Florida’s Attorney General calls on Netflix to drop a foreign film because it could feed the appetite of pedophiles. A U.S. Congressman makes the case for his reelection on legislation to ban sex dolls modeled after children. Another wants to terminate pensions for federal employees should they get convicted of molesting minors.
To read Florida’s headlines in the lead-up to a contentious presidential election, pedophilia stands as one of society’s most urgent challenges in 2020. Voices like Ashley Moody, Vern Buchanan and Ross Spano increasingly target kid touchers— perhaps the easiest political boogeyman to hate in the history of democracy, and not necessarily wrongly so.
That may seem entirely unnoteworthy, but the timing becomes suspect considering another simultaneous political phenomena, namely the rise of the QAnon political conspiracy theory. The multi-faceted thesis of the concept builds on the notion that powerful elites engage in pedophilia and satanic rituals, but get away with it because they enjoy the protection of political leaders, usually Democrats.
Tangential theories to these basic tenets spawn routinely online, often fed by a figure calling himself Q, supposedly an operative within President Donald Trump’s administration fighting these social evils.
This leaves many voters headed to polls this year thinking not of Supreme Court nominations nor health care access, but of stopping sex predators hiding under the protection of the U.S. government.
Actions by Republican leaders denying child sex fiends opportunities to feed their sexual appetites may be coincidental, a simple clinging to safe political issues.
But the moves also happen as President Trump retweets supporters labeling Democratic opponent Joe Biden as “#PedoBiden” and as Spanish-language ads air on Miami radio stations claiming the Democratic nominee has a problem with pedophilia.
“It’s tremendously dangerous,” said Tracy Pratt, chair of the Manatee County Democratic Party. “Clearly Democrats are not trying to encourage pedophilia. It’s so shameful anyone is trying to stoke this fear in the hearts of family everywhere, when the idea a party exists with the support of a majority of Americans anywhere is ridiculous and outrageous.”
A Sudden Problem
When a ban on the sale of childlike sex dolls passed in the House in 2017, U.S. Rep. Buchanan never signed on as a co-sponsor but joined in a voice vote supporting the legislation. The bill passed in the chamber but never made it through the Senate. Florida, since then, put its own ban in place, protecting Sunshine State citizens from the scourge of people purchasing synthetic children with which to fornicate.
Buchanan said he felt compelled to bring up a federal ban once more after the family of a Miami girl came forward with the revelation a doll on the market had been modeled on her likeness. So he introduced the CREEPER Act, this time with stricter regulations against even possessing such a disturbing figurine.
“We need to enact a national ban on these obscene products that are known to encourage pedophilia and the exploitation of children,” Buchanan said.
But the timing of the introduction proved hard to ignore for another reason. Florida Politics had recently reported the only member of the Florida Legislature on record opposing the Florida ban was Buchanan’s Democratic opponent, Margaret Good.
The state lawmaker notably says she changed a vote on the legislation to ‘No’ in error, and she supports the ban. But that hasn’t stopped letters to the editor shaming her for the vote.
Weeks before Buchanan filed his bill, another Florida lawmaker also suddenly took an interest in denying pedophiles something of financial value. Spano, a freshman Congressman, filed the “No Pensions For Pedophiles” Act in July, weeks before he lost a Republican primary to Scott Franklin in Florida’s 15th Congressional District. Regardless of the primary, the race remains one of Florida’s most hotly watched House races in the fall, where Franklin faces Democrat Alan Cohn.
Spano said he felt moved to file legislation after reading about an Indian Health Services employee convicted of sexually abusing two boys, but who expected to collect a sizable federal pension while in prison.
“I do not believe taxpayers should be forced to fund the pensions of federal employees who have been convicted of crimes related to the sexual abuse of innocent children who will carry the trauma and scars of his harmful behavior for the rest of their lives,” Spano said when he introduced the bill.
Even officials who can’t file legislation have their eyes on pedophilia. A group of Republican Attorney Generals, including Moody, this month joined in public outrage over Netflix’s distribution of the controversial film “Cuties.”
French director Maïmouna Doucouré’s movie in January won the Cinematic Directing Award at the Sundance Film Festival, where it won praise for provoking serious discussion about the sexualization of young girls. But when Netflix used images of pre-teens in skimpy outfits for marketing, cultural conservative and sex trafficking experts cried foul.
“As a mother and public servant dedicated to ending human trafficking and the sexual exploitation of our children, I am disgusted and discouraged that this film is being circulated in mainstream media,” Moody said. “I am calling on Netflix to protect our children and common decency by removing ‘Cuties’ from its streaming platform.”
Buchanan joined Moody’s critique, also saying the film was “exploitative, dangerous and borders on child pornography.”
The actions themselves may seem innocuous in and of themselves— even admirable. But at a time when the topic of pedophilia fuels so much online paranoia, critics worry something more is at play.
Pratt said she’s personally gone from dismissing online conspiracies as the rantings of wackos to seeing them as a threat to public discourse.
“When I first heard about it with the Pizzagate campaign, I considered it weird, but mildly amusing,” she said. “It was just so outrageous, how could anybody believe it?”
She referenced a conspiracy promoted on sites like InfoWars that suggested Clinton campaign chair John Podesta was organizing a human trafficking ring out of the basement of a Washington D.C.-area pizza parlor. InfoWars founder Alex Jones eventually issued a public apology for promoting the theory, but not before a North Carolina man showed up with a AR-15 in hand to “self-investigate” owners and make sure no trafficking took place.
To this day, Twitter users continue to spread “evidence” of the Pizzagate scandal. But the episode, in retrospect, seemed merely the beginning of the spreading QAnon movement. Accusations now get leveled against an array of elites in Hollywood and Washington, usually involving the trafficking of children for sexual abuse, sometimes describing Satanic rituals and even cannibalizing victims.
University of Miami Professor Joseph Uscinski said at this point, the online movement around the concept exists as much as a deposit for crazy ideas as it does for any singular supposition. He describes QAnon as an “online centralized conspiracy cult,” driven largely by anti-establishment views.
“As often happens, the idea is to demonize those perceived as opponents with the worst possible thing you can say,” he said. “In this case, that’s Satanists, child molesters, sex traffickers or baby eaters.”
It’s not altogether different from theories of an evil Illuminati sacrificing children. But born in in this 21st century political environment, the concept of Q has enjoyed a presence in contemporary politics made more visible in an electronic media world.
A 2018 rally otherwise most notable as the place Trump first campaigned in person for Ron DeSantis for Governor, national media took notice of the mass number of individuals promoting the Q theory. Since then, Florida has seen Q acolytes like Matthew Lusk run for Congress. Lusk did not qualify, but in Georgia, Republicans nominated another Q believer, Marjorie Taylor Greene, in a primary, and she is a likely lock to win the deep red seat in November.
For his part, Uscinski said it’s probably a mistake to characterize QAnon as a Republican group. While seemingly espousing extremist right-wing beliefs, the group holds plenty of hate for much of the GOP party leadership in this country.
“They don’t just attack the Democratic Party,” he said. “They attack everybody— except for Trump.”
Of course, that last part may be why Trump has refused to distance himself. Last month, he characterized the group as a people who “love our country.”
There’s also little reluctance to quash efforts to paint Biden, the Democratic nominee, as a pedophile himself. Trump has retweeted posts from QAnon advocates who label Biden as a pedophile himself, often sharing pictures of the Democratic nominee through the years with young girls.
Occasionally, the images are photo edited, with a particular image of Biden rubbing the shoulders and whispering to Stephanie Carter at a press conference serving as a frequent source. But some images date back decades, with the mere presence of Biden and children together serving as evidence of immoral impulses.
The association of Biden with pedophiles has become so prevalent that in a recent national survey conducted by Change Research and Crooked Media, 2% of voters asked to describe the Democrat with one word chose “pedophile.”
Some forces actively remain at work to disparage Biden with the label as well. POLITICO reported last week that Spanish language radio ads and social media posts helped promulgate the notion the Democrat has a “problem” with pedophilia. That includes efforts in South Florida, where recent polls show Biden trailing in Hispanic support compared to the level of support Hillary Clinton enjoyed in 2016.
Obsessed with Pedophilia
Regardless of reasons, social conservative observers say there’s an increasing obsession with pedophilia consuming the American right. Theology blogger David Schell said he’s seen a dramatic uptick in individuals sharing news stories in online religious groups about child sex rings around the globe.
He sees the sudden obsession as a belief progressive politics in America has shaken social norms. On that line of thinking, acceptance of pedophilia serves as the ultimate extreme result of losing a culture war with the left.
“Child sex trafficking is the very, very end of morality. It is beyond the pale,” he wrote on his blog. “It’s difficult to think of anything worse. Sexual abuse, next to murder, is considered the worst thing there is, and some might even rank it higher than murder on the sliding scale of awfulness. The only thing that could possibly be worse is if the victim was a child.
“And this is what conservatives have been warning us about for years: that normalizing same-gender relationships, normalizing trans people, will lead inevitably to acceptance of pedophilia. It’s the last bastion of broadly-accepted morality that progressives and conservatives agree on, but conservatives aren’t so sure progressives do actually agree on it.”
It can be very frustrating to some groups already aiming to change the conversation on how to best address pedophilia. Jeremy Malcolm, executive director of the Prostasia Foundation, said even before QAnon, public policy discussions on fighting sexual abuse too often remain fueled by outrage, something that results in conversations about punishment instead of prevention.
The group remains the most prominent critic of Florida’s childlike sex doll ban and the one Buchanan introduced this year in the House. It’s reasoning is largely that it’s better for those with sexual attraction to juveniles to purchase such merchandise than to seek out children to victimize, but also that banning even the ownership of such dolls can result in jailing people who need psychological intervention.
“To go after sex dolls is not going to save a single child,” he suggests.
Still, the larger problem, in Malcolm’s view, remains a mischaracterization of the scope of child sex trafficking. Child abductions by strangers represent less than 0.1% of missing children cases each year; the Polly Klaas Foundation estimates that represents about 100 children nationwide each year, about half of whom return home unharmed.
That seems to undercut the notion any major rings are stealing thousands of children for use in Satanic sexual rituals. But it also undercuts many public efforts to direct criminal justice funding to fighting child sex trafficking.
There are certainly experts who dispute these statistics. ECPAT-USA, an organization fighting human trafficking and working with prosecutors nationwide, estimates some 100,ooo underage individuals are involved in the commercial sex trade.
But Malcolm sees the exaggeration of organized criminal activity around sex with children as the myth that birthed QAnon’s more outrageous ideas.
Fighting the Good Fight?
Unsurprisingly, the Republican leaders in Florida taking public stances against pedophiles push back on the notion their efforts are politically contrived.
Moody’s office said fighting human trafficking has long been a goal for the Attorney General, dating back to her time on the campaign trail. She’s worked closely with groups like the Polaris Project to combat all kinds of human trafficking, not just child trafficking. It should be no surprise, her office said, that she would make public statements against the exploitation of children, as she did with the “Cuties” film.
Attention to this issue spiked over the past year in Florida, as the state hosted one Super Bowl and prepared for another. Mass events like that typically lead to increases in localized sex trafficking. These problems present real problems for law enforcement and indeed involve the exploitation of underage individuals for sex.
Sources close to Buchanan also stress the Congressman has worked for years with groups like Selah Freedom on directing attention to human trafficking. That Sarasota-based group has worked with law enforcement to turn attention to criminal rings managing enterprises instead of on women and young girls who themselves get trafficked.
More important, campaign officials for Buchanan note there’s been no partisan language around legislation around childlike sex dolls or any other human trafficking initiatives. Buchanan’s bill this week found a cosponsor in Democratic Rep. Alcee Hastings, who co-chairs Florida’s Congressional Delegation with Buchanan. His legislation was modeled after a Florida statute originally championed by Democratic state Sen. Lauren Book, who endorsed the federal bill.
Political advertisements contrasting her vote to Buchanan’s action on the matter compared to Good’s vote seem inevitable, but the truth is none have appeared yet. And there’s certainly been no suggestion Democrats will overlook pedophilia, as has been seen in other Congressional campaigns in the country.
It’s also not like Florida hasn’t seen its own share of sex scandals. Jeffrey Epstein, a South Florida businessman who committed suicide while awaiting trial on federal sex trafficking charges, drew wide attention to whether the rich and powerful enjoyed special treatment by law enforcement.
No one seems to have any explanation as to where the Biden smears come from, but no one in any official capacity has much interest in endorsing those attacks.
Ucsinski noted it’s not like there aren’t obscene attacks from the left around sex tribes. He notes the growing number of women accusing Trump of rape. In general, he said QAnon has not been embraced by officials actually winning office. Even Greene has distanced herself from the movement.
But in a presidential election year already bursting with extreme accusations and high emotion, it’s likely rhetoric around QAnon will only heat up further, even without the help of elected officials stoking the flames.