Experts explain the deceit and betrayal involved in sexual grooming of minors
It’s not unusual for a teenager to have strong feelings for a teacher, mentor or any other adult role model who often provides inspiration, wisdom and guidance that can leave a lasting positive impact on the life of a youth.
Psychologists and therapists say those emotions can sometimes develop into infatuation and crushes, and even love, albeit perhaps misplaced. Fantasies of a sexual nature are normal, too, they say.
What is deviant and harmful, however, is for the adult — the teacher, mentor or role model — to take advantage of those feelings for his or her own sexual gratification, said Wowlvenn Seward-Katzmiller, a Sebastopol marriage and family therapist who treats trauma patients.
“It's sexual abuse when somebody in a position of power or authority tries to mold another person’s sense of themselves or their sexuality in order to meet their own sexual needs,” Seward-Katzmiller said.
The seven women who have come forward to accuse their former teacher at Sonoma Academy of sexual harassment say they feel his transgressions, including improper touching and emotional intimacy, amounted to grooming.
But what is sexual grooming?
Legal and mental health experts familiar with sexual harassment and assault say the grooming process often starts out slowly and subtly and ramps up over time. Compliments, sharing secrets, spending time alone and isolating the victim from other people are all part of the process, said Michael Shklovsky, an attorney with the Santa Rosa law firm Anderson Zeigler.
He would not comment on the Sonoma Academy allegations, preferring to discuss the topic in general.
Shklovsky, who has represented plaintiffs in sexual abuse cases, said often a survivor is left dealing with the effects of grooming long after the sexual misconduct, harassment or abuse has occurred.
The perpetrator’s attention and compliments can focus on physical appearance as well a person’s talents, skills and abilities, he said. Shklovsky added that when the “the bad event happens,” when the survivor realizes their abuser had ulterior motives, the effect can be devastating.
Grooming survivors experience intense suffering and often start doubting “their own reality, if you will,” Shklovsky said.
“If someone pays them a compliment down the road, they become guarded,” he said. “It’s like PTSD. They’re afraid of finding themselves in the same situation where they were manipulated and deceived.”
Traci Ippolito, a Santa Rosa marriage and family therapist with experience treating sexual abuse survivors, said adolescents often feel very misunderstood by adults, particularly their parents. A predator’s grooming tactics exploit such feelings, she said.
A male abuser, Ippolito said, will make a girl feel “like she’s so important, make her feel valued, appreciated, seen and cared for. That is going to produce feelings of romantic love toward this person.”
For teenage girls, such attention can be the first time in their life a male adult aside from their father makes them feel appreciated, adored and important, she said.
Adolescents who have been the victim of sexual grooming often feel a loss of their sense of security, like they’re not safe in the world, Ippolito said. Many blame themselves.
“They have been through trauma,” she said. “Their response becomes distrust. Not only do they feel like maybe I’m not all that special, they feel responsible.”
Seward-Katzmiller said perpetrators often try to fill gaps in a youth’s life, signs of insecurity or that a young person is unsupervised or unguided. They also look for signs that the youth is unhappy with their peer group or their family.
Teachers, whose job it is to instruct, support and guide youth, often form the closest bonds with young people outside their families. Therapists agree that a good adult role model with proper boundaries can have a positive, lasting impact on a student’s life.
The distinction between responsible and harmful behavior is a teacher who maintains those boundaries versus one who takes advantage of a young person’s emotions to satisfy their own needs, Seward-Katzmiller said.
“The majority of teachers are not doing this,” she said. “It’s the responsibility of the adult to hold the line, to know the line and hold the line.”
But Seward-Katzmiller said schools should also be providing teachers with proper training on ethical behavior and the use and abuse of power.
“People who groom, there’s probably something that happened in their lives that makes them unable to see that what they are doing is not okay,” she said.
You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @pressreno.