The One Blog About Pedophile Rings You Won’t Share

I have known what this crazy butterfly supposedly represents for about a decade.

Blogs about it, and other signals pedophiles supposedly use to identify themselves as pedophiles and express the sex of children they are most interested in, randomly go viral and hysteria ensues. Not much comes from the hysteria, unless one of these images is found someplace. In that case it sets off a police investigation and much sound and fury signifying nothing.

Understanding pedophilia and child sexual abuse is complicated. Learning to recognize a few symbols and keep your kids away from them is much simpler. Unfortunately, recognizing a few symbols isn’t going to protect anyone’s kids. And understanding why is important.

The Problem

According to the Adverse Childhood Experiences study by the Centers for Disease Control, twenty percent of Americans who were born in the 1930’s, 1940’s and 1950’s were sexually abused as children. Despite its ubiquity, most American adults remain blissfully ignorant about child sexual abuse. Most of what we do know comes from cases like Larry Nassar’s, where we see a cavalcade of crying adult victims, horrifying stories and a bad guy in handcuffs. We see a lot of those stories, but not enough to represent victimization of 20% of the nation’s children.

The newsreels don’t show that it takes, on average, 21 years for victims to disclose.* They don’t show that most victims never get a day in court. They don’t show survivors doing much besides crying, creating the illusion that survivors are easy to recognize. And all this leads us to believe that child sexual abuse is rare. We like to believe that. If it’s rare, and it’s only perpetrated by a few people, our kids aren’t at much risk.

Believing that it’s rare is comforting, and believing you can prevent it by knowing a few factoids, is even more so. This is why every new parent is told “don’t let your child wear clothing with their name on it in public, it makes it easier to kidnap them”. Child abductions by strangers are incredibly rare, and “missing children” statistics include a confusing array of runaway children, lost children and familial abductions.

Now that we have grown a bit weary of worrying about sexual predators kidnapping our children, the human trafficking movement has caused us to worry that they’re going to be kidnapped (probably from someone they’ll encounter online) and turned into sex slaves. And when the antidote to that horrifying scenario is presented as awareness of the symbols these online traffickers use, we can memorize them and sleep soundly again, right?

Unfortunately, no.

The Facts

Child sexual abuse is still shockingly common in the United States. Considering that we only convict, at best, 15% of the people who sexually abuse children** and have provided a solid education about child sexual abuse to, statistically, almost no one, we have no reason to believe that it’s less common now than it was in the first half of the 20th century. We know that the majority of it is committed by someone the child has a significant, trusting relationship with, and that money rarely changes hands. In other words, child sex trafficking, which is the sexual access to a minor for money, is rare. Based on the ACE study and census data, about 811,000 children are sexually abused for the first time every year. The high-end estimate is that 21,000 minors are sexually trafficked in the US each year, meaning that they represent 2.6% of all the child sexual abuse in the US. And even that statistic is a bit misleading, as most trafficked youth were sexually exploited before they were trafficked. And most of the sexually trafficked minors are teens who have run away, been kicked out or left their home on by their own volition. Commercial sexual exploitation of prepubescent children is rare.

So where do the creepy cartoon symbols come in? Originally, in the early days of social media and chat rooms, they were supposedly used so that pedophiles could identify each other. This makes logical sense; pedophiles do use social media to connect with other pedophiles; to provide mutual support for battling their attraction to children, and to discuss ways to meet, “groom” children, subvert law enforcement and exchange child pornography.

But the idea that these symbols are used to “mark” children for exploitation is more sensational than sensical. It ignores the fact that a sex offender’s “success” largely depends on their relationship with a child. Suggesting that children can be “marked” by strangers at public events implies an organized, group kidnapping event. And that simply is not something likely to happen.

So if you see these symbols…

First, make sure it makes sense that the person with the symbol would be advertising it. Both the “boy lover” and “girl lover” symbols are among the easiest things a budding jewelry maker or doodler can make. But if you see someone on social media who has one of these symbols on their profile, say “thank you” to yourself. You know of one person who is sexually attracted to children. Don’t let your kids around that person. The social media platform you’re on may be able to block them. But it doesn’t mean your children are any safer. There are still people who want to sexually abuse children in your child’s school, daycare, youth sports league, and probably in your family. Most of them won’t advertise their intentions. Most of them don’t work in organized networks, and most of them don’t spend money to gain sexual access. They don’t need to. Our collective ignorance and misguided hysteria let the bad guys win, again and again.

* “Disclosure of Child Sexual Abuse Among Male Survivors” by Scott D. Easton, December of 2013 Clinical Social Work Journal”

** Robert Baker of the Massachusetts Sex Offender Registry Board, Massachusetts Office of Public Safety. 2008.