Call Them Groomers
Over the last five years, the left has lobbed an endless barrage of epithets at roughly half the country. They don’t only label staunch opponents of the progressive agenda “extremists,” “racists,” “fascists,” “homophobes,” and “misogynists“—they apply those same smears to anyone with even small misgivings about the cultural aims of the far left. There is rich irony, then, in progressives’ outrage over conservatives’ recent use of the term “groomers” to refer to those teaching pre-pubescent children about sex in the public schools.
Ever since Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed a bill into law forbidding age-inappropriate instruction on sexual subjects, leftists, LGBT activists, and their media advocates have been in a state of sustained hysteria over this common-sense legislation. The reader should understand: For the bill’s supporters in the Florida legislature, the problem wasn’t that teachers were providing kids with basic information about human reproduction. It was that teachers were openly advocating a radical sexual agenda in the classrooms—one that positions LGBT identity as an inherent moral good, encourages masturbation and porn use to maintain health and “wellness,” teaches that biological sex is meaningless, and claims that sex and gender identity are functions of individual “feelings” and sensibilities.
The leftist educators who push this content pretend to be giving a honest, politically neutral account of the realities of sexual identity. But countless videos depicting teachers both in and out of the classroom indicate that this is not the case. These adults are painting traditional sexual ethics as a form of intolerance and closed-mindedness, and propagating a radical vision of culture and sexual autonomy under the guise of love, intelligence, inclusion, sophistication, and health.
Enacting laws that protect parents’ rights to decide which sexual ethic their children will be taught, what information they will have access to, and when, seems like a no-brainer to most people. Thus, many were perplexed by the left’s tantrum at such a moderate policy.
Given these radicals’ tenacity in fighting for the “right” to talk to other people’s young children about sex, many on the right have taken to referring to them as “groomers.” A “groomer” is an adult who tries to prime a child to participate in sexual activity, almost always with the understanding that this grooming (and the sex that often follows) will be concealed from the child’s parents and other caregivers. Indeed, a number of teachers and schools are on the record explicitly stating they will withhold information that children share with them from parents, and that they encourage children to keep secrets from their parents.
That sounds a lot like grooming. But it isn’t only the left that is scandalized by use of the label “groomers.” The usual suspects in the “conservative” commentariat (Bill Kristol, David French, etc.) are busy chiding people on the right for their grievous hyperbole, which really doesn’t contribute to civil discourse in any meaningful way, and thus distracts “us” from the “real issues” (which presumably include tax breaks, pushing a war with Russia, and worrying about “domestic extremists”). Most of these people dismiss the accuracy of the “groomer” label on definitional grounds: “Grooming” is a way to initiate sexual contact with children, they say, and these teachers don’t have sexual contact with the kids they are grooming teaching.
Leave aside that this is provably false; followers of the news see regular stories where teachers have engaged in illegal sexual activities with their students. But even if Bill Kristol was right that there’s (usually) no sexual contact involved, does that necessarily mean no grooming occurred? The answer is no—and not just according to some puritanical, hyperbolic definition that circulates on the right-wing. The left regularly relies on theories of speech and harm that would—if consistently and objectively applied—clearly show the accuracy of the right’s charges of grooming.
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Over the last few decades, progressive intellectuals have weaponized a philosophical theory of communication that academics call “performativity” or “performative speech.” In addition to thinkers like Nietzsche, John Searle, and Jacques Derrida, one of the progenitors of this theory was J.L. Austin, who wrote a book called How to Do Things with Words. Austin observed that we usually understand speech as descriptive—as though speech isn’t an action or a thing, but merely a means to describe actions and things that exist outside, and prior to, the realm of language. Austin’s central claim was that language isn’t merely descriptive. On the contrary, it is performative—it performs actions that make material changes to reality.
Some examples of Austin’s theory are in order. The statement “He drives a red car” seems to merely describe realities that exist independent of the statement itself. But consider a statement like “I apologize for damaging your car.” This utterance doesn’t merely describe: It brings a new reality into being by performing an action. How, exactly, do you execute the action we call “apologizing”? By saying you apologize. This means that, although they exist only in linguistic contexts, apologies and many other types of speech also constitute particular forms of action. Thus, Austin’s key insight is that, in some cases, the “saying” of something is simultaneously a “doing” of something. When people claim that “the words we use really do matter,” they are acknowledging this fact. Language has creative power, and rhetoric tends to produce the effects that it names.
In the most basic terms, America’s free-speech tradition holds that “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” This slogan suggests that while some speech may be harsh or emotionally hurtful, these forms of speech do not in themselves constitute material harm. Certainly, there are exceptions to this: Libel and defamation cases are good examples, and you can’t yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater if there isn’t one. But these instances, where the speaker might be punishable under law, are especially narrow and context-dependent. Taken at face value, the theory of performative speech has minimal political implications. But activists on the left have used the idea of performativity to advance an ideological account of communication that threatens our free-speech doctrine.
Elaborating the theory of performativity, many recent thinkers have suggested that all speech is performative: that every statement is a particular action that materially changes reality. This idea lies at the heart of the left’s current war on free speech and undergirds their claim that some words or statements are literally acts of violence. These beliefs, in turn, justify their call for laws to restrict “hate speech.” Whether the reader accepts or rejects the theory of performativity is irrelevant. It is enough to recognize that it is routinely espoused by leftists to support policies that would broadly curtail the protections currently guaranteed by the First Amendment.
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What does all of this have to do with the groomers in the schools? The debate over instruction on sex and identity centers on questions about speech: Are teachers who bring sexual content into classrooms with young children protected by the free-speech doctrine? Is their speech also a form of action? How much deviation from approved curricula is tolerable before teachers have violated the limits imposed by institutional authorities?
The performative theory of speech (and the left’s interpretation of it) can answer these questions. To begin with, we must ask two questions. First, what is being said in the schools? Second, (since these statements aren’t merely verbal descriptions of reality, but forms of action that change it), we must ask what these statements are doing. If language has a seemingly mystical power to produce the realities that it names, what realities do these forms of sexual instruction bring into being?
First, then, the matter of what is being said: In the introduction to this essay, I linked to a number of those statements. Teachers claim that one’s sex or gender is determined by individual sentiment or desire rather than by biology or anatomy. They claim there should be no limitations on sexual activity so long as all parties consent and the sex is clinically “safe.” They assert that porn use and routine masturbation are ways to maintain “health” and “wellness.” They argue that parents have no legitimate authority to set limitations for the sexual behavior of their children, and no exclusive right to restrict the sex-related information that their children can access. They tell children that they may have intimate, familiar relationships with other adults that should be kept secret from parents. They advocate a form of moralism that says other people are obligated to acknowledge and respect the legitimacy of an individual’s claims about “who they are,” regardless of whether reality validates those claims. This is what many teachers are saying.
So, what are these statements are doing? The groomers in the schools would argue that these claims are doing many good things. They are incentivizing young people to adopt norms and values that will make our society more “inclusive,” “tolerant,” “accepting,” and “fair.” They are de-stigmatizing forms of sex and identity that have historically been viewed as illegitimate, shameful, or immoral. In the cases where parents’ values do run counter to the statements made in the classroom, the teacher’s speech is exposing children to other “diverse” points of view, thereby stimulating critical thinking and showing that there are multiple “valid” perspectives on any issue.
Of course, there is a strong basis on which to challenge the idea that these actions are praiseworthy or good. But even if we grant that teachers are laudable for seeking greater inclusion, it is also clear that those conversations can do significant damage to students and their families—regardless of whether anyone actually touches them inappropriately.
What harm are these statements doing? By claiming that sex or gender is determined by “how you feel,” teachers imply that the rest of society will accept this as true. Certainly, students who come to expect this acceptance will be hurt when they find that many people do not view internal “feelings” as legitimate indicators of identity. By claiming that the only moral questions relevant to sex pertain to matters of consent and clinical safety, teachers deny the reality that sex can permanently change relationships and cause regret, jealousy, or mistrust—even when everyone says “yes” and wears a condom. When young people enter into sexual relationships with the idea that the only risks are pregnancy and STDs, we expose them to forms of hurt that they never anticipated.
When teachers normalize porn and masturbation, more harm is done. The negative effects of pornography are well-documented, and, absent the availability of a real-life “partner,” teens especially struggle with the temptation to view it. By encouraging these damaging behaviors, the teachers’ instruction can lead the teenagers to become depending on pornography, which often makes real sex (when they begin having it) less satisfying. Worse, when young people have limited sexual experience outside porn, viewing explicit sexual content can normalize and perpetuate some of the more degrading, aberrant forms of sex depicted in porn, which often involve the same violence, misogyny, and racism that the schools claim to be combating.
By claiming that all good parents will be “accepting” and “affirm” their children’s choices regarding sex and identity, teachers condition students to expect a parental response that they may not receive. By suggesting that students should withhold information from their parents, teachers cultivate mistrust of the adults who should be the most trusted people in students’ lives. By insisting that adult teachers and children can share secrets that should not be conveyed to parents, instructors work to dissolve students’ belief in the legitimacy and superiority of their parents’ authority versus that of the other adults in their lives.
Obviously, then, these claims aren’t mere statements, but are actions that can negatively impact students’ health and happiness, to say nothing of the threat they pose to the stability and function of their families. The teachers’ insistence on their supposed right to share sexual information with students has demonstrably negative, material effects on children. It can create confusion about sex, gender, and identity where none existed. It can result in young people making decisions about sex that they will later regret, causing emotional (and in some cases, physical) harm that can change the course of their lives and the viability of future romantic relationships. Thus, it is indubitable that activist teachers are causing real harm—and it’s clear that this harm could be easily anticipated by an educated adult. Still, not only do teachers continue to provide this instruction, they insist that nothing will deter them from doing so.
For all of these reasons, teachers’ speech on these matters must be recognized as a form of violence.
But there are different kinds of violence. What kind is being inflicted by these teachers? Given that the harm done by this speech relates almost exclusively to sexual activity, identity, and relationships, we can only view it as a kind of sexual violence. So, is the “groomer” label hyperbole and exaggeration? Imagine that an adult outside your family shares a relationship with your child—a relationship that a.) involves discussion of sexual matters, b.) withholds information related in those discussions from others, and c.) potentially or actually results in some form of emotional or physical pain related to sex that could be easily anticipated by the adult. Is any reasonable person going to say that such a relationship doesn’t constitute “grooming” on the grounds that the adult never personally had physical, sexual interaction with the child? Of course not.
By the left’s own definitions of performative speech, teaching radical sexual content to children is a form of sexual violence. Therefore, it should be considered “grooming.” What do we call a person who engages in “grooming”? A groomer. And to use another of the left’s vapid moralisms, grooming children is “never okay.” It must be stopped.
Adam Ellwanger is a professor of English at the University of Houston-Downtown. He is the author of Metanoia: Rhetoric, Authenticity, and the Transformation of the Self, now available in paperback. You can follow him on Twitter @DoctorEllwanger.