Sexual Grooming

by Randall S. Frederick

Last weekend, HBO revived allegations of Michael Jackson’s molestation of boys as young as seven years old when they aired the documentary Leaving Neverland. The next day, it felt like deejays across America defiantly played Jackson’s greatest hits. Several stations took calls from listeners, asking whether anyone actually believed the allegations.

Monday evening, HBO aired the second part of the documentary. After it aired, Oprah Winfrey (a survivor of sexual abuse herself) spoke with the two victims in the documentary, where they reaffirmed what happened to them and how Jackson had groomed them, their families, and countless other young boys who were not included in the documentary. No one wanted to play Jackson’s music on Tuesday.

A similar documentary, Surviving R. Kelly, aired in January of this year and detailed allegations that have routinely surrounded Kelly’s career. While deejays were still blaring Jackson’s music, Kelly was arrested. On Wednesday, he sat down for an interview with Gayle King where – repeating the September 2018 performance of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh – he cried and angrily defended his work and the purity of his heart without actually denying the specifics of the allegations against him. Professor of Psychology for the University of Oregon, Jennifer Freyd coined the term for this: DARVO, an acronym for “deny, attack, and reverse victim and offender.” In other words, if it sounds like Kelly is playing the victim, “that’s exactly what he’s doing.”

He was arrested again later in the week for failure to pay child support. Currently, Kelly faces 10 counts of aggravated sexual abuse involving four women. Three of the women, the prosecution alleges, were underage at the time. If convicted, he faces up to 70 years in prison. But those are just the charges facing him in Chicago; charges against Kelly are currently being investigated in Atlanta and New York, where he faces additional allegations that range from sexual assault to kidnapping and illegal transport of underage girls to threatening accusers and financial crimes. There is a 45 minute tape where Kelly allegedly sexually violates a minor. And the Department of Homeland Security, FBI, and IRS are all also reportedly investigating claims against Kelly that could lead to grand juries in several states, including possible federal charges.

It’s hardly the first time we have seen these kinds of events play out, though, and there is little reason to believe all of the charges will stick. Like Michael Jackson, R. Kelly has been to court for similar allegations more than once, namely after secretly marrying R&B singer Aaliyah in 1994 when she was 15 and he was 27. They met when she was 14 and he helped write and produce her first album, Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number. Later, The Chicago Sun Times reported on the singer in 2000 when a video surfaced showing someone who was believed to be Kelly sexually assaulting and urinating on a 13-year-old girl in Chicago. Two years later, Kelly was indicted by the Cook County DA’s Office on 21 counts of child pornography. Though he stood trial, after only one day of jury deliberations, he was acquitted on all charges in 2008. The singer has long denied that he was the man in the video. Now there’s reportedly a new sex video that shows similar behavior with a different girl who claims she had sex with R. Kelly in 2011. As before, this happened in a hotel and a recording studio, having made contact with the singer through his personal assistant. There is a pattern of behavior, a series of similarities.

The story in the headlines right now feels familiar because it is familiar. There is a long history of singers getting away with similar crimes.

In 1957, 23 year old Jerry Lee Lewis married his cousin, 13 year old Myra Brown. She still believed in Santa at the time.

In 1959, Elvis Presley met his future wife. He was 25 and she was 14.

In 1975, Steven Tyler purchased the guardianship of a 16 year old girl (Julia Holcomb) from her mother when he was 27 so that he could legally take her with him across state lines while he was on tour.

In 1980, Celine Dion was 12 years old when her 38 year old manager, Rene Angelil, began a “grand romance” and “decades long relationship” with her. They went public with their relationship when she was 19.

In 1984, Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman started dating Mandy Smith. She was 13. Although they did not marry until she was 18, Mandy says she was 14 when they first had sex. Mr. Wyman was never investigated, much less prosecuted.

In 1991, 32 year old director Luc Besson met and eventually married model Maïwenn Le Besco when she was 15. Their relationship inspired his movie Léon: The Professional (1994), which followed an emotional relationship between an adult man and a young girl, portrayed by Natalie Portman.

In 1993, Jerry Seinfeld picked up a high school student in a public park. He was 39 and she was 17. He and Shoshanna Lonstein dated for four years — through her college years.

In 1997, Woody Allen married his step-daughter, Soon-Yi Previn. Though she was 21 at the time of the wedding, the two met when she 8. Soon-Yi maintains that their relationship was consensual and did not “officially” begin until she was in college. Then, she claims, they spent an afternoon watching a movie. “We chatted about it, and I must have been impressive because he kissed me and I think that started it.” She says she “felt valued” by Allen, which was “quite flattering for me… He’s usually a meek person, and he took a big leap.”Allen was married to Soon-Yi’s mother at the time. It was not the only allegation of abuse in the family.

In the early-mid 2000’s, That 70’s Show actor, Wilmer Valderrama famously dated 16-year-old Mandy Moore, despite being four years her senior. At age 24, Valderrama dated 17-year-old Lindsay Lohan though they kept the relationship a secret until her 18th birthday in 2004. In 2010, the 30-year-old began dating 17-year-old Demi Lovato.

Back in 2004, 26 year old Joel Madden and Hilary Duff did the familiar dance of being “just friends” until her 18th birthday in 2006. Notably silent on the relationship, Duff admitted in 2015 that growing up on television sets was lonely for her, especially seeing herself in tabloids while trying to keep the relationship a secret. “I had a 26-year-old boyfriend, so everyone can make their own assumptions about what I was doing.”

Rapper Tyga and Kylie Jenner began “hanging out” an awful lot beginning in 2014 when she was 16 and he was 24. They dated on and off after that, though they became a lot more openly “on” after her 18th birthday in 2016.

In 2018, then-14 year old Millie Bobby Brown revealed that rapper Drake, who was then 31, had been giving her advice about boys. They are friends, she says. He texts her, “I miss you.” This is the same Drake who has, more than once, skated around that “just friends until she turns 18” line — most recently with 18 year old model Bella Harris.

While we may want to put a thin veneer of acceptance on these relationships – after all, Celine Dion claims her love affair with Rene was a “grand romance” – these “friendships,” delayed admissions, and settlements expose something more than just abuse or age gaps. These are examples of our favorite artists grooming children for abuse. No one will stop them. They will “hang out” or text “advice about boys,” but eventually they will have sex. No one will care because he’s a celebrity and, hey, we’ve endorsed it for so long there is no recourse left for the (now legal) girl to admit it and refuse to press charges because – again – we endorsed this behavior for so long. What is she going to do now? Call “rape” and cry about it on television “like a money-seeking whore”?

Fans support the abuse of artists because they are complicit. They support it, defend it, explain it away, and become advocates for sustaining the abuse. One of Michael Jackson’s victims, Wade Robson, recalls “The trippy part is that it felt like we knew him. He had been in my living room every day, in my ears, via his music and his posters. I’d known him. I thought.” As writer Constance Grady puts it, “Fandom creates a kind of one-sided intimacy, a feeling that we personally know the stars that we admire. For predators, that intimacy is a vulnerability that can be exploited.”

It is this familiarity that so often delays our response to clear violations of that trust. Yes, let me be clear: We, the fanbase, often help the abuser by our continued support, explanation, defense, or excuse of what they have done. We become the abuser’s local Public Relations advocate. But in some sense, our assistance to a crime makes sense. We want to believe the best, despite all evidence. Which is why the exposure of the abuse is so often explosive -because it is no longer the one individual trapped inside of the abusive dynamic but the entire fleet of fans who now see that they too have been abused. They have had their best instincts and better natures violated, along with the victim (or in Michael Jackson and R. Kelly’s case, victims – plural). We have been made to feel like fools for hoping and believing the best of them instead of supporting the one who has survived the abuse most directly. We (finally) meet the details with outrage because we too feel exposed, vulnerable, and exploited because we now (finally) identify with the victim.

As someone who has experienced sexual trauma (“It’s not that bad, though. Not as bad as some people.”), I can testify to the power of denial. We want to believe the best in someone, especially our loved ones or favorite people, because… hey… we love them. That’s our person. But it’s not that simple.

Norma Coates, professor of Pop Music (yes, that’s a thing) for the Don Wright Faculty of Music at Western University in Ontario echoes many trauma advocates when she says, “You’re really invested in this person, not so much for who they are but what they mean to you.” But, she continues, “You don’t have access to who this person is. You have access to the persona and the character that the person plays. We fall in love with that.”

Fandom is a joyous, enriching experience. “They’re models, they’re friends, they help us be parts of communities, especially online these days. You don’t feel so alone. It’s something to grab onto. It makes you feel more human.” And being the fan of a musician can feel even more personal than being the fan of an actor or an athlete. “With music, it’s right in your head,” says Coates. There’s little barrier between your thoughts and the music streaming into your brain. Celebrities rely on their fans to assume they can be trusted, without having to really earn that trust. This is why, perhaps, there is a grain of truth to Donald Trump’s claim,

You know, I’m automatically attracted to beautiful — I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything. Oh, it looks good.

Donald Trump, press tour with Access Hollywood, 2005

In other words, being a fan of a celebrity is to be part of their orbit. You are part of a shared experience inside the fandom with other individuals who share your likes and superficially present a pool of friends. This relationship is transactional, though. A fan of a star means you are giving some of that power to their persona. In a very real sense, you empower their fandom by being a part of the fandom much in the same way that we chase “likes” on social media. The more people like what we are doing, the more empowered we feel. When we see something that is trending, the more likely we are to “like” it and feel part of the movement.

Again, as a survivor of abuse, I know this symbiotic feed well. You love the abuser, which empowers them to abuse. Empowering them to abuse justifies the abuse. Which is why, I suppose, I was not surprised when almost every radio station in my area was rolling out Michael Jackson’s Greatest Hits the day after Leaving Neverland aired. It justified their experience of his work, it justified their position as fans, and allowed them to defiantly say that there was a difference between the art and the artist. As fans, it didn’t matter what Jackson had done with multiple children. They could still appreciate his work.

In my own life, I think this manifests similarly. Which is to say, as disappointed I was in the deejays playing Jackson’s songs, I still understood what they were doing and why they were doing it. It is embarrassing to say you support an abuser, so instead you shift the attention to what the abuser has done. I am able to excuse my abusers. I am able to point out good things that they did and are doing. I’m even (dare I say this?) happy for them when things go well for them. I pray for them. I wish them well. And I try to avoid speaking ill of them.

But at no time am I confused on the fact that they were and are manipulative, vindictive, and have a side to their personalities that few are able to see. I’m not confused about what happened or who they are beneath the images they project. It took a long time to distinguish between the person and what they did, which I suppose is why I am able to name the difference for fans who still want to support an artist who has been now (finally) been caught in their misdoings. So what did they do? Let’s be specific. What did R. Kelly do that was so bad (besides urinating on young girls for his own sexual pleasure) and why am I grouping Drake in on this? After all, Drake hasn’t urinated on young girls or married his step-daughter. See, that’s the thing. We always thing the offense doesn’t really happen until it’s over. We, as fans, try to make every excuse we can. But the fact is, it all begins with grooming.

According to the United Kingdom’s National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC), “Grooming is a process used by people with a sexual interest in children to prepare a child for sexual abuse. It is often very carefully planned and it can take place over weeks, months or even years.”

Dr. Elizabeth Jeglic, immediately after Surviving R. Kelly began airing in January, wrote that “sexual grooming refers to the behaviors that a child molester employs in preparation for committing sexual abuse against a child.” Abuse does not begin with a sexual violation. Instead, “it is estimated that about of half of those who abuse children use grooming behaviors. Therefore, it is important for parents to be able to understand the grooming process and identify potentially predatory behaviors.” What is more, according to Dr. Jeglic,

The key to understanding grooming is that it is very hard to detect when it is happening as many of the grooming behaviors in and of themselves appear completely innocuous, and in many cases they are.  In fact, research shows that people are generally quite poor at identifying grooming behaviors before it is revealed that abuse has occurred.  It is only in hindsight that the behaviors appear suspicious.

What Parents Need to Know About Sexual Grooming,Psychology Today (2019)

Abusers like Michael Jackson and R. Kelly often talk so broadly and emphatically about their relationship with children because, in a very real way, they do have one. It may even become confusing for the abuser caught up in their own lies and self-deception to continue calling the abuse a “relationship.” Which is why, in all of these “relationships” the abuser will be looking to gain power over the young person. This enables them to manipulate or coerce them into sexual activity, but more than that, to keep things a secret “just between us,” and to protect the narrative of a relationship instead of rightly calling what transpires “abuse.” This relationship can take different forms.

  • They could try to convince the young person that they are in a loving relationship as boyfriend or girlfriend.
  • They might become a mentor to the young person, making them think they are someone who can help them or teach them things.
  • Sometimes they will become a dominant figure in a young person’s life, perhaps by having a relationship with their parent or caregiver.
  • They may also build a relationship with the child’s family, making them think that they are someone who can be trusted with the child.

One of the most sinister aspects of grooming is the way in which it so closely mimics genuinely positive relationships. This can leave its victims very unsure of who to trust, sometimes assuming that they can trust no one, even people who seem to be nice and to care. 

According to the United Kingdom’s National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC),

If a young person feels they are in love, this gives an offender power. The offender can emotionally blackmail the child by threatening to withdraw their affection or saying, ‘if you loved me you would.’

Offenders also blackmail children by threatening to share secrets that the child has told them. In some cases, they will tell the child there will be terrible consequences for refusing to do sexual things. Offenders will use any means they can to exert power over a young person. In all cases, they will look to make sure that the young person won’t tell anyone else about the abuse, telling them to keep it secret. They often tell young people that no one will believe them, or that if they tell anyone they will be the one in trouble. This is why it is so important to tell a young person that you believe them and do not blame them if they disclose they have been sexually abused.

Remember many children and young people don’t understand that they have been groomed, or that what has happened is abuse. Even if they tell you or you find out about the abuse, young people may attempt to remain in ongoing contact with the offender and have very mixed feelings about it all. They will need your help in making sense of their feelings, and protecting them from further abuse. 

What is Sexual Grooming?” – National Crime Agency

However, while so much of our attention on grooming is directed toward adults grooming children, this is not the only population where abuse occurs, or even sexual grooming. Abuse takes many forms, and grooming as a form of abuse does as well. Grant Sinnamon of Bond University in Australia notes that “when it comes to child sexual grooming and abuse, any behavior that involves sexual interaction with a minor is readily identifiable as illegal and can be treated as such by the justice system. However, the process of dealing with predatory sexual behavior against adults can be far more difficult to identify and prosecute.”

Need proof? Take a moment and count the number of women in your circle of interaction. RAINN reports that on average, there are 321,500 victims of rape and assault each year. And that is just for individuals over the age of 12.

Take a moment to process that number.

321,500 victims.

Each year.

On average.

Still with me?

Put that into perspective. RAINN began chronicling these incidents and violations, collecting and reporting on them some twenty five years ago. By their accounting, 17.7 million women have been victims of attempted or completed rape.

  • 82% of all juvenile victims are female. 90% of adult rape victims are female.
  • Females ages 16-19 are 4 times more likely than the general population to be victims of rape, attempted rape, or sexual assault.
  • Women ages 18-24 who are college students are 3 times more likely than women in general to experience sexual violence. Females of the same age who are not enrolled in college are 4 times more likely.

Again, I want to you try and put this into perspective so I’m going to ask that you think again about the women that you work with, go to church with, see at school, cross paths with or see on your commute to work.

1 in 6.

It’s 1 out of every 6 women who have been raped.

That is the perspective you need to have in your mind.

That’s the number your brain was trying to sidetrack you from, just now.

1 in 6 women have been raped.

Do the math in your head real quick, because I do it every semester when I walk into a classroom. I make a note of how many women are in the room with me. I do every semester I give a writing assignments about “a memory from childhood.” I do it every semester when I see their writing journals with angry poetry directed at their fathers, stepfathers, babysitters, brothers, aunts, and youth pastors. I think about it when I walk through Target, when I sit down for lunch with my mother, and I think about it every time someone makes a joke about how “crazy” women are.

I think about it every time I think of my family. My mother has two sisters. Her oldest sister has three daughters. In one family, across just two generations, we have six women. Statistically, one of them was raped. And I haven’t even run the numbers on the men in my family yet. Talking around the high frequency of rape with statistics is not the same thing as talking about the high frequency of rape, which is an ever-present reality at family gatherings and in classrooms.

1 in 6.

Let that number sit with you.

1 out of every 10 rape victims are male.

While much is made in the scientific literature and popular media about the act of grooming children by sexual predators, comparatively little discussion is made of the grooming of adults for sexual abuse other than personal narratives or private disclosures. Misunderstanding of this phenomenon by those on its periphery such as victim blaming, stigmatization, humiliation, reporting reluctance, and the weight (legally, socially, and emotionally) brought to bear against victims by the institutions within which adult sexual abuse often takes place are largely responsible for this relative silence.

For the eventual victim, writes Sinnamon, “the initial stages of grooming typically involve substantial emotionally and/or physically rewarding experiences at the hands of the perpetrator. Later in the process, as the manipulation increases and the exploitation commences, a predator’s behavior may or may not cross the line between exploitation and abuse.” This crossing is important to identify and define because, “While both are deviant, reprehensible, unconscionable, and never acceptable, the ability to distinguish between them is, in reality, extremely difficult.”

We spend so much time discussing “dealbreakers” in our relationships without ever naming grooming as a real experience that many individuals experience. If grooming is, in fact, used as a means to prepare an individual or to place an individual into a position in which they are unwittingly subjected to abusive and/or exploitative behavior, it’s time we recognize how prevalent this is in modern “relationships” (yep, still using that term loosely and loaded with meaning). Grooming is a frequent and – when put in these terms – relatable characteristic of con artists, sexual abusers, and antisocial or narcissistic personality types as a means to target and manipulate vulnerable people. And face it. We’re all vulnerable. Our social media and online dating profiles are evidence of this.

Sexual, elder, and financial abuse are words we avoid, just like extortion, human trafficking and slavery (even sex slavery). But, as we noted previously, these are the end results of a long train of events that are mostly benign and easy to excuse. “He’s not abusive because he doesn’t hit me” and “She wouldn’t do that. She loves me. She said she wanted to have my child,” are statements I have heard from victims in the last month alone.

“The challenge with ‘grooming’ behaviors,” Sinnamon writes, “Is that, at least in the early stages of the process, the actions undertaken in a honorable versus nefarious interaction may be indistinguishable. This is because exploitative grooming often takes the shape of a deliberate process of creating a strong, positively reinforced relationship in which trust is garnered and intimate interactions are normalized.”

“The Psychology of Adult Sexual Grooming” (2016) by Grant Sinnamon, pg 462
Sinnamon’s Seven Stage Model

Sinnamon’s model of adult sexual grooming proposes that the grooming and exploitation process can be categorized into seven stages. The first five stages involve the grooming tactics engaged by predators to prepare their targets for sexual contact. The final two stages describe the exploitation phase in which the perpetrator instigates and works to maintain, even normalize, the violating behavior. As seen above, the seven stages of the grooming process are: 1) selecting the victim, 2) gathering information, 3) gaining a personal connection, 4) meeting the need and establishing credentials as a “good” partner or caring friend, 5) priming the target for blurred lines of abuse (often isolating the victim from genuine friends and caring individuals who would challenge the normalization of the abusive behaviors, 6) creating the victim and instigating sexual contact, and finally 7) controlling the victim through maintenance of abuse and praise. Think of this as “the carrot and the stick.” Alternating between abuse (the stick) and praise (the carrot) creates more favorable conditions for sustained abuse and progressive violations/transgressions.

This is where we start.

When we talk about sexual violence, about rape and molestation, we turn our tongues to televisions. We focus on the end of the events – the exposure and public face of sexual trauma, the violations, the nature of the crime tightly coiled in euphemisms and conventionally unassuming terms. We talk about cigars and celebrities, but these are the props and pronouns.

These are the end of the matter, when it is too late to change things.

This is where we start.

We start by challenging questionable behavior.

We start by calling things by their right name.

We start by identifying when the people around us are being groomed for something we know they would not agree to and which we know could harm them.

We start by breaking the spell and asking them directly if they are okay, if they need to talk, if we can help, if they know – really know – that they can come to us and share what is going on behind closed doors.

We suspend our discomfort, we do the hard thing, we embrace the awkwardness and we look them in the eye – and then we ask. “Are you okay? No. Really, are you? I want you happy and safe. Are you?”

This is where we start, not by waiting until it is too late but by informing ourselves and those around us, our loved ones, our tribe, what grooming looks like.

We start by identifying the stages that Sinnamon’s reseach points out and recognizing them if they seem familiar.

We start by being accountable to one another and checking in with them, by deterring behaviors which we know are harmful to those we care about most.

Most of all, we need to believe victims. The first time.

We cannot continue to wait until we see the inside of a courtroom to have our epiphany. We must begin to identify and name bad behaviors while supporting the ones those behaviors harm.

Further Resources

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