Wednesday 16 October 2019

Stella O'Malley: 'Grooming of victims by sexual predators is a devastating betrayal of a child's trust'

Trust: James Safechuck’s family thought he was safe with Jackson because of the singer’s asexual identity.
Trust: James Safechuck’s family thought he was safe with Jackson because of the singer’s asexual identity.
Stella O'Malley

Stella O'Malley

Most of us don't really want to think about how predators can seduce their underage targets into enjoying the experience. We prefer to believe all sexual abuse is pain and horror, and we don't want to consider that these children's first experiences of sexual urges and first orgasms were experienced joyfully in a dark and complicated web of collusion with their abuser. But, if we are to properly understand this complex issue, then we must be grown up and learn to consider these difficult facts.

If you want to know exactly how child grooming works, then watch Channel 4's 'Leaving Neverland' documentary. The two-part series didn't just expose the dark heart of the Michael Jackson legacy, it provided a brilliant insight into the complicated feelings victims of abuse sometimes are left with.

The first stage of the grooming process is when the predator carefully selects their target. These days most predators find their targets online and, although the alleged experiences of James Safechuck and Wade Robson are very far from online grooming, the predatory way that Jackson appeared to identify vulnerable children and families who were easy to manipulate is immediately recognisable.

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The next step is when the abuser gains the trust of the target and, if needs be, of the target's family. The parents believed their children were safe with Michael Jackson because of his identity as an asexual man who had never grown up. He watched children's movies with the kids, he played games of tag and he identified with Peter Pan. Jackson's extraordinary money and fame also dazzled the Safechucks and the Robsons, and their genuine belief that their talented children would grow up to be the next Michael Jackson propelled them to trust this strikingly weird man-child. Yet children are entitled to place their trust in the adults in their lives and it's the adults' role to check and verify. The crushing agony and defensiveness of parents when they realise they have allowed predators into their children's lives is heart-wrenching.

Predators often operate from an animalistic cunning that identifies a need or a lack in the target's life and quickly focuses on meeting this need. This need might stem from any source; loneliness, ambition, vanity, greed or even, for some children, boredom and unfettered access to social media. Online groomers tend to bestow outrageous compliments on gullible kids, they fill their heads with false promises and exciting dreams of a better life. They make their targets feel like the most special, most beautiful, most important person in the world. These outlandish compliments are perfectly believable through the prism of the child's brain and it can create a special bond between the groomer and the target. It is this bond that can create such complicated feelings in the aftermath of the abuse.

Creating a feeling of 'us and them' isolates the child and makes it much easier for the groomer to sexualise the relationship. This collusive bond between the predator and the target leads the child to turn against their own family and regard them as the enemy. The family unit can be deeply hurt at this point as the child truly believes that their loyalties lie with the abuser and, once the abuser and the target are colluding as a team together, it can be almost impossible to penetrate their secret lives.

The pain etched on the faces of Safechuck and Robson when they recollected how eager they were to continue the secretive and abusive relationship shows how targets can feel a complicated mix of love, regret, guilt, shame and anger. It is sometimes only after extensive counselling that these targets come to realise that they were taken advantage of as children; that we are all sexual beings and that it is a matter of human decency that the adult doesn't lead the child into inappropriate sexual behaviour.

The last step of the grooming process is all about maintaining control. It was easy for Jackson to control his targets as he had extraordinary amounts of money to throw at any problem. Jackson manipulated James Safechuck's love of jewellery and even held a faux-wedding ceremony with the boy as a way to keep him enthralled; it is likely Jackson controlled many other people with intoxicating promises of stardom.

The deeply complicated feelings a person has after being groomed and abused can be very difficult to untangle. Targets tend to feel horrified when they remember how they gleefully colluded with the abuser and enjoyed the sexual abuse at the time. None of this is fair or appropriate as the child's brain cannot handle their sexual feelings - and this is the very reason why we shouldn't sexualise children.

The profound feelings of betrayal when they finally understand the manipulation can shatter their sense of self and lead to intense feelings of self-loathing. They often have difficulties establishing boundaries and tend to view relationships as transactional and cynical. None of this leads to happy functional lives and is one of the many reasons why it is up to the adults to make sure it doesn't happen.

It's quite hard to comprehend the way the Michael Jackson story, just like the Jimmy Savile scandal, seems to have happened right before our eyes.

So if we are to learn anything from this harrowing story, it is that we need to be able to recognise the complexity of grooming behaviour so that we can loudly and confidently put a stop to it as soon as we see it.

Irish Independent

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