Because we teach children about stranger danger, they know they should be wary of people they don’t know. As adults, we’re aware of strangers we should steer clear of. But people who are emotional and sexual predators are often people we know. And that is one of the most disturbing things about cases of abuse—the perpetrators have deliberately chosen their victims and groomed them to do their bidding. By the time they inflict damage they are involved in a seemingly consensual relationship.
Grooming is the slow, methodical process by which a predator manipulates a person until that person is ripe to be victimized and ready to accept an abusive relationship. The perpetrator takes his time to gain the victim’s trust, and little by little, he takes over.
How do you know if you are being groomed? Since the process takes place over weeks, months or even years, it’s useful to know the stages of grooming so you can recognize it when you see it.
- The predator selects a victim. Victims can be any age, but they are often children because children are some of the most vulnerable people in our society. Predators focus on people with low self-esteem who are emotionally needy and easy to manipulate. Kids or adults who are unpopular or isolated are good targets because they respond to attention and can be managed without others noticing.
- The predator becomes a friend. He beings by showing interest, usually without any sexual or emotional overtones. He might even do some homework and get to know a person through social media so he can use the person’s likes or habits to his advantage. He’s charming. He’s friendly. He’s getting to know what makes his victim tick.
- The predator builds trust. He’s a really good listener and is sympathetic enough to appear to be on the victim’s side. He lends support and encouragement. He’s learned enough about his victim to know how to exploit the person’s need for love or friendship. Whatever the person needs, the potential molester fills the void. Predators have even been known to develop a sexual relationship with a single parent in order to gain access to the child. The more involved the predator is with the family, the less ability the child has to say no.
- The predator gets the victim’s guard down. Perpetrators often present themselves as a mentor or a romantic partner or a benefactor. They do the person a favor so she feels indebted to the predator. It might be a small favor to start, and once he has fulfilled a number of promises, he begins to ask for favors in return. It’s usually a very slow process, so insidious that the victim doesn’t realize she’s being taken in.
- The predator isolates the victim. The molester not only selects people who are already somewhat isolated, he takes it further. The more he can separate his victim from support networks, the easier it is for the perpetrator to maintain control. That gives the predator more power over the victim. “Let’s keep this our little secret,” is a phrase used to both make the victim feel special and keep her away from outside influences. Secrecy is the hallmark of grooming.
- The predator becomes a molester. By the time the predator makes his move, whether emotionally abusive or sexually, the victim is entrenched in the relationship. She feels like the predator’s behavior is somewhat normal. She is afraid to speak up and probably has been isolated enough that there’s no one to speak up to. When the groomed victim is sexualized or verbally abused, it doesn’t resemble the inappropriate behavior she’s been taught to be wary of. The predator uses blame and shame to keep her under his thumb as long as possible.
Often victims have a feeling in the back of their minds that something isn’t right. It’s important to listen to this gut reaction and to get help from a qualified third party as soon as possible. If you think someone you love is the victim of grooming or abuse it’s a good idea to get help from a professional too.
Nancy Travers is an Orange County Counseling professional. If you need safe, effective counseling services, please get in touch. You can reach her here: https://www.nancyscounselingcorner.com/contact