Opinion: Grooming doesn't have to reach R Kelly proportions for it to be dangerous and harmful
"Groomers will exploit any vulnerability to increase the likelihood a child or young person will become dependent on them."
R Kelly appeared in court on Wednesday for opening statements in a long-awaited federal trial over sex abuse allegations.
The R&B singer, who has for years been the subject of accusations of sex crimes, faces charges that include sexual exploitation of children, kidnapping and sex trafficking of women and minors.
Throughout the New York trial, accusers and witnesses are expected to testify about their alleged experiences with Kelly and how these were aided by an entourage of supporters, with the prosecution today claiming he used his fame and money to sexually exploit and abuse girls, boys and young women.
"This case is about a predator who for decades used fame, popularity and a network of associates to groom girls, boys and young women for his own sexual purposes," Assistant US Attorney Maria Cruz Melendez said in the Brooklyn courthouse.
Cruz Melendez said that Kelly had his pick of "young fans around the country" who he used "physically, psychologically and sexually." She claimed his money, celebrity and the team he surrounded himself with allowed him to "hide his crimes in plain sight," and that he kept videos and photos to protect himself and silence his victims. She also said he paid some victims off so his crimes would not become public.
Despite 2008 charges of child pornography (of which he was acquitted), Kelly's career remained intact until a post-#MeToo era reckoning. Through a social media movement and a Lifetime documentary entitled Surviving R Kelly, the general public was made aware of the allegations, long considered to be an industry open secret. He was arrested in 2019 and has been awaiting trial in federal facilities in Illinois and New York for the last two years.
Every time a celebrity is accused of having committed sex crimes, particularly against minors or those of barely-legal age, grooming becomes an important part of the conversation. And it is an important part of the conversation, given how many young and/or sexually inexperienced people are manipulated by adults with the intention of abusing or exploiting them. But grooming doesn't have to get as far as physical, sexual abuse in order to be a predatory and sinister act that can have lifelong impacts on the child subjected to it.
According to the ISPCC, grooming is "when someone builds a relationship, trust and emotional connection with a child or young person so they can manipulate, exploit and abuse them." This can be done online or in person, by a stranger or by someone known to the victim, and by someone of any adult age.
The relationship a groomer builds can take many different forms, be it through mentorship (like that of teachers, sports coaches, youth group leaders etc.), common interests (like in online forums or fan communities for different music, TV shows and book or film franchises), or so on.
Idols may also take advantage of their fans, be it on a grand scale of celebrity like Kelly's allegations reflect, or on a smaller/more niche scale of celebrity like the Broadway actress currently denying multiple accusations of inappropriate conversations with then-teenage girls.
Though any child can be targeted by a groomer, children in the care system, children with disabilities or children who are neglected/have a troubled home life are at greater risk. As stated by the NSPCC, groomers "will exploit any vulnerability to increase the likelihood a child or young person will become dependent on them and less likely to speak out."
Whether they communicate with their targets in-person or online, a groomer might consume media popular with young people (like games, shows, or music) in order to better connect with or get close to them. They often use tactics like pretending to be younger themselves or complimenting their victim's "maturity," showering them with compliments or attention, buying them gifts, providing advice, understanding and more in order to make the victim trust them until they feel somewhat dependent.
This can lead to all sorts of lifelong after-effects, whether the victim was groomed online or in person.
If it does reach a point of sexual abuse, victims could become pregnant or get an STD. But even if not, victims may experience anxiety and depression, post-traumatic stress, suicidal thoughts, feelings of shame or guilt and low self-esteem. These issues can escalate to eating disorders, self-harm and even suicide.
It can be difficult to differentiate the signs of grooming from "normal" teen behaviour or knowledge, especially as young people are exposed to so much over the internet these days. But the ISPCC says some things to look out for include:
- Being secretive about how they're spending time both online and offline.
- Having new clothes or electronics you didn't buy that they can't or refuse to explain.
- Being upset, withdrawn or distressed.
- Spending more time away from home or going to a "friend's" house excessively.
- Sexualised behaviour, language or an understanding of sex that's not appropriate for their age.
It's important to remember a child might not know or might be in a state of denial that they've been groomed. If you suspect your child is being groomed, aim for a calm conversation (un-calm as you may be feeling) that clearly alleviates any blame or potential punishment from them in the hope they'll open up more.
If they do reveal they've been groomed, tell them they’ve done the right thing by telling you and remind them that it's not their fault. Stop the communication but don't delete any online accounts or interactions with the groomer as the Gardaí may need it for evidence. If anything, try take as many screenshots as possible.
Do not confront the alleged groomer. Report the grooming to your local Garda Station and/or the Garda Child Sexual Abuse Helpline at 1800 555 222.
If you have been affected by any of the details of this article, you can contact Women's Aid's 24 hour helpline on 1800 341 900, the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre on 1800 77 8888, or Childline on 1800 66 66 66.