What I wish I knew about online grooming before it happened to me

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What I wish I knew about online grooming before it happened to me

I didn’t speak out because 14-year-old me felt ashamed

I was recently scrolling down my Facebook newsfeed when a video by Shane Brannigan came up. For those who don’t know, Brannigan is a self-professed “paedo hunter” and he works with the authorities, posing as young girls in order to trap pedophiles before they have a chance to do unimaginable things to other potential young victims.

Brannigan has posed as girls as young as 12 years old, and the men he’s speaking to do not seem to care. He arranges meet-ups with these men, with them all under the impression they’re meeting up with innocent, underage virgins who are lying to their parents about their whereabouts. Brannigan confronts them filming the whole thing, To Catch A Predator style.

Despite being warned by police against his vigilante efforts, I’m glad people like Shane exist. Seeing one of his recent live streams of a confrontation, with him reading out the dirty messages exchanged between the pedophile and the “girl” actually hit a nerve with me, it made me cry. Because I know what it feels like to be that girl, that girl was once me.

I’ve never told or spoken to anyone about the messages I exchanged when I was younger. At the time, I was scared of getting in trouble, and as time went on and I started to realise I was a victim of grooming, I felt like my case was irrelevant. Nothing could be done, I had no evidence, and I wasn’t a “special case”.

I know this happened to so many girls in my social circle, and I’ve heard of girls way younger than me talking to guys that I know are up to the same tricks they were with me, six years ago. Just because it happens so often it does not make it OK. These disgusting people are grooming, plain and simple.

I am so, so lucky that I never actually went and met up with any of the guys who talked to me. I remember them being so persistent, telling me to catch trains and buses to meet them and how they’d pick me up and we could go for a drive and they’d teach me “how to kiss”. I am so grateful that I grew up in the countryside, not within walking distance of a train or a bus stop. I’d need a lift to get there off my parents, and thankfully my parents didn’t just let me go wherever I wanted. If they weren’t strict, I probably would’ve gone. I remember being pressured into sending pictures of myself in my underwear, some even topless. And I did. I was fourteen years old.

The saddest thing is, I can’t even remember how many men there were, there were so many attempts by different people to contact me when I first started using the internet. The ones who actually succeeded in getting me to send pictures to them I remember clearly. These guys were in their early-mid twenties when I was 14. They were separate occasions, but not too far from each other.

I was very insecure about myself when I was that age and very naive. I’d been bullied and I hated the way I looked. I’d never had a boyfriend and guys never took an interest. I’d heard about some of my friends losing their virginity and used to wonder if I would ever lose mine, cause nobody ever seemed to like me.

Put yourself in my shoes. If a relatively good looking twenty-something started messaging you calling you beautiful, you’d be a bit wary at first wouldn’t you? But then he convinces you that the reason you’ve never had a boyfriend or ever been looked at that way is because 14-year-old boys don’t appreciate someone of your maturity, and someone like him, a guy in his twenties with experience, can. And to be mature and have a mature relationship like a mature adult does, you have to talk about sex and pretty much nothing else. He sends you dick pictures, he tells you all about how he wants to have sex with you. It’s also “normal” in their books for you to send pictures in your underwear. If you can’t do all that, they won’t speak to you again.

It made me feel special and I didn’t want that to end. But this special feeling wasn’t one I could share with anyone. The things we talked about were sexual, they were “naughty” and I knew all too well that if any of my friends of my parents saw those messages it would be game over. I would be so embarrassed to begin with, but I know I’d have my phone taken off me, and I wouldn’t feel wanted again.

It was so easy for them to manipulate me like that, and for me to not even realise it was manipulation. As far as I was concerned, my mum was the enemy, not them. If I got caught, I would be in trouble for talking about sex and showing my boobs to someone. It never crossed my mind that maybe they were the ones who would be getting in trouble for grooming an underage child.

Back then, it never crossed my mind that in a couple of years, puberty would kick in and normal guys would fancy me for normal reasons. I was vulnerable and taken advantage of. What makes me worry the most is that I didn’t report these guys. They’re probably still walking free. It makes me wonder if they’re still doing the same now, to another girl as vulnerable as I was.

If you are a young girl reading my story and you relate to any of it, know the importance in speaking out. No matter how embarrassing you feel it may be, it’s not your fault and you won’t get in trouble. If sharing helps even one girl speak out and say no to these groomers, it’s worth it. Be strong.

@maredemlynparry

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