As a sexual health educator, Kerri Isham is no stranger to pushback from parents and administrators. Sex education had always attracted controversy, and there had always existed a fear of what children might learn in sex ed, and what it might inspire them to do.
But when one angry parent shared an out-of-context page from Isham’s Body Smart workbook on Facebook this past spring, the hate really started to roll in.
“If your 4-year-old child came home with this as homework,” the parent wrote in a post that has since been taken down, “how would you feel cause I personally lost my shit it wrecked my day and gave me a disgusting feeling.”
The homework in question was a page—sent home because the child had been out sick that day—that stated that “some children like to touch their own body parts and some children don’t.” Students were then asked to answer—with help from their parents—a question on which places in their home were private, and where it would be safe to touch one’s genitals.
The post about the workbook page went viral, and Isham received a lot of hate thrown her way. In a video she later made after the incident, she shared that she had been called “a pedophile more times than I can count… a groomer… I’ve been told to noose myself… that I should be in prison.” She even received an irate voicemail from someone who called her “a complete pervert” and told her to move out of town.
“Nobody wants your fucking child grooming fucking sex education pervert books around here,” he said. “Parents can teach their kids about body parts and where they’re supposed to go you fucking pervert. Keep your creepy pervert materials out of the fucking public schools if you know what’s good for you. … I can’t wait to see you and your pervert fucking husband out in public.”
Isham had never had that level of vitriol directed her way and was troubled that her husband was also targeted. She filed a police report but said she was told there was nothing that could be done about it. Isham temporarily shut down her social media accounts and spent time every day removing and blocking hateful messages from her site.
After she’d recovered from the initial onslaught, she shared in her video, “I don’t care about what people are calling me. I care about the safety of our kids.”
The language being used to incite fear
Opposition to sex ed is not new, but over the past year, there has been an increase in the use of inflammatory language similar to what was hurled at Isham. As “Don’t Say Gay” bills have spread across the country, restricting educators’ ability to educate, those in support of such bills have painted inclusive education as indoctrination, claiming it sexualizes children.
As school board meetings have been tied up with attempts to ban inclusive books, accusations of “grooming” and, again, indoctrination have flown about. And as advocates for inclusive and comprehensive sex education have made headway on the state level, educators have been accused of being pedophiles and predators.
Last year, Justine Ang Fonte, an award-winning health educator, similarly came under fire under circumstances after teaching a pornography literacy workshop over Zoom that parents said they were not aware of.
“I was inundated with death threats, accusations, attacks, and harassment for the next three months,” Fonte said.
Some people claimed Fonte was sexualizing children and teaching age-inappropriate content. “The words predator and pedophile were intermixed with a lot of profanity,” Fonte said.
About a year and a half later, Fonte is still receiving at least one hate-filled message a week.
Why this terminology is so misleading
It’s infuriating that conservatives are using language typically tied to instances of sexual abuse to push their agenda. What’s especially problematic is that not everyone understands how off-base this language is.
“There is a lack of understanding as to what this vocabulary even really means,” Fonte said. “There is a misuse of these terms. The term grooming actually relies on silencing a child. It relies on making a child be fearful and making a child feel shame with the intention to hurt them in a way they won’t even know is non-consensual. It’s manipulation, it’s trickery, and it’s centered on secrecy.”
“So, when a predator does this—a pedophile, a sexual predator, a groomer—their intention is to silence, to create fear and shame on this child by manipulating them to do things with an adult that this child may not even recognize is unsafe because their age is being taken advantage of,” Fonte continued. “And this is with the intention to actually be involved sexually with a child.”
Fonte said that, by contrast, sex education teaches young people what boundaries look like, how to assert one’s boundaries, and how to honor them in others. In this way, children become less vulnerable to abuse.
“This is life-saving information,” Isham said. “This is a pathway to reducing sexual violence. I don’t understand how we could not have this information and grow up to be healthy, happy human beings.”
Why this terminology is used
Why are conservatives using this language? In all the aforementioned cases, the use of terminology specific to child abuse and sexual violence has been deliberate.
Remember when Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis first started pushing HB 1557? “The bill that liberals inaccurately call ‘Don’t Say Gay’ would be more accurately described as an Anti-Grooming Bill,” tweeted his press secretary, Christina Pushaw.
“If you’re against the Anti-Grooming Bill,” she went on to tweet, “you are probably a groomer or at least you don’t denounce the grooming of 4-8 year old children.”
Other sex ed opponents have been using similar language to attack educators, including conservative commentator Steven Crowder, who called certain teachers “groomers,” and U.S. Senate candidate J.D. Vance, who said on a Fox News appearance, “If you don’t want to be called a groomer, don’t try to sexualize 6-, 7-year-old children.”
One would be hard-pressed to find an accusation more damning or shameful than the accusation that one is a groomer.
“They’re trying to attach shame to the act of learning about bodies,” Isham said. “It’s about power and control; it’s about power and control over people’s bodies; it’s about power and control over educational content.”
And of course, language like this also causes panic.
It’s designed to do so.
Conservative activists have admitted as much.
“We are building a new model of conservative activism,” anti-critical race theory activist Christopher Rufo tweeted, “waging sophisticated narrative warfare, mobilizing grassroots parent-driven protests, designing robust policies to change incentives, and supporting strong leaders who will stand with families against nihilistic elites.”
In short, those using this terminology hope that parents end up in such a tizzy that administrators have no choice but to go on the defensive. And with administrators desperate to avoid controversy, teachers will become too afraid to do the work it’s so important that they do.
What educators can do
The hullabaloo over sex ed is causing a chilling effect across the globe.
“It puts schoolteachers in a really tough position that makes them have to decide, ‘Do I teach what I know is right, or do I teach what I know will allow me to keep my job?’” Fonte said. “That is never a position any educator should be in.”
After their own sex ed scandal, Fonte resigned from their permanent teaching position, finding that it made more sense to follow a different path.
“I have the privilege of having other options that allow me to teach what’s right in a way that doesn’t limit me or compromise where I’m at now,” they said.”
Fonte now offers workshops and presentations to whomever will have them and does consulting and content creation work.
Isham also does work outside the schools through her company Power Up Education. She goes into people’s homes, works with various organizations, and does regular events like her Sunday Storytimes, which she said, “is a really gentle way of talking about some very big topics.”
She said getting parent buy-in is huge but acknowledges that educators also need and deserve administrative support.
“If schools are genuine at investing in the whole child,” Fonte said, “then they better invest in the wholeness of a child, which includes all of their identities and which includes protecting them from the people and places and systems that perpetuate unhealth.”
When I asked Isham how she’s feeling now, having been attacked so publicly, she admits that the experience was difficult, but says she now feels strong.
“I’ve known since my mid-30s that this was my calling on the planet, to reduce sexual harm,” Isham said. “The thought of doing something else seems interesting. But then when I really think about it, even if I wasn’t doing this job, even if I said I’m retired and I’m gonna, like, work at Tim Horton’s or something, I couldn’t do it. Because I would still be utterly consumed by [the issues that lead to sexual harm], but I would be even more helpless than I am now.”
“I love my job,” she continued. “Even though I hear horrible things, I help people every day. I connect people with resources every day. I feel great about that.”