By Sallie Culbreth, M.S.
Predators use coercion and manipulation like an artist uses paints and a canvas. They play head games with such skill that they often leave victims confused about what has happened and who is responsible. They know exactly what they’re doing and know exactly how to get what they want. They misuse the power differential between themselves and their victims to exploit circumstances and vulnerabilities solely for their own gratification.
I have a friend who is extremely self-aware, highly educated, and a trained helping professional, yet she was well into her thirties before she recognized her experiences as sexual abuse. What took her so long? She thought what happened was a romantic affair with an adult summer camp staff member when she was a young teenager. He groomed her with praise, with attention, and made her believe she was the one for him. He manipulated the heart of a young girl and created a secret that was powerful and exciting for one without the life experiences or wisdom to see it for what it was: a predator gratifying himself at the expense of a naïve young teen.
I have another friend who was a normal little boy – curious, adventurous, and also extremely neglected by his family. That’s what his neighbor zeroed in on – a lonely, needy kid. She took him to the movies and out for ice cream. She bought him small presents and invited him to her house for meals. She also groomed him with attention, exploited his natural curiosity, and played games that she knew would awakened sexual feelings. She reinforced those natural feelings with pleasurable secrets that he would only recognize as abuse years later as he struggled with addiction and deep shame.
A major obstacle for many of us in finding resolution with the issues of abuse, exploitation, and sexual trauma is the gnawing, deeply imbedded belief that what happened was somehow consensual. This is a lie that feels true. It is often reinforced by the experiences of feeling special, of being needed, and having pleasurable responses to sexual stimulation.
Another obstacle to recovery is the ongoing shock when you realize this person that you trusted, that you needed, and perhaps that you even loved, set you up, groomed, and exploited you. It wasn’t consent. It was coercion, manipulation, betrayal, and abuse.
The back and forth of this is a force to contend with. To acknowledge what happened to you as coercion means that you were played; that regardless of what you gained or lost to this person, they maneuvered you for their gratification. That is an overwhelmingly bitter truth that sometimes causes us to rationalize that we consented. After all, we had value to them, right? Maybe they shared things with you they said they couldn’t share with anyone else – that you were special, and that no one understood them like you did.
But, of course, shame nails that coffin closed and the lie that feels true – the one that convinces you that you consented – it festers and propels most of us into depression, intimacy issues, trust issues, rage issues, and self-destruction (whether that looks like a work-a-holic success or a drug addicted failure ).
It’s a difficult thing to wade through the manipulation and chaos to arrive at the tragic conclusion that you were coerced, that you were manipulated and deceived to the point that you felt somehow complicit. You weren’t. Not even if you experienced sexual pleasure. Not even if you felt special or needed. Not even if there wasn’t an ounce of violence or physical overpowering.
Abuse occurs because there is a power differential – whether it is physical or relational. Someone with more power placed you in a situation where there were no options and you succumbed.
Abuse recovery involves acceptance of these difficult truths and forgiving yourself for being gullible, vulnerable, weak, needy, and curious. I often encourage people to step back from their own stories and imagine how they would interpret the same situation if they were reading a newspaper story about another person. Of course, most of us would have no problem identifying the coercion by the predator when it’s about someone else.
You didn’t consent. You were groomed, betrayed, violated, fooled, manipulated, and tricked into believing you consented.
This is NOT your shame. It’s your abusers’. Knowing this will anchor you in reality so that you can move through the real issues, rather than false guilt and misinterpretation of your role in a predator’s trap.
Category: Roadside Assistance - Weekly Articles