Yvonne McCalla Sobers | Against their will: sexual groping and grooming
A Jamaican man once admitted that his socialisation had led him to see non-consensual sex as a norm. He learned that 'no' means 'no' only after he attended a gender sensitivity workshop as part of his professional training.
Many persons, male and female, do not know or choose not to observe boundaries of those considered weak or unlikely to retaliate. Most at risk are, therefore, girls and women assumed to be weak by nature; boys and men seen as powerless, especially if they do not meet gender norms; and children in state care or otherwise separated from their loved ones.
In patriarchal societies, non-consensual sex may be considered rites of passage. Victims, especially when they feel coerced or drugged into silence, suffer lifelong trauma because of sexual experiences that they did not choose and could not control. Survivors endure depression and feelings of worthlessness, in addition to guilt, shame, and self-blame. In he-said-she-said sagas, perpetrators mostly cannot remember and victims can never forget.
In a 2015 TED talk, Jimmy Carter said, "The abuse of women and girls is the most pervasive and unaddressed human-rights violation on earth." Violence against the vulnerable is a topic that is much discussed but on which insufficient action has been taken to implement solutions.
However, the #MeToo generation is pushing back. For example, in late 2017, a Jamaican pastor was charged with having sex with a minor in a motor vehicle. In September 2018, Bill Cosby's celebrity status did not save him from being sentenced to three years in prison for sexual assault that occurred 15 years ago.
Additionally, Brett Kavanaugh, a 2018 appointee to the US Supreme Court, was investigated after he denied allegations of sexual misconduct said to have occurred when he was in high school and in college.
Globally, the Roman Catholic Church faces allegations of cover-up of sexual abuse of boys and girls, some as young as three years old, and most between 11 and 14.
CAN BE SUBTLE
Sexual abuse can escalate from groping and grooming to violent or non-violent penetration of those who do not or cannot consent.
Groping can be subtle and, therefore, easy to deny or excuse. Targets of groping may see the invasion of privacy as showing playfulness or romantic interest when it is a precursor to grooming for sexual abuse. Gropers may brush against the target's private areas: breast, buttocks, thigh, knee or genitals. They may engage 'play' - tickling and wrestling, for example - that allows for contact in public or private. If targets notice and object, gropers claim the touch was accidental and unintentional.
Gropers may also accuse targets of overreacting, lacking a sense of humour, dressing in ways that incite unwanted attention, or of being locked into feminist ideology.
Targets may downplay groping incidents. They may decide to ignore the groping rather than be seen as troublemakers and threats to those expect to touch without sanction. Targets most likely to be sexually abused are those who feel starved of attention and affection. They may see the groping as a precursor to a relationship of some sort. If gropers are sufficiently powerful, targets may hope to translate the unwanted attention into material benefit.
Grooming is a process that is used by sexual predators to gain the trust of targets. Grooming is often planned, even if unconsciously. It can, therefore, take place over weeks, months or even years. Anyone can be the target of grooming. People can be susceptible to grooming because they are naive, gullible, or insecure. Religion and culture may also allow grooming to seem normal if not socially approved. At the same time, groomers can be male or female, of any age or sexual orientation. They can be a family member, friend, a professional, or a pillar of society.
Grooming requires building relationships and emotional connections with targets. The goal is to have the targets think that having sex with the predator is normal or inevitable. Predators may, for example:
- Act as if they are giving the love and attention missing from a target's life.
- Appear to be mentors intent on helping targets to get ahead in life.
- Behave like godfathers giving gifts that targets and their families could not afford.
- Build relationships with a target's family so the family trusts the predator with the child.
- Behave in caring and supportive ways so grooming complaints can be dismissed as 'bad mind'.
- Insist on keeping secrets (even about non-sexual grooming) so the minor feels grown-up and special.
- Use blackmail to entrap targets and make them indebted or fearful of consequences of disclosure.
- Find ways of isolating targets from networks that may help and protect them.
One of the most sinister aspects of grooming is the way in which it so closely mimics genuinely positive relationships. Some red flags are the extent of secrecy, threats, and guilting, as well as the niggling sense that the groomer is taking advantage of the individual. When the groping and grooming lead to penetration, victims can be left unsure of whom to trust. They may assume that they can trust no one, even those who seem to be nice and caring.
OUT OF DEPTH
Social medias enable virtual groping as well as grooming. 'Friendships' form, favours are accepted, and information is shared that can put the target in harm's way. In addition, online secrecy is assured. Young targets will, therefore, be way out of their depth.
Relatives and friends may find it difficult to help targets and victims, especially when they do not think they need help. Being proactive in preventing sex crimes seems the best course. Predators may be less likely to strike when children and vulnerable persons are provided with:
1. Education on what constitutes consent and what are the legal penalties for sexual offences, whether committed in person or online.
2. Information about their legal, sexual, and reproductive rights.
3. Support of adults whom they can trust to listen rather than judge or condemn.
4. Willingness of witnesses to 'bawl out'. Perpetrators, as well as victims, may deny and defend. Further, perpetrators may become dangerous when their game is exposed. However, awareness that someone is watching may prove to be a deterrent.