How Donald Trump Exemplifies the Grooming Process of Abusers

How Donald Trump Exemplifies the Grooming Process of Abusers October 21, 2016

"Donald Trump" by Gage Skidmore, Flickr. Used according to Creative Commons license.
“Donald Trump” by Gage Skidmore, Flickr. Used according to Creative Commons license.

The last few weeks have felt overwhelming and discouraging to me as both an advocate for abuse survivors and a personal survivor of child sexual abuse. With the revelations of Donald Trump bragging to Billy Bush about sexually assaulting women, the subsequent allegations of many women (and a child) against Trump, and the widespread inability of Trump supporters to take abuse seriously and distinguish between abuse and consensual sex, the world has felt askew. Add to this how survivors have been thrown back and forth by both political parties—the heartbreaking treatment of Juanita Broaddrick by so many diverse people comes to mind—and it seems like the only time the presidential candidates take abuse seriously is when they use it as a weapon against the other side.

Perhaps the most gut-wrenching of all the revelations of the last few weeks, for me personally, involved the conversation between Donald Trump and Howard Stern regarding Lindsay Lohan. The conversation happened in 2004 when Lohan was only eighteen years old. As a teenager who grew up as a child star, Lohan was struggling at the time. But instead of talking about the teenager compassionately or empathetically, Trump and Stern speak about her in what can only be called predatory terms:

“Does the father wreck, does that bother you a little bit?” Trump asked later in the conversation. 

“Howard feels that the father being a wreck is a good thing,” interjected co-host Robin Quivers. 

“Oh yeah, because first of all, if the father’s a wreck like the way he is–” Stern said. 

“Right,” said Trump. 

“Can you imagine the sex with this troubled teen?” said Stern. 

“Yeah, you’re probably right,” Trump said. “She’s probably deeply troubled and therefore great in bed. How come the deeply troubled women, you know, deeply, deeply troubled, they’re always the best in bed?” 

Stern responded, “Because they’re looking for love, they’re looking for positive affirmation, they’re looking for a father figure who will love them and tell them they’re wonderful and they’ll never be enough…”

[…Trump later added:] “You don’t want to be with them for long term, but for the short term there’s nothing like it.”

I think I found this conversation between Trump and Stern so disturbing because of how cold and calculated the men speak about “this troubled teen” and others like her. They are Machiavellian in their thought process about how to take advantage of the personal struggles of young people, how to manipulate young women into becoming the sex objects for adults. In a true and scary way, this conversation exemplifies how child abusers groom their victims.

Child protection professionals have identified a multi-stage grooming process for sex offenders. This process has six stages:

1. Target the victim.

2. Gain the trust of the victim.

3. Fill a need in the victim’s life.

4. Isolate the victim.

5. Sexualize the relationship.

6. Maintain control of the victim.

Let us consider each stage more in-depth:

1. Target the victim.

Abusers pick their victim(s) based on their victim’s vulnerabilities. These vulnerabilities can include emotional neediness, social isolation, a history of prior abuse, mental illnesses, and low self-esteem. Children with absent parents, or parents who are “wrecks” (as Trump and Stern gleefully consider), are easier targets for abusers.

2. Gain the trust of the victim.

Abusers watch and observe a victim just like Trump and Stern watch young women: assessing their needs and wants and figuring out how to best gain their trust. They shower their victims with warmth and attention.

3. Fill a need in the victim’s life.

Abusers look for how they can play a special role in the victim’s life so that they can become idealized to them. This is like how Stern says troubled young women are “looking for love, they’re looking for positive affirmation, they’re looking for a father figure who will love them and tell them they’re wonderful”—and understands that, by filling those needs, he can manipulate them to serve him sexually. This parallels how child abusers target emotionally needy children and make them feel loved and special.

4. Isolate the victim.

Abusers use their special role in the victim’s life, and their relationship with the victim, to create situations in which they are alone. This aloneness later creates the opportunity to abuse, but initially serves to reinforce the feeling of the relationship being special and can allow for “secrets” between the abuser and victim to develop. The abuser can make the victim feel they they offer the victim love or affirmation or a parental figure that no one else is offering them.

5. Sexualize the relationship.

As abusers gain the trust of their victims, they gradually sexualize the relationship. In the case of child abuse, a process of desensitization occurs, whereby the abuser slowly introduces the child to sexual acts.

6. Maintain control of the victim.

Once sexual activity is introduced into the relationship, the victim may become frightened or ashamed and may attempt to withdraw from the relationship. Abusers maintain control of their victims through the secrecy they have introduced into the relationship previously and by threatening the victim with public shaming, harming them, or harming people they love. Victims may be scared about losing the special relationship and the love and affection it offered. Abusers can take advantage of those fears.

While the actual accounts of Trump assaulting women (and even a child) have rightly received the most media attention over the last week or two, I found this conversation about Lohan the most triggering. I think this is because of how heartless and cruel the conversation is. It lays bare the way that predatory minds work. This is something that parents and community members who want to protect themselves and their children need to be aware of and empower their children to understand.

While you or I might find Trump personally repulsive, not everyone who grooms victims will come across as repulsive. Abusers are often the most celebrated and trusted members of our communities—that is part of the grooming process, after all. Abusers groom not only their victims but the communities surrounding those victims, so that victims are less likely to be believed if they come forward with allegations of abuse.

Learn more about grooming from the following resources:

• Homeschool Alumni Reaching Out, “Characteristics of Child Sexual Predators”

• Boz Tchividjian, “Five common characteristics of child sexual offenders: Eliminating the edge”

• National Center for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, “Grooming: What it is, signs and how to protect children”

• National Center for Victims of Crime, “Grooming Dynamic”

• Dr. Michael Welner, “Child Sexual Abuse: 6 Stages of Grooming”

• Mama Bear Effect, “Could you spot a groomer?”

• Educate Empower Kids, “8 Ways A Predator Might Groom Your Child”

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