I’m a survivor of child sexual grooming. It took me 20 years to know it wasn’t my fault | Rape and sexual assault

When I was growing up in the 1990s and early 2000s, we didn’t have the word “grooming” to describe what sexual predators do to capture their young victims. We have the word now but as our 2021 Australian of the Year, Grace Tame, said yesterday, grooming and its impact are still not widely understood.

In late 2020 my memoir on child sexual grooming, No Matter Our Wreckage, was released. Yes, I am a survivor of child sexual grooming and abuse. I’m also a professor, an author, a friend and a colleague. Survivors like me are all around you, but we’ve learned that people don’t want to hear our stories. We learned it when people changed the subject. We learned it when people dismissed or minimised our experience of abuse. We learned it when people told us we brought it on ourselves. And so, we keep silent.

Grace Tame reminded us yesterday that survivors’ voices need to be heard if we are to stop child sexual grooming and abuse from happening. We also need to hear those voices in order to heal when it has already happened to us. In speaking openly about these stories – in their full complexity – survivors can begin to place the blame and shame where they belong. As Tame said, we can place the shame at the feet of perpetrators. When stories are not told, when the words of perpetrators go unchallenged and unaddressed, too often shame and blame worm their way into the psyche of victims. Victims have to see their stories reflected in public discourse, to learn and understand that none of it was their fault.

Grace was groomed by her teacher. I was groomed by a stranger over the internet, in my childhood home. Grooming is something that happens right under the noses of parents, of authority figures, of the very systems we put in place to try and protect children. This fact speaks to the manipulative skill of perpetrators who groom child victims.

Many people still don’t know what grooming really is, beyond “something people to do children”. They don’t know what it looks like, so to speak.

Grooming is a subtle art. In my experience, extensive time and energy is expended in hunting down and bending the will of child victims. I met my perpetrator on the internet when I was 12. We chatted for months, about perfectly innocent things. Gradually, he began telling me things about him and his girlfriends. It began with the odd mention of his sex life, it progressed to him telling me stories in detail such as when he had sex with a woman he was seeing in front of a friend who was a virgin.

As time wore on, he began suggesting things he wanted to do to me. Still, there remained an invisible barrier between us, between the talking and the acting. He wouldn’t meet me in person, he would say, because he was unsure he could restrain himself. A noble man restraining himself, the story went. Until he decided we should meet, upon which he repeated the same gradual weaving of the everyday and the sexual into our physical encounters, just as he did our virtual ones.

This is grooming. It’s the gradual weaving of sexual ideas into an otherwise normal conversation until they become the normal conversation. And then, slowly, inexorably, things move beyond conversation.

What is rarely spoken about is the immense confusion this situation creates for the survivor. You can care for, perhaps even think you love, your perpetrator. You can experience physical pleasure while being abused. In my case, I never wanted sexual attention as a child. At 12 and 13, I didn’t really know what sex was. My perpetrator was so skilled that in time not only did I stop saying no to the touching, to the other things he wanted, he got me to say yes. My resistance artfully, gently, worn down, I welcomed him into my childhood bedroom. I said yes as much as a child can say yes to something they don’t comprehend.

It took me 20 years to really understand that what had happened to me wasn’t my fault; that I wasn’t responsible for what my perpetrator did, even if I had experienced pleasure, even if I had said yes. When I wrote No Matter Our Wreckage, I wrote the book I needed when I was younger. The book that explains the tangled emotions grooming leaves you with.

Grace Tame said this week that she was part of a growing number of voices that will not be silenced. The Let Them Speak movement is crucial to preventing future abuse. Difficult, confronting, stories need to be told. If they are not, we fail to break the cultures of silence and shame that surround these actions, these acts of violence. We also don’t arm parents and other authority figures with the knowledge they need to spot a child in danger, or have the conversations that could uncover grooming in action. We need to create safe spaces to ask children if anyone is talking to them about sexual things, we need to take notice when a child seems to know too much for their age. These are subtle things to spot, but that’s the point – those who groom are cunning.

  • Gemma Carey is an author and professor at the University of New South Wales. Her work has appeared in Meanjin, the Guardian and the Canberra Times. She is the author of No Matter Our Wreckage
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