In Mother Jones, Zohar Lazar posits that the recent spate of pedophilia conspiracies are merely a reactionary response to a changing social order. As progressive policies take hold in America, the conservative fringe, Zohar claims, is freaking out by inventing false conspiracies about secret pedophilia rings. But it’s not all fantasy.

A decades-long progressive policy push for the loosening of sexual taboos and legal constraints has drastic implications for children’s rights and safety. The Left has consistently pushed for lowering the age of children’s consent, and expanding the range of socially acceptable behavior, while downplaying the risks to children, including sexual predation.

Sex with animals and children are the only remaining taboos. Even that is changing as fetish players embrace ‘furries’ and open up about their age preferences. But our culture still has no idea what to make of childhood. The culture emits mixed messages about what children are, about their agency, their objectification. Are children hot sex objects or innocents to be guarded from predators? Are these predators made-up bogeymen that, in Lazar’s trivializing words, ‘most effectively validate a group’s anxieties, with blame assigned to outsiders’?

From fashion and entertainment magazines to queer empowerment campaigns, left-leaning media tell us that children are hot and sexually available. When Stranger Things star Millie Bobby Brown was only 13, W Magazine called her one of the hottest stars on television. Desmond the 11-year-old drag queen is held up as a sexy queer icon. Jeffrey Epstein and his powerful pedophile friends had a hard-on for your girls, and the philanthropic community looked the other way.

Children are depicted as vulnerable sex objects, as irresistible as they are off-limits. There’s no cultural consensus on where child protection ends and children’s rights begin. In many states, girls under 18 do not need parental approval for an abortion, or can get a judicial waiver, but the age for marriage without parental approval is 18. Abortion is irreversible, and marriage is not, but a child has more rights to terminate a pregnancy than to choose a life partner.

The National SafeKids campaign recommends that no kid under the age of 12 be left home alone, but Let Grow asks parents and educators to give kids more independence. Age restrictions on voting, smoking and drinking are justified because kids lack decision-making faculties, yet the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that trans identified youth receive affirming care. This often includes cross-gender hormone therapy and puberty-blocking drugs, despite the growing evidence of the high-risk, frequently harmful effects of this treatment.

Teen stars who identify as LGBTQ are lauded for their surgeries, like Lachlan Watson, of The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, who began showing the scars from her ‘top surgery’ once she was 18. Shows like Drag Kids normalize queer sexual expression for children. Beauty pageants and every aspect of pop culture promote young girls as desirable. How can pedophilia be a right-wing conspiracy when left-leaning media sexually fetishize children, but question their ability to make decisions?

If children have enough agency to obtain abortions, gender affirming hormones and surgeries, why shouldn’t they marry or vote? These contradictions turn children into passive fetish objects, whose images and bodies are manipulated and sold to sexual predators and Big Pharma alike. That’s not a conspiracy. It’s a fact.

Children are the ones who are paying the price for our predatory obsessions with innocence and malleability. They seek to please the adults in their lives, to meet expectations. They lack the discernment to consent to be sexual objects in an adult context — whether they’re girls trafficked by Epstein, sexualized ‘baby beauty’ and drag pageant contestants, or idolized pop-culture teens.

Lazar says that ‘pedophile conspiracies act as a sort of propaganda of the counterrevolution, a fun-house reflection of the real threats to the social order’. But pedophilia is what we can expect when we normalize the sexual objectification of children. While pedophile rings may not be the norm, with Epstein and the priesthood the exceptions that prove the rule, the objectification of children is the status quo.

Until victims come forward with tales of sexual abuse, usually years later, adults are perfectly happy to believe that children are active and consenting players in their own exploitation. Whether the context is queer or straight, children are forbidden fruit: desired, claimed and shamed. And it’s only getting worse. To call this a right-wing conspiracy is to miss the point: the sexual objectification of children reflects our conception of childhood. If secret rings of pedophile politicians are a fantasy of the Right, the equivalent on the Left is the projection that the sexualization of children is something other people do, not subscribers to Mother Jones.