The Prostasia Foundation is a San Francisco-based child protection organization with some rather unconventional policy positions.
They support the sale of child-like sex dolls, advocate in support of the sexual depiction of minors in drawings and cartoons, and believe sex offense registries don't protect children.
Organizational leadership is pretty unconventional too. Throughout 2019, there was a convicted sex offender on the advisory council and a governing board that consisted of a fashion designer and two lawyers with backgrounds in free speech.
It is easy to have a visceral reaction and to question Prostasia's activities just because their positions and leadership choices challenge conventional thinking. But that could be unfair.
Welcome to Facts about Prostasia, where I examine Prostasia's stated positions and public statements and see how they align with available scientific literature and other credible evidence.
Before you read this investigation, I'd like to be super transparent and tell you who I am and why I started looking into Prostasia.
What is the Prostasia Foundation? A child protection organization that advocates for the sale of child-like sex dolls and supports the sexual depiction of minors in drawings, among other things.
Who is involved with Prostasia? A convicted sex offender, sex workers, webcam models, and others — but it's hard to find anyone with child protection expertise.
What has Prostasia spent resources on? They spend their resources justifying the behavior of adults and commissioning art that I believe depicts a child in a sexual manner.
What have others said about Prostasia? New York Times columnist Elizabeth Bruenig and child protection experts John Carr and Professor Michael Salter have been critical of Prostasia.
How does Prostasia raise funds? They're soliciting donations despite being a “delinquent" charity, prohibited from raising funds, according to California Department of Justice records.
Which organizations do fight for the rights of children? The United States federal government maintains a carefully-screened list of child abuse and neglect prevention organizations that operate within the USA — interestingly, Prostasia does not make the cut.
Hi, I'm Ayden Férdeline.
I am a social scientist and a public interest technologist who has devoted the past five years of my life to defending various, worthy civil society causes and organizations. I've worked with some of the world's largest and most respected non-profits, and I received my methods training from the London School of Economics.
When I first heard about the Prostasia Foundation some two years ago, I was willing to reconsider some of my foundational assumptions about how we protect children. I realize that people’s beliefs about contentious issues often reflect their normative commitments because some of my personal political beliefs fall slightly outside of the mainstream and I've seen how difficult it is to persuade people that there could be another way of seeing something.
I've also seen Prostasia face criticism, some of which I considered unfair, from some misinformed and bigoted people. Yet while some of the criticisms were unfair, not all of them were, and some uncongenial evidence has surfaced. I felt like I was left between a rock and a hard place as a researcher. Should I look the other way and let Prostasia ignore these inconvenient facts, or should I seek to disseminate the evidence at a foreseeable risk to my own reputation and persona?
We're talking about children here, and protecting children from sexual abuse. I decided that the most ethical way forward would be for me to independently investigate the claims that Prostasia makes and to compare these claims against credible evidence, such as peer-reviewed academic journal articles or expert comments.
This decision has not been popular. The executive director of Prostasia, Jeremy Malcolm, has since threatened me with a defamation suit and said multiple times that he will contact those in my professional network to demand that no one work with me if I continue digging into Prostasia. A number of supporters of Prostasia have since discussed openly on Twitter their intention to silence me and to dox me. I have been trolled relentlessly, and false information is being circulated on social media by Prostasia's executive director in order to discredit me.
I am aware that in publishing this report I will likely face more threats and intimidating messages from Prostasia and its supporters, and perhaps even legal action, however as a researcher and an activist it is my conscious and intentional choice to defend myself and my lawful expression.
I do not wish to be complicit in sustaining bubbles of confirmation bias, ignorance, or misinformation. Facts matter, and that's what I'm sharing on this website. I leave it up to you, the reader, to decide whether what Prostasia is fighting for is supported by evidence.
The Prostasia Foundation is a tax-exempt California non-profit which describes itself as “a new child protection organization that is inclusive of ... kinky people, and sex workers."
Prostasia advocates for the lawful possession and sale of child-like sex dolls, supports the “sexual depiction of minors in drawings and cartoons", argues that “sex offense registries do almost nothing to protect children from abuse", and has published a blog post where a “kinky person" mentions fantasizing about being touched non-consensually while pretending to be a child.
Prostasia centers its work around safeguarding the civil liberties of adults. This differs radically from the positions espoused by other recognized, professional child protection organizations, which defer to the precautionary principle when it comes to child protection, even where doing so may infringe upon the rights of an adult. It is generally accepted that adults, and therefore society, have a responsibility to protect children from predatory behavior given the long-term impact that sexual abuse can have on a child.
Notably, Prostasia is not recognized by the United States government as a child protection organization. Prostasia says that the United States federal government has “refused to list Prostasia Foundation on its Child Welfare Information Gateway, and ... the NCMEC [National Center for Missing and Exploited Children] (which the US Court of Appeals has ruled is also a government actor) had [Prostasia] ejected from a meeting of the INHOPE network of child protection hotlines."
As of February 2020, the State of California has recorded Prostasia as “delinquent" in its registry of charities. This means that Prostasia has either not provided the California Attorney General with required documents, or its fillings have been rejected. According to the California Department of Justice, “Delinquent organizations are not in good standing and may not conduct business or solicit donations in the State of California." Prostasia continues to solicit donations despite its delinquency.
The board of Prostasia contained no child protection expertise as of 22 May 2020. The three board members consisted of fashion designer Pearl Regalado and freedom of expression attorneys Cathy Gellis and Jeremy Malcolm.
The advisory council of Prostasia also lacked expertise in child protection. The council consisted of convicted sex offender Guy Hamilton-Smith, sex worker Maggie McNeill, and webcam model Honey Sampson, as well as a number of individuals who have expertise in free expression, intellectual property protections, and Internet governance. In addition, clinical psychologist Dr James Cantor serves on Prostasia's advisory council. This is notable because Dr Cantor has expressed views that are inconsistent with the policy statements of the American Academy of Pediatrics, and he has said on social media that pedophilia is akin to homosexuality.
Prostasia has a record of undertaking inadequate due diligence before hiring staff and volunteers. Prostasia hired Jeff White as a research associate in 2018 to serve as a “liaison between Prostasia and its stakeholder communities" in its convenings with “marginalized stakeholder groups." Sarah Phillimore, a family lawyer in the United Kingdom, discovered that White had been arrested in 2012 for criminal sex conduct with a victim under the age of 13. Following scrutiny on social media, Prostasia terminated White and has now implemented a staff screening policy. Phillimore says that Prostasia's executive director Jeremy Malcolm subsequently sent her a “threatening email" that she considered “blackmail" and a “criminal offense."
Prostasia blog editor Sheila van den Heuvel-Collins resigned in January 2020 shortly after tweeting on Christmas Day in 2019, “Merry Christmas to everyone, including the nepiophiles, pedophiles, hebephiles and ephebophiles who have to put up with people ... virtue-signalling and perpetuating stigma every single day of the year." She had joined Prostasia in August 2019. Months before joining Prostasia she self-published a book Past the Dark Field, which she described in a podcast as being “a collection of short stories about minor-attracted people." She says in the podcast she was inspired to write this book by “all the anti-pedo content on social media" that she would stumble across.
Prostasia welcomes self-described pedophiles as volunteers. On its online discussion forum, a user in May 2020 asked, “Do you accept pedophiles like myself as volunteers?" Executive director Jeremy Malcolm replied in the affirmative, saying, “We don’t make a policy of asking people about their sexuality before they are allowed to volunteer." Dr Malcolm's language, in equating pedophilia with recognized sexual orientations, normalizes child sexual abuse under the guise of open-minded compassion.
Prostasia does not disclose all of its staff, volunteers, or donors on its website, though it notes in its annual report that these records are available for public inspection by appointment. At this time I have not been able to independently review the biographies of persons whose names are not published on the Prostasia website.
Prostasia releases a very limited amount of information on its expenditure. But I have been able to piece together some of the projects that it has spent its resources on.
Prostasia not only campaigned in support of drawings and cartoons that contain sexual depictions of minors, but it has also commissioned art which I believe depicts a child in a sexual manner.
In 2019, Prostasia launched a campaign because, in its words, “A United Nations committee wants to have drawings ... added to the international legal definition of child pornography." Prostasia stated, without offering evidence, that “a drawing that depicts an imaginary child exploits nobody."
Contrary to Prostasia's claims that “a drawing that depicts an imaginary child exploits nobody", there is evidence that this material is harmful.
A paper published in the Children's Legal Rights Journal in 2015 found that in Japan, there is evidence that anime and manga are used “to induce children into sexual activity." Similarly, Canadian courts have reasoned that fictional child pornography creates a grooming risk because cartoons may be particularly appealing to children [see R v Mahannah, Ontario Superior Court of Justice, 2013].
There is strong evidence supporting a relationship between sex fantasies and sex offenses. In one paper published in the Journal of Sexual Aggression, the authors found “sexual fantasy plays an integral role in the development and maintenance of sexually aberrant behavior." Fantasy offers an opportunity to rehearse activities, with strong evidence finding that viewing fictional sex depictions can incite real child sexual abuse.
In a University of Birmingham study involving 57 convicted child molesters, 64.9 percent of participants said they had masturbated to deviant sexual fantasies before committing their first hands-on act of child sexual abuse. The number of participants who reported engaging in such fantasies after their first hands-on crime was 80.7 percent, which led Professor Anthony Beech to conclude that, for child molesters, “deviant fantasies are an intrinsic part of the etiology and maintenance of sexually aberrant behavior."
There is less research available investigating the influence of deviant sexual fantasies on non-convicted child molesters. Most studies of non-convicted offenders suffer from a methodological shortcoming in that they rely on self-reported surveys, so the reliability of the data is dependent on the willingness of the participants to disclose personal information and to answer truthfully. Given social condemnation of pedophilia, it is possible that survey respondents have been reluctant to admit to having sexual fantasies about children, or are reluctant to disclose having previously committed child sexual abuse.
In spite of this evidence, Prostasia released a Hentai image on Twitter in support of their campaign equating cartoon child sex scenes with art. Hentai is described on Wikipedia as a pornographic artform used to depict a “perverse or bizarre sexual desire or act." Prostasia's campaign image consisted of an underage female with an exaggerated facial expression and a protruding tongue with a text box saying, “Don't Report It!".
One Twitter user, who had previously tweeted about their attraction to drawings of children, asked Prostasia where they could see more images like the one that Prostasia shared. Prostasia replied, stating the image was an “original commission."
Prostasia routinely advocates for the lawful possession and sale of child-like sex dolls. Prostasia does this, despite experts believing that these dolls likely cause harm. Professor Kathleen Richardson of De Montfort University, who has researched sex dolls and sex robots since 2001, says they are harmful to society:
“... if I believed for one second that sex dolls and sex robots could abolish the commercial sex trade, I would absolutely support them. There would be no doubt about it. But those arguments are based on a fallacy about how the commercialization of human bodies and human relationships works in our society. So you can’t really get to a stage where people are imagining relationships with dolls, unless you’ve already created the space for dehumanization to occur. These dolls are created on the backs of women who already exist and an idea about women that already exists. You couldn’t buy into the idea of a doll being your girlfriend or future wife unless there was already an idea in wider society about women as objects. And that is a real, real problem."
This is a view echoed by psychologist Patrice Renaud of the University of Montréal. In controlled environments, he has had adult males with attractions to children interact with child-like robots. In 2018, he is quoted as saying to NBC News:
“For all his enthusiasm for employing CSBs [child-like sexbots] in his research, however, Renaud is among those who are skeptical about the broader use of child sexbots. ‘I’m not sure we should take chances with that,' he says. ‘Maybe some individuals would have the self-control to stick to robots, but for others the experience may push them further to seek out real children.'"
Prostasia has sought to fund unethical research.
In 2019, Prostasia issued a call for proposals for research into the availability of child-like sex dolls with the hypothesis that such “toys may provide a safe, private sexual outlet for some people who would otherwise be at risk of turning their attention towards actual minors. This research should test these hypotheses."
It is essential here to stress that the absence of empirical research investigating the harm in using child-like sex dolls does not mean that such toys are harmless; it means only that such a research question has not been empirically tested. This is unsurprising given the ethical and legal barriers to conducting such research. Such research could not, and should not, be conducted as it would be potentially dangerous since it would mean exposing individuals to potentially harmful material with a risk of harming children. That is, if Prostasia's hypothesis is incorrect, they may be funding criminalized conduct where the envisioned harm, in the case of child sexual abuse, is significant.
Due to a funding shortfall, Prostasia was unable to issue a grant to fund this research in 2019, but they state that they are “currently fundraising to support this call for research" at a later date.
Prostasia covered the travel expenses of presenters for its Sex Content Dialogue workshop in May 2019. While reimbursing the travel of presenters and subject matter experts is a legitimate expense for a child protection non-profit, it is not clear what child protection expertise Prostasia's invited guests had.
This workshop brought together people “affected by sexual content bans", including convicted sex offender Guy Hamilton-Smith, the CEO of adult entertainment payment processor Segpay, and Kristen DiAngelo, who describes herself as “a warrior for ... those who chose to work in the sex trade."
Prostasia claims to be “the only child protection organization that is seen as a safe space by many members of the consensual kink communities." Prostasia has used its resources to organize a workshop on “kink and child protection" that discussed scenarios such as:
“A bisexual and polyamorous woman in her 40s became involved in a sexual relationship with her 18 year old tenant, and on two occasions engaged in sexual activity with him in the presence of her 5 year old son. She claims her son had been asleep on one occasion, and unable to witness the act on the other. Were any lines crossed?"
This session was led by Prostasia program director Meagan Ingerman, who says in her biography that she “has engaged in multiple forms of sex work and has ties to the organized kink community." (While Ingerman is clearly qualified to deliver a workshop on kinkiness, it is not clear what expertise she has in child protection.)
Ingerman is also the author of the blog post on Prostasia's website, “Age gap relationships through the looking glass," where she states, “I don’t believe it’s right to stigmatize teens who pursue sex or relationships with older people of any age." Prostasia's decision to publish this piece highlights how radically different their approach is from that of other child protection organizations, all of whom believe it is the responsibility of adults to neither solicit nor reciprocate advances from minors. It is also, in my opinion, likely untrue. I believe it is more likely that adults are pursuing relationships with minors, rather than vice versa.
This blog post is consistent with Prostasia's official position which seemingly sees the perpetrators of statutory rape as the “victims", rather than the underage children: “Child sexual abuse isn't always intentionally predatory. It can also include carelessly failing to check about a partner's age when you have reason to doubt that they are legal. In most states, “they lied about their age" is not an excuse. The message that “all child sexual abusers are predators or pedophiles ... contributes to a culture of victim-blaming."
Prostasia equipment and personnel are used to produce Prostasia's monthly ‘Sex, Human Rights, and CSA [Child Sexual Abuse] Prevention' podcast and accompanying video series. In one recent episode, program director Ingerman interviewed sex worker Maggie McNeill about her self-care practices and lessons she could offer young people. McNeill said, “I have my nightly self-care ritual which is basically to get as stoned as possible." Ingerman replied, “That's a great self-care ritual; I'm familiar with that one myself." McNeill then describes not making personal or professional appointments before midday. It is not clear to me from this video how the message shared was intended to support or fulfill Prostasia's mission, but for every dollar spent producing this content, one less dollar was available to spend on Prostasia's child protection work. I do not personally consider this advice suitable for children. I believe adults should share wisdom with children that will help them become respectful and hardworking members of society.
Since its inception, Prostasia has attracted scrutiny from figures in the sex abuse prevention and child protection communities.
New York Times columnist Elizabeth Bruenig wrote the following in a letter to Prostasia:
Having done quite a bit of reporting on the sex abuse crisis in the Catholic Church, it is my view that convicted sex offenders and “minor-attracted persons,” as you call them in your FAQ and publications, should not be involved with children in any capacity, whether in an “allyship” role, “protection” role, or any other role. I link here the blog post you published, in which you argue the following:
“Individually, the stigmatized groups that the establishment wishes to exclude (sex workers, adult performers, registered citizens, and so on) do have advocacy groups of their own—we work with many of them, and include some of them on our Advisory Council. But before Prostasia Foundation was formed, these groups were seen as unqualified to be talking about child sexual abuse prevention within their own communities, because unless they simply capitulated to what the church-linked groups were saying, they were perceived as promoting their own self-interest."
The emphasis is mine. I believe that convicted sex offenders should not have any role in any allyship or advocacy for children, nor in any other capacity that might put them in proximity to children. I also strongly disagree with the conflation of sex workers and adult performers with convicted sex offenders. Adult sex workers and their adult clients, as well as adult pornographic performers and their adult viewers, have an entirely different relationship than that between sex offenders and their minor (or adult) victims, and the three groups are not ‘stigmatized’ for remotely similar reasons.
I also disagree with the member of your organization who analogized pedophilia to gay sexuality. (I have, of course, preserved screencaps for posterity.) I do not believe pedophilia is in any sense legally or ethically similar to same sex attraction, which has many legal expressions. Pedophiliac sexual compulsions have no legal or ethical expressions, in my view.
I lastly disagree in the strongest possible terms with the brief you submitted to the UN, linked here, wherein you argue that computer generated and drawn portrayals of child sexual abuse constitute “representation of children’s sexuality,” as opposed to the sexual exploitation and abuse of children. Whether images of child sex abuse are photographs of actual sex abuse or simply simulations of that abuse, they still represent one thing: the sexual exploitation and abuse of children. It is not possible to represent a consensual sexual encounter with a child, because such a thing does not exist. Any attempt, artistically or otherwise, to suggest that consensual sex with children does exist represents not only an error but a danger.
In their newsletter, Prostasia claims they complained to Bruenig's editors about her comments.
John Carr, widely-recognized as one of the world's leading authorities on the use of digital technologies by young people, wrote this in response to a tweet by Prostasia:
Call yourself a “child protection organization" until you are blue in the face. It does not mean you are one.
Carr also observed that Prostasia's executive director lacks expertise in child protection:
Your CV for the IGF MAG [United Nations Internet Governance Forum Multistakeholder Advisory Group] made no mention of any prior connection with children's issues. Neither does the CV you recently gave as a speaker for another event. Yet you are the Director of Prostasia. There are two other staff members, one of whom is a lawyer with similar background.
Following this criticism, Prostasia sent out a plea for funding to its 6,000 newsletter subscribers under the heading of, “Prostasia Foundation under attack," saying it had “crossed swords with John Carr, a conservative hard-liner who ... wants to ban ageplay, cosplay, and fan fiction featuring underage characters."
Child protection expert Professor Michael Salter, director of the International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation and advisor to the Canadian Centre for Child Protection, asked rhetorically on social media in December 2019:
Are there any Prostasia “campaigns" that don't undermine online child protection? ... They claim to be a child protection org, but it's hard to find an issue where they err on the side of actual child protection.
In May 2020, Professor Salter said:
Prostasia doesn't have a victim focus, full stop. Their energies are taken up with defending pedophile access to cartoon CSAM [child sexual abuse material] and child sexual abuse dolls.
In response, Prostasia sent an email to its subscribers soliciting donations, saying Professor Salter “opposes our proposed research into outlets for sexual interests that can’t be enacted with a consenting partner—indeed, he supports the criminalization of these outlets."
Prostasia primarily relies on donations and membership dues from individuals to support its work. (Note that per section 6.1 of its bylaws, Prostasia members do not vote to elect directors, which means that Prostasia members are not members within the meaning of section 5056 of the California Nonprofit Public Benefit Corporation Law.)
Donations are accepted via cryptocurrency through Coinbase and credit card with transactions processed by Stripe.
As of May 2020, Prostasia was actively soliciting donations from members of the public, despite the State of California having recorded Prostasia as “delinquent" in its registry of charities for at least two months. This status means that Prostasia has either not provided the California Attorney General with required documents, or its fillings have been rejected. According to the California Department of Justice, “Delinquent organizations are not in good standing and may not conduct business or solicit donations in the State of California."
Prostasia has reported receiving at least one grant from an unidentified institutional donor.
In addition, Prostasia raises funds from retail purchases on Amazon.com when members of the public select them as their preferred Amazon Smile charity.
Users who use the Brave web browser accrue Basic Attention Tokens and are able to donate these to Prostasia through the Brave Rewards program. There is evidence that users are donating these tokens to Prostasia, and Prostasia has indicated that they would make arrangements to receive them.
Prostasia engages in quasi-commercial activities to generate revenue, offering “trust and safety outsourcing" services (though it is not clear if Prostasia has actually recorded any revenue from this service).
Prostasia also issues “no children harmed" certification seals to “websites, publishers, service providers, vendors, and event organizers, to certify that they are allies in the fight against child sexual abuse, and that they have taken reasonable steps to avoid harming children." A license fee of up to 5% of sales revenue must be paid to Prostasia by a business if this seal is issued. Among those businesses to have received a “no children harmed" seal is the graphic novel PROBLEMATIQUE. Some images from this magazine are displayed below in censored format (the publisher left them uncensored).
Prostasia offers no evidence that the consumption of this graphic, sexual content by adults with attractions to children would not result in harm to children. To the contrary, there is evidence that viewing sex fantasies involving “dubious consent” could encourage adults to engage in sex acts on children.
Similarly, Prostasia offers no evidence that this material is safe for children to view. (Because they can't — Prostasia makes sweeping statements about all children and does not, in its position statements, recognize that what might be fine for a bright and mature 17-year old might not be okay for a five-year old.)
I have not vetted any other child protection organizations, so I do not think it would be appropriate for me to personally recommend any organizations in this sector.
That said, I am aware that the United States Department of Health and Human Services maintains a carefully-screened list of child abuse and neglect prevention organizations that operate within the United States. (Notably, the Prostasia Foundation is not included on this list.) While this list does not include many child protection organizations operating outside the United States, I hope it is a helpful starting point in identifying organizations that fight for the interests and rights of children and young people.
First published on 18 June 2020.
Revisions on 23 June 2020:
Sheila van den Heuvel-Collins, Prostasia's blog editor from August 2019 to January 2020, asked that the title of her book be placed in italics. Previously, the title was listed between apostrophes.
Screenshots from the Problematique zine were embedded into the webpage, in place of a visual description.
In section 5, the paragraph describing the grooming risk of cartoons and drawings which depict minors in a sexual manner originally cited a study from the United Kingdom's Home Office. It was subsequently brought to my attention that the Home Office's study did not disclose its methodology, and therefore its findings may not withstand scrutiny. As a result, I removed references to this study and have cited a journal article from Japan.