The Manhattan Institute’s Christopher Rufo is the boy wonder of the right, having burst onto the scene as a fervent critic of left-wing pedagogy’s encroachment on the workplace and schools. The strange logic of partisanship has transmuted his role into something far more bizarre: He is now fomenting a panic about sexual abuse in public schools.
Before we proceed further, it is worth noting that sexual-abuse panics used to be associated more with the left than the right. The very real horror of rape can easily produce a hyperventilated sense of the crime’s scale and a corresponding hunt for perpetrators who turn out to be innocent.
Emily Yoffe’s dogged investigation showed that the popular documentary The Hunting Ground, which depicted knife-wielding maniacs lurking behind every bush, substantially exaggerated its claims. Years earlier, Wall Street Journal editorial writer Dorothy Rabinowitz won a Pulitzer Prize for reporting that debunked a wave of charges, including prosecutions, for an imagined epidemic of child rape. The Manhattan Institute’s City Journal once published a long essay questioning “The Campus Rape Myth.”
Tamping down these panics used to be one of the right’s productive roles in public discourse. Rufo has decided to hype one up instead.
The bizarre turn of events that brought him to this point required several steps. Like a great many members of the conservative-movement apparatus, Rufo has put himself at the disposal of Florida governor Ron DeSantis. Spurred by his socially conservative allies, DeSantis signed a bill restricting schools from discussing sexual orientation.
DeSantis quickly found himself on the defensive when critics labeled this the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. Rather than hone down or improve the bill, DeSantis characteristically went on the offensive against his critics. His spokesperson, Christina Pushaw, signaled the new line of attack: They would call critics of the bill “groomers.”
Notably, Pushaw was not at first making this charge directly. She was using the charge as a kind of ironic turnabout often employed by partisan combatants — taking an unfair tactic used by the other side and turning it around on them. You take a slogan associated with your opponent (“Silence is complicity”) and then assert you’re going to make them live by their own standard (“I didn’t make the rules”). The idea here is, If we were as unprincipled as you, we’d be calling you “pedophiles.”
Inevitably, she quickly discarded the ironic distance. DeSantis’s supporters, Rufo among them, almost immediately took the cue to level this charge completely in earnest.
At first, Rufo hurled this accusation at Disney, which criticized DeSantis’s law. A combination of motives seems to have inspired him to turn the subject from Disney grooming to public-school grooming. Rufo had already built his career around discrediting public education. (“To get universal school choice,” he instructed a friendly audience, “you really need to operate from a premise of universal public school distrust.”) Possibly he or somebody on DeSantis’s staff realized that convincing the public that Disney’s staff is filled with pedophiles might not help the Florida tourism business.
In any case, the notion, like many of his ideas, seems to have stuck Rufo in the middle of a Twitter spat. One of his critics, Katie Herzog, pointed out that the Catholic Church contains many more sex offenders than Disney, causing Rufo to cast around for an institution that would make the Church appear innocent, and he settled on schools:
The trick here is that many more Americans work in public schools than in the Catholic Church. Statistical extrapolation would suggest there have probably been more criminals employed by the Coca-Cola corporation than in Al Capone’s gang, but this fact would tell you little about the character of either organization.
Rufo’s piece runs all of six paragraphs long. It begins with the premise that DeSantis’s critics deny sexual abuse ever occurs in schools. “The New York Times, for example, accused conservatives of having a ‘freakout’ about imaginary ‘grooming’ in public schools, and the Washington Post dismissed concerns about sexual abuse by teachers as a ‘QAnon conspiracy,’” he writes.
Rufo’s article is pretending that the debate is whether sexual abuse occurs in schools at all. In fact, the debate is over DeSantis’s smear that teaching children about sexual orientation is tantamount to teaching them about sex. Rather than engage with this objection at any level, Rufo pretends it amounts to a denial that teachers ever commit sexual abuse.
In “rebuttal,” Rufo asserts, “the facts reveal that too many American public schools have been hunting grounds for sexual predators.” (Note the language, hunting grounds, that echoes the fearmongering documentary about campus sexual assault.)
His basis for this is a report by the American Association of University Women, of 2,065 students in grades eight through 11, which, extrapolated nationally, would mean “that nearly 10 percent of K-12 students have been victims of sexual misconduct by a public school employee.”
I grant that this is a real piece of research Rufo found in his weekend Googling, albeit from a source, AAUW, conservatives used to treat skeptically. If you believe anywhere close to one-tenth of American public-school students have been victimized by sexual misconduct by a school employee, you are living in a different world than I am.
Rufo proceeds to argue that, “according to the author of the study, Hofstra University professor Charol Shakeshaft,” this would mean public schools are responsible for physical abuse that is “more than 100 times greater than the physical abuse committed by Catholic priests.” Shakeshaft herself explains to Jesse Singal that Rufo’s use of her data is completely invalid, both because the methods of the two studies differ radically and because the denominator is so much larger in one case than the other:
Interestingly, when I reached out to Shakeshaft, she denied making this direct comparison in the first place. “We cannot calculate the rates in the Catholic church because the only data we have is of the number of priests who abuse, not the number of children they have abused,” she said. Shakeshaft explained: “What I did say is because there are more students who go to K12 schools (both private and independent) than attend Catholic Churches, there are more students who are sexually abused in schools than in churches. It has nothing to do with a comparison of rates. I have explained this to Catholic writers many times, but they seem unable to be able to explain what the numbers mean other than to try to shift the blame.”
The most remarkable passage in Rufo’s piece is where it turns to remedies. Rufo complains that “only 15 states had adopted policies to regulate ‘grooming behaviors’ by school employees and only 18 states require ‘awareness and prevention training on sexual abuse or misconduct by school personnel against students.’” If there is a crisis, there must be bureaucratic solutions. He proposes that “public schools should have mandatory screening, training, and reporting requirements for all staff.”
Yes — Chris Rufo, the man who is famous for denouncing anti-racism training, seems to be demanding sexual-assault awareness-training mandates for every local school. And this may well become the conservative position as a convoluted result of him digging in to vindicate a campaign of Twitter trolling.
The upside is that, if schools do accede to his demands, the sexual-assault training will provide Rufo with plenty of grist for his next outrage campaign. He can expose the feminist conspiracy to indoctrinate teachers in “rape culture” theory via its insidious training. He may even seize some obscure strand of feminist theory he can associate with these trainings and turn it into a Fox News bogeyman.
The most unfathomable aspect of this story may be the simple fact that Rufo works for a think tank.
Correction: This story has been updated to correct Rufo’s remarks about public school distrust.