We need to know what grooming for abuse looks like
Here in the US, conspiracy theory-minded folks recently convinced themselves that a new doll was deliberately designed to groom kids for sexual abuse.
When you push a button on the doll’s bottom, it makes happy noises. One mother posted a video saying that she thought the noises were sexual, and her message quickly went viral.
The company said that any sexual connotations were unintentional, and they’re happy to replace the doll, and are “in the process of removing the item for purchase”.
Is it possible that someone in toy design deliberately made a toy for the purpose of teaching kids to associate their private parts with pleasure? Anything is possible (although most kids figure that out easily enough on their own).
There is certainly a lot of blurring of lines between sexiness and cuteness in toys, and it’s gross. It’s worth while, for any number of reasons, to limit your kids’ exposure to dolls and toys and books and shows that constantly show them sexual things.
But this woman’s concern was based on a misunderstanding of what active, targeted grooming often looks like. The whole point of grooming is that it doesn’t start with private parts and sexy noises.
whistleblowers…are willing to become unpopular by siding with the classic unreliable narrator, a child.
Grooming of children and other victims starts with things that are objectively innocuous and non-sexual: Offering rides, being friendly and helpful, giving little gifts, accustoming them to non-sexual physical touch. So when we get the impression that grooming of children looks like sex plus children, we’re setting ourselves up to miss actual red flags, and that means missing actual sexual abusers.
And there’s another important idea: When someone wants to sexually abuse a child, he doesn’t just groom the child. He very often grooms everyone around the child.
He grooms character witnesses. He grooms an entire community, so that nobody thinks twice about letting him spend time alone with the child, and so that, if the child does speak up and say something is weird, no one will believe the child or the whistleblower, because everyone knows and loves Awesome Coach Steve or Holy Fr George or Helpful Uncle Andy or Venerable Grandpa Henry, and it would never cross their mind that the guy everyone likes would do such a thing.
Having everyone on your side is vital, and abusers know this. They work to make everyone around the child will be unwittingly complicit in the child’s abuse.
This reality hit home when I was undergoing training to teach catechism class for my diocese. The point of the training was not to filter out sexual abusers. Someone who wants to sexually abuse children is not going to take a test and go, “Oh, darn, it turns out it’s WRONG to molest kids. I guess I better resign.”
The point of the training was to show decent people what it looks like when someone else may be abusing or planning to abuse a kid, and to give them the courage and support to speak up about it, even if they’re not absolutely certain there is abuse or grooming going on.
I’ll say it again: Abusers groom the community as much as they groom victims. Abusers cannot function unless they can depend on a cushion of trusting allies around them, willing to ignore or explain away or excuse or even defend their behaviour.
Abusers go to great lengths to make sure people know they are good guys, to get people used to seeing them around kids, to think of them as the last one who might harm a child.
When they groom allies, they know that even if the child does speak up, there will be not only their own defense, but the authoritative voices of the rest of the community to shout the child down, saying he’s lying, he’s exaggerating, he’s misunderstanding, he’s making things up, he’s psychotic, he’s dramatic, he’s looking for attention, he’s troubled, he’s perverse. Abusers depend on this chorus to back them up.
A whistleblower who recognises this community grooming and refuses to be part of it can prevent or stop sexual abuse of a child. They are willing to become unpopular by siding with the classic unreliable narrator, a child, against the guy that everyone knows and likes and trusts, because they are willing to listen to that tiny interior voice that tells them, “Something isn’t quite right here”.
They know it’s important enough to follow up and investigate, on the chance that the tiny voice has something big to say.
“having or not having a Troll doll in the house isn’t going to make much difference”
So, having or not having a Troll doll in the house isn’t going to make much difference. This isn’t the kind of grooming that makes or breaks molestation. Molesters don’t flourish because a kid lets it happen because he heard a toy make a sound.
This kind of thinking puts the onus of the molestation on the child, as if children are the ones who are responsible for recognising abuse and being comfortable with it, and for reporting it in a way that adults will believe.
It is true that we should make children understand that certain behaviors are never acceptable, no matter who does them. But focusing on the child, and the child’s willingness to endure abuse or report it, just heaps more injustice on the head of a child who’s already enduring something intolerable.
Abuse doesn’t happen because of toys. It happens when everyone surrounding a child lets themselves be part of the chorus singing the praises of the molester. Kids shouldn’t be put in the position of having to figure out whether what’s happening to them is right or wrong, and they shouldn’t be put in the position of having to speak up against popular adults.
Other adults should be on the alert themselves, and they should be asking themselves if they turn a blind eye to potentially suspicious behavior just because everyone else seems to be doing the same.
I suppose the mother who made the complaint about the Troll doll showed a kind of courage in saying something that got her mocked and derided. But it takes much more meaningful courage to speak up against a specific person in your community that everybody likes and trusts. But this is our job as adults, and we should ask ourselves if we’ll be truly ready to do it, if the need arises.