Lies, Control, and Threats : How Grooming Kills Romance
It’s love, and you’re sure of it, but you can’t shake that gut feeling that something is wrong. Grooming is often hard to spot but it is not the same as courting. Here’s how to read the manipulative behaviour that differentiates grooming from romance.
They’ll take the time to know, understand and sympathise with you. They’ll do it like it is the most natural thing in the world. And slowly but surely, you’ll find yourself in the hands of someone with an ulterior motive. You may not even realise that they have more power in the relationship, and it’s got nothing to do with sex.
How can you stop yourself from falling in love with someone who takes the time to know you on a deeper level? But that’s exactly what makes grooming so dangerous.
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Inbreeding may be the ‘Targaryan’ way, but (spoiler) Rhaenyra and Daemon’s relationship in House of the Dragon has another disturbing implication; child grooming. What’s more surprising? Grooming hardly ever utilises violence as a means to achieve sexual abuse. It happens gradually through coercion, manipulation, and seduction. Most victims don’t understand what’s happening or even have the opportunity to give consent.
History has taught us that the safety of those vulnerable to abuse has always been lacerated with challenges. Groomers are your average next-door neighbours, teachers, classmates or even people you come across on the street. It could be anyone, even someone you’ve known and loved for years.
“The idea that a teenage girl is in any way able to consent to that sexual interaction is a mess,” Emma D’Arcy (who plays Rhaenyra) had previously stated during an interview about House of the Dragon with the Independent. And not just teenagers, but even adults are have a hard time grasping when they’re being ‘groomed’ within their relationships.
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What Exactly Is Grooming?
When we talk about grooming, it’s important to understand that it doesn’t just have sexual implications. Grooming presents itself in various forms, from romantic to financial and even for criminal purposes. According to RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, USA), the one thing in common that ‘groomers’ will have is manipulative behaviours.
Anyone can be a victim, not just a child. Anyone in a vulnerable position, where intentional manipulation by the abuser can lead to exploitation and long-term grooming, under the guise of care and love is a victim. High-profile cases like R. Kelly have shown us in the past that grooming situations happen even between two consenting adults.
Grooming doesn’t always begin as a sexual relationship; it stems from a friendship that slowly evolves into a relationship where the power dynamic is imbalanced. Take the case of the famous influencer, James Charles who is embroiled in allegations of grooming from several under-age boys. It began as messages being shared on Snapchat and TikTok, and eventually led to deeper relations. His millions of followers enabled him power over those he contacted, because who would believe relative anonymous personalities over James Charles?
According to RAINN, most grooming situations follow a similar cycle:
- Selecting the victim(s): The abuser will observe and find vulnerable individuals. Low self-confidence and excessive emotional attachment are some traits that abusers will look out for.
- Getting to know the victim and isolating them: For the victim’s ‘best interests,’ the abuser will slowly start isolating them (physically or emotionally) from those who protect them.
- Gaining trust: They’ll give gifts, become privy to secrets, and might even end up becoming your closest confidant. But all of this is done under a shroud of secrecy, as you will become ‘trained’ to keep these interactions confidential.
- Sexualisation of relationship: It can start as a harmless hug meant to console you, but gradually these physical interactions increase. Introduction or discussion of sexual topics can also start to take place, along with an escalation of sexual interactions.
- Naturalisation of sexual behaviours: The abuser will want to make sexual interactions look natural to avoid suspicion and keep the victim in the dark. The relationship will have an imbalance of control and push personal boundaries in all, if not most, aspects.
How Grooming Deviates From Romantic Relationships
Romantic relationships that are completely normal at the start can evolve into grooming when a partner starts becoming manipulative and abusive. In a grooming situation, the victim themselves understand that they are being taken advantage of to some extent. They might feel indebted to the abuser, and strive to ‘pay them back’ by being accepting of abusive behaviours. There is no balance of power, no respect and no awareness.
The truth is, grooming situations don’t initially start that way (from the victim’s perspective). You might feel a false sense of safety but are expected to conform to your partner’s expectations. Anyone can end up being a victim. Even when you’re aware of what abuse is, you might not see the signs of grooming because it’s interlinked to other emotions like embarrassment, shame, honour and even love.
The abuser may also portray themselves as someone completely different in public. They can be an upstanding citizen, making it even harder to speak out once you realise grooming is happening. A case in point: the recent ‘romantic’ reel featuring Karan Kundra and Riva Arora, is normalising grooming behaviours. After all, what is a 12-year-old girl doing being put in situations with men far older than her?
Normalising a 12-year-old in media with men far older, especially in romantic situations, and more powerful than her only perpetuates the concept of grooming.
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Identifying The Signs Of Grooming
According to a 2021 report by the National Crime Records Bureau, there was a 400 per cent increase in cybercrimes committed against children from 2019 to 2020. The pandemic gave more online access to vulnerable children who weren’t taught the dangers that lurked behind screens. And it wasn’t just children who were affected, the pandemic made many people vulnerable to seemingly ‘harmless’ social media predation.
It starts as naive DMs declaring love, affection, or asking to be friends. Vulnerable victims end up feeling like they’ve found someone who cares and understands them.
Innocent photographs and messages are exchanged, which turn explicit with time. It’s a ‘little secret’ between the two, and excitement can prevent the victim from understanding the trap.
Being aware of grooming tactics and behaviours is critical to protect yourself and your loved ones. Many times, the victim won’t understand what’s happening to them, and the onus is shifted to people around them to figure out that grooming is at play.
Have you noticed a person in your life becoming isolated and withdrawn all of a sudden? Does it have a correlation to other secretive behaviours and volatile emotions they are displaying? You have to ask yourself these questions to spot grooming as often the victim might look like they want to share something but are keeping it bottled up.
The victim might also be a little forthcoming with information, but not in a way that would let you know anything about the other person. The abuser might simply be spoken about as a ‘new friend’ or a ‘new boyfriend/girlfriend,’ but no clues about their personality are given. You might also notice them spending more time online or away, but when asked, no answers are given.
Life coach and sexuality educator, Reema Ahmad discusses the importance of creating a safe environment at home in her book, ‘Unparenting: Sharing Awkward Truths with Curious Kids.’ Being open about communication, teaching children about dangerous online behaviour and enabling discussion within your home can help them navigate the online space in a safe way. Being open about these awkward topics can help children be aware and informed.
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Ask Yourself: Is There Equality In The Relationship?
While the world normalises age-gap relationships, we have to be vigilant when adults are involved with children. Consider this: Elvis Presley’s first encounter with his ex-wife Priscilla took place when he was 25 and she was 14. Celine Dion’s ‘lasting love’ with manager Rene Angelil became public when she was 19, but they had been in close proximity since she was 12.
The glamorisation of age-gap romances, especially like the one seen between Rhaenyra and Daemon in House of the Dragon, only worsen the problem. People fall under the disillusion that these relationships are begun on an equal footing, when that’s not the case at all. People in grooming situations might easily mistake their relationship with their abuser as love. In most cases, victims of grooming will either not understand the gravity of their situation or refuse any external help. They might believe that they’re in an authentic romantic relationship.
Many other victims may stay silent because of shame or family. If you feel like you’re not the right person to be guiding someone else through this period, reaching out and finding mental health resources is crucial. Being patient and unconditional in your support is essential to make the victim feel comfortable about sharing their experience.