Peppered throughout the national and local debates regarding drag, and particularly all-ages drag shows, is loaded language suggesting — or flat-out charging — that these shows serve to "groom" children for abuse by sexual predators. Some proponents of an online petition supporting a ban of all-ages drag shows in Humboldt County have even cast the issue simply as "parents versus groomers."
There's no question there are plenty of kids at risk of sexual abuse in Humboldt County, which sees some of the highest rates of childhood trauma in the state. According to kidsdata.com, Humboldt County has significantly higher rates of neglect and abuse reports than the state — an annual average of 86 per 1,000 in population versus 51 per year from 2016 through 2020, the latest years for which data is available. It also sees a larger percentage of those reports under the category of sexual abuse, as 10 percent of abuse and neglect reports statewide concern sexual abuse, which makes up 14.1 percent of abuse and neglect reports in Humboldt County. The data is clear that Humboldt County has a problem keeping its kids safe, particularly from sexual abuse.
But is there any reason to believe all-ages drag shows — or even the local LGBTQ+ organizations that promote them — play a part in Humboldt County's grim sexual abuse rates? In a word, no, according to the police and prosecutors who have spent swaths of their careers working such cases.
It's possible that no one knows more about sexual abuse on a local level than Humboldt County District Attorney Stacey Eads, who spent eight years serving in a special assignment as the office's sexual assault and child abuse prosecutor before her election last year.
"One of the first cases I took to jury trial was an indecent exposure," Eads says. "The victim was an adult female stranger who found herself alone on a bridge when an adult male committed the crime."
Eads says she's prosecuted too many sexual abuse cases to count but estimates the number to be in the "hundreds." Of those, not a single one saw a minor groomed or assaulted at a drag show, or groomed through an LGBTQ+ advocacy group or community organization.
Ferndale Police Chief Ron Sligh, who also spent 27 years as an officer in Arcata, similarly says he's never worked a case involving a minor being abused or groomed through drag events or local Pride groups. When he served as the sexual assault investigator earlier in his career, he says the most common cases he worked were "date-rape" type cases, saying stranger attacks were "very rare." Molestation cases involving minors, he said, follow the same pattern.
"The perpetrators are known to the child," Sligh says. "I would say that the vast majority of cases involving children are grooming situations."
APD Investigations Commander Lt. Todd Dokweiler estimated he's investigated more than 100 sexual abuse cases over his 23 years in law enforcement, saying they're "unfortunately ... some of the most common major crimes investigations." But, like Eads and Sligh, he says he's never worked a case involving a minor being abused or groomed at drag events or through LGBTQ+ groups.
"By far the most common relationship between perpetrators and victims is familial," Dokweiler says. "We frequently see perpetrators living in the victim's home."
Eureka Police Chief Todd Jarvis is relatively new to Humboldt County but oversaw the San Diego Police Department's sex crimes, child abuse and crimes against children units during his decades-long career there, and says he also doesn't recall a single abuse case involving drag shows or LGBTQ+ advocacy or community groups.
But while they've seen no link between grooming, drag shows and LGBTQ+ organizations, Eads and the officers all said grooming is a real component of the vast majority of sexual abuse cases, which is what makes the term so very charged when baselessly lobbed at drag show organizers or community groups.
"Offenders frequently take advantage of positions of trust," Eads says. "Grooming often times occurs over the course of several interactions between the perpetrator and victim. Most cases of child sexual abuse I've handled involve the offender identifying an opportunity, engaging in manipulation and seeking access to the child."
Eads says she's worked cases with blood-relatives, stepparents, biological parents, foster parents, girlfriends and boyfriends as perpetrators, as well as family friends, coaches, afterschool program aides, religious leaders, peers, neighbors and teachers. Grooming can take place online and through social media, law enforcement officers say, but most commonly occurs in person and in private over time.
"Techniques include gifting, including jewelry, clothing and other material items, usually of little monetary value; social media contact, letters or cards involving expressions of 'love' and admiration; seemingly appropriate physical contact that eventually leads to the inappropriate and abusive behavior — grooming takes many forms but really can present as almost any expression of affection," Eads says. "Grooming methods are typically a time-consuming process designed to build a relationship of trust and, ultimately, secrecy. The grooming I've seen doesn't necessarily just focus on the targeted child, but also whomever is the caregiver/protector. This is sometimes by doing the caregiver 'favors,' such as helping out with household responsibilities, and ultimately watching the children while the single parent is at work, for example."
As the conversation about drag shows and transgender rights continues locally and nationally, some will no doubt continue to fling the words "groomers" and "predators" at LGBTQ+ groups, Pride participants, queens, kings and event organizers. When they do, know there's simply no link between these people and organizations and the sexual abuse that is sadly very prevalent in Humboldt County, at least according to the people who have made bringing sexual predators to justice part of their life's work.
Thadeus Greenson (he/him) is the Journal's news editor. Reach him at (707) 442-1400, extension 321, or email@example.com.
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