In 2016, Sarah*, 34, was a hardcore Bernie Sanders supporter, and was frustrated by what she viewed as the lopsided media coverage surrounding his 2016 campaign. “He’d have crowds with tens of thousands of people and no one would be covering it,” she recalls. “The only people talking about it were people on conspiracy subreddits like r/conspiracy, or r/thedonald.” That’s where she first learned about Pizzagate, the unfounded far-right conspiracy theory suggesting, based on no evidence, that left-wing political operatives were running a child-sex-trafficking ring in the basement of a pizzeria in Washington, D.C.
By most standards, Sarah didn’t fit the profile of your average Pizzagate supporter: she identifies as Jewish and Latina, and is married to a woman. Yet right off the bat, Pizzagate didn’t strike her as particularly outlandish, because she knew about the evils of sexual abuse firsthand. As a six-year-old, Sarah, who is being referred to by a pseudonym to speak about private traumatic matters freely, says she was repeatedly sexually molested by a 17-year-old male babysitter; she says she was also violently raped by a former girlfriend when she was in college. Throughout her life, she has struggled with the difficulties of getting people to take her experiences seriously.
“When people were talking about them in these communities, I felt validated and seen in some way,” she says of her reaction when she first discovered Pizzagate. “They were talking about things that I knew happened. Because they had happened to me.”
Sarah’s story underscores a worrying phenomenon within the shadowy world of conspiracy theories like QAnon, the baseless far-right delusion that sprung from Pizzagate that posits the existence of a deep state cabal of child-trafficking Democrats. Prominent influencers within the QAnon community have come forward to discuss their own experiences with sexual assault, and sexual abuse survivors have similarly come forward to espouse QAnon talking points. Last month, for instance, Virginia Giuffre, who has publicly accused Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell of sexual assault, tweeted a graphic of a young girl with a teddy bear emblazoned with the letter Q, with the caption, “We’ve Awoken, Stop Pedophilia.” She has also previously shared posts containing the QAnon hashtag #WWG1WGA, or “where we go one, we go all.”
This trend isn’t necessarily new — Jitarth Jadeja, a former QAnon believer based in Melbourne, Australia, says he saw sexual abuse survivors being drawn to the movement at the very beginning. He provided more than a dozen screengrabs of discussions on the fringe message board Voat from QAnon supporters professing to be survivors of sexual assault. “It makes sense in a lot of ways,” he says. “These victims [wanted] justice, but most likely never got it, and after a lifetime of suffering now they want vengeance and that’s what Q is offering. Honestly, who can blame them?”
Angela, 35, is a Michigan woman who was molested by her great-grandfather when she was a toddler. She’s watched with horror as her Facebook support groups for survivors of childhood sexual abuse have transformed into repositories of child sex trafficking conspiracy theories, which she says can be tremendously triggering. “You can’t escape it. You can’t get on social media now and see kitten videos,” she says. “You’re just hearing about Q and save the kids.”
Angela says she devotes an inordinate amount of time to arguing with other survivors who have been sucked into QAnon, as well as with her 25-year-old stepson, who became deeply enmeshed in Wayfairgate, the false conspiracy theory suggesting that the furniture website Wayfair was trafficking children. “I’m surrounded by people who are huge Trump supporters and all into conspiracy theories. Anytime I post something like, ‘Here’s what’s really going on,’ they get really defensive and they say I don’t understand,” she says. “I say, ‘what do you mean I don’t understand? I survived shit like this.'”
Much of this discourse is circulating in what researcher Marc-Andre Argentino refers to as “pastel QAnon,” or QAnon lite, communities — circles that are largely female and lifestyle- or wellness-driven, and are more likely to post about QAnon-adjacent topics, such as the anti-trafficking #SaveTheChildren campaign, rather than regurgitating traditional QAnon talking points. “A lot of these individuals have found resonance with [QAnon] because they are survivors of sexual abuse,” Argentino says. “It explains why this happened to you, why no one is talking about it, and why no one is preventing this from happening.”
Worryingly, on at least one occasion, it has led a survivor to violence: Argentino cites the case of Jessica Prim, an Illinois-based QAnon devotee who was arrested back in May for making threats against Joe Biden on Facebook. During a Facebook live stream, she alluded to her own experiences with sexual abuse, including alleging that her ex-boyfriend sexually abused her daughter. She was charged with 18 counts of criminal possession of a weapon after police found 18 knives in her car.
Experts on child sexual abuse are extremely concerned about the rise of conspiracy theories, particularly in what are intended as safe places for survivors. “It’s very discomforting” to know that sexual abuse survivors are being drawn into conspiracy theories like QAnon, says Jetta Bernier, executive director for Mass Kids, a child advocacy organization. “Those who have experienced sexual abuse in their childhoods have a deep understanding of how traumatic it can be over the course of a lifetime,” she says. “We want to support survivors in turning their attention to constructive ways to make a difference in the lives of other children. We don’t want them to be exploited and, in a sense, re-abused, re-traumatized, by those who would propose these conspiracy theories.”
The proliferation of child sex trafficking conspiracy theories has also had a demonstrable effect on those who do the actual work to combat child sexual abuse. In addition to anti-trafficking organizations like the Polaris Project being deluged with calls about Wayfairgate, Laura Palumbo, communications director at the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, says that elaborate narratives of adrenochrome-harvesting Democrats running child sex trafficking rings distract from the reality of human trafficking.
“Research shows us that most at-risk are vulnerable populations. It’s commonly youth who are homeless or have run away or have unstable housing or limited economic resources,” she says. “When we compare that to these conspiracy theories of children being kidnapped from their houses, it really distracts from the idea that these are children and young people who may have had to flee their homes either because of the abuse they were experiencing in their home, or because they were forced to leave their home because they were LGBTQ.” Focusing on shadowy networks of high-profile perpetrators takes attention away from an uncomfortable truth about child sex abuse: that the real enemy is, heartbreakingly often, close to home. “We would like to think about this as an issue of political enemies coming into picketed fence communities and snatching children from their homes, instead of their friends, coworkers, family members and loved ones,” says Palumbo.
Unfortunately, with QAnon gaining traction throughout the globe, and showing no signs of slowing down despite Trump’s loss, those most susceptible to embracing child sex trafficking conspiracy theories will likely continue to get sucked in, viewing them as a way of maintaining control over the narrative of their trauma in a chaotic world. For Sarah, who spent years promoting Pizzagate and related conspiracy theories, becoming enmeshed in that world did her incalculable harm. “It was retraumatizing to get exposed to all that stuff again,” she says, referring to the lore surrounding Pizzagate. “Looking back, it put me in a very dark place.”
Sarah says she no longer dabbles in conspiracy theories, crediting a personal traumatic experience with helping her wake up. Now, she says, she’s filled with rage when she sees people spouting QAnon talking points in anti-trafficking posts or posting about #SaveTheChildren. “I’m mad there’s someone out there exploiting people this way, taking advantage of people’s genuine concern for others,” she says. Survivors “are weaponized, in a way, because they really believe they’re fighting this spiritual war. I feel like I was used.”
If you are a survivor of sexual abuse, please call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 800.656.HOPE (4673) to be connected to a local sexual assault service provider in your area.