Dec 5, 2020

QAnon hurts real trafficking victims: The conspiracy theory is dangerous because it obscures the real threat

QAnon, an anonymous rightwing conspiracy network, falsely travels on digital platforms under the moniker, “Save the Children,” in order to appear genuine. (ShutterStock)
New York Daily News
October 28, 2020

As I put my stethoscope on her chest, I noted suspicious marks. She was a Black teen runaway and a victim of sex trafficking. I parted her exam gown to get a better look, thinking it was a rash, only to make out a word of profanity across her chest. She had self-engraved the letters, possibly with a pencil. Unfortunately, many sex trafficking victims are homeless youth of color. They are not suburban children snatched up at pizza parlors, as conspiracy theorists would lead one to believe.

I try not to get caught up in conspiracy theories, like QAnon, but when it comes to the well-being of kids, I draw the line. President Trump’s recent endorsement of QAnon as a group fighting pedophilia was wrong. It was dangerous. The spread of these lies makes it harder for actual victims to get help.

Let’s start with the obvious: In my 20 years of practice as a child abuse pediatrician, none of my patients have disclosed their trafficker was a satanic ring of high-ranking Democrats or Wayfair, the home décor company, as purported by QAnon. Most victims are trafficked by someone they know — frequently, a boyfriend or a girlfriend.

QAnon, an anonymous right wing conspiracy network, falsely travels on digital platforms under the moniker, “Save Our Children,” in order to appear genuine. But, in actuality, they take advantage of their followers’ concern for kids and the plight of real victims to promote politically driven fallacies.

QAnon has actually incited more violence than it has prevented. Earlier this year, Jessica Prim, a QAnon supporter, drove to NYC with a carload of knives, thinking she was going to free children from a Biden-Clinton trafficking ring allegedly run on a ship designated for COVID-19 relief. It’s no wonder that QAnon has been declared a domestic terror threat by the FBI.

Conspiracy theories like this one minimize the lived experiences of real victims. Contrary to popular belief, child sex trafficking is a serious domestic problem, and most victims come from marginalized groups. Alarmingly, one in six youth runaways in the U.S. is likely a victim of child sex trafficking, according to the Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Many have suffered child abuse by family members. They run away from home to escape trauma, only to enter more abuse by a trafficker. Once they try to break free, there are few safe housing options.

My patient was discharged from the hospital with a bus pass and an address for a homeless shelter. I saw her once again after that, and she was back living on the streets. She didn’t feel safe sleeping in a coed shelter with men.

Unfortunately, child sexual abuse has been sensationalized for decades, and now it is being politicized, as real child sex trafficking rings remain hidden and their victims ignored. In the 1980s, for example, a California woman, without basis, accused day care providers of sexually abusing children using satanic rituals. And during election years, right-wing extremist movements capitalize on people’s repugnance for child sexual abuse to win votes for their candidates. The reality is victims are commonly trafficked in hotels and motels.

An even sadder reality is that, once children engage in sex trafficking, it’s very difficult for them to leave “The Life.” It’s what they know, and their trafficker may be all they have — a bed, clothes, food, and just someone who they think cares about them.

I am often asked how I handle hearing these tragic stories of violence against children every day. What helps me is finding solutions. Research shows that many victims seek health care in the year prior to disclosure, but are not recognized as victims and fall through the cracks. With a grant from the World Childhood Foundation, pediatric colleagues and I are developing child sex trafficking training for health providers practicing in NYC, a major hub for trafficking. The earlier we break the cycle of violence, the better. Child sex trafficking victimization has long term physical and mental health consequences.

Promulgation of conspiracy theories does not help physicians like me do our job. More importantly, it diverts resources from children who are in real danger and need help. If those in political leadership positions really want to save the children, they should pass bipartisan legislation denouncing conspiracy theories and allocate funds for housing, mental health services and other basic victim needs. They should listen to the stories of real victims who are forever traumatized by their abuse and suffer in silence. They should listen to real helpers who give victims a tissue when they cry, and feel like shedding tears ourselves.

Stop making this harder than it already is.

Agrawal is a pediatrician.

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