Faith’s Story: An Account of Online Grooming

Faith’s Story: An Account of Online Grooming

I was an early graduate, came from a good family, didn’t get into much trouble. I was a generally good kid… and right on the edge of sixteen. In my mind, I was grown up and thought I knew everything. I loved fantasy stories. The whole knight-in-shining-amour, rangers, castles, and sword-fights… that’s what I was into, and a few years before, I had stumbled upon an online, text-based game that gave me the ability to star in one of my favorite fiction worlds of all time. Being a writerly person with a huge imagination, I fell in love with the game’s scripturally detailed, adventurist feel instantly, and made a lot of allies through roleplaying my character. A few were high level players, who were quick to help me level up. One of these in particular had become a close friend –too close for what it was worth. You couldn’t send pictures in-game, and so he convinced me to download a gamer’s app that would enable us to chat easier and send screenshots of our stats and scores so we could adapt our gaming strategies accordingly. For a week or so, that’s what we did. But an easier way of chatting meant an easier way of sharing information.

Groomers like to take their time… they’re polite and casual, mindful not to take things too far too quickly. But through our chats, he eventually started asking questions, the earliest ones being my name and age. Now, you have to understand: I am an overly nice person. To this day, I’m repeatedly finding myself in undesirable situations, because I allow people to take advantage of me, in fear of sounding rude or being disliked. This person had helped me a lot, and seemed genuine. I felt he was entitled to my friendship, and so I gave it to him. Before I knew it, we began discussing the countries we lived in, the differences in our cultures, interests, eventually even pictures of ourselves and our day-to-day lives. He soon gave me his age and nickname. Let’s call him Sing. He was a decade older than me. That should’ve made me more careful, but we were only gaming buddies, living half way across the world from each other… What harm could he possibly do?

Weeks went by. Our occasional gaming sessions turned into daily messages, about everything from the weather to what we had for dinner. At this time, I really didn’t think I was doing anything wrong. I’d always been told to be wary of online predators, but Sing was my friend. He gave me his undivided attention, and, at that specific moment in time, distracted me from a very harsh reality. My brother had suddenly become sick, resulting in emergency surgery with a very high death rate. He survived, but was in serious condition. My parents were stretched thin; my mom living at the hospital, and my dad driving 4+ hours a day to and from work, home, and the hospital to see them. Meanwhile, my sister and I were juggled between family member’s houses, the hospital, and occasionally our house to spend time with our dad. It was a mess. I was a mess –we all were. I didn’t have any close friends, my parents were my main social circle, and with all they had on their plate, and the weight of my brother’s condition, I felt I had no one to lean on. I started eagerly looking forward to Sing’s messages. They gave me an excuse to smile, to feel appreciated, relaxed even, in this scary time of uncertainties. After a month or so, he finally asked if we could move our chats over to WhatsApp. The third-party messaging app is free to use, and unmonitored, making it especially desirable to online predators. I didn’t know this at the time, but still, I hesitated. Giving my phone number away? This was out of my comfort zone. But after a few well-played excuses, I finally caved. It wasn’t like I was giving him my exact address, right? I mean, that’s what he said…

I am an emotionally deep person, who is very extensive when it comes to expressing how I feel -and I respond well to people who do the same. Sing grasped that very quickly. Nearly every day, he was dishing out the compliments… “You’re so mature for your age”, “You must have guys lining up for you back home,” “Girls in my country aren’t half as pretty as you.” And when he wasn’t doing that, he was telling me all about his family issues, relationships… the nitty-gritty stuff, like his childhood and biggest insecurities. And I believed every single one of them. Were they all lies? A few, probably not… but now, looking back, I see it for what it was. Just a tedious mind game to make him seem trustworthy and vulnerable, to make me feel sorry for him and feel like I was his special friend with whom he shared all his secrets. And it worked. This continued for months. He started casually calling me “baby”, sending hearts and kisses… telling me if only I were older, we could be together, that we were “perfect for each other”. What came next? Phone calls, video calls, late night conversations expressing his love for me. He even put my picture on his phone case, and wanted to send one with him on it to me. As creepy as it was, I was flattered, but I thank my lucky stars I didn’t give him my address to do so. Any smart girl would’ve broken it off right there, freaked out and told someone… but I didn’t. I let myself believe every word, and worse, I reciprocated them. I told myself, this was my duty, for all that he’s done for me, all that he claimed to have been through, he deserved my love in return, he deserved my time, my risks I’d taken for not getting caught… By this time, my brother was recovering back home. Over two months of madness, and my family was slowly getting back to normal. For the briefest of instances, I pondered breaking contact. Did I really want this? I didn’t know what I wanted. Didn’t know what was happening. Could someone who lived thousands of miles away really have fallen in love with me? Did I really love him? Was the fact that I was even questioning it mean that I did? Sing said that it happened all the time, that gamers were always meeting up, and two people from ours had even gotten married. I tried making fun of the age gap between us, and he did too, only to claim that his parents were 15 years apart. I knew couples with big age differences, and they were happy. One of them was my coworker at the time, married for over 40 years, one of the few people I considered a friend, and she even encouraged the match. I’d told many people at work about Sing and I, and none of them batted an eye. Half of me was screaming “What have you gotten yourself into?!”, but the other half of me ignored the warning signs, and late, every night, when Sing would send his timely “I love you” and tell me of all the possibilities that were in store for us, all common sense was pushed out the window.

I was in the process of applying to college. It was several states away and I’d be on my own. I don’t even remember who planted the idea, but next thing I knew, we were planning for Sing to come for a visit the following year, after I’d gotten accepted. No parents to worry about, just him and I. We’d finally be able to meet in person. Life suddenly became a blur: we were looking for an Airbnb close to campus, researching ways to ship his motorcycle here, going over the tiniest of details like what he should pack and how long he should stay. We were anxiously awaiting my acceptance letter, so I could give him an exact date to book his flight. He asked me about it often, eager to get me alone with him. From there, things between us only escalated further. He started hinting at what all he had planned for us once he finally arrived. I played along, but tried not to think about it. Of course sex was on his mind: how could it not? But inside, my stomach was twisting in knots. It suddenly dawned on me that our silly love phrases had went on for months… sex, naturally, was what came next. I was in so deep that it started to scare me. But after everything we said to each other, I should want this too, shouldn’t I?

Flash forward a month. My parents knew how excited I was about this college, so they planned a getaway trip to tour the campus and learn more about it. I really did want to get accepted, but I think it was equally as much for the wrong reasons as it was the right ones.

Sing and I had discussed endlessly about when the right time would be to tell my parents about us. I knew they wouldn’t like it, but Sing assured me that they would understand and get over it, and if they didn’t, we’d wait until I was of legal age, and then move to his country so we could stay together. I was constantly tormented by the idea, but Sing was a good manipulator. As time went on, he convinced me in believing that this whole thing could actually work. So, off me and my parents went, to tour this stellar college. It really was promising. It was everything a graduate family could want in a college. But as we walked along the campus trails, behind our tour guide, all I was thinking about was whether I was ready to risk everything, and give my parent’s the scoop on my new, exciting relationship. Over the long car ride there, I had been messaging Sing about what I was preparing to do. “It’s a great time to do it,” I explained, “Just the three of us alone, no distractions…” Surprisingly, he acted very supportive, but I wonder now why he didn’t plead for me to wait until he was already there. Surely he knew my parents would be against it. Maybe he got carried away with the whole thing, or maybe it was all just a game to him and he didn’t even care, or thought I would rebel and meet up with him anyway.

Around hour three of our car ride home, I finally told my parents. I started from the beginning, about us being gaming friends, told them how nice and caring he was, told them we wanted to meet in person, told them his age… and there it was. All out in the open. Admittedly, as I said it all out loud, it did sound a bit ridiculous. And I did not receive the reaction I’d hoped for, not even close. After several, several minutes of tears, shouting, and shock from both sides, the rest of the way home was the longest, most painful, silent car rides I had ever experienced in my life. No one went to bed for hours that night, and I’m positive no one slept anyway. My phone was seized immediately. The State Police were called, the County Sherriff, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children… my mom spent days taking screenshots of every message Sing and I had ever sent to each other. I silently sat through hours of lecturing, shocked at what was happening. I had to get a new phone number, new accounts for everything, delete my blog. Reports were filed, but there could be no consequences unless he came to the US. No sexual pictures had been sent, no physical contact had been made, and he was under a much different government. At first, I actually stood up for him. I thought I loved him. I believed he’d done nothing wrong, that this was all just an overreaction. It wasn’t until weeks later, after I’d finished crying and reflecting on everything, that I finally accepted the truth of who he really was: a perverted, online groomer, who’d tricked me into falling for all his lies. I wasn’t in love with him. I was in love with the attention, the adoration, and the thrill. Deep down, I think I knew I was trapped, I just didn’t know what to do, and so I played along, ultimately living in a fantasy world of my own. A world that I didn’t know just how badly I wanted out of.

Over a year has gone by, and I think I have finally forgiven myself, and come to terms with what happened. But try as I might, there are often days when I can’t get him out of my head. I’ll hear a song we used to listen to, something we used to laugh about, or the name of his country, and it’s like a huge wave of memories come flooding back. Even if it was only the illusion of love, I still treated it as the real thing. I gave him my trust, my loyalty, myself… to have that taken advantage of, and then ripped away without remorse… it’s no little thing to just “get over”. Yes, my situation could have been much worse, and I’m thankful that my parents took charge and stopped it when they did. But abuse is abuse, however small. Emotional, sexual, physical… they all leave scars. Mine may not be evident on the outside, but inside, they are very real… and they’re still healing.

Author

WYR

WYR

When You're Ready.org is a community for survivors of sexual violence to share their stories.

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