If you’re following the Emmerdale storyline between teacher Maya and her pupil Jacob, you’ll know that grooming is both a complex and disturbing issue.
If you’ve not seen it, it’s a chilling watch in which the character of Maya sinisterly grooms her boyfriend’s 16-year-old adopted son, Jacob. (He was just 15 when the grooming began.)
Viewers have watched over a course of months as Maya plays with Jacob’s affections, emotionally blackmailing and sexually pursuing him.
How authentic is this storyline?
To help Emmerdale tell this story authentically, we arranged for their researchers, story team and actors to meet with experts and some of the young men who have been supported by one of our services, Better Futures Cymru.
The project provides therapeutic support to children and young people from across Wales who have sexualised histories, including those who have been the victims of sexual abuse and exploitation.
Our workshops with the Emmerdale team were focused on helping them to understand how the characters would feel and behave at various stages of the grooming process. Here’s some of what they learned.
When abusers befriend and groom a child, they create emotional ties that lead the child to believe that they’re in a loving ‘relationship’ with their abuser.
Guilt and shame are often strongly prevalent within the victim. These two emotions explain why vulnerable and confused victims like Jacob might believe they love their abuser.
A bond is formed and the child may experience extreme feelings of guilt born from a desire to be loyal to their abuser. To cement this, the abuser will try to sever or damage relationships with their family and friends so as to create a sense of ‘us and them’.
Victims often feel shame and are even made to feel that they have led their abuser on and are the ones to blame.
Tactics used by groomers
Based on our work with victims of sexual exploitation, we’ve identified common tactics used by people who groom children.
Identifying a victim
A groomer will identify a vulnerable victim. Children with limited support from trusted adults and/or less involved parents are more desirable, although all young people by their very nature are potential victims.
Gaining the victim’s trust
The groomer gains their victim’s trust by working out what their needs are. They will particularly draw on a child’s feelings of loneliness, their need for care and their desire to be loved.
Filling a need
The groomer may then fill the void in the child’s needs. They may provide drink, drugs, somewhere to stay and thoughtful gifts – but most significantly, the groomer will make the child feel loved, special and understood.
Isolating the child
The groomer may encourage the child to cut contact with friends and family – and then assume a protective and understanding role to fill those voids.
Sexualising the relationship
After emotional attachment and trust has been established, the groomer looks to sexualise the relationship. They may desensitise the child by talking about sex, watching pornography and having sexual contact.
Once the sexual abuse has begun, abusers use secrecy, blame and threats to manipulate the child into silence and participation. Threats may be made against the child’s family and friends. The abuser may also threaten to circulate indecent/abusive images of the child.
More complex than ever
As we can see, grooming is a highly complex and manipulative process. As with the Emmerdale storyline, it is often confounded by the fact that the victim is male. In research conducted last year, we found that boys and young men often miss out on vital support because behaviour that usually triggers concern with girls is sometimes put down to ‘boys being boys’, leaving many victims without the specialist support they need.
In order to protect and support children from grooming and exploitation, just like the Emmerdale writers and actors, we need to first understand the grooming process and how abusers like Maya operate in the real world.
Find out more about how our services protect children across the UK.