Playing With Fire

There’s a video making the rounds on Twitter today, I won’t link to it, that makes a circumstantial case that Donald Trump has sexually abused girls. This comes on the heels of Trump yesterday retweeting a completely outrageous, unsubstantiated claim that Joe Biden is a pedophile.

The case against Trump has some merit. He was frequently seen with Jeffrey Epstein in public and knew about his fondness for women under the age of consent. Trump is on record making a number of sexually suggestive comments about young women, including his own daughters, some of these comments could be construed as grooming these girls. He owned the Miss Teen pageant brand and was seen frequently finding excuses to visit the dressing room. He has also spent time with Prince Andrew, who has been accused of such crimes. But even with all of this information in the public domain, it is deeply irresponsible to take that next step and directly call Donald Trump a pedophile. It’s also extremely dangerous for our country.

Bear in mind that I have zero problem calling Donald Trump a sexual predator. There are more than a dozen credible claims against Trump going back decades, including a rape case working its way through the New York courts. He’s also on tape bragging about committing sexual assault. He has never been held accountable for these crimes and I believe he should be. However, evidence of guilt in one area does not prove guilt in another, even if related.

My concern is that we are whipping the country into a frenzy about sexual abuse of children and playing right into the hands of conspiracy theorists who then use this supposed “epidemic” as a rationale to introduce all kinds of tangential theories into the political ecosystem. There’s no doubt that sex trafficking and abuse of children is an important issue that must be addressed, but some perspective is in order.

In many respects, our culture has made a lot of progress over the past 50 years in creating more solid boundaries of acceptable sexual behavior and enforcing genuine consequences for people who abuse. As I mentioned in my recent series about 1970s movies, it was common in that era to overtly sexualize young women in a really disturbing way. In fact, the recent uproar over the Netflix release of the French film “Cuties” only underscores how times have changed. That film, whether successful or not, attempts to call out ways that young women are sexualized. Compare this to a movie like “Pretty Baby” from 1978 where a 13 year old Brooke Shields plays a child prostitute, or Roman Polanski’s adaptation of “Tess” with a late teens Nastassja Kinski portraying a 15 year old character. There’s a casualness to the treatment of these characters, and dozens more in that era, that sends a clear message that it’s ok to desire girls this way. While I think it’s fair to argue that “Cuties” has been marketed in a way that could be construed as normalizing abuse, the movie itself is not attempting to do so.

Returning to the 70s, the problem was not only in overt displays, the unspoken ethos of that era evaded all challenges of male predatory behavior of young women. It was a common feature of rock concerts and most of the groupies of the era were girls under the age of consent. Bill Bradley, in his highly acclaimed book about professional basketball called “Life on the Run” details how players on his team routinely had sex with young women under the age of consent in that era. The future U.S. Senator and Presidential candidate details this not with a sense of horror, but casual detachment.

The idea that this is a new and growing problem simply doesn’t hold up to careful analysis. That doesn’t mean we should take any individual claims of abuse any less seriously, but it does mean that we should be very careful about extrapolating these horrible incidents into a broader cultural — and now political — meaning.

And we also need to be careful about making charges of pedophilia so common that they begin to lose their power. There is probably nothing more socially stigmatizing than accusing someone of being a child abuser. These kinds of charges can have a devastating effect on individuals, but also families that have to deal with the ripple effect of accusations that are painfully difficult to both prove and debunk.

After all, who has the most to gain from making charges of child abuse so common that people immediately assume they are politically motivated? The actual abusers! By making every politician, by default, fair game for such accusations, we give political cover to those who really should fear being exposed for their horrific crimes.

We do not make it any easier to bring anyone to justice by cobbling together a bunch of video clips and making circumstantial accusations either. We just normalize it all. We then make crazies like Qanon seem more mainstream. So please, do not share videos like the one I mentioned earlier. Stick to the facts and provable, witnessed-based accusations against Trump and other predators. Let the innuendo die before it causes more damage.

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