Trigger Warning ! The content of what follows may be a trigger for those who have experienced sexual abuse or grooming.
I just wanted to be noticed and he saw me. I wanted to feel like someone actually cared, and he made me feel special. I wanted to feel worthy of gifts for once, and he showered me. I wanted to show everyone else that I was somebody. And before I knew it I was somebody, somebody to be abused.
At first I was the one, the only one. I seemed like the centre of his world. He’d pick me up, he told me I was beautiful, he showed interest, what I thought was care. And instead of going around dragging my life baggage, of being ignored, of abuse, of care homes, of being picked up and dropped time and time again, by relatives, by professionals, I started to float on air. The baggage weighed nothing because I was somebody.
Instead of assuming the colour of my environment, I stood out. And because I was seen, somebody lifted my bags, somebody helped me on my way. Little did I know that while my back was turned the plans for further heavier baggage were already in progress. I was being helped, being helped on my way down a culdesac of torture.
So when he suggested, as we drove along in his flash car that made me feel like a celebrity, and squeezed my leg and told me we could have some fun, I agreed. His attention was addictive. I had longed for the day that I would feel like this, that somebody cared. Any doubts about sex I might have had were blown away with the breeze that rushed through the window as we sped through town. I had hit the big time. I was well on my way…
The drugs and alcohol were part and parcel of it all. We shared tokes when we first met. He’d hang around where me and my mates hung about, and we’d smoke. He’d offer other stuff, and so that we looked all grown up, we’d join in too. The narcotic escape from our problems was pleasure enough in itself before we even added in the attention he was giving us. As we met alone and had sex, he’d offer more and more drugs. ‘It’ll make the ride all the sweeter’ he’d say.
It felt great to be loved like this. Even though he’d often fairly quickly drop me off after, without saying much, I’d put this down to him being busy. That’s what he tended to say. After all how else could he afford his wheels and all the things he got me?
Before long people started to warn me about him. People said he was no good, said he was taking advantage. But what did they know? He loved me. Nothing was going to get in the way of that. He treated me nice.
With hindsight what did I know? What did I have to compare this with? With the way I’d seen my Mum be treated by her boyfriends, the way my Dad had just left without a backwards glance? But I thought I knew better. I was happily floating on my cloud of attention, of recognition. I was somebody.
After a while he introduced me to his mates. They were in the background, in his car, were around at the park. Little did I know I was going to get to know them a lot better.
So the first time I went to his flat and his mates were there I thought nothing of it. Maybe we were going to have a party. When the alcohol started to flow, when the pills were popped and the coffee table got a dusting it was fun. We were having a laugh. I was wasted, totally wasted. And that’s when it happened. That’s when I got to know his friends better, that’s when the cloud changed from white to black and I stopped floating. That’s when my life turned to rain and I started free-falling into the sea.
Once I had sobered up and pieced together the snapshots of my inebriation I knew something wrong had gone down. But I felt stupid and as I usually did, I doubted myself. When he said that I’d been great, that he loved what a free-spirit I was, I wondered whether I’d remembered it wrong. And even if I hadn’t, was it just that I in my naivety didn’t realise this was normal? Was it just, like he said, that I was so special that everyone wanted me? I persuaded myself that maybe it was like a threesome or something and they got mentioned on the telly and in magazines, so I supposed it was maybe okay. But I still felt grubby. So I sat conflicted, between a place of violation and a place of being noticed, being special.
He told me not to tell anyone, that this was our special secret; lovers don’t go sharing. People would only tear us apart and he loved me too much for that to happen. That I’d get in trouble if I did. They wouldn’t understand and would call me a slapper.
And before I knew it, I realised I was scared. That despite what he said about loving me and thinking I was special, that something had changed. But maybe I’d got it wrong, maybe this was the best I could hope for from a man. He gave me attention, wasn’t that enough? So I blew in the wind, buffeted between knowing I wanted out and wanting the attention; wanting to tell someone and not wanting to expose my stupidity. I didn’t want the ‘I-told-you-sos’.
So I tried to lie low, keep out of his way. But there was no lying-low. He’d always find me. At first he tried to persuade me to go with him with niceness, but then it got nasty, really nasty. He’d grab me so it really hurt, my arm, my hair and pull me to his car. He was sly though, real sly. He’d do it in such a way that nobody really knew he was hurting me.
He’d take me back to his flat, his mates would be there. It would happen again. But there was no party atmosphere. The pretense of friendliness evaporated. I was their toy and they did whatever they wanted to me. And resisting was futile, I’d just end up with a beating, cigarette burns or they’d inject me with God-knows what.
Then there were different places, men I’d never seen before. Rooms in guest houses, in cars, in the bushes in the park, wherever he said I had to go, whatever I had to do.
And I didn’t tell. When you are taken to hell people somehow think that there are exits that you can choose to walk through. But when your body and your mind are on fire you can’t see, can’t think. You’re just trying to survive the burn. And if I ever thought I saw an exit, I’d doubt what I had seen, and then the threats I heard time and time again kicked in. I’m just a slapper, scum, worthless, nobody would care anyway. Who’s going to believe a prostitute? Tell and I’ll get your little sister involved. I’ll torch your house while you’re all asleep in there. So I stayed in the fire. At least only I was burning there. There was no way out.
I was kind of all over the show before this started, so when I became even worse, nobody really noticed. I drank more, I took more drugs. I was rarely where I was supposed to be, when I was supposed to be. I would often be out all night. People just thought I was getting pissed, that I was totally off the rails.
Support workers got involved, drugs workers, social workers. They assumed I was sleeping around, started talking to me about safe sex, ‘for God sake make sure you don’t get pregnant’. To be honest, I think all they saw was a problem that needed to be fixed. If only I’d had the choice and the ability to ‘control myself’ like they thought I did. If only they’d opened their eyes to see more than the obvious. If only they’d seen me as somebody, somebody who was being abused.
I was a lucky one, if you see what I mean. It could have been worse. One girl I knew disappeared. She was chalked up as a runaway and that was that. Maybe she was about to tell someone and they shut her up, or maybe she’d been taken somewhere. Or maybe she had just run from this hell. It scared me to even think. All I was thinking was that I’d better keep my gob shut. Maybe if I was ‘good’ he’d at least let me stay here and be with my friends. Yeah, definitely stay quiet or it could get a whole load worse. But what if I didn’t? Maybe I’d end up locked in a room or floating face down in a river. It was then that I decided to tell.
It was then that they didn’t listen. I’d chosen to spend time with him in the first place, so they said it was all my choice. I was a known drinker and user so I was an unreliable witness; I had chosen to be off my head. As far as they were concerned it all started as a choice so all of it had to be my choice- the beginning and the middle, and there would be no end.
And so it got worse. They pulled him in along with some of his mates, and then they walked. Walked right back to me and I paid. I paid the price of telling. I was a somebody, somebody to be further abused.
It got worse and worse but I just could not give up. I had to be listened to or die in the process. It only ended when I found someone who really listened. Someone who saw a frightened girl and not a promiscuous young woman. Someone who saw a slave and not a slapper. When they saw someone living with the unintended consequences of an earlier decision. When they bothered to look beyond the obvious explanation, when they saw my drinking, the drugs, the erratic behaviour as symptoms of a deeper problem, rather than the cause.
All I ever wanted was to be somebody. Somebody to be listened to, somebody to be noticed. That’s what got me into this mess, that’s what I needed to get me out. I didn’t need confirmation of my feelings of nothingness, I needed reassurance of my somethingness.
If only I had felt noticed, that I was somebody before this all happened I wouldn’t have fallen under the spell. If only I had known where to go to be heard when I had those initial doubts. If only I had known that people like him existed and to watch out. If only someone really cared about the baggage I was already carrying and had offered to help me carry it, to sort it out, to lighten my load. Even if I had rejected the offer, I would have known they were there and they cared. Then I wouldn’t have needed him when he came along cos someone else would have already noticed me. I wouldn’t have needed him because I was already somebody, registering in this thing called life.
And even if I had still made that first bad decision, I could have found a way out, because I would have known that there was someone who would listen, someone who could see me, someone who could help me sort out my conflicting initial feelings. And even if I had fallen into the fire someone would have noticed, would have asked if everything was ok, asked me straight out if I felt safe, if anyone was hurting me, and I would have crumpled and it would have all come out. And I would have been seen, I would have been believed. I would have been somebody. Somebody worth caring about, somebody worth listening to, somebody worth protecting.
Child sexual exploitation and street grooming takes many forms and can affect any child or young person, not just those that are already classed as vulnerable, such as those in care homes or in receipt of any sort of support services. To find out more please scroll down to some excellent resources I’ve come across.
Below there is also a link to the Rochdale Safeguarding Board Review into the Multi-Agency Response to Allegations of Child Sexual Exploitation in the area. It has some valuable lessons for all workers.
To read more on the children and young people who are most vulnerable to sexual exploitation, signs that may indicate a child or young person is being sexually exploited and the difficulties in identifying victims read this summary of risk factors and learning for improved practice produced by the NSPCC.
The NSPCC has also produced a fantastic list of practice resources on preventing child sexual exploitation covering direct work with children and families, case examples of good practice, material for raising awareness and training courses.
The Rochdale Safeguarding Board Review into the multi-agency response to allegations of child sexual exploitation in Rochdale should be read by all working with young people. It has some valuable lessons for all workers, not least that we should always listen when an abused young person finds the courage to speak. If you read nothing else, go to page 6 and read what happens when a voice is not heard by those with the power to protect them. It is truly heartbreaking.
‘Kayleigh’s Love Story’, presents in the most heart-wrenching way, the true story of Kayleigh Haywood, a British schoolgirl who was the victim of online grooming, rape and murder. No words could better convey to our young people the dangers of online grooming and how easily it can happen to anyone whether considered to be a vulnerable young person or not. This is a fantastic way to start an awareness session with young people.
My Dangerous Loverboy is a pioneering campaign aiming to raise awareness of the sexual exploitation and trafficking of young people.