Content warning: The following story mentions predatory behavior, grooming and sexual abuse
Grooming and predatory behavior will always be wrong no matter how we look at it and, sadly, our country has a child sex abuse problem. It was only this year that the House Committees on Revision of Laws and Welfare of Children approved a bill raising the age of consent and the age for statutory rape from 12 years old to 16 years old. While several reported cases involve grown men preying on young girls, we need to talk about how it’s just as detestable the other way around. Women can be predatory groomers too. Yes, I said what I said.
To those who are still unfamiliar with the term, grooming is “the act of training, preparing, or conditioning someone for a long period of time.” It’s a common tactic used by pedophiles and ephebophiles—sexual predators who target teenagers. It’s also recognized as a power play since the younger person usually isn’t aware of the sexual predator’s intentions who uses their status to get in their favor.
It often starts where we least expect it
Being a form of manipulation, grooming is not a clear cut technique. It can take the form of groomers sending gifts and building a friendship before committing any form of sexual or romantic act.
“I know I even asked at first if it was ok [for him to text me] because I wasn’t used to a teacher regarding me very casually and he said, ‘Graduate ka naman na ng grade school.’ … At first, it wasn’t anything discomforting, just him asking about my day, getting to know me more, asking about my preferences. I wasn’t used to stuff like that and I think he knew. It was easy for him to establish a connection with me because I didn’t have many friends and I was really a low-key student. I know he began being very sweet, making me feel special…I was 12. I didn’t know better talaga,” one of them said.
Grooming often starts with building a friendship or a relationship that establishes a connection between the sexual predator and their target. According to the Department of Education of the State Government of Victoria, Australia, grooming is a form of sexual abuse that manipulates people into “thinking they are in a safe and normal relationship so they may not know it’s happening or may feel they have no choice but to be abused.”
The dangerous part of grooming is that ephebophiles could argue that they got the consent of the person they groomed. As compared to pedophiles who prey on children, ephebophiles target teenagers, “appealing to their need to feel cool, attractive, mature, and accepted,” thus making it harder to detect. This could also happen with celebrities who use their star status to prey on young fans and even younger celebrities such as the alleged cases of R. Kelly and the questionable friendship between Drake and Millie Bobbie Brown.
Groomers can be anyone
That being said, we also need to talk about how men are not the only predatory groomers. Studies show that women commit these offenses with a rough estimate “rate of pedophilic attraction at one to four percent in both men and women.”
Back in July, Ghislaine Maxwell, British socialite and alleged accomplice to accused sex-trafficker Jeffrey Epstein, was arrested and charged on “the indictment include enticement and conspiracy to entice minors to travel to engage in illegal sex acts, transportation and conspiracy to transport minors with intent to engage in criminal sexual activity and two counts of perjury.”
According to a CNN report, Maxwell, along with Epstein, was accused by prosecutors of grooming young girls by “inquiring about their schools and families, taking them to the movies or shopping.” This goes to show that predatory behavior looks beyond the sex and gender of the groomer and focuses more on the power relations between them and the person vulnerable.
A VICE report in 2015 compiled several cases of female educators having sexual relations with their male students. Like most survivors of sexual abuse, a lot of these students reportedly didn’t see it as sexual abuse or morally wrong at first, but some saw it as “a rite of passage into his manhood.” Not only this, the report also expressed how sexual abuse by women towards young men often goes under the radar because “women rarely stalk or attack random children or adolescents; furthermore, they often develop or, in the case of family or an institution, feed off of a so-called relationship to their victim and consider it love.”
Survivors can be anyone, too
Aside from the fact that anyone can be groomers, survivors can be anyone, too. This may come off as new knowledge to some since several cases remain unreported due to the difficulty for survivors (including men) to come forward. Moreover, toxic gender stereotypes could also play a part in discouraging men from speaking up.
According to psychotherapist Beverly Engel, a lot of the sexual abuse experienced by young men goes unnoticed because of their denial of the fact that they’ve been abused. She cited Michel Dorais’ book “Don’t Tell: The Sexual Abuse of Boys” and said that “some boys were particularly vulnerable because they were interested in exploring a situation that presented itself to them, whether it was getting closer to someone they were fond of, satisfying their sexual curiosity or simply not displeasing their aggressor.
What characterizes the abuse in such cases is that the experience goes far beyond what the child anticipated, and, more importantly, beyond what he was ready to agree to or go through.” The survivor was, then, manipulated into believing that he participated willingly and only realized that he was abused “when time has provided perspective and [he] has had time to develop more emotionally that what was once considered to be a voluntary act comes to be recognized as being abusive.”
Back in 2018, our justice system considered rape committed against boys as sexual assault which carries a lesser penalty than if it happened to a girl. Reports say that one in six boys experience sexual abuse during their childhood and refuse to seek treatment because “acknowledging feelings and disclosing vulnerabilities are in some ways antithetical to traditional masculine roles.” And when they did speak up, they were met with responses such as “That’s impossible. A man can’t be raped.” Or victim-blaming like, “How could you let that happen?”
Just as how much of the conversations denouncing sexual abuse and rape culture empowers women, we must also seek the same for male survivors. Hopefully, in the future, all justice systems would focus less on gender stereotypes and charge those accused of sexual abuse and predatory behavior fairly. But for now, we should start by listening to all survivors and looking at sexual predators for who they are—criminals.