Child Psychologist, Ashwini Balagopal (MBPsS), educates us on the topic.
FX’s A Teacher is not a love story. TV’s dangerously romanticised teacher-student trope has finally been shown for what it is – a manipulative, destructive affair. The show provides a lesson in predatory grooming behaviour with Claire, a teacher, and the inappropriate relationship she develops with an 18-year-old student, Eric. It lays out a disturbing view of grooming and its consequences by covering their fallout and the aftermath 10 years later.
But many have argued – isn’t an almost-18-year old boy above the age of consent? Doesn’t that make his relationship with a 30-something-year-old woman legal? Ashwini Balagopal, also known as @ab.childpsychologist, explains what grooming is and how damaging the power dynamic can be:
What is grooming?
Grooming is a process whereby the sexual perpetrator or perpetrator will gain the trust of a child or an adult, or form an emotional connection with the intended victim or their family for the purpose of starting a sexual relationship with them. For children, it happens without the knowledge of their parents or caregivers. Although grooming is commonly associated with child sexual abuse, it also happens to adults, be it they are 18, 21, 30 or 50 – especially those who are vulnerable (for example, someone who has had a history of abuse or has low self-esteem). The perpetrator’s intention is to sexually exploit their victim.
How do perpetrators groom their victims?
These are some of the common signs or stages of grooming, but keep in mind that every victim has different experiences:
- Identifying or targeting their victim
Firstly, the perpetrator will identify their victim – they will choose their victim based on their age, gender, how they look and even their vulnerability. For example, if they are a paedophile, his or her target group will be children. A perpetrator can also target adult women who are vulnerable as they believe this “target group” will easily fall into their trap.
- Gaining the intended victim’s trust
The perpetrator will gain the victim’s trust (or their parents’) and find ways to access the victim. They are very sneaky and manipulative – they will not be “in your face” or overwhelm you at first. Instead, the victim may suddenly “bump” into the perpetrator or find themselves in a situation whereby the perpetrator is there to lend a helping hand, such as suggesting to tutor the child or pay an adult’s bills. While getting to know their victim, they will also assess how accessible the victim is and whether the victim has strong protective factors surrounding them.
- Filling the void or need of the intended victim
The perpetrator will attempt to become an important figure in a child’s or adult’s life by giving them gifts or filling a need – this is where they become even more manipulative. They will use terms like they are the only ones who can understand the victim or care about them. Victims start to become so emotionally dependent on their perpetrator – they feel as if they can’t live without them.
- Isolating the intended victim
The perpetrator will also try their best to isolate the victim from their friends and family. For example, they will offer to walk them home or accompany them to various places – ensuring that they are always spending time together. Perpetrators become very present in the victim’s life.
- Sexually abusing the victim
The perpetrator will also begin to sexualise interactions with the victim, perhaps by caressing the victim’s back or hugging them. At first, the victim may not consider these gestures as sexualised, but the perpetrator will look at it that way. If a child is the victim, they will use the child’s curiosity about their body to further the sexual relationship. They can start asking the victim for pictures or even to touch themselves. By this point, the child will think it is “normal” because of the bond that has been formed and how the relationship has progressed. Keep in mind that grooming can take place over days, weeks or months. However, when the victim realises that this is wrong, it becomes difficult for them to leave the toxic abusive relationship.
- Controlling the victim
If the victim wants to end the relationship or wishes to disclose, the perpetrator will begin to threaten them. For example, they will threaten to harm the child’s parents should the child disclose. The perpetrator can also make victims feel guilty by saying that they wish to harm themselves or someone the victim cares about should the victim decide to end the relationship or reveal details about the relationship to someone else. They will do anything to keep the victim by their side. As time passes, the perpetrator will become more controlling and by now, the victim feels as if they have no choice but to adhere to their demands as they believe that they have no way out.
What does it do to the victims?
- They will feel shameful and begin to blame themselves for allowing it to happen – this is one of the main reasons why victims are afraid to speak up.
- They will develop mental health issues, such as depression, once they have realised that their “main support” is a perpetrator.
- They will feel unloved and hate themselves for putting themselves in this situation. Children will become confused, but as they get older, and realise what happened to them, they could blame themselves even more.
- They will have difficulty maintaining healthy relationships in the future – for example, they will be fearful or not trust their partner because of their past.
- Some victims will have suicidal thoughts, and some end up taking their own lives as they feel that they have no other way to “escape” from their perpetrator.
Victims need to know that they have been manipulated and abused – it is never their fault.
Why do perpetrators abuse?
Grooming is a form of sexual abuse. It can be difficult to comprehend how “ordinary people” can end up abusing others; what more children. However, here are some possible reasons why grooming happens:
- Perpetrators groom victims to satisfy their emotional, sexual or financial needs.
- Perpetrators love being in control and controlling those who appear to be weaker as it gives them a sense of accomplishment. They may not feel in control in other areas of their lives and choose to prey on the weak.
- In relation to the point above, these perpetrators have low self-esteem and having successfully groomed their victim will give them a sense of “accomplishment”.
- Perpetrators do not have good relationships with adults, so if their target group is children, their attention will be solely on children.
- Most perpetrators were abused as children; thus the vicious cycle continues – they have normalised these abusive behaviours.
How can we prevent grooming from happening?
In order for others to be more cautious about who they spend time with, we must talk about grooming and spread awareness on the matter. The more we talk about it, the less likely it is to happen. If you are in a situation as mentioned above, or know someone else in that situation, please speak up and report it to the authorities.
Ashwini Balagopal holds an MSc Child & Adolescent Mental Health degree from University College London and is a member of the British Psychological Society (BPS). Follow her on Instagram to find out more about her therapy services, as well as learn more about mental health and abuse.