Sexuality Policy Watch

Monsters Under the Bed

A series of memes and messages were recently circulated throughout the continent with the aim of alerting people to an alleged movement that would be seeking to normalize pedophilia. What is behind this strategy? How and from whom should we protect children?

by Andrea Dominguez 

In groups of neighbors on WhatsApp, everyone is familiar, reasonable, and reliable. So, if the lawyer in apartment 502 shares the “news” that the World Health Organization has an initiative to normalize pedophilia, then it must be true, right?

No, it’s fake. As fake as the authorship of self-help texts attributed to Gabriel García Márquez and Jorge Luis Borges and as so many false news items that circulate like viruses in our pandemic world.

With some regularity, the issue of pedophilia resurfaces on social networks as an efficient instrument to generate panic. And rightly so, because what can be more frightening than normalizing a behavior that puts children in danger? This is especially possible in a country like Colombia, where every day 64 children are sexually abused, without counting the numbers that are not registered in official statistics.

The most recent virtual campaign for a pedophilia panic began on social networks in mid-May 2020. On this occasion, its goal was to link an alleged pedophile movement with the LGBT community.

According to memes and messages, the alleged pedophile movement, called MAP, publicized as the “Pedophile Activist Movement”, would be seeking insertion within the LGBT community to position pedophilia as another sexual orientation.

The messages, which initially circulated on Facebook and Twitter but were later spread through WhatsApp chain messages, used rhetorical and visual resources to confuse the unsuspecting and to reinforce the certainties of those who navigate the networks based on their confirmation biases.

Two of the main methods of this attack on the reputation of the LGBT community were the dissemination of an alleged pedophile flag, suspiciously similar to the flag that identifies trans people, and the celebration of “pedophile pride day” on June 24th, in dangerous proximity to the LGBT pride day that is celebrated every June 28th. In this way, the public would automatically associate the two.

After that, a whole series of unofficial versions complemented the original fallacies, among them the lie that the WHO was intending to remove pedophilia from its list of mental disorders, as it would have done with homosexuality in 1990. Again, we see the pernicious link to the LGBT community, treating pedophilia as the same.

Confuse and you will reign

To start unraveling this entanglement, you have to start by clarifying the terms. Pedophilia is listed in the International Classification of Diseases as a disorder of sexual preference in which that preference is focused on children, male, female, or both, usually of a pre-pubertal or recently pubertal age.

Neither is the WHO planning to declassify it as a disorder nor is there any relationship between pedophilia and various sexual orientations. On the other hand, many countries, including Colombia, cannot decriminalize pedophilia because it is not criminalized in the first place. What is criminalized is pederasty (the sexual abuse of minors), that is, the practice of pedophilia.

Secondly, there is no such thing as the so-called Pedophile Activist Movement. In fact, the acronym MAP has been widely used by the scientific and therapeutic communities to refer to people attracted to minors, or minor-attracted persons, from which the acronym MAP actually is derived.

The American organization B4UAct (“Before You Act”) offers therapeutic support to people who are attracted to children. As Allen Bishop, B4UAct’s scientific co-director, explains, MAP is not the name of any pedophile movement.

“It is a term used not only by people who are attracted to children but by researchers and therapists who are working with these people. A review of contemporary scientific literature shows that this term is widely used for two reasons: first, because it includes not only pedophiles (individuals attracted to children in the pre-pubertal stage) but also hebephiles (individuals attracted to children in the pubertal stage) and second, because the acronym MAP helps differentiate between attraction and action, whereas the word ‘pedophile’ today is typically used to refer to someone who abuses children and not to someone who is attracted to them”, explains Bishop.

The word pedophile sends chills down the spine of a parent. However, the panic tends to focus on this clinical concept rather than on the concrete fact that child sexual abuse is mostly committed by men who have an adult sex life with women, who do not identify themselves as pedophiles (in the sense of experiencing an exclusive sexual attraction to children), and who largely belong to the abused child’s inner circle.

In Colombia, according to figures from the Integrated Information System on Gender Violence, SIVIGE, which is operated by the Ministry of Health and Social Protection,  28,326 events of sexual violence were reported in 2018, of which 23,635 correspond to girls, boys, and adolescents: that is, 83% of the total reports.

Of those 23,635 cases of sexual violence against minors in the country, 85% were against girls and young women under 18 years of age, with girls between 10 and 14 years of age being the most vulnerable, with 10,258 cases of the total 23,635.

This same report confirms that 76.56% of these abuse cases took place in the victim’s home and that they were committed by people who in 77.24% of cases were close to the victim as well as to family members (45.08%), acquaintances (23.06%) or family friends (9.10%). Fathers represented 13.59% of the aggressors and mothers 2.32%.

So if we are chasing pedophiles wrapped up in pink flags, the kind that are painted on social networks as angry activists who would go out and march for their rights, maybe we are losing sight of the elephant in the room, the monster under the bed.

Inside the household

Psychologist Isabel Cuadros, director of the foundation Afecto, has worked for decades with children and young people who have been victims of sexual abuse. She has lived the clinical experience of what these figures coldly say: that most sex offenders are known to the victim. “There are even studies, for example by researcher Carla van Dam, that identify the figure of the stepfather as being at very high risk, since a type of man has been profiled who dedicates himself exclusively to seeking out women with children in order to later victimize them; other danger figures are the father, relatives and close friends”, argues Cuadros.

In fact, adds Cuadros, the proximity of the victim to the perpetrator is one of the most difficult aspects of therapy: “In the sexual abuse committed by someone close to the child there is a very serious component, which is betrayal, this is the most traumatic, because with the passage of time the victim realizes that her victimizer lied to her, told her that he was her boyfriend, that this was normal, or that the parents initiated their daughters into sexuality and upon realizing the deception they feel invaded in their corporeality, dirty, with their broken life project”. This is the type of trauma that Cuadros has to deal with on a daily basis with her patients.

It does not mean, of course, that violent sexual abuse, abuse committed by a stranger who kidnaps a minor, rapes him or her, and often murders him, does not exist. We have examples as the Colombian Uribe Noguera, or serial rapist and killer Luis Garavito and likes of them out there. However, the figures call us to look within the family and the community, where authority figures can often maintain situations of sexual abuse for years, invested with their supposed respectability, as in the case of sexual abuse committed by Catholic priests and also by other authority figures.

And this is the case not only in Colombia; this is an international reality. American pediatrician Walter Lambert, who specializes in child sexual abuse, explains that the vast majority of people who sexually abuse children are heterosexual in their adult sexual lives.

“Most of them are men who want to have sex, period. They are opportunists and take what they want. The boy or girl is an easy target; the abuser sees that he can easily manipulate them to get what he wants and turns to them. Usually, he won’t want to scare them or physically hurt them, he will want the child to cooperate with them in this so-called “game” so that he can repeat it and to do so he will use his authority and make the child believe that what is happening is okay. It is true that there are some people with an exclusive sexual preference towards children of this or that age, or with certain characteristics, but the great majority of sexual abuses are committed by this profile of the heterosexual man close to the family environment”, explains Lambert.

The myth of the homosexual

“As I have said, many abusers are men who are heterosexual in their adult relationships and who abuse children simply because they can, without really caring whether the victim is a boy or a girl, but because they are a vulnerable person from whom they can get what they want. That’s why I see that in this effort to link pedophilia and homosexuality there is a deliberate intention to speak ill of the LGBT movement, perhaps for political purposes and in part to tell society ‘the bad guys are the others, not us’, ‘the abusers are the homosexuals, not us the heterosexuals’”, Lambert points out.

But Lambert adds that it is precisely thanks to a change in this perception that the rates of sexual abuse in the United States have been reduced in the last 20 years. “Before, we used to say to the child, be very careful with strangers. ‘Stranger, danger’ was the motto, and you do have to be careful with strangers. But we have seen, from the Church sex abuse scandal uncovered in the 2000’s, that Americans understood that abuse really does occur in the immediate environment, in rich and poor parishes; the abuser will most likely be a member of the community or of one’s own family; we have to believe children when they tell us and it is our duty as adults to protect them from these people”.

In fact, several studies have dismissed the automatic link that many suggest between pedophilia and homosexuality. One of them is a study carried out in 1989 by Kurt Freund of the Clarke Institute of Psychiatry in Canada in which scientists showed photos of boys and girls to homosexual and heterosexual men in order to measure their sexual excitement.

The finding was that gay men did not react more strongly to pictures of boys than did straight men to pictures of girls. A meta-analysis by Gregory Herek, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of California and an internationally recognized authority on sexual minority issues, including stigma, prejudice, and violence based on sexual orientation, says the empirical data do not show that gay or bisexual people are more likely than heterosexual people to abuse children.

Naturalized abuse

To delve into this widespread tendency of society to bark up the wrong tree regarding the issue of sexual abuse, it is worth talking about child marriage and early marriage.

These practices are another form of abuse by which society is not usually scandalized, although in many cases it involves sexual and labor exploitation of girls. Psychologist and sexologist Maryi Rincón has worked for years with victims of sexual abuse in cities and rural regions of Colombia and she draws attention to the case of relationships of girls and adolescents with men much older than them, unions that are consented to by their own families.

“In the countryside and in the villages of Colombia it is common to find 14-year-old girls in free unions with men who are 36 or 40 years old. This fact is based on the legal proposition that states the age of consent as 14 years old, but, in reality, what we are seeing is abuse of power on the part of an adult against a young woman who is not yet physically, cognitively or psychologically mature,” says Rincón.

Only in a cultural context like this can it be explained that a radio announcer, Fabio Zuleta, would have boldly and jokingly negotiated the purchase of Wayuu indigenous youth with a community speaker during a transmission on social networks.

According to Eugenia López of the organization Girls Not Brides, there is a prevalence of 25% of child marriages on the continent; that is, 25% of girls on the continent are married before they turn 18. In Colombia the prevalence is 23%.

Several factors influence this situation: poverty, the lack of schooling of adolescents, the family’s conception that the daughter is a “burden” and that by marrying her or having her join a man who will provide for her will solve that “burden”, etc.

All of this has to do with a deep-rooted cultural conception of the supposedly lower value of girls than boys and is, as Lopez explains, a consequence of gender inequality: “Women are educated to be mothers and wives and so the thinking of people in those circumstances is, well, why delay that destiny, if it is going to form affiliations then let them do it at once. This brings a series of consequences, for example, we have identified that violence is twice as likely with girls under 15 years old to become a man’s partner.

Who is trying to sow confusion?

In Colombia, the United States, and other countries of the American continent, the issue of pedophilia as a trigger to activate certain discussions cyclically returns to the public debate. This time it has been used to link pedophiles with the LGBT community.

In 2017, 2018, and 2020, the fact-checking platform Snopes identified several of these campaigns that seem to have inspired those that later circulated in our country and in other neighboring nations.

One of these campaigns intended to make people believe that when the LGBT+ acronym has been presented with the plus symbol at the end what it is communicating is that it is preparing to add a “P” for pedophilia. Another of these initiatives recently spread the word that the MAP movement – yes, the one that doesn’t exist – intends to establish the concept of “fluid ages” in a clear allusion to fluid sexual orientations, only in this case, pedophiles would be trying to convince the world that age is an arbitrary concept and that if an adult of 40 feels like a child of 12, then he is free to be one.

It is clear that there is a consistent interest in attacking the LGBT community. What is not clear in the most recent attack is who exactly abducted the MAP acronym from its therapeutic context and introduced it into a message campaign to link pedophilia to the LGBT universe. This is a very common case in social networks, but no less dangerous for being common.

The data and network researcher Cristina Vélez, from Linterna Verde, has researched phenomena such as these, always facing the same difficulties: due to the protection of users’ privacy, it is not possible to determine with certainty whether the accounts from which messages originate belong to the person they claim to belong to or whether they are in the geographical place they claim to be. Much less can one be sure of the veracity of their content.

“Social networks are intermediaries of the Internet, similar to what happens with platforms like Uber. The networks consider themselves not as a real space but as a pipe through which information passes and they present themselves as facilitators of the flow of information. Their job is not to protect anyone’s rights, they are not a public entity, and they argue that knowing where people are is not a function of the platforms,” says Vélez.

According to Vélez, unless there is a rather sophisticated and expensive judicial investigation, it is virtually impossible to establish who the real person behind a certain account in a social network is, to know their geographical location, and even to know if the profile is real and if the person who publishes really thinks what he or she says he or she thinks. “There are many ways to trick the algorithm, you change the handler – name of the tweeter – you change the IP, you change the picture, then it is very difficult to establish where these attacks come from. What we can study, and what we do, is to see which accounts amplify a certain message,” she explains.

The paradox, according to this expert, is that in “tricky issues” such as this, if the attacked party – in this case the LGBT community – reacts and denies the accusation, it is necessarily amplifying a narrative to contradict it and as on the social networks, what often matters is not what is said but that noise is made: the LGBT community would be giving more voice to the accusations against them. But on the other hand, if the community does not speak out against a false message that involves it, it would be accepting a silence that can also be used against it.

This explains why many of the amplifiers of these slanderous memes and messages linking the LGBT community and pedophilia have been people who belong to this community, as many are quick to condemn the link with pedophilia.

It is true that in the 90s there was a rapprochement between NAMLA, the North American Man Boy Love Association – an organization that actively defended pedophilia – and an organization called ILGA, the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association, but this rapprochement ended soon after. However, that precedent has been recycled repeatedly to falsely argue that the LGBT community endorses pedophilia.

Another example of the instrumentalization of the issue of pedophilia against the LGBT population presented itself when the issue of adoption by same-sex couples was discussed. Alejandro Ruiz Caicedo, an expert lawyer in children’s and adolescents’ rights, a specialist in family law and professor at the National University of Colombia, has studied the issue closely. He argues:

“There is ignorance about the issue and a recurrent assimilation of pedophilia to the LGBT community; at the bottom it is an argument used to discriminate because of sexual orientation. The truth is that countless studies have shown that children raised by homosexual families do not present the slightest alteration in their mental health. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, the literature available in more than 30 years of research indicates that there are no effects on the health and well-being of children resulting from their parents’ sexual orientation and that the well-being of adopted children is more affected by aspects such as the absence of social and economic support in the family”.

A continental phenomenon with political overtones

The memes and messages that were first posted in accounts whose profiles are currently deactivated were taken up by others until they spread widely on the network and ended up in some conventional media on the continent. Newspapers such as El Mostrador, from Chile, El Heraldo, from Mexico and El País, from Honduras, picked up on the rumors and reproduced the news that a movement called MAP would be seeking the normalization of pedophilia in society.

In Brazil, the issue has not circulated with the same stories. In other words, the MAP movement has not been talked about as a promoter of pedophilia or having alleged links with the LGBT community, but members of opposition parties and critics of the government have been accused of defending pedophilia on social networks.

Brazilian researcher Sonia Corrêa, a scholar of gender equality issues and co-director of Sexuality Policy Watch (SPW), a global forum dedicated to researching global trends in sexuality issues related to politics and state policies, notes that the issue of pedophilia has recently resurfaced in Brazil.

“When this wave of viralization of the MAP issue begins in the United States and other parts of the continent, in Brazil the issue of pedophilia begins to be mobilized, but with the difference that here it arises from the government itself. Bolsonaro himself, Bolsonaro’s son who is a congressman, the Minister of Family, Women and Human Rights and recently the new Minister of Justice, have all placed the issue of pedophilia as a priority on the government’s agenda”, explains the researcher.

The official rhetoric is that the left intends to normalize pedophilia in the country but that the Bolsonaro government, headed by its Minister of Family, the evangelical pastor Damares Alves, is leading the fight against this attempt.

The data analysis company Máquina Soluções produced a report that concluded that the viralization of messages about pedophilia was due to the government’s need to create a problem, the pedophile threat, and then offer a solution, the Bolsonaro government and its policies of hardening the fight against crime. The objective would be to divert attention from the alarming number of deaths from COVID-19.

In a broad analysis of this phenomenon, Corrêa places pedophilia as yet another resource under the umbrella of the so-called “gender ideology,” which she calls a scarecrow because it is an invention, a hollow signifier within which there is room for all sorts of issues that are brought into public debate at the appropriate time for a given agenda.

“Gay marriage, sex education for children and youth, pedophilia are those kinds of issues that are used alternately to generate moral panic and generate massive support for certain actions. This has already been used in the past, such as when it was said that there was a gay kit that intended to homosexualize children in schools or more recently when Minister Alves launched her campaign against pedophilia,” explains Côrrea.

This phenomenon has similarities with what is currently happening in the United States with the cryptic group known as QAnon (Q, which is the acronym with which its creator is identified, and “anon”, an abbreviation of anonymous).

This group is dedicated to spreading false news that supports the conspiracy theory according to which a group of Satan worshippers, many of them from the Democratic Party, orchestrate an international network of sexual abuse of children and whose main immediate objective is to defeat President Donald Trump, who would be fighting them and the pedophilia they promote.

Corrêa draws attention to the fact that QAnon is not the only conspiracy theory spreading on social networks. The Alliance Defending Freedom is another such organization, apparently more moderate, that has connections to Latin America and has been very active in the creation of various bodies such as Anajure, the National Association of Evangelical Lawyers, created in 2013 in Brazil.

So the issue is far from over. The memes will return; the fake news will return. With the presidential elections in the United States, there is much that will be circulating about the topic of pedophilia and, as always, we can expect these virulent messages to spread to the rest of the continent just at the moment when network users think less and less before clicking on “forward” on WhatsApp.


*Irene Alonso contributed to the research for this article.

This article was originally published on Sentiido and translated to English with the author’s authorization. 

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