Almost every adult survivor of sexual abuse believes they were responsible for their sexual abuse. In addition, the secrecy and shame about these experiences can lead to profound emotional grief and anger, and isolation from others. Often, these feelings are the result of “grooming.” Grooming refers to behaviors that an adult abuser uses to desensitize or prepare a child for sexual abuse. Grooming is a slow process and may occur over a period of years. It is also important to note that an adult abuser usually grooms the victim’s family or those close to him/her as well. Review the stages of grooming below to determine whether this may have been a part of your sexual abuse:
The Introduction: Adult abuser meets child victim. Often abusers have some access to children due to their career or social standing. Examples would include religious leaders like a priest, a teacher, a tutor, a coach, a doctor, etc. The adult abuser has inherent power and status the child victim and their family. Adult abusers are often well respected and well liked members of the community. Parents or other adults mistakenly believe the abuser has a skill or guidance to give to the child and therefore are open to the adult abuser taking a special interest in their child. Abusers often select children that are in some way vulnerable to being able to be taken advantage of.
A Special Relationship is Formed: The abuser takes special interest in the victim, often promising the child and their family some sort of benefit from the relationship. For instance, one victim’s lacrosse coach offered her free one-on-one coaching sessions, and other victim’s SAT tutor offered free lessons. Other common examples are priests offering a child and or their family a special role within the church, or teachers offering to spend extra time and attention afterschool with a particular child. The child is made to feel special by the abuser and may genuinely benefit from what the abuser has to offer. The special relationship may exist for months or even years before any overt inappropriate behavior occurs. The child and adult grow closer in their “special” relationship. Many adult survivors recall feeling that the abuser was as close as a “father,” “older brother,” “cousin,” “aunt” etc. The special relationship may even extend to the entire family, and other family members may receive additional attention and favors. This enables to the abuser to gain the trust of not only the victim, but of anyone that could protect the child victim. If the abuser can win over the family, this only makes it more difficult for the child victim to ever disclose the sexual abuse.
Boundaries Are Blurred: Eventually a boundary will be violated, but first the abuser desensitizes the child victim to inappropriate behaviors. Usually the first boundaries violated are not physical. For instance, the adult abuser may insist on the child telling him/her a secret, or the adult abuser may start disclosing intimate details about their own life. These intimate details may include information about their dating life, a sexual story about themselves or someone else, or even their own struggles with a work conflict or family conflict. Physical touching is likely already occurring but may not be overtly inappropriate. For instance an adult survivor whose abuser was her diving coach described the diving coach often touching her arms and legs to instruct her on a dive. Another adult survivor described her tutor often touching her arm, and even once brushed her hair out of her face. He even began staying after lessons to watch TV with the student and insisted on putting her head in his lap while they lay on the sofa. An adult male who was abused by his catholic priest as a child described the priest often touching him on his shoulder, insisting on hugs and squeezing his arms and making comments on about his muscle development. Another adult survivor explained that her teacher would drive her home from school, but he began stopping at his apartment and inviting her in. He began changing in front of her once they were in the apartment. Some adult survivors recall feeling uncomfortable but unsure how to handle the situation, especially when other adults witnessed the boundary crossings and did nothing (often this is because the family members were groomed too!). Others recall the escalation of behaviors being so subtle that they did not remember feeling alarmed, and only now as an adult survivor are able to recognize the inappropriate pattern unfolding. Both are common experiences.
A Violation Occurs: By the time a clear sexual boundary is crossed, the child victim is so desensitized or feels so powerless and trapped by the relationship, they do not know what to do. The sexual contact may even be wanted by the child victim, but this is a product of the grooming. Because of the slow progression of behaviors leading to the abuse the child victim is unable to see the adult abuser for what they are—the only one responsible for the abuse. By the time sexual contact starts occurring, the child victim is so emotionally close to the abusing adult they do not believe they can end the abuse. The abusing adult often frames the sexual abuse as an extension of their special relationship, making the child victim feel confused.
The Aftermath: The sexual abuse may occur just a few times or it could continue for years, even extending into adulthood. Because of the adult abusers relationship with not only the child victim, but the victim’s family and friends it makes it almost impossible for the child victim to break away from the adult abuser. One adult survivor explained that she confronted her abuser and begged him to stop visiting her family. The adult abuser continued to email both of her parents, continued to make plans with her family, and even continued to set up mentoring appointments to meet with the child victim through her parents. Unfortunately these are common stories. In addition, because adult abusers through the grooming process make the child victim believe they also wanted the sexual contact, these sexual abuse crimes go widely unreported. Furthermore the adult abuser’s social standing and social power make the child victim believe no one would believe them anyway if they were to report the crime.
Grooming can leave adult survivors ridden with self-doubt and blame, overwhelming guilt and confusion, and intense trust issues. Adult survivors of this type of abuse often need to address their grooming experience in order to heal from the sexual abuse. If grooming was a part of your sexual abuse, therapy could be helpful in processing this experience and continuing to heal.