As states consider bills to restrict classroom discussions and materials related to sexuality and LGBTQ identity, some conservative pundits and politicians are using a new pejorative: They refer to educators and lawmakers who oppose such efforts as “groomers.”

But incorrect or disingenuous use of the term grooming—which describes the behavior of sexual predators—could “do irreparable damage to our conversation and education about child sexual abuse,” a conversation that is unrelated to current debates about curriculum and classroom discussions, a leading researcher in the field said.

“It’s been a very important term, because people used to think that the only kind of sexual abuse that was taken seriously by authorities was sexual abuse that occurs through a physical attack,” said David Finkelhor, a professor of sociology and director of the Crimes against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire.

In reality, much childhood sexual violence comes from adults who win children’s trust through “grooming” behaviors designed to isolate them and to desensitize them to inappropriate relationships or criminal sexual behavior, he said.

Understanding the term, and the actual dynamics of abuse, has been key in helping adults, such as parents, guardians, and educators, notice and prevent potential harm, Finkelhor said.

Politicians seize on the term ‘groomer’

Some lawmakers and commentators have weaponized the term, trafficking in decades-old homophobic tropes and inaccurately equating books and discussions about LGBTQ identity with efforts to condition children for sexual exploitation.

That happened in connection with Florida’s Parental Rights in Education bill, signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis in March.

The law prohibits teachers from providing classroom instruction on “sexual orientation or gender identity” to kindergarten through 3rd-grade students. Its supporters say it will help preserve parents’ rights to shape their children’s views on sexuality and gender. Opponents say it harmfully stigmatizes LGBTQ students, teachers, and families.

“If you’re against the Anti-Grooming Bill, you are probably a groomer or at least you don’t denounce the grooming of 4-8 year old children,” DeSantis Press Secretary Christina Pushaw wrote in a March 4 tweet, using her own nickname for the legislation.

As other states have debated similar bills, legislation and policies restricting transgender student’s participation in school sports, the word “groomer” has turned up on protest signs, on cable news debates, and in negative campaign ads.

That sparked a passionate response from Michigan state Sen. Mallory McMorrow, a Democrat, whose April 19 speech refuting the label went viral. An opponent’s attempt to “dehumanize and marginalize” McMorrow by calling her a “groomer” won’t stop her from criticizing similar proposed legislation that is “targeting marginalized kids,” she said.

Some educators and advocacy groups have also warned that using such language could put educators in physical danger, noting that words like “groomer” can be signals to extremist groups and adherents of the QAnon conspiracy theory. Those warnings come after years reports of threats to public officials, including educational administrators.

What grooming actually is

Apart from its current misuse, educating parents about the warning signs of “grooming” has been a useful tool for advocates seeking to protect children, Finkelhor said. It has helped combat misconceptions that child sexual harm is mostly conducted by strangers.

In reality, children are often exploited by adults who win their trust and gradually normalize inappropriately close relationships, Finkelhor said. That’s why advocates have called for things like limits on how educators and coaches communicate with students on social media and how states track and report educators accused of inappropriate relationships with students.

“These grooming activities don’t tend to occur in public places, and they don’t tend to be part of normal learning activities in schools,” Finkelhor said. “Grooming is typified by things like making someone feel special by giving them special treats or consideration, or having them do special activities, or taking them along on trips or for special work of some sort.”

A potential chilling effect?

While lawmakers and parents have long debated how schools discuss issues like sex, using such extreme rhetoric and “escalating parents’ anxieties” could have lessons a chilling effect, causing educators to fear a backlash for ordinary sex education, Finkelhor said.

“Because most sexuality education really teaches kids about things like consent, sexual abuse, and the dangers of early sexual activity, these kinds of things are protecting kids from being abused and coming to harm,” he said.

“But if you are suspecting these educators of having different values ​​from what you have, you can easily call that ‘grooming’ and undercut what they’re doing.”

School climate researchers have also said efforts to combat bullying over students’ sexual orientation and gender identity are key to helping all students feel safe, leading to increased classroom engagement and attendance. Some opponents to bills like Florida’s say the legislation will harm those efforts and further isolate vulnerable students by causing schools to fear legal action or political pushback for anti-bullying efforts that include mentions of LGBTQ identity or gender stereotypes.

“There’s not really any partisan disagreement about the need to stop sexual abuse,” Finkelhor said. “So let’s make sure we don’t destroy some progress we’ve made.”