The first time I saw him was at a local concert. I was 14. He looked arrogant to me, and when I met him he was rude and obnoxious. I thought he was a jerk. Even though he was 10 years older than us, my friends thought he was hot. He flirted with everyone, fooled around with some, and barely even mentioned his long-term girlfriend. But for an arrogant jerk, he could be both charming and fun to be around.
One night, when I was about to walk home from the neighborhood park by myself, he insisted on walking me home to protect me. This became a habit. He would talk with me about books, music, history, and God. He seemed to enjoy it when I disagreed with him; or rather, he seemed to be amused with my ability to argue with him. He would tell me that I acted older than girls my age, that I was more mature, that I was more intelligent. I would blush.
I felt flattered, affirmed, challenged. I liked the attention. I felt special. He began to tell me how important I was to him. His girlfriend didn’t understand him. His family didn’t either. He was different than others, he’d tell me how talented and sensitive he was, that he was destined for greater things. He’d tell me that I was the only one who really understood him. I felt bad for him. I empathized with him.
He told me we had to keep our conversations a secret. Our friends wouldn’t understand. They would just get jealous. Of course, we couldn’t tell my parents, or his father, or his girlfriend either. They wouldn’t understand. They would all suspect something ugly. I remember this secret keeping, and I was anxious at the thought of others judging us.
I remember feeling shame.
I now know these are common exploitation tactics: first isolate potential victims physically, like going for walks. Connect with them through flattery, common interests, and most particularly, manipulate their empathy. This will isolate them emotionally and bind them to the relationship with shared secrets and shame.
I was set up to feel like I was his conspirator, when in fact, I was his target.
Soon after I turned 15, one night on the swings at the park, he kissed me for the first time. Then everything escalated. He would pace around beneath my bedroom window in the middle of the night. He expected instant, unconditional loyalty and commitment. He gave me love letters with phrases like, “Here is my heart in words and on paper. Take it and keep it. It’s yours.”
But he would hug me and hold me. And, if I am honest with myself, I really liked being held. I liked that he remembered the books and topics I was interested in. But his intensity was overwhelming, even scary.
And, of course, his intensity transformed. It turned sexual. I remember feeling ambivalent. Curious. Repelled. Excited. Aroused. And these feelings, combined with the constant feeling of shame, made it all feel like I was choosing to have a sexual relationship.
Every bit of affection I craved was bought with more and more explicit behaviors. And because of this slow progression, I was desensitized to how violating it all was. I was set up to feel like I was his conspirator, when in fact, I was his target. I recognized that he could be emotionally and psychologically abusive. The night I ended our relationship, he was violent. As complicated as it has been to accept that someone I love could treat me this way, it has taken decades to recognize and admit, slowly and by incremental degrees, that I was exploited. And, like many survivors of sexual exploitation, I still see and interact with that person occasionally. When I do see him, sometimes I’m fine. I still feel love for him in a peculiar way and I care about him. Yet other days, I feel repelled, shaken, violated. On those days my PTSD symptoms emerge in full force.
I know that my grooming for sexual exploitation was so effective that I still feel responsible for my own abuse. I understand the dynamics that produced this effect in me. And, yet, after all my knowledge, all my therapy, and all the years of praying, it still feels like my fault.
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For a male perspective, read Shane's story.
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