Content Warning: This article discusses sexual abuse, online grooming, gaslighting, and bullying.
Online grooming is a term we hear thrown about a lot these days. Parents warn their kids against it, schools have policies on how to protect students from it, and being street-smart has evolved into being web-smart. It can sometimes seem like we were always this aware, this clued in to the world around us, but if we rewind back just 10 years, it isn’t the case at all.
I became a teenager in 2009, and although the terms online grooming and sexual abuse were there, they were fairy-tales of people being scammed out of their money by email chains, not real or tangible threats to us. Snapchat hadn’t yet been invented, and most of us used MSN to talk to each other outside of school. The idea that someone would come into our instant messaging bubble to take advantage of us hadn’t occurred to people yet, and in group chats and private chats we were unashamedly ourselves, in a way only teenagers can be.
But of course, people did take advantage. And I was one of the people who was taken advantage of.
I met him via a group chat, a friend of a friend of a friend situation. I was 13, socially awkward, and struggling with the usual teenage melodrama, mixed in with some very real mental health issues. He was 18, about to go to university, and understood me in a way that no one else seemed to be able to. It’s all so perfectly cliché looking back, but at the time I felt like I had found my soulmate. The fact that he was five years older than me, or that he lived in a different hemisphere, didn’t deter me. We began to speak everyday, and I slowly revealed more and more of myself. We video chatted as well - and seeing a real person in front of me assuaged my fears that anything nefarious could be going on. I even told my friends in school about him, and although they found the situation odd, no one ever seemed to realise the inherent dangers of pouring your heart out to someone you’d never met. I’m unsure if we were naïve, or if maybe times were really just that different.
For almost a solid year, this bizarre friendship continued. We argued, like friends are wont to do, and I vehemently denied the fact that I was desperately in love with someone I’d never met. He “introduced” me to his friends online, and I would chat with them as well. At the same time, my own mental health problems became more of an outstanding issue. As my self-esteem dropped lower and lower, I became more dependant on this online relationship, cutting myself off from real life friends in deference of a Skype call or even just an MSN chat.
Things started to change so slowly that I didn’t notice them at the time. When I did decide to go out, he would ask me if I was going to drink or have sex. I answered no, because I was just about 15 at this stage and had kissed a grand total of two people in my life, but the strange attitudes continued. Any sort of social life left me feeling guilty.
Soon, attitudes turned into outright accusations. He and his friends would accuse me of saying things I hadn’t said, of telling people they deserved to die, of trying to convince people to hurt themselves. Ironically, they accused me of being a cyber bully. I knew I had never said these things, but I was young, and this man was my saviour - what reason did he have to lie to me? I began to convince myself that I was the one who couldn’t remember. I told myself that the things I said were so horrible; I must have blocked them out of my head altogether. It might seem silly from an outsider’s perspective, but the power of your first love is all consuming, and I was desperately and completely in love.
As the accusations kept coming, I was made aware that a blog had been started about me. It was filled with people who would post things I’d said, screenshots of my Facebook or chat logs with the person I thought I loved, and pick apart every single thing to make me into a villain. They referred to me as The Big S - the big slut. I was gobsmacked. There were hundreds of people thousands of miles away who had devoted themselves to hating me. What had I done? And more importantly, how could I make it go away?
What had happened up until this point was bullying, but things were about to take a sinister turn for the worse. One day when I opened up my laptop, I discovered that I had been hacked. My Facebook, my phone, my MSN, even my old email accounts. They had access to all of them. In one day, they had the phone numbers, email addresses and actual addresses of everyone I loved and cared about. Suddenly, the secrets I had told a friend were threats hanging over me. My sexuality, my eating disorder, and every unkind thing I had ever said about anyone I knew could all be released at any given moment.
Secrets are a powerful thing, especially to a child. The lies we told our parents, the hidden lives we had, they make up who we are. When we get older, a lot of these secrets tend to come out. But even though our family may love us unconditionally, our friends do not - and what is more important to a 15-year-old girl than her social standing? I felt like my entire life was teetering on the edge of a cliff - so when he told me there was a way to make them go away, I jumped at it.
The sessions took about an hour and a half in total. I would undress on the camera and stand facing front for an hour, completely naked. After that was done, I would turn to the side for five minutes, then close up on my breasts, then my stomach, then my crotch. The last bit was 10 minutes of the camera between my legs. There was never anything overtly sexual about the whole thing - it was always done in an almost clinical manner. I would cry through most of it, and the man with whom I once sat up talking all night with would sit and watch me in silence.
There were 10 sessions in total. 15 hours of hell was what it cost for me to get my life back - true to his word, I never heard from him again. I woke up the next morning with every trace of him gone from my computer, and although I should have felt relieved, I felt more scared than ever. With the nightmare over, now what was left of me had to try to pick up the pieces of the innocent girl who had kissed two boys and had been slut shamed into stripping on camera for the man she thought she loved.
For a while, I carried the burden alone. But constant night terrors and the inability to sleep in my childhood bedroom meant that this, the ultimate secret, had to come out eventually. My mother was incredibly understanding; she was able to help me forgive myself and was the first person to tell me that what had happened had been sexual abuse. She arranged for me to switch bedrooms with my sister, and once a week she drove me to therapy designed to help with PTSD. She would wait for me with a bottle of diet coke in the car, and would never ask questions on the drive home. She would let me sleep, or cry, or both, and when the nightmares came she would come up to my room and stroke my hair until I fell asleep again. In a story of darkness, my mum was the guardian angel that carried me through and made me feel somewhat whole again.
It took me a long time to accept that I had been sexually abused. Initially I couldn’t get past the fact that no one had held me down, no one had ripped my clothes off, and no one had raped me. It took years of work and therapy to understand that sexual abuse is not always what we see on TV or in books. Sexual abuse can come in all shapes and sizes, and online abuse is very real, and can be just as traumatic as anything else.
I have not written this to be brave, or to stand with the thousands of other people who this happens to every year. I have written this because this is how I have taken control back over my life - I have taken control of my narrative and claimed my secrets back. I am loud and a lot of people probably think I share too much of myself with the world, but sharing things on my terms is my way of saying fuck you to the man who stole my innocence, and my way of finding a kind of peace in this pain.