The Mighty Logo

What's It's Like to Be Groomed by an Online Predator

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

Editor’s Note: If you’ve experienced sexual abuse or assault, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.

My life has been one of chaos and trauma. I can’t remember a time in my life when I’ve ever really felt “safe.” I like to think my trauma started at age 7 when I was molested by someone at my church. But my therapist has pointed out it was likely way before then, at least in little ways.

• What is PTSD?

Growing up my dad was a pastor. Some of my earliest memories are at church and learning about the way I was expected to behave at church. Dad constantly reminding my siblings and I that we were a reflection on him and his job, and bad behavior on our part could get him fired. Rule number one in my family? Emotions are to be controlled at all times. Even at home, as we don’t know when a church member could drop by. We were expected to be nothing but happy all the time.

My world was so out of control that I turned to the one thing I felt I could control: food. I started restricting my food intake starting at age 9, and I started purging what I did eat at 14. It was right around this time that my dad got fired from a youth pastor job and I got the blame. I was told that it was because I couldn’t control my emotions and the other teens were scared to be around me. I made one of the best choices for myself at this point and stopped going to church with my parents. I went to a different church with a friend instead.

My parents were not around much. They both worked and my siblings and I were homeschooled. What I really meant is that we sat home alone all day while our parents were at work. Mom would come home and go right to her room and stay there for the night, Dad would go right to writing his next sermon. They never actually assigned any schoolwork. No one noticed I was falling apart.

By the age of 15, I was miserable. I didn’t want to live anymore the way I was living. I wanted to get past the eating disorder and self-harm. I wanted to be healthy and happy and normal. But lacking the resources to get myself to a therapist, I turned to what I knew: the internet.

I spent a lot of time on a support forum for survivors of abuse. On that forum, I met some of my closest friends. Some of them are still my friends to this day more than 10 years later. One of those friends was a well-respected moderator on the forum. I’ll call him Dan (not his real name).

Dan was so supportive and understanding in ways no one had ever been. He didn’t seem phased by my self-harm and was unafraid to talk about the harder topics that were so taboo in my house. Things like masturbation. Or the abuse I’d suffered at age 7. He seemed like the safe person I needed desperately. It was the first time in my life I thought I had a safe person to talk to. The only problem here? I was 15. He was in his late 30s.

Looking at it now I’m seeing all the red flags I missed, but at 15, with no frame of reference on what was “healthy,” and no other supportive adults in my life, I missed all the red flags. Or if they did give my uneasy feelings, I brushed them off as me being oversensitive because of my past trauma.

The relationship and the trust started slow. My therapist has pointed out that he very deliberately pushed the boundaries a little at time. On the forum, I’d talked a little about what had happened to me as a child, but mostly I talked about how it was affecting my life then. Under the guise of “helping me process” Dan started telling me I could tell him what happened. It wasn’t pushy at first, but it became that way. He would push me for the very graphic details of what I could remember. He assured me that talking was how I would get better.

By the age of 16, as a way to help me “see the beauty of the female body,” Dan would send me nude photography to look at. Always while I was on webcam so he could watch my reactions, but his webcam always seemed to be broken. It was around this time that he suggested that maybe with my love of photography, I should try taking nude photos of myself. He told me that I didn’t have to, but if I wanted to send them to him he’d be OK with it. I hated my body so much that the idea of trying to find any beauty in it disgusted me. I never attempted this suggestion of his.

By the age of 17 it was normal for him to talk to me about masturbation. He would ask me what erotic fan-fiction I had been reading. He would suggest ways to masturbate. On my bad mental health days, he’d suggest I go masturbate. That orgasms would make me feel better. I still have an email he sent me at some point with instructions on how to masturbate.

It was around this same age that I got tired of holding the secret of what had happened at age 7. I broke down and told my best friend. She did the only thing she knew to do, she told our youth pastor in the hopes he would find me help. My youth pastor forced me to tell my parents. I know that legally my youth pastor had no choice. My dad’s response was that I needed to go back to my youth pastor and tell him I made the whole thing up. Because, as my dad told me “these words have real consequences. We don’t want to mess up [perp’s] life now do we?” My parents wouldn’t allow me to go to therapy unless I promised not to talk about the abuse, because as my dad reminded me, my therapist would be legally required to tell the police, and we didn’t want that. That I needed to just forgive and let it go.

It was then I decided I didn’t want to live anymore. I wrote my friends to tell them goodbye, and that I didn’t plan to live to see my 18th birthday. Dan took it on himself to track down my youth pastor’s email and tell him I had a very serious suicide plan. My youth pastor told my parents, who again, did nothing. But I felt so loved that Dan would actually go to all the trouble for me and it possibly saved my life.

On my 18th birthday I had my first phone call with Dan. After than we talked on the phone a lot

At some point after I turned 18, and I was really struggling with my body image. He used this as a way to get me to strip for him on webcam. He told me while I felt like I was fat, it was because I had an eating disorder and could not see myself accurately. He told me I should take off my shirt and let him be the judge of how fat I was. It made sense to me. I did as I was told.

It’s hard to explain the level of trust I had here. He was the person I wanted to call after a bad day. I trusted him completely.

Fast forward a few years, when I was 21, my parents split up. I had just gotten out of residential treatment for my eating disorder, and wasn’t in a very stable place with my recovery. I was back at college after I’d had to withdraw for residential treatment. My dad was moving home with his parents (and my emotionally and verbally abusive grandfather), and my mom told me she had no space for me in her new house. She suggested I try to get an on-campus job that would allow me to stay in the dorms over the summer. Because when school let out for the summer, I would basically be homeless.

Dan and his girlfriend Sally invited me to come stay with them for the summer. It seemed so ideal. I’d have a safe place to stay, with supportive people, when I needed the support the most after just recently being in treatment. So I did. And honestly, that summer was great. It was the first time in my life I felt safe and supported. While my parents never cared if I was eating, Dan and Sally helped me make sure I was sticking to my meal plan. I felt safe. I felt loved and cared for. I thought I’d found a second family.

When I got back to college that fall, I was so unhappy. I had been unhappy at this school for a while, but now it was just building. I decided I needed to get away from my family. As the college I was attending was in town, I decided that I would transfer colleges. I looked at a lot of schools all over the country, but I fell in love with one that happened to very close to Dan and Sally. I really didn’t choose it for that reason, but it was an added bonus. Finally I’d be closer to people who actually supported me and loved me. I was so excited when I got my acceptance letter. I never even thought I’d get to go to college with the lack of education I had, and the college I was transferring to was not an easy school to get into.

The summer before my transfer, Dan and Sally split up. I was devastated. It was like my family was falling apart all over again. I had just got through my parents’ divorce, now I was struggling to come to terms with Dan and Sally splitting up.

So August of 2011, I moved to my new college. I remember how excited I was. I loved the college and everything about it. I loved being 1000 miles from my family. But this… this is where the story takes a more serious turn and I struggle to find words.

I’ve never felt totally safe around men since I was a child, but Dan was the first male I felt safe with. And so the idea of spending a weekend alone with him didn’t scare me. I trusted him. I was convinced he was maybe the only man that would never hurt me. I wish so bad my assessment was correct.

That fall in ways is a bit of a fog still. I was so very sick in my eating disorder that I failed out of two classes. My brain was starved and could not function. After transferring to my new college with a 3.8 GPA, after one semester I was at risk of failing out of school. I say this because I always feel the need to justify my actions to people. Because I always worry when I tell this next part of the story people will blame me. That they will say, “Well, why the fuck did you keep going back?”As my therapist reminds me constantly, I was too sick to see the danger. And the grooming was so, so deep that I could not see what was happening.

Dan had set it up so he was my only friend 1000 miles from home. When I tried to join a few on campus clubs, he actively discouraged it and insisted I spend weekends with him. As a result I wasn’t on campus on the weekends to make friends.

About two weeks after I’d gotten to my new school, Dan invited me over for the weekend. He got really, really drunk. He tried to get me drunk, but I hated the taste of beer and so I wouldn’t drink as much as he wanted me to. We were sitting on the couch talking, and he started to get really handsy. Each time he’d put a hand under my shirt, I’d physically pull it out. Over and over this happened. I pulled his hand out again and told him I needed to go to the bathroom. I went into the bathroom, threw up, cried and panicked. This was my friend. This was my safe friend who I assumed would never ever try anything like this. By the time I got out of the bathroom, Dan had already moved to his computer in another room. I told him I was going to bed. He apologized to me. It was the beer, he said, I’ll never get that drunk around you again.

The next weekend I spent with him he had moved from the house he’d shared with Sally into an apartment. He didn’t have a couch yet, just a twin mattress on the floor. I had planned to sleep on the floor in the living room area. He told me I should just sleep in the bed with him. I remember I hesitated for a brief moment, but then I told myself, this was Dan, He wouldn’t hurt me. We were sitting on the bed, and he was giving me a backrub to try to help me relax. I was super stressed about a test I had coming up because I’d heard horror stories about this professor’s tests. As Dan was rubbing my shoulders, he told me to take my shirt off. I very quickly said, “No. I’m not comfortable with that.” He responded, “Why? I’ve seen you in just your bra before, remember?” Because he had. I told him I needed to sleep and went and slept on the floor in the living room.

I look at those two events now not as red flags I missed as I used to, but as times I firmly said no. I was very clear that I wasn’t interested in what he was trying to do.

The next weekend he convinced me to sleep on the bed with him. And at first it was totally fine. I decided I was being silly, that Dan got the point I wasn’t interested and he wouldn’t force me to do anything. I was so convinced he was my safe friend and he would not hurt me.

That all changed mid-September. One morning I woke up to find he was touching me. I panicked. Was this really happening? I didn’t know what to do, so I decided to pretend to stay asleep. I convinced myself that if I didn’t seem into it, he’d get bored and stop. But he did not stop.

I woke up from one nightmare, directly into another nightmare.

This was the start of what I refer to as my “six months of hell.” Every weekend I’d go to Dan’s, and every weekend he’d push the boundaries just a little more. If I ever hesitated he’d say, “Well, why isn’t it OK this time? It was before,” or, “You just need to drink a little more, you’re more willing when you are drunk.” Eventually it was just easier to be drunk to try to numb myself to what was happening.

I didn’t want any of it, but I was terrified that if I tried to stop it, I’d lose the only friend I had so far from home. I would sit in my dorm room and try desperately to figure out what was happening. Did I somehow get into a “friends with benefits” relationship without meaning to? But that would have meant there would have been a discussion first that both parties wanted this, right? He told me he was trying to help me form better memories about sex, and teach me that sex could be fun. I refused to believe that my friend really would hurt me. I almost came to see the sex as the price I had to pay to not be totally alone.

I don’t have it in me to go into all of the awful details here, and honestly there are too many to go over. Every weekend for six months I’d spend at his place and it was just expected that he would have sex with me.

By spring of 2012, I was so sick in the eating disorder that my treatment team at school told me I needed a higher level of care than they could provide. They were recommending I withdraw from school and go right to a residential treatment center. Looking at it now, I’m so thankful I did this. It was how I escaped.

But even while I was in treatment, I told the staff about my very supportive friend, Dan. The staff repeatedly questioned the relationship, and I repeatedly defended him. He was a friend who would never hurt me. I refused to think about what he had done. And if I did think about it, I told myself, as he had told me over and over, we were two consenting adults and it was OK. If I felt any ill feelings about it, I told myself it was just consensual sex that I now regretted.

For four years after, he and I stayed friends. But every conversation we had he somehow would turn back around to sex. If I told him I’d had a bad day, he’d insist on trying to have phone sex. I told him I was uncomfortable with it. He’d get upset and argue that it was OK when I was there, what changed? I was so convinced I could somehow fix our friendship back to what it used to be.

My anxiety started to skyrocket. Every time I’d hear his ringtone I’d break out into a cold sweat. I couldn’t figure out why, so I withdrew from everyone. Dan got mad at me for ignoring him and cut contact with me. I cried and told him I was sorry. That it wasn’t just him, that I’d withdrawn from everyone. He and I started to talk again, it lasted about a week until he again stopped texting me or talking to me. I decided maybe I was a worthless human and he finally was seeing it. Maybe he was mad but he’d calm down eventually.

A month went by with no contact. It hit me that my anxiety was not as high. That I didn’t feel so panicky all the time. I started to think maybe Dan and I just needed a longer break. Six months went by with no contact, and it was only then I was at a place where I could look at what had happened while I was at school and even start to question if it was OK. I couldn’t see it while I was so connected to him. It took six months of no contact to finally start to even question it. It was only then I reached out and found a therapist to try to sort out what happened.

I want to tie this all up in a pretty bow for you. I want to tell you that he’s in jail and I’ve recovered. That’s not the truth. The truth is that it’s taken me almost a year of therapy to start to grasp that from the start I was groomed by a predator. That from day one this was likely his goal. And it hurts. There are still some days I feel like I’m drowning in the hurt.

But there is a fire that’s starting to burn ever so slightly inside me for the first time. A refusal to let this be all of my story. A determination that there has to be more to my life than trauma and hurt. I don’t know what that looks like yet, but for the first time in my life I’m fighting for it. For the first time in my life I refuse to let the ED and PTSD win. I will beat this. I will not let my trauma define who I am anymore.

So who am I? I’m an incredibly resilient woman who’s dealing with the life she was handed the best she can. I’m a girl who loves to read and create new things. I’m a girl who through it all has kept her big heart and compassion for people. I’m the girl who won’t let him win.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

If you or a loved one is affected by sexual abuse or assault and need help, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area.

Getty image via maurusone

Originally published: January 19, 2018
Want more of The Mighty?
You can find even more stories on our Home page. There, you’ll also find thoughts and questions by our community.
Take Me Home