How Powerful Abusers Groom & Manipulate Young People

Photo: Neil Rasmus/Patrick McMullan/Getty Images.
On Monday, Jeffrey Epstein, a financier, reported billionaire, and acquaintance of many powerful people, including Presidents Trump and Clinton, was arrested on two counts related to sex trafficking. The indictment states that Epstein allegedly "enticed and recruited minor girls" to come to his mansions in New York City and Palm Beach, Florida, where he would pay the girls hundreds of dollars in cash to give him massages, often nude.
Eventually, Epstein would allegedly tell them to perform sexual acts, including groping and touching. He would reportedly masturbate while the girls were present, and touch their genitals with sex toys or his hands. Epstein paid these minors to recruit other young girls to do the same, until he had built a "vast network of underage victims for him to sexually exploit," according to the indictment.
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It's important to point out that the people who Epstein is accused of targeting were not consenting adults, nor professional massage therapists — they were teens, some as young as 14. In many cases, they explicitly told Epstein how old they were before the alleged interactions. Epstein "intentionally sought out minors," knowing that they were "particularly vulnerable to exploitation," according to the indictment. Some of the abuse survivors were even homeless. "He went after girls who he thought no one would listen to and he was right," Courtney Wild, who alleges she was abused by Epstein at just 14, told the Miami Herald in 2018.
Unfortunately, the stories paint a familiar picture of all the ways in which a powerful abuser takes advantage of a vulnerable person. "Grooming" is a word used to label a variety of behaviors that abusers use to trick and deceive someone into trusting them, explains Kristen Houser, MPA, of the National Sexual Violence Resource Center and Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape. This can include various tactics that blur the boundaries of what constitutes an appropriate adult-child relationship, including paying close attention to a child, giving gifts, filling a need, and listening.
"Basically, [grooming is] gaining trust so that you can start to confuse somebody, and make it more and more difficult for them to leave the relationship, leave the situation, or get help," Houser explains. While grooming can take place in any abuse situation, it often comes up around child abuse, because children are extremely impressionable, and "not sexual beings," she says. Once an abuser has gained a child's trust with these strategies, they'll take steps to escalate and sexualize the relationship by introducing sexual acts.
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Abusers also psychologically manipulate people so that they appear to be responsible for a person's material and emotional needs, in order to keep them in the relationship. They might single someone out, make them to feel special, or tell them they're "unlike anybody else," Houser says. This dynamic has come up countless times in various child sexual abuse cases, such as with Michael Jackson or Larry Nassar. Epstein would allegedly tell girls who he wanted them to pick next, based upon their looks or age.
Many of the victims in the indictment are now in their 20s and 30s, and are coming forward and speaking about how these alleged experiences shaped them. "You can't ever stop your thoughts," Jena-Lisa Jones, who said Epstein abused her when she was 14, told the Miami Herald in 2018. "A word can trigger something. For me, it is the word 'pure' because he called me 'pure' in that room and then I remember what he did to me in that room." Child sexual abuse can have long-lasting effects, including difficulty with trust and relationships.
There's often a pattern of silence and internalized shame and blame that follows child sexual abuse, Houser says. It can take some people years to develop an adult perspective on what happened to them, and realize that it wasn't their fault. "It’s a very difficult step to go through, to hand the responsibility of abuse fully over to the only person who’s responsible, which is this adult manipulating emotions, environments, other people, and safety," she says.
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When there's a case like this that comes into the public eye, Houser says it can be difficult for survivors to feel believed or understood. The key to reducing stigma, shame, and long-term suffering is for people to have a support system, "somebody that believes them, who demonstrates they care about them, who is trustworthy in a consistent kind of way, who does not ask them blaming questions," she says. After all, survivors don't want attention, they simply want to be believed.
Refinery29 has reached out to Epstein's attorneys for comment on these allegations, and will update this story if he responds.
If you have experienced sexual violence and are in need of crisis support, please call theRAINN Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).
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