Last week we mentioned a conference in Dundee, attended by über-fundamentalist Christians Thomas Dunn and Russ Dizdar. Speakers at that conference included Sarah Nelson, author of Tackling Child Sexual Abuse: Radical Approaches, who spoke on the topic of satanic panics. Actually, her topic was titled, “The Myth of the Satanic Panic”.
Ironically (or perhaps not), in 1996 Nelson spoke at a conference hosted at Warwick University by RAINS. Her topic: “Satanist Ritual Abuse: Challenges to the Mental Health System”. Extracts from that paper, published on the S.A.F.F. website, included these gems:
I believe this issue needs much more attention, for the mental health professions may prove to be the major repositories of the “SRA secret”: just as they were of the “incest secret”. I believe new knowledge about SRA should now impel a radical, wide-ranging, top-level review of symptoms and treatments in many mental disorders. Those of us who are outsiders need to build alliances with courageous voices within those professions – in order to support them, to strengthen their demands for radical review, and to force the subject into the public arena. …
But my own discovery of SRA directed me, and I suspect many others, towards mental health as never before. A huge impetus is given to the questioning which is already taking place of diagnosis and treatment in mental disorder. This prompts whole chains of speculation. Puzzlement about specific behaviours or symptoms brings renewed doubt about the whole medical model of mental disorder, and leads to absorbed speculation on how massive a role life-trauma actually plays. SRA is, of course, only one extreme form of trauma, and all forms deserve urgent attention but given the extent of torture and privation it inflicts, we could justifiably expect that many survivors will have found their way into the mental health system, and that they will be a significant population within that system.
The key “dog-whistle” term here is “medical model”. One of the bugbears of a certain strain of mental health professionals in the 1980s and 1990s was the “medical model” of mental illness, which posits that mental illness, like physical illness, stems only from physical causes, and can be assessed, diagnosed, and treated using methods (such as medications) which affect certain bodily systems.
Those who opposed this approach to mental illness believed that other factors—environmental, social, traumatic, economic, and so forth—had much more direct bearing on mental health. They decried the use of drugs, such as antidepressants, anxiolytics, and anti-psychotics, advocating a “whole person” approach involving talk therapies, social interventions, and other non-drug approaches.
At its extreme, opposition to the medical model is also associated with an anti-science, anti-rationalist approach, with a reliance instead upon emotion, intuition, and gut hunches.
In the above excerpts, Nelson is suggesting here that SRA, which creates extreme psychological trauma on its alleged victims, be privileged within the field of mental health, that it be addressed not via the traditional medical model, but via intuitive guesswork and gut hunches, and that alliances be built across the various professions in order to build this approach into a movement.
Bluntly put, Nelson, who claims that satanic panics aren’t real, is advocating the genesis of a satanic panic, without actually naming it.
Using the threat of “Satanic paedophiles” whose dastardly deeds victimise vulnerable children and leave them traumatised and “broken”, Nelson seems to be suggesting that mental health workers band together, take action, and spread the word: devil-worshippers are raping our children, and it’s up to us to stop them.
Child sexual abuse is very real
As our readers know, we are acutely aware of the grim reality of child abuse in all its forms, and we know that child sexual abuse creates its own particular issues in its victims/survivors.
To many, (child sexual abuse) is a uniquely evil crime; someone who sexually abuses a child seems capable of anything. But fear of pedophiles can be weaponized and used to whip up mobs that don’t want to wait for solid evidence of wrongdoings to emerge, lest unspeakable horrors go unchecked. In many ways, it is an ideal tool for mobilizing small but highly vocal pockets of opposition against one’s enemies, as it can co-opt some people with genuine fears about child trafficking into perpetuating smear and harassment campaigns. It also offers those who are already predisposed to believing terrible things about the accused more license to hate.
Hay draws a link between QAnon and Pizzagate—and we’d add the Hampstead SRA hoax—and a long tradition of accusations of paedophilia linked with devil worship:
(T)he flourishes of these theories—Satanic rituals performed on child victims by depraved cabals, cryptic symbols signaling dark intent or links to the occult, and secret tunnels under ordinary businesses used to abet villainy—actually connect them to a discrete, centuries-old lineage of satanic, or occultic, panics. Most notably, they bear striking similarities to the American “Satanic Panic” of the 1980s. Pizzagate, QAnon, and their modern ilk are “not as Satanic as the stuff in the 80s was,” said Margaret Peacock, an expert on propaganda and conspiracies involving children, but added there are clear “similarities in language and materiality between them.”
Hay states that some of the same anxieties which fuelled the very earliest conspiracy theories involving satanic paedophiles—first confirmed in 1428 in Valais, in what is now Switzerland—can be traced in the more recent iterations.
Citing Mary de Young, a social psychologist who specialises in the study of moral panics, Hay says, “The roots are often anxieties about social change or strains, and especially the potential loss of power by an in-group. These worries are then projected on ‘folk devils’ who embody that stress”.
It’s long been suggested that the 1980s satanic panic arose at least in part out of the public’s fear of the changing role of women in society, and manifested as a fear of day nurseries, which had become a symbol of the “absent mother” who had abandoned home and children in favour of a career.
However, it’s one thing to look back on a series of conspiracy-like allegations which seemed to arise organically in a certain time and place, in response to a certain set of social factors.
It’s another thing altogether to watch as a small, determined group of individuals work over a period of decades to intentionally push the “Satanic paedophile” narrative into the public consciousness, as we’ve been witnessing recently.
While we often moan about the internet’s role as a “disease vector” in the spread of conspiracy theories, it may also contain at least part of the solution. It does make it easier for those of us who oppose the satanic panic pushers to see who they are, to identify the links amongst them, and to counter their fear-mongering with facts and evidence.