What Is Grooming? What We’re Getting Wrong In Discussions About Abuse

Last month, a 25-year-old named Brie Lynn posted a TikTok about her alleged experiences with the Broadway performer Alice Ripley. “Growing up is realizing I was groomed by a Tony-Award winning Broadway actress,” Lynn said in the caption of the video, before recounting some of their experiences with Ripley: how they had met in 2009, after Ripley had just won a Tony for the cult hit Next to Normal, and proceeded to spark up a friendship, with Ripley inviting Lynn to performances of Next to Normal while it was on tour and taking Lynn and other fans out to lunch at the famed Manhattan restaurant Serendipity 3. In an interview with the Daily Beast, Lynn said they were initially thrilled by the attention from Ripley: “I was going through a lot at the time, I had recently come out as gay, I grew up in a conservative town, I was bullied a lot, I was dealing with depression and other things,” they told the Daily Beast. “So, a lot of the times, it was me confiding in her about stuff that was going on in my personal life.” But it didn’t take long, they allege, for the relationship to become uncomfortably intimate. Lynn says that at Serendipity, Ripley told them that the “first time we locked eyes, she felt like the world stopped”; and that Lynn would often share their sexual experiences with Ripley, and Ripley did not shut down the discussion.

After Lynn’s video went viral, four other young people came forward to share their own alleged experiences with Ripley to the Daily Beast. Together, all of the stories painted a picture of Ripley as a veteran Broadway actress who had basked in the adulation of her young fans, forming inappropriately intimate and intense relationships with them and at times using her power as an adult and as a minor celebrity to pit them against each other, only to abruptly sever the relationships without explanation. With the exception of one victim, who alleges Ripley kissed her on the mouth without her consent in her dressing room, none of the allegations against Ripley involve sexual abuse in the traditional sense. But all of the alleged victims claim there was a general feeling that some sort of impermeable line had been crossed. “It’s not your standard abuse, for sure,” one of her victims said. “But it’s definitely a pattern.”

Ripley did not respond to a request for comment from Rolling Stone, but she has previously denied the allegations. “It is a misinterpretation of my actions to say I manipulated anyone, and more shockingly, that there was abuse,” she told Page Six. “Yet here we are on this slippery slope, because terms like ‘grooming’ are being thrown around … To be accused of this most vile thing, of which I am innocent, is crushing.” But within the Broadway community, the reaction was swift: after a future gig at the cabaret 54 Below was canceled; many Broadway stars who had swept in to defend Ripley were immediately forced to issue apologies by outraged young fans. Mostly, the discussion centered around the complex dynamics between theater performers and fans, and precisely to what degree Ripley was culpable of violating boundaries. Even though she was not accused of outright sexual abuse, there seemed to be a tacit understanding that she had crossed some line, somewhere, at some point, and needed to be held accountable for it. “I’m not going to say that Alice Ripley groomed these young fans and I’m also not going to say she didn’t because I’m not qualified to make that call,” read one blog post on the subject. “But I am going to say that her interactions with them were inappropriate.”

As established by the literature on child sexual abuse, “grooming” is a tactic used by adults to systemically gain minors’ trust.

Outside the theater world, the allegations against Ripley barely made a dent in the news cycle. But the discussion around the Ripley story demonstrates the complexities and ambiguities inherent in the online discourse around grooming, the term many of her accusers used to describe what had happened to them. As established by the literature on child sexual abuse, “grooming” is a tactic used by adults — typically, someone like a teacher or coach or youth-group leader, who has regular and continued access to minors — to systemically gain minors’ trust. Grooming behaviors are typically small, subtle, and not outright abusive: think giving a child a hug that lingers a little too long, or sending them an NSFW video. This is, in effect, by design: part of what is so difficult about fighting the grooming process is that children who are caught up in it may be unaware that it’s happening; as was the case with the young people who came forward against Ripley, they may just be unnerved by the sense that some intangible boundary has been crossed, without knowing even what the boundary is.

The idea, explains Heather Drevna, VP of communications at the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), is to build trust with the victim and make them feel special, as a way of slowly normalizing inappropriate behavior that ultimately culminates in abuse. “For vulnerable children, attention can be the biggest gift, and [groomers] share secrets, make them feel special, and make them feel like this person has their best interests at heart,” she says. And this is what’s most important to note about grooming: according to the literature, the main objective is always to desensitize the victim to sexual abuse. “This relationship is built in order to manipulate or exploit the child. That’s the main objective, unfortunately,” says Kati Morton, LMFT, a licensed therapist and popular YouTube creator who has posted many videos about grooming.

As awareness around the tactics of child sexual abusers in general has grown, so too has use of the term “grooming” on social media, where young people in particular are mobilizing to raise awareness of the practice. In one TikTok trend from last May, for instance, users lipsynched to Ladytron’s “Seventeen” (which features the lyrics “they only want you when you’re 17/ when you’re 21, you’re no fun”) while sharing their own experiences of encounters they’ve had with suspected online predators. And on Twitter, allegations about prominent people in Hollywood or the internet grooming minors surface on a near-daily basis. A few months ago, the term reentered the zeitgeist when Hunter Echo, a TikToker who had 1.6 million followers before his account was deleted, bragged during an Instagram Live that he had “groomed” the actress Millie Bobby Brown, claiming they had a sexual relationship when she was 16 and he was 20. (Brown’s team has vehemently denied the allegations, saying the suggestion that they had a sexual relationship is “not only dishonest, but irresponsible, harmful, and hateful.”)

Echo’s admission spurred outrage on social media, with many citing other examples of high-profile age gap relationships between young Hollywood starlets and older men — such as 18-year-old Olivia Rodrigo and 24-year-old Adam Faze, or 19-year-old Billie Eilish and boyfriend Matthew Vorce, 29 — as other examples of “grooming.” It’s worth noting that Brown was underage at the time of her alleged relationship with Echo, while both Rodrigo and Eilish are of legal age, but victims of grooming don’t necessarily have to be under the age of 18: “If one person is older than the other, they have more experiences and knowledge. If they’re using that experience and knowledge to control and coerce the person into sexual activities and other behaviors, I would consider grooming to be present,” says Brandi Liles, PhD, who works at the UC Davis Children’s Hospital CAARE Center. She cautions, however, that without further information, it’s difficult to determine whether grooming actually took place in the above mentioned relationships: “a large age gap should raise a red flag, but I don’t think we can immediately apply the term grooming because we don’t know what’s going on,” she says.

In recent years, the term “grooming” has been increasingly liberally applied, to the degree that in certain activism-oriented circles, it can be used to describe any sort of adult-oriented content that could theoretically be seen by a minor. The term has been used to describe everything from Star Wars fan fiction communities, to Instagram influencers digitally altering their images to make themselves look younger. The term is ubiquitous on YouTube drama channels, where creators regularly lobby for views by calling each other out for various transgressions; as well as in tight-knit fandom communities, which thrive on internecine drama. “I feel like every week I am seeing some new fresh take like short women are child coded and thus men being attracted to them is problematic,” one online friend recently griped to me.

It has also been frequently weaponized in relation to members of marginalized communities, particularly sex workers, who already find themselves under attack from right-wing politicians and lobbyists intent on barring them from any and all social platforms. “The real pedophiles on this app are the women who hype up and groom young girls into sex work, OnlyFans, stripping, and posting soft cp,” says one TikTok with more than 200,000 likes. It is not uncommon to see sex workers with accounts on youth-oriented apps like TikTok face accusations of grooming minors or encouraging them to join the industry, even if their actual content is age-gated and thus inaccessible to minors. Such accusations are offensive to actual survivors of abuse and grooming, says sex worker Jane Wilde, who says she entered the industry after she was groomed by a man twice her age at the age of 18. “I’ve seen first hand what it actually is and how scary it is. It’s a very deliberate act meant to coerce and manipulate someone,” she says. “I think a lot of people feel like grooming is anything that could convince someone to do something sexual, but I disagree.” Grooming allegations against sex workers, she says, are “just an excuse to scapegoat us for yet another thing.”

Experts in the field of child sex abuse prevention are clear about what constitutes actual grooming behavior, which is far more specific than how it is used in online discourse. “I prefer the term, ‘desensitizing to boundary-breaking,’” says Carole C. Swiecicki PhD, chief programmatic officer at the Dee Norton Child Advocacy Center. Grooming, she says, “gets used to mean a lot of different things, not necessarily to mean what those of us in the field have determined.” As she explains it, “in the context of sexual abuse, [grooming is] a very clear kind of behavior to discourage [victims] from reporting. This term is something that is in the field and means something related to sexual abuse.” Grooming behaviors are “very intentional. Groomers are crossing boundaries to desensitize children to somewhat inappropriate behaviors.” It’s both incredibly common and insidious, which is by design: an adept abuser is skilled at gradually inuring their victim to increasingly inappropriate behavior, so oftentimes they’re not even aware of what’s happening to them while it’s going on.

But just because grooming behavior can be sometimes difficult to identify does not negate that grooming is, by definition, done with the ultimate goal of committing abuse. This is ultimately what makes cases like Ripley’s so ambiguous and difficult to grapple with: while there is certainly ample evidence she crossed many boundaries with her young adoring fans, there is no evidence that she did so with the intent of abusing them. But of course, intent isn’t everything, and regardless of Ripley’s motives for befriending her young fans, their accounts to the Daily Beast indicate that she did real harm to them by doing so. “It definitely has messed with me,” one fan of Ripley’s, who struggles with borderline personality disorder, said of their relationship. “I used to cry about how she quit talking to me and how I thought I was special to her.” Another fan who struggled with mental health issues says Ripley had offered to drop her off at a mental hospital, only for Ripley to not show up and to send her a text abruptly terminating the relationship. “It was a very abrupt and frankly traumatic fracture in the relationship,” she said.

The whole point of grooming behaviors is that they exist in the realm of ambiguity, the ineffable in-between space between what is OK and what is not.

There is certainly a risk, says Swiecicki, of misuse of the term “grooming” on social media trivializing what is a widespread and serious issue; and the fact that it is used incorrectly so often — or, in many cases, weaponized against marginalized populations — demonstrates just how tenuous our understanding of the mechanisms of sexual abuse actually are. But this ambiguity is not just a result of a lack of education of what does and doesn’t constitute appropriate conduct; it is also a byproduct of predators who have used the complexities of online social interaction to their advantage. After all, the<whole point of grooming behaviors is that they exist in the realm of ambiguity, the ineffable in-between space between what is OK and what is not. And those who are hurt the most are the young people left with the vague sense that some line has been crossed, that something inappropriate has happened, and that being treated like you are older than your actual age by an adult is not an actual reflection of your sophistication or maturity, but a reflection of a lack thereof on the adult’s part.

Whether Ripley is guilty of “grooming” in the traditional sense is almost beside the point. If the allegations against her are true, what she is guilty of is using vulnerable young people to service her own ego, neglecting what psychic harms could have been inflicted upon them in the process. Just because our culture has not advanced far enough to develop language to describe that type of violation — as we have for more overt abuses of power — doesn’t make it any less impactful for the victims, or any less worthy of calling out. And what matters most, at the end of the day, is that there are mechanisms in place to prevent that from happening again. “I was a very intelligent, resourceful teenager without supervision who trusted an adult who took advantage of me, ostensibly to stroke her own ego,” said a former Ripley fan in an interview with OnStage Blog. “All I’m trying to get across is that I never would have met this adult who hurt me (and many others like me) were there provisions in place to keep people of influence from forming this kind of relationship in the first place.”

If you or someone you know is experiencing sexual abuse, please contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline for survivors and friends and family at 1-800-656-HOPE or online at RAINN.org. 

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