 1937 and 1967, thereby facilitating the widespread pathologization and prosecution of people understood to be sexually deviant.
These laws primarily targeted men seeking sex with other men, who were deemed “perverted” and thus threatening to the “nuclear” household. Such measures worked to disincentivize sodomy (specifically “illicit” same-sex activity) and thereby incentivize heterosexual marriage, reproduction and family formation. In this way, sexual psychopath laws worked hand-in-glove with the regularized aggressive policing of “vice,” which flourished in American cities following the Second World War — also in the name of protecting children. So-called vice squads frequently conducted raids on gay bars and other spaces in which men could seek the companionship of other men. Individuals captured in these raids faced abuse at the hands of law enforcement, incarceration, institutionalization and public shaming, since arrestees’ names often appeared in local newspapers. Such efforts derived power from the potent stereotype of the sexual deviant — often coded as queer — preying on innocent children.