#1298: “Could my adult friend have been grooming me for years?”

The subject line says it all, for content warning purposes, and there is some discussion of how sexual predators use grooming to lull and manipulate their victims, though if it helps: The Letter Writer is looking for perspective on past events, not an ongoing situation, these people AFAIK never even met in person, the LW sent the person packing, and it was in no way a *successful* grooming attempt. 

Update: Numbering, rage-typos hopefully fixed. 🙂

Dear Captain,

This situation has already been largely resolved, but I still have a lot of feelings attached to it, and some questions too. I hope this fits the criteria of your blog okay. I don’t want to waste your time.
Okay, so, this story involves someone who used to be one of my closest, and longest, friends. For some context, I turned eighteen just this year.
I met him when I was eleven, on an mmorpg. He didn’t know my age when we were first becoming friends, but I know I was pretty open about being a minor, so he learned early on in our six year friendship. He was ten years older than me.
We had a really good friendship. He never said anything creepy to me. He wasn’t exactly like an older brother to me, or even a mentor, but…he was like a trusted older friend.
But…when I was around 16/17, he started flirting with me. I ignored it, and denied what it was to myself, because I knew him and he was a good person, and that would be creepy, and he would never do that to me, right?
He admitted his feelings to me when I was 17, late last year. I’ll never forget the feeling of cold that washed over me as I read his message. I didn’t know what to do, or how to feel (this was the first time anyone ever admitted serious feelings for me), and I worried about hurting him. He told me how amazing I was and how he’d never met anyone like me before. I got the eerie feeling he saw me as some kind of dream girl that he couldn’t let pass him by.
So I was noncommittal. I kinda neutrally glossed over it all and hoped that would be end of it. He stopped flirting for a bit, and then he started up again. I decided to put my foot down and told him, very gently, that it made me uncomfortable. He accepted it but said he needed some space. Then he came back later and demanded to know why I rejected him.
I was angry at this point, so I told him the problem with the age gap and how I felt creeped out. He got upset. His parents had a ten year age gap, so that made it okay. We argued.
Eventually he said he disagreed with my reasoning for rejecting him, but he would respect it.
Over Christmas he tried to get my address so he could send me chocolate. I was suspicious but I brushed it off and told him my mom said no.
Then he wrote me a poem on Valentine’s day, again about how perfect and amazing and not-like-anyone else I was, and I rejected him again and tried to be gentle. He said he needed some space and ghosted me for months. I ghosted him too. I decided I was done with him.
Then he tried to send me a gift (over Steam) on my birthday (after not talking to me at all, for months). I rejected it, because what the heck? (Side note, he had a history of buying me gifts. I was a little uncomfortable with it but we were friends, so I took them graciously).
Then he came back and told me his dad had died. He said we needed to talk but it was just too much for him right then, but he conveniently snuck in the implication that I had been unfair for rejecting him because of his age, something he couldn’t change, and that it reminded him of being rejected from the Air Force for his age, which also really hurt, and that he sincerely hoped nobody ever did anything like that to me, no offense.
I told him I was angry that he had tried again and ignored what I said, and he said he ‘would have never forgiven himself if he hadn’t tried’. 
We agreed to let it rest for a bit and I told him to let me know when he wanted to work things out, because he was already dealing with his dad’s death. But having it hanging over my head was unbearable, and I knew you didn’t just get over your dad dying quickly, so I contacted him and asked if we could talk. I’d decided I was going to end the friendship.
It didn’t go well. He tried to guilt me again. I ended it and blocked him, and I felt guilty but relieved.
So…my question is…do you think he was grooming me? Could he have been grooming me for years? And I still feel so betrayed. I feel like he’s eroded my trust in men, and my trust in my friends in general. If the last person I ever thought would hurt me, who I thought would be my friend for years, treated me like that, how can I know others won’t? How can I tell? Sometimes I feel so jaded. I’m so disappointed in him.
My pronouns are she/her.
-Sad and disappointed
Dear Sad & Disappointed,
You’re not wasting anyone’s time by asking this question, and I’m posting it because I think it will help other people to see the patterns that you describe so clearly, including your pattern of being a rock star about setting and holding fast to your boundaries. 
For readers who may not know, “grooming” is a term often used to describe how sexual predators form trusting, affectionate relationships with children to manipulate and lure them into inappropriate relationships, and also describes how they manipulate and lull the child’s caretakers and surrounding adult authority figures into assuming they are trustworthy. But children aren’t the only people who are groomed to accept abuse and coercive control. For example, cults like NXIVM recruited targets, separated them from loved ones, love-bombed them with praise and attention, tested them for compliance, invited them into “secret” in-groups, and eventually starved, exhausted, drained, and blackmailed them until it became impossible to think, imagine anything different, or leave.
For me, whether we’re referring to a children or adults, “grooming” someone means manipulating them into accepting treatment or into going along with something shady, something that is not in their best interest, and/or something the “groom-er” knows the  target most likely wouldn’t do if they were just asked outright and allowed to give informed consent. A mugger who demands your wallet at knife-point isn’t grooming you, a con artist who forms a friendship with you so that you’ll give them your money is.
The “accepting” part is what makes grooming so insidious, so hard to identify when you’re inside it, and so hard to pin down later. To groom someone successfully, a manipulator needs the target to like them, to trust them, and to develop a habit of saying ‘yes’ to them in a way that confuses or overrides their self-interest and creates a pattern of complicity and illusion of consent, which means that a lot of a groomer’s early actions look reasonable, affectionate, helpful, and generous, or at least well-intentioned. By throwing out a lot of innocuous gestures that are easy to say “yes” to at the start, they work on constructing their “She wanted it!” defense from get-go: “But Your Honor, the frog clearly wanted to be boiled, if they didn’t, why else would they get in the pot and stay there while I turned up the heat a little bit at a time and reassured them that everything was fine until they died?”
In the aftermath, targets of grooming are left confused about what’s real, and primed to blame themselves for every time they enjoyed the person’s company, accepted a gift or treat, or agreed to something that seemed normal at the time, like, “Wait, all I did was like somebody who said they liked me a lot and who was trying really hard to be liked by me. Did I make a mistake?” Our victim-blaming culture likes to chime in here with a reminder that before a bad thing happens to you, noticing red flags is an overreaction that makes you  judgmental and mean, but afterwards, failure to predict a deliberate attempt to confuse and manipulate you means that everything is probably your fault. Fun! As a rape crisis counselor once reminded me, eating a piece of cake and enjoying it does not constitute agreeing to have an entire bakery window display shoved into your face. Being someone’s friend doesn’t mean agreeing to do whatever they want or return whatever feelings they have about you. 
Letter Writer, I can’t say for certain exactly when your friend decided to Girlfriend-Zone you, nor can I  confirm for you that it was a deliberate plan he had from the start. He probably…didn’t?… lurk in the game like a Dateline episode on the prowl for middle schoolers? It’s very possible that he thought of you as a just a buddy in the beginning, and then his feelings changed over time? 
But by the end? I suspect if you cross-reference “age of consent laws” + “place where you live” + “when he first started flirting,” it may lead you to some upsetting conclusions. Conclusions like, “Yup, that was an attempted grooming, all right” and “Thank heaven he was very bad at it.” 
Whatever your conclusions, whatever his intentions and their timeline, there are three things about his actions that drastically up his creepiness factor for me: 
1.  He constructed a fantasy version of you in his head and coerced you to match it instead of believing the real you. 
Whatever the word for that is, it’s surely not “love.” Or “friendship.” 
Your friendship with him was genuine throughout because you are genuine. The affection you felt, the kindness you showed was real, and he cannot take that from you. His chose to end the friendship when he replaced you with an object, when he made coercing his fantasy girlfriend more important than spending time with his real friend. There is nothing you did to cause this, and when you realized what was happening you made every attempt to preserve the friendship and gave him every chance to fix it. This is 100% on him. 
This fucking sucks and you deserved so much better. Your friendship is rad, and important, and valuable, and it’s not a means to an end. 
2. He knows you don’t want to be with him and yet? He kept right on going. 
“I accidentally caught feelings for my best gaming-buddy, who is way too young for me,” is  nothing to brag about, but having awkward feelings isn’t evil in itself. If he’d tried flirting a little bit the first time, realized you weren’t flirting back, and then never, ever mentioned it again, it might have been forgotten. 
Harassing a teenager about your crush on her well past the point of “My mom says you can’t send me candy” and into “Please leave me alone forever,” is a whole different kind of life choice. This level of refusing to take “no” for an answer would be unacceptable and likely friendship-ending between two 46-year-olds, but responding to a combination of “Hold up, she doesn’t love you like that” and She’s in high school! ABORT! with unwanted gifts (and even less-wanted poetry) shows a troubling lack of boundaries and good sense. 
3.  He tried to convince you that not wanting to hook up with him (specifically) and being a 16-year-old girl who doesn’t want to be with with a man 10 years your senior (in general), was “unfair.” 
Let’s look at how he twisted your “I just don’t like you that way, also, you’re way too old for me” response around, until it was “Are you saying my parents’ love isn’t valid?” and “You’re unfairly discriminating against me, just like the Air Force!” 
Note: The United States Air Force accepts recruits between the ages of 17 (with a GED) and 39 for regular service, and 18-48 for healthcare or ministry positions, leading me and the kind readers who shared this fact to two questions:
  1. Was age the real reason he was rejected?
  2. If so, HOW OLD IS HE? 

He’s lying about something. 

:A brief interlude if you need to scream:

Someone who is trying to manipulate you into something he knows that you don’t actually want to do and something he damn well knows is unacceptable and creepy can’t risk too many honest “Do you like me? Y/N” conversations, because the second you say no, it’s game over. (Or, it should be). 
But if he can get you thinking about it as a problem of fairness (vs. your own desires), if he can run the “age is nothing but a number” game on you, and throw in the no-doubt-epic love story of his recently departed dad, there’s still the teensiest chance that you’ll talk yourself into doing something rash. After all, you don’t want to be “unfair” to your friend, right? The Air Force won’t take him, his father DIED, and you and you alone have the power to make his life fair again. In his logic, the fantasy-version of you really wanted to be with him, but didn’t the real you kind of owe him that even if you didn’t want to? For fairness
It’s all bullshit (love can’t be owed) but it’s powerful “Rape Culture 101” bullshit, and this is where, if your former friend were much hotter and more charismatic than he is, much better at manipulation than he is, and if he lived closer to you than he does, things could have gotten more dangerous. A little privacy, a lot of lingering hugs, maybe a little crying on your shoulder, a little illicit booze or weed to lower your inhibitions and give you a shared secret you can’t tell your parents about, this is how the creeps who serially tell much, much younger women and girls stuff like, “You’re not like all the other girls, you’re special,” and “I thought you were mature and you could handle yourself, but I guess not” operate. If they can keep you off-balance and worried about proving how special and mature you are, if they can get you focused on comforting them instead of listening to your own feelings, maybe you’ll skip over the whole “Is this a good idea that I actually want” part.
Lots of people have happy love stories across age gaps, and a lot of them love to remind humorless, love-hating wokescolds like me about that whenever we point out that it’s a fucking problem when a grown man aggressively pursues a minor, especially a minor who has hinted, mentioned, said, uttered, stated, told, declared, remarked, announced, and repeatedly explained, “Friend, I am just completely not into you That Way.”  
The main reason I find the #NotAllAgeGaps! defensiveness so disingenuous, especially the way your former friend tried it on, is the way it tries to group mutually-satisfying consensual adult relationships that worked out in the long run and the inappropriate grooming kind of relationships together, like, if you say it’s wrong for an adult man to meet someone when she’s 11 and try to turn her into his girlfriend by the time she’s 16, then aren’t you saying that these other happily married people who met when they were different ages shouldn’t be in love? ARE YOU SAYING HIS DEAD DAD’S LOVE ISN’T REAL? 
No, I’m saying that I don’t give a shit, because those things are not the same at all.
Same deal with calling it “ageism” or “discrimination.” “If you say it’s creepy for grown men to hit on teen girls, then aren’t you saying that it’s okay for a company who advertised for a Vice President of Operations to throw out all the applications of people who were over 50 even if they were the most qualified?” 
No, I’m saying: Come the fuck on. 
I’m sorry, That One Guy With A Suspiciously Exhaustive Knowledge Of Age-of-Consent Laws By Jurisdiction *doesn’t get to be upset* when people quite reasonably wonder if he might be a creep, the same way the Letter Writer’s former friend doesn’t to call it “ageism” when he hits on a teenager and said teenager correctly clocks the age gap as part of the whole creepy package. Anyone who hears “They met when she was 11 and he was 21, he started pursuing her romantically the second she turned 16 and kept after her about it to the point she had to cut off all contact,” and then their very next words are, “Well, age gaps aren’t inherently wrong, look at these happy people who made it work”  is skipping over a whooooooooooooole lot of OBVIOUSLY QUESTIONABLE stuff to get there. And what they skip over (consent, obvious power-imbalances) tells me quite a bit about what and who they value.
Anecdotally, of course, I accept that some people who end up with much younger partners, some professors who find love with their students, and some bosses who lust after their employees, may in fact get lucky and live happily ever after, the same way some people who have a couple more drinks than they should sometimes manage to make it home safely without getting pulled over or dying in a fiery crash. Okay? If this describes you, I don’t want to see you on fire, punished, or less happy, but also, stand down, Dershowitz! Let happy-endings-against-all-odds be their own reward, ’cause this isn’t just like when your great-great-Granny married her much-older piano teacher in eighteen-seventy-who-cares and they made their way to the New World with minus 10 florins in their pockets and went on to have eleventy strapping children. 
This is a present-day adult man, hearing a contemporary teenager turn down his creepy ass multiple times, and then deciding, “Unfair! Just like the Air Force! I know, I’ll write her a poem next time.” 
Letter Writer, you asked about what to do going forward, and how to know who to trust. 
I can’t promise you that nobody will ever try to do what your former friend did ever again, or that you’ll never encounter someone as manipulative or untrustworthy, or someone who handles rejection as badly. But I do think that your experience with him will help you spot those folks much sooner, before you’re so invested, and to shut it all down even quicker, and be kinder to yourself while doing it. I also think that you’re only going to get older and wiser from here, and that being sensitive to this kind of behavior and the associated gender- and power-dynamics is a strength in itself.
As you cultivate other friendships and relationships, look for:
  • People who can take “no” for an answer. The first time. 
  • People who don’t push you to do things you’re not comfortable with.
  • People who don’t take setting a boundary as a personal attack, or immediately look for ways around it or reasons it shouldn’t apply to them, or do whatever you told them not to in a “joking” way. 
  • People who understand that you get to have your own needs and feelings, and who don’t make you responsible for theirs.
  • People who consistently make you feel happy, relaxed, safe.
  • People who reciprocate your enthusiasm and engagement level. 
  • People who do not gravitate to much younger partners. (#NotAllAgeGaps, sure, but if everyone a particular person dates is significantly younger and has significantly less power, and they don’t seem to hang out with anyone their own age, why is that? It’s worth noting, at least.)
  • People (especially men) who do not complicate consent or make it difficult to say no to them. People who can tell when a cat doesn’t want to snuggle, find the correct line at the post office, or successfully merge in traffic don’t get to pretend that there’s some unique level of social awkwardness where the fact that a woman doesn’t want to sleep with them is an unfathomable mystery. 
  • Men, especially, who have friendships with and speak respectfully and kindly about women they don’t want to sleep with. The guy who divides women into “fuckable” vs. “invisible” is no fun, and he is not for you, as a friend or anything else!
You won’t always know if someone is a good fit for you right away, but happily, you’ve already done the most useful and powerful possible things to fight against manipulation by honoring your own desires and standing in your own truth. Try as he might, nothing your former friend could say about his feelings or supposed fairness could shake the fact that you don’t want to be with him. As long as you knew that you didn’t want to be with him, and trusted that truth, none of his guilt trips or tantrums or “logic” could work on you. 
You’re second-guessing everything now, but hold onto that quality, and don’t second-guess yourself. When someone is trying hard to sell you on something they think you should do or must want, that little voice inside you that says “Wait. What do I actually want?” is going to be a life- and sanity-saver, and I’m betting many of us who learned this the hard way (me included) wish they had half your sixteen-going-on-seventeen-now-eighteen poise and resolve. 

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