Surviving Sexual Assault
Book authored by alumna Samantha Leonard sheds light on how predators “groom” victims
As a survivor of childhood sexual assault, University of Delaware alumna Samantha Leonard knows that sexual predators are methodical about targeting and manipulating their victims. The process is known as “grooming,” and it can last for months or years before the first instance of sexual assault occurs.
Leonard experienced the grooming process when she was just eleven and twelve years old, and like many childhood victims had no idea she was trapped in an abusive relationship. As Leonard grew older and realized what had happened, she struggled to cope.
“I didn’t have hope for the future,” said Leonard. “I felt like no one else had ever been through what I had just been through. How could I possibly move on?”
During her time at UD, Leonard found the courage to speak out. While pursuing a degree in human services with a minor in psychology, Leonard began to research childhood sexual assault. She also volunteered as a crisis advocate with the Sexual Offense Support (S.O.S.) network at UD, which provides guidance and resources for individuals who’ve experienced sexual assault. Finding a community of survivors proved life-changing.
“S.O.S. really empowered me to feel like I had the right to share my experiences and to feel the way I was feeling,” said Leonard. “Learning how to provide that support for others helped me be able to be more self-compassionate. Being able to come together with other survivors, and seeing the commonalities among our experiences, gave me hope for the future.”
In an effort to raise awareness about the tactics sexual predators use to isolate and abuse their victims, Leonard chronicled the process in her new book, Groomed: Shining a Light on the Unheard Narrative of Childhood Sexual Assault, now available in ebook and paperback.
In it, Leonard uses fictional depictions based on true stories of sexual assault survivors to help illustrate the six steps to the grooming process. She hopes that her book will allow people to recognize the warning signs and take action to protect children in vulnerable situations.
“I was very much on a search for justice when I started the book, and I think along the journey the book really turned into me wanting to help people empathize with survivors and to react in a more compassionate and trauma-informed way,” said Leonard.
Leonard graduated in the spring and was the 2019 recipient of the Catherine Bieber Scholarship for Academic Achievement and Leadership in Human Development and Family Studies.
She is currently pursuing a graduate degree in social work and hopes to one day work in a rape recovery center. “It is my way of making meaning out of tragedy,” she said.
“It’s a long road to sexual assault,” said Leonard. “That’s why I wanted to write this book: to describe the stages of the grooming process and educate parents about the steps they can take to prevent sexual assault before it happens.”
What do parents and guardians need to know?
Step 1: Selecting the Victim
Sexual predators often target children by first assessing their vulnerabilities, which may include emotional dependencies, social isolation, poor self-esteem or an unstable home life. Children with divorced parents are especially vulnerable.
Step 2: Gaining Trust
To gain trust, sexual predators pose as trustworthy caretakers while getting to know the child’s needs and how to fill them. During this phase, the predator is learning about the child—watching and gathering information—and developing an affectionate relationship. Disciplined predators are unlikely to reveal themselves with overly-affectionate behavior that will arouse the suspicion of other adults.
Step 3: Filling Needs
To create a sense of dependency in their victims, sexual predators will fill needs. Obvious red flags are gifts, money or extra affection, but this step can also take the form of rides, tutoring or even a job so the child can earn extra money. By filling these needs, the predator will become idealized in the eyes of the victim.
Step 4: Isolating the Victim
By this point, predators will have developed a special relationship with their victims and will begin to isolate them from family and friends. This often takes the form of physical isolation, such as creating situations in which they are alone, such as babysitting, tutoring or coaching. However, this also takes the form of emotional isolation: predators begin conditioning their victims to see flaws in everyone else, especially parents, while continuing to fill needs and be idealized by the victim. Once the predator instills a belief that they are the only person who truly loves and cares for the child, the relationship will become sexualized.
Step 5: Sexualizing the Relationship
Having gained trust and established emotional dependence, the predator will begin to sexualize the relationship by taking advantage of a child’s natural curiosity. This phase usually starts out small, perhaps with “accidental” moments of contact that progressively desensitize the victim to sexual feelings and contact. It progresses from there until the predator has created an environment where the child reacts positively to sexual experiences.
Step 6: Maintaining Control
In the final step, everything turns to protecting the predator, who will intimidate, blame and shame the child into silence. Predators will threaten to withhold whatever needs they are fulfilling, such as rides or gifts. By this point, many children will begin to feel trapped and like everything is their fault. The threat of humiliation makes some victims reluctant to come forward.