A very good friend of mine pointed me to a recent review of Eimear McBride’ novel A GIRL IS A HALF-FORMED THING. The author of the review, Paige Reynolds, includes this very intuitive and honest description of some of the reasons why the sexual abuse of teens can be so damaging:
The novel thus showcases the genuine complexity of sexual abuse as experienced by someone in her teens. It acknowledges the fact that sexual abuse can feel good physically … if not psychologically or socially appropriate, that it is a perceived exercise of power … that it appears to give immediate access to the coveted world of adulthood, that the secrecy demanded by abuse becomes something that belongs to the victim and sutures him or her to the adult abuser, even as it enables more harmful abuse. The novel depicts the convoluted nature of sexual abuse, even as its distressing conclusion confirms that this abuse is fundamentally harmful and can have deadly consequences.
What the reviewer does not discuss, however, is that the glimpse into the “coveted world of adulthood,” the “secrecy,” and the “convoluted world” are keynotes of grooming – the way that a predator flatters and manipulates a child or teen into becoming a “compliant” victim. The adult does this by gaining the child’s implicit trust and love, blurring sexual boundaries, sexualizing behavior, and convincing the child or teen that a positive physical response (even though the child or teen is hurt, confused, shamed, isolated, or disassociating) means that the child or teen wants and needs the abusive behavior.
If a predator can use grooming to create a world that confusing and convoluted for an adult book reviewer, how can a child or teen stand a chance?
The excerpt above also shows some of the reasons why teen victims of abuse experience such profound feelings of shame – because this “convoluted world” makes a teen feel that abuse was his/her fault, he/she wanted it or asked for it, or that the teen is fundamentally flawed. Add in layers of religion (as in cases of sexual abuse by clergy in Catholic or Protestant faiths) or the manipulation of incest, and this convoluted world becomes even more tragic and wrought with shame.
Although this review focuses on a female character, grooming is just as confusing and damaging for boys. I also want to make it clear that it does not matter what the sex of the abuser is. A boy sexually abused by an adult woman can be just as damaged and hurt as a boy abused by a man.