American actress Evan Rachel Wood has been vocal about being in a relationship with an abuser. Now, at the start of February this year, she got specific — identifying him by name and calling him out for “grooming” her to not realise the emotional and sexual abuse that characterised their relationship. While Wood stated in her post that she was ‘here to expose this dangerous man and call out the many industries that have enabled him, before he ruins any more lives’, Wood’s post raised a lot of questions about “grooming” or “sexual grooming”.
What does this mean, and why do people fall victim to someone who primes them for a sexually and/or emotionally abusive relationship? By definition, grooming is when someone builds a relationship, trust and emotional connection with someone so they can manipulate, exploit and/or abuse them.
According to sexologist Dr D Narayana Reddy, sexual grooming is a preparatory process in which a perpetrator gradually gains a person’s trust with the intent to be sexually abusive. “The victim is usually a child, teen or vulnerable adult. Though the term applies to children, adults can also groom other adults — even at work,” adds the doctor.
We spoke to a survivor, Megha Dinesh, cofounder of Meghavi Wellness Spa, who was sexually abused from the age of four or five years. She even remembers that one of her first ‘groomers’ was an older cousin who was then nineteen or twenty years old. “I have vague memories of how he manipulated me to be his subject by showing me some videos, saying it was something all ‘grown-ups’ did to become good, beautiful people. He’d also add that it had, however, to be their ‘secret’. And, yes, the innocence kicked in and the then lucrative gifts of chocolates, ice creams and preferential perks were the great add-ons!” recollects Megha. “As my primary exposure to sex was this, it just seemed natural and okay and my joint-family system further propelled more ‘groomers’ that included other cousins, neighbours and uncles!”
“And while all this was happening, I was still blank, submissive and did not know if anything was wrong or not appropriate. I also didn’t receive any sensitisation from the school or by any elders in the family. Sex was never a topic spoken or discussed at all at my home in all the growing years,” shares Megha.
Sadly, that’s a phenomenon that still prevails in many households. Sharing more insights into her heart-wrenching story, Megha adds that her abuse went on for years, and the bubble burst only when she got pregnant and had to be aborted at the age of thirteen!
“When my parents and custodians faced it, they did not know any better than to hush me, make me feel guilty and like the sinner, and a child they wished they never had! So instead of me receiving medical, emotional counselling, I was ostracised in the family with almost a daily dose of physical abuse. Now, instead of me being taught to stand up, confront the groomer and to do damage control, what I learned and experienced was to feel ashamed of myself, cover up my hurt and pain and behave normal, and never to talk about this to anyone. Moreover, I was made to believe that I am lustful, and it was entirely my fault —like I am a sinner and not really worthy of living,” she says recounting the traumas.
What keeps us from talking about sexual abuse?
Megha believes there are many reasons, especially as it affects our own lives or the lives of those we care about. “In most societies, despite the times we live in, sex is still not a topic that is discussed or spoken comfortably. Added to it, child sexual abuse is a taboo topic, making it difficult for most people to talk about it openly,” she reasons.
Despite mandatory sex education in their curricula, most schools in India still end up brushing away topics relevant to sex education. Even if by magic they do include the subject, a lack of creativity in the pedagogy hardly ever touches upon the emotional intimacy related to sex.
It took Megha years of self-work, healing, spiritual work and amendments to reach out to her inner child, to love her, nurture her and not feel guilty, ashamed and condoned, she tells us. “My healing also guided me to share my experiences to help heal others and become aware. I have also volunteered myself to go to schools and share my Life story to help children know the difference, come forward and talk, feel safe and most importantly even unfortunately if they were or are exploited it is not their fault,” adds Megha.
However, despite exposing her vulnerability, strength and candour Megha has only received feedback that schools find it difficult and have got backlash from parents over exposing their children to this topic.
Psychological effects of sexual abuse
l Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
l Intense fear
l Suicidal ideation
l Disordered sleeping
l Disordered eating
l Intimacy problems
l Negative self-images
l Sexual dysfunction
6 stages of sexual grooming
Stage 1: Targeting a victim
Stage 2: Gaining trust
Stage 3: Filling a need
Stage 4: Isolating the child
Stage 5: Sexual contact
Stage 6: Maintaining control
— Dr D Narayana Reddy shares