Credit: Tony Webster/Wikimedia Commons

Anyone who has followed the conspiracy theory QAnon, in all its varieties, knows that its followers are obsessed. They believe that a cabal of demonic pedophiles is in control of world affairs. For them, Donald Trump is the hero that has come to initiate the “storm” that will save the children and free the globe from these evil forces.

The notion of a secretive power in charge of world affairs has been the foundation for conspiracy theories for decades, if not centuries. QAnon has added the idea that the enemies of freedom are not content just to manipulate world affairs, but are also pedophiles with enough free time to run a global sex trafficking operation. The question is why they would go beyond, say, Jewish blood libel to kiddie porn. 

Given that projection lays behind most obsessions, it is tempting to speculate that this is sublimation. But there is a more basic answer. As Eric Levitz points out, the QAnon conspiracy theories have found a home with many Christian nationalists. Their world view embraces the idea that the issues we face are not complex, but simply an epic battle between good and evil. You might remember that a few months ago Franklin Graham and talk-show host Eric Metaxas agreed that those who oppose Trump are under the influence of “demonic forces.” It is hard to imagine anything more demonic and evil than child sex traffickers. 

Child exploitation allows the QAnoners to paint those who disagree with their nonsense as evil because, at a minimum, they don’t care about youth being trafficked. Of course, no rational human being would go there, but it becomes a powerful tool to use against an opponent—which is exactly what the National Republican Campaign Committee is doing. Take a look at the ad they’re running against Rep. Tom Malinowski, a freshman Democrat from New Jersey, fighting to hold on to his seat in a swing district.

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The ad begins by claiming that “around every corner, sex offenders are living among us.” It goes on to claim that Malinowski “tried to make it easier for predators to hide in the shadows” by opposing the national sex offender registry. That is all a lie. Before being elected to Congress, Malinowski worked at Human Rights Watch and served as assistant secretary of state for democracy and human rights in the Obama administration. As journalist Michael Isikoff noted, there is no evidence that he has “ever done anything to protect sexual predators or lobbied against the sex offender registry.” In running ads like this, the NRCC is feeding the frenzy created by QAnon which fabricates Democratic ties to predators and child sex traffickers. I expect we’ll see more of this in the coming days.

We’ve also recently seen some major media outlets buy into the frenzy about child sex trafficking Almost a month ago, you might have seen a headline from the Associated Press (which was picked up by outlets like The Washington Post and The New York Times) that read, “Missing Children Rescued in Georgia Sex Trafficking Bust.” It was immediately spread by right-wingers on social media, who questioned why the bust wasn’t the biggest story in the country. 

Thanks to some great reporting by journalist Michael Hobbes—who regularly busts myths about sex trafficking—we now know what really happened. Those news reports didn’t tell us that the U.S. Marshall Service collaborated with local law enforcement from 15 Georgia counties and six other states to locate “critically missing” children in an operation that lasted over two weeks. In other words, this was a broad effort to track down some of the 2,300 children who go missing every day across the country—not an attempt to bust a sex trafficking ring. 

Of the 65 they located, 39 were “recovered,” meaning they were removed from whatever situation they were in — which could be anything from living on the streets to crashing on a friend’s couch to staying with a parent who didn’t have custody rights. The other 26 cases were closed without the child being “recovered.” Albright [a human trafficking and law enforcement consultant] said this could mean that another agency, such as Child Protective Services, found them — or that they had been home all along. 

That truth about this operation isn’t the kind of story that garners headlines. What some Americans don’t want to know is that the vast majority of young people who fit the definition of being trafficked are runaways (or throwaways) who are escaping dysfunctional homes—most often those provided via foster care. Over 99 percent of missing children return home, usually within a few days. For those who don’t, trading sex for a place to stay is often the only alternative to sleeping on the streets. 

The fact is that child sexual abuse is a serious problem in this country, with over 50,000 cases substantiated every year, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network. But for all of those who are only horrified when hearing tales about major sex trafficking rings, here is the data that should be seared in their brains.

As we’ve learned, the sexual abuse of children by acquaintances almost always comes at the hands of someone they trust—priests, ministers, coaches, etc. All too often adults who knew about the abuse looked away or tried to protect the offender. 

None of this is to suggest that the kind of child trafficking we associate with those words is non-existent. That is being made clear by what has been documented about Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell. But if our interest is actually in protecting children, why is it that the 93 percent who are abused by a family member or acquaintance don’t elicit the same level of outrage?

Whether it’s QAnon or the NRCC, we are in the midst of an effort to exploit children who are being abused because pointing to an evil cabal is more emotionally satisfying than beginning to tackle the complex array of issues that affect children. 

For those of you who would like to do something to address this issue, it is important to know that the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, which was originally passed in 1974, contains funding for runaway and homeless youth shelters and a national network that coordinates their efforts. As part of his proposal for criminal justice reform, Joe Biden wants to increase funding for the legislation from $176 million per year to $1 billion. The national network also maintains a list of local programs that could benefit from volunteers and financial support.

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