I was 14, he was in his 30s – I didn't realise he'd groomed me
Paul* told me he imagined I’d be ‘cheeky’ at school and that it would be a laugh to see me dressed how I did for classes.
So even though I thought it was an odd request at the time, I changed into my school uniform at his apartment – despite it being a weekend.
I hadn’t put two and two together to draw any kind of idea about who this person was and what this kind of behaviour implied about him.
I was 14 at the time and I didn’t realise that a man in his late 30s was grooming me. It’d take years for me to reach that sickening conclusion.
I first met Paul in a public park during the summer in the early 2000s. It happened by chance – or at least I thought it had – and we got chatting to one another.
The whole thing had seemed friendly, even when the topic of sex came up. The fact that this was broached so casually so early on should’ve been a huge red flag, but I didn’t know any better.
I ended up explaining that, because I wasn’t out, I couldn’t bring boyfriends my age home to fool around with. But Paul had a place not too far from where we were and said I could spend time with him there.
The age gap hadn’t even crossed my mind either, so we exchanged numbers. Thinking back, he wasn’t a big texter and would generally call to coordinate meeting up.
At the time, it’s not something I dwelled on, but now it makes sense why. I imagine the number he’d given me wasn’t the same number he’d be using in his everyday life.
Another part of what I used to justify a lot of this was the fact I was an early developer. I was shaving before I turned 13 and already had hair on my chest. He knew my age but I was ‘different’ – or at least that’s what I told myself – because I presented as older.
A few weeks after meeting, we went to a coffee shop. He bought me a hot chocolate covered in cream and marshmallows and told me I was ‘special’. Just thinking about this now makes me feel dirty and upset.
I don’t remember much of what we talked about, but I still recall where we sat – on two stools with our backs to the room and looking out of the window.
After that, we went back to his flat and – after chatting for a bit – he led me to his room. We didn’t have sex, but did everything else.
I hadn’t been ‘special’ or ‘different’ at all. It was him who had been different – in the worst possible way
A few weeks later came that day when he asked me to get changed into my school uniform. That time, we had sex that he instigated. I even recall thinking the black wrapper condom we used looked fancy.
I met up with him a few more times, but it ended when my mum cottoned on to the fact I was out and not where I said I was. I’d tripped up on my own lies and she was quite rightly becoming very vigilant about ensuring – for my safety – that she knew where I was and who I was with.
This led to a phone call I took from her while at his place, which I think is what spooked him and led to him ceasing contact.
At the time, I confided in some friends about it as it had happened, but they were more interested in the ‘juicy details’. That’s because grooming isn’t something we’d been taught or knew much about when I was at school.
While it was something that stayed with me over the years that followed, I treated it more as a punchline with friends or a curveball revealed in drinking games. Again, never really through a traumatic lens, but more of a ‘you’ll never guess what’ sort of reveal.
A few people had questioned it, telling me what he’d done was wrong, but I brushed it off. They hadn’t been there and didn’t understand, I reassured myself.
That is, until the late 2000s when Facebook was becoming popular. I’d signed up for an account and – not long after – was served a list of ‘People You May Know’. It was presumably based on email or mobile number contacts, so he’d been suggested.
It was a blank profile with no information, but his ‘name’ was the same as his email prefix had been, so I knew it was him. Curious, I opened the profile.
Despite no identifiable detail, he had a small friends list, I think of about 15 to 20 people. Every one of them was a boy who looked no older than I was at the time I’d met him.
Suddenly, I felt sick to my stomach. I remember having to call a friend. I cried. It was the first time I’d felt or shed any kind of emotion about what had happened to me.
I hadn’t been ‘special’ or ‘different’ at all. It was him who had been different – in the worst possible way.
I should have reported him and what he had done to me. I know that now and I knew it then. But my family had no idea about what had happened to me and I felt too afraid to tell them.
This wasn’t because I thought they would be angry, but because of how much I worried it would crush my mum. There was nothing she could have done to stop me going out, meeting and spending time with this man, but I know she wouldn’t see it that way and the potential hurt it could cause her outweighed what I felt able to do at the time.
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Since then, what happened has really haunted me and has become worse the older I get. With every birthday – I’m now in my mid-30s – I’m still not the age that this man was when he took advantage of and groomed me, which continues to put it into the horrible and real perspective that I couldn’t see at the time.
To try to get some closure, I recently went to the coffee shop he first took me to. I sat in the spot we’d sat in, took a deep breath and cried. While everything had felt consensual at the time, I now know and feel that he stole my youth away from me.
Those cinema trips and coffees in the park with people my own age should have remained the extent of my love life until I’d felt ready to come out, introduce them to my parents and take a natural next step.
That’s what being young is all about – yearning for something more and experiencing that when your mind and your body are ready. It’s exactly why the age of consent exists.
I recently started talking therapy, where I hope I can continue to unpack what happened to me a bit more. But I have no idea where that man is or what happened to him, which also continues to haunt me.
I just hope that if this had been a pattern of behaviour for him – which I believe it probably was – that he got caught and stopped from causing pain to any other lives.
*Names have been changed
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