Sexual abuse doesn't start abruptly. If you're a kid, and some adult just randomly tried to have sex with you - you'd probably call them a perv, tell your mom, or call the police. That's why predators first groom the kids they want to abuse, to ensure secrecy and compliance. Grooming is the process of gradually entrapping you, placing you in a position where you won't object to abuse or tell anyone. It often progresses through roughly four stages described below, and in the end makes you think that you had choices, that the whole situation is entirely your fault, and that you'd be in trouble if anyone found out. It can be done in 3D or online, by someone you know (e.g. a teacher or a neighbor), a complete stranger, or a career criminal looking for kids to exploit for financial gain. It's important to remember that some online groomers pose as children, so someone who appears to be a 13yo girl flirting with you on social media could in reality be any age and any gender. If you think someone might be grooming you - please stop talking to them and reach out for help. Grooming is terribly confusing and scary, but it's not your fault: the adult is manipulating you, and they're good at it because they've probably done it to many kids before.
Grooming starts with the perpetrator establishing a positive relationship with you, getting you to trust them and rely on them, by giving you something that you want. At first the things they give you are perfectly appropriate and don't need to be kept secret. For example, they might offer you a listening ear, advice, help with homework, a trip to an amusement park, access to video games, free data plan for your cell phone. A homeless kid may be offered some food or clean clothes. None of these things raise any concerns because most adults offer them to children occasionally. For example, I recently took my neighborhood kids to a park, and bought them ice cream too. The difference between random acts of kindness and the first stage of grooming is that the perpetrator is doing it consistently rather than occasionally. They are reliably providing you with things that your parent should be providing, thus becoming an alternative parental figure, someone you count on and trust. A good way to tell if something is wrong is - if you were in trouble, whom would you go to for help: your parents or this other person?
The next stage of grooming is creating secrets between you and the perpetrator. Most kids/teens keep secrets from their parents: you broke something and blamed it on someone else, gave away your sweater and said you lost it, received a bad grade and tore up your report card, etc. Normally these secrets are either discovered and resolved, or you live in fear for a while and then gradually move on. Perpetrators of child sexual abuse entrap you by capitalizing on these situations or even creating them, e.g. by giving you access to alcohol, drugs, porn, or allowing/encouraging any other behavior that you would be in trouble for if your parents or authorities found out about it. You know that what you're doing is wrong, but you're with an adult who you believe cares about you and they don't seem to mind, so you start wondering if maybe it's not really wrong, maybe it's just that your parents impose too strict rules on you. This creates an alternative set of standards, a habit of lying to your parents about what you do with the perpetrator, and a firm belief that if these lies are discovered - you'll be in trouble. Teens with behavioral problems are especially vulnerable to grooming because their secrets are more troublesome and less likely to go away (e.g. drugs, theft, credit card fraud), so the perpetrator doesn't even have to create a secret to trap you with, it's already there.
Exposure to sex
Once you feel like a co-conspirator and fear disclosure to parents just as strongly as the perpetrator does - they proceed to the next stage, adding sex to the relationship. If you're a child and they know you in person, they'll look for opportunities to spend time alone with you: babysit you, invite you for sleepovers, etc. They'll start talking of "special hugs", "tickle games", and other such, brush against you, invite you to sit on their lap, etc, eventually progressing to fondling and intercourse. If you're a teen and only know them online - they'll start talking of sexual topics, your physical development and hygiene, or show you pornography. Then they'll start asking you for nude photos, sexting, or webcamming. At this stage you're being coerced rather than forced, so you still believe that you have a choice, that this is a consensual relationship. Some kids are uncomfortable with where things are going, don't know how they got in this situation, and blame themselves. Others feel that nobody is getting hurt, that their romantic life is none of anyone's business, that they are old enough to choose whom to date.
When you refuse something that the perpetrator wants, coercion can turn into blackmail or violence: you're forced to do something you don't want to do but feel like you don't have a choice anymore. For example, they might threaten to publish your nude photos, or physically restrain and rape you. This is the point where many kids decide that they can't take it anymore, and either talk to their parents or commit suicide if they feel that talking to parents would be useless. If that's how you feel, please do talk to someone; if not parents - maybe someone in school, or a parent of a friend, or a hotline volunteer (we have a bunch of hotlines under "help" tab on top of this page). It feels like there's no escape, but escape is totally possible, you just need a little outside help. We live in a civilized society, the adult is committing a crime against you, there are social services and law enforcement to protect you from this.
Some predators groom kids for sale rather than for personal use. Once they are sure you'll do whatever they say and won't tell anyone about it - they'll start involving you in child pornography, prostitution, or even trafficking. That's very dangerous because you're dealing with multiple adults, organized crime rather than a single child molester who might have some attachment towards you. These people have no attachment, they are career criminals, exploiting dozens (if not hundreds) of kids, so if push comes to shove they won't take pity on you. At this point many kids believe they are a part of this criminal organization, and would be in trouble with law enforcement if caught. That's not true. If you're still a minor, you're definitely a victim and will not be charged with any crime. If you already reached the age of maturity, you're probably a victim of human trafficking, not free to go, so what's happening is rape, not prostitution. Don't give up on yourself, reach out for help, even if it feels like your life is ruined beyond repair. Things do get better, and you're worth fighting for.
~ Jonathan Swift
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