Manipulative grooming of an adult who has been targeted by a perpetrator for exploitation is defined by a pattern of controlling behaviors with an innate goal and clear intention to create an unequal power dynamic in an intimate relationship. What initially occurs is when an authority figure breaks down a person’s defenses, making her/him feel special, perhaps praising the victim’s talents or spiritual gifts, or in another way, using his position as a leader to develop a close relationship and isolate him/her from others. The perpetrator co-opts medical/coaching/social/religious and spiritual language into an agenda designed to meet his/her personal needs only. It is a gradual and subtle process, and one that has extraordinary power, desensitizing the victim to increasingly inappropriate behavior. The perpetrator speaks from a position of authority, and might say grandiose statements to manipulate their victim, such as, “I asked God for someone who can share my deepest thoughts, prayers, and needs, and He sent me you.”
The first stages of grooming can happen in person, or on social media. Online grooming might be referred to as “catfishing”, where the groomer pretends to be someone they’re not in order to gain trust and influence the adult target’s actions. Grooming can also result in radicalization; in which case the groomer is simply working to win someone over to their radical cause that is in opposition to a political, social, or religious status quo. In addition, gaslighting, a psychological term used to describe the process of grooming someone into believing that they are losing it or going crazy, is also a technique utilized to confuse or control an adult target.
From anecdotal reports, adult grooming appears to follow many of the same behavior patterns as child sexual grooming as validated in the Sexual Grooming Model (SGM) report. Researchers are beginning to study grooming in adult abuse. There is a shared understanding between professionals regarding grooming strategies and identified tangible tactics and behaviors that groomers engage in that may be recognized before the abuse occurs. The SGM describes 5 Stages that can also be observed in some of the alleged cases of adult sexual grooming as described below:
These controlling behaviors give the perpetrator power over their target, making it difficult for them to leave. Sometimes, coercive control can escalate into physical abuse, however, sexual abuse and coercive control are more often the outcome, creating psychological trauma and moral injury in the targeted victim.
David Pooler, Ph.D., LCSW-S, researcher, and professor of social work at Baylor University in Texas, has conducted in-depth interviews with adult survivors of abuse in church settings. He learned that abusive religious leaders often use sacred language and scripture to make their actions seem holy and endorsed by God. They also work very gradually to gain the trust of victims and others around them. “The predatory person is extremely patient,” Pooler explains. “The grooming period can be as long as two years,” but sometimes longer, “before an actual boundary line of radicalization or sexual touch is crossed.”
For the victim, changes were so gradual that he/she didn’t even notice. There is a level of trust established with the potential victim, that the perpetrator would never do anything to hurt them, therefore, subtle boundary violations are tolerated. Distorted beliefs about God, religion, social values, physical or mental health treatments are all justified by the offender and the victim believes the rationale based on their trust in the offender’s authority, charisma, and expertise, in their role of personal care guru and/or spiritual leader. However, this coercive relationship is about corrupted trust, not consensual; consequently, fostering an unequal power dynamic in the intimate relationship.
After an adult has been victimized, they often struggle to understand how they failed to recognize the grooming process. Dr. Pooler reports, “I’ve seen so many survivors in the aftermath say, ‘I just feel so stupid. How could I have fallen for this?”. Dr. Pooler says. “What we really need to look at is how evil and strategic these perpetrators were. It’s not how dumb you, (the victim) were, it’s how conniving these predatory people are.”
Another researcher of adult victimization through grooming, Elizabeth Jeglic, Ph.D., of John Jay College in New York, states that adult survivors are over-whelmed with a sense of shame or a belief that they brought the grooming and coercion on themselves. What she and her team of researchers have discovered is: “We’re seeing anecdotally that understanding grooming is really very therapeutic and helpful for healing,” she says. “You understand how you were manipulated and how this really wasn’t your fault.”, thus, placing the blame where it belongs…on the offender.
“Grooming is a manipulative process, a process that we’re still trying to understand, that’s hard to identify,” Dr. Jeglic adds. “Because we have not studied this adequately, I think we were not very good at protecting people.” She hopes that research like hers will lead to change, helping identify people more vulnerable to grooming and spotting harmful behaviors in abusive people, and develop legislation that recognizes the consequences of adult grooming as a criminal offense.
No victim of adult grooming should live life in the confusion of what happened to them and carry the weight of unwarranted guilt and shame. The blame belongs to the perpetrator who violated your trust, not you. I care about your recovery and want to support you on your healing path. Send me a request at www.kateheit.com. to schedule a free consultation, by phone or in person.