Every moment of HBO's documentary Leaving Neverland — about Wade Robson and James Safechuck, two men who allege that Michael Jackson sexually abused them as children — is heart-breaking. But some of the film's most chilling moments occur in the first half of the film, when each man describes the beginning of their relationship with Jackson. Robson and Safechuck both allege periods of time in which Jackson acted only as a friend — mentoring them, charming them and their families, and lavishing them with gifts and attention. Jackson's alleged abuse, they claim, began later, after they and their families trusted him completely. (Jackson's family denies all the allegations of abuse, and is currently suing HBO for $100 million for disparaging Jackson in the film.)
This pattern of behavior alleged by Robson and Safechuck — honing in on a person's vulnerabilities, establishing an emotional connection, and then manipulating that connection in order to assault them — isn't unusual in abuse cases; rather, it's a type of behavior called "grooming." Leaving Neverland isn't the only recent film to show viewers how grooming works; the Netflix documentary Abducted in Plain Sight examined how convicted child rapist Robert Berchtold extensively groomed several members of the Broberg family before abusing their young daughter, Jan.
While the term is used most commonly in reference to childhood sexual abuse, adults can also be groomed for abuse and domestic violence (several adult women accusing R.Kelly of abuse claim that he groomed them beforehand, which Kelly has denied). "We all have vulnerabilities," says Jaime Gerigk, MSW, the chief program officer for counseling and outreach of the domestic violence and sexual abuse crisis intervention organization WEAVE. "So that's why anyone can be a target."
An abuser attempting to groom someone might begin by confiding secrets in them and giving them praise, affection, opportunities, gifts, attention, or time alone together — anything that encourages the targeted person to view their relationship with the abuser as special and close. "Abusers want to get their targeted [people] to like them, to trust them," psychologist Dr. Patti Feuereisen, PhD, author of Invisible Girls: Speaking the Truth About Sexual Abuse, tells Bustle.
Grooming can be extremely confusing because it may look similar to healthy supportive behavior. But according to experts and advocates, there are ways to tell the difference between a healthy relationship and one where there is grooming, as well as positive actions you can take if you think you or someone you know is being groomed.
"He's the biggest entertainer and he's a creative genius. And if that creative genius thinks that you're special, what's not to like?"
How Does Grooming Start?
Grooming is rooted in manipulating vulnerabilities and an uneven power dynamic. "Abuse is always about a power imbalance," says Feuereisen. "The groomer is in a position of power and [they know] it." This dynamic is reflected in Safechuck and Robson's allegations. Robson, who described his childhood attitude towards Jackson as "my, idol, my mentor, my god," said that getting real-life attention from him felt like being "anointed." Safechuck, who met Jackson at the age of 10 when the two appeared in a commercial together, said in the documentary that Jackson's approval meant the world to him: "He's the biggest entertainer and he's a creative genius. And if that creative genius thinks that you're special, what's not to like?"
But the power imbalance doesn't have to be that vast for an abuser to target a young person. Adult abusers can manipulate any power imbalance to groom a young person, according to Feuereisen, who also notes that in her own work, she has seen coaches, teachers, parents, religious leaders, and many others utilize their position of authority to abuse young people. Among two adults, the power imbalance may have less to do with one person being an authority figure, and more with the abuser making the targeted person feel special, and like they are being put on a pedestal.
Who Do Abusers Target for Grooming?
As previously noted, anyone of any age or gender can be targeted for grooming. But abusers do often target people who are vulnerable in some way. Part of that vulnerability may be that the person is underage — according to the Rape Abuse Incest National Network (RAINN), women ages 16 to 19 are four times more likely to experience sexual violence than the general population. Jenny Coleman, MA, LMHC, director of child abuse prevention organization Stop It Now!, tells Bustle that abusers may also specifically target young people who are experiencing "lack of structure, supervision, their own confusion about their body or about healthy sexuality. … Maybe they’re experiencing other traumas or just challenging times in their lives."
But again, abusers can exploit vulnerabilities as simple and universal as the desire to be "accepted, and having someone pay attention to us," says Gerigk.
How Can You Tell The Difference Between Grooming & A Healthy Relationship?
It's important to remember that the vast majority of people who mentor or spend time with children are not trying to groom or abuse them — as Coleman notes, "we don’t want to tell our kids, you can’t trust anyone." That said, it can sometimes be difficult to tell the difference between grooming and mentoring relationships between adults and young people — because, as Coleman points out, "many nurturing, caring behaviors can look a lot like grooming."
That could clearly be a sign that [they want] to control you.
However, there are some red flags that can help you tell the difference. Grooming behavior generally pushes the boundaries of appropriate interactions between adults and young people. According to Coleman, it might involve asking the targeted child or teen to keep small secrets, interacting with them as if they were a peer or a friend, talking to them about "borderline adult subjects," telling them that the abuser is the only one who truly understand them, or focusing "exclusive attention [on] one child" — for example, consistently offering gifts to only one student in a class, or always offering only one member of the team a ride home from games. Safechuck's allegations in Leaving Neverland present numerous examples of this kind of behavior — he says that Jackson told him to take any jacket he wanted from Jackson's closet, gave him envelopes filled with cash, and told him that the best part of a press trip the pair took to Hawaii was "being with you."
In romantic relationships, Feuereisen notes that grooming can begin with a partner who seems to fall too hard for you, too fast: "Some signs are that [the person] starts talking about having kids with you, or marriage, early on the relationship. That could clearly be a sign that [they want] to control you." She also notes that gifts that could be used to track you, like a new phone, can be red flags.
When grooming escalates, it usually involves isolating the targeted person from their support network of families and friends. For young people, says Gerigk, attempts to increase isolation might take the form of upping the secrecy around the relationship, relying on texts or DMs for communication, and saying things like, “This is between us, it’s special,” or, “If you tell anyone, we won’t be able to spend this time together anymore.” Among adults, it might involve the abuser telling their partner that their family and friends "aren't good enough for them," Gerigk notes.
What Should You Do If You're Worried That You Or Someone You Love Is Being Groomed?
"The most important thing," says Coleman, "is always to trust your gut" when assessing an adult's behavior toward a younger person. And listen to the kids in your life. "The important thing is to believe the child," says Gerigk. Don't minimize an adult's behavior towards them; instead, "really listen and believe the child." Gerigk also stresses thanking a child for sharing with you, making it clear that you're not going to overreact, and making it clear "you’re a safe person to talk to and to come to … and that if there’s anything that’s uncomfortable, you want them to tell you as soon as possible." As a parent or caregiver, you can also limit a child's ability to spend time with a person whose behavior is concerning.
"Often we don’t have those conversations because, oh my gosh, what if we’re wrong, and we’re calling someone a perpetrator..."
As far as what to do with the adult who you feel might be acting inappropriately around a child, confrontation is not the correct answer in every scenario. But in a situation where confronting someone feels safe and like the right course of action, it can be a positive action to take. "Often we don’t have those conversations because, oh my gosh, what if we’re wrong, and we’re calling someone a perpetrator," Coleman notes. But this fear "gets in the way of protecting kids."
However, it's important to note that "not every adult" who does things like talking to a child like a peer or giving them gifts "is an adult who’s out to abuse a kid," she adds. "There are lots of adults with poor boundaries, poor social skills," who might simply cross the lines of appropriate conversation because they don't understand them. But you can speak to an adult whose behavior around young people is making you uncomfortable, even if you don't have any evidence of abuse — Coleman urges talking to an adult acting inappropriately as a preventative step.
If you're young yourself and are concerned that a friend is being groomed by an adult, Coleman suggests that your first take action by telling a trusted adult, or, if that's not possible, calling a sexual abuse helpline. (Every U.S. state has a sexual assault program, and national organizations like RAINN can put you in touch with one in your area.)
But if you also want to talk to the friend directly, Coleman recommends letting them know you care about their safety, being open to hearing what they believe they're getting out of the relationship, and focusing on specific things the adult in question does that concern you.
If you're concerned that an adult friend is being groomed, the best thing you can do, says Gerigk, is support your friend. "And part of that support means listening and not being judgmental," she says, "because once you’re judgmental, that friend kind of looks at you like, ‘OK, you don’t understand.’ And then you become one less support for your friend." She recommends making them aware of resources available, like abuse and domestic violence counselors, and sharing information about red flags. But ultimately, she says, "really being there non-judgmentally means supporting them throughout, and letting them coming to their own conclusions about whether this feels healthy."
If you're worried that you might be being groomed, the situation can be more complicated and confusing — especially because that person might have a lot of power in your life, or you might be afraid that they'll react in a dangerous way if you confront them. Organizations like the National Domestic Violence Hotline, Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline and the National Sexual Assault Hotline have representatives available 24 hours a day via phone to help you make a plan to leave an abusive relationship, find counseling, or simply discuss the details of an experience that felt troubling. They can also refer you to local programs and professionals who can help you get out of an unsafe relationship.
What Steps Can We All Take To Fight Abuse?
The thing to remember, says Coleman, is that it's not just about individual people keeping an eye out for their selves, kids, or friends: "It really is about all of us speaking up." Learning about consent, privacy, and boundaries is important for all young people, she notes, to empower them to know when a situation has become harmful or crossed a boundary.
Gerigk concurs, stressing that children should be taught "about body autonomy, and what setting healthy boundaries looks like." Kids should also be reminded that "they're in control of their own bodies, and it's important for them to listen to what feels good and what doesn’t feel good."
We also need to believe survivors, even when their stories involve people we love or look up to. Listening to their stories might feel hard — but living them was infinitely harder. And hearing them out is the only way we can become more aware of all the different forms abuse takes, and learn how to better protect ourselves and each other.