A friend sent me an article today about a man in his late 50s who is on trial for sexual offenses against a young girl when she was just 14 years old. It was a grim read, but sadly it resonated with me because at that very moment — for the first time in 27 years — I realized the very same man had tried to groom me too.
I met Phil* back in the summer of 1989 when I was 16. I lived in Ireland, but had gone to visit family in a quaint, picture-perfect town in England. One of my favorite things to do when shopping in town was to go and watch all of the street entertainers perform. I romanticized about their traveling lifestyles and their carefree ways — their circus performer, larger-than-life personalities.
The most handsome one, with twinkly blue eyes and a soothing voice, was Phil.
We struck up a conversation, and he laughed at my jokes. I felt flattered that he would seek me out and chat with me. So when he asked me to wait around until he had finished his afternoon act and then invited me for a drink, I agreed. He illegally took me to a pub and bought me cider. (You have to be 18 in the U.K. to drink.) I felt so grown up. I adored the attention — how this witty, charming man seemed interested in what I had to say.
He asked me to meet him again that evening, but I knew it was impossible. My aunt and uncle were strict and would never have let me go off drinking with a strange man twice my age. So I declined — aware that my relationship with Phil should be secret. I think he said as much. As we left the pub, in a quiet cobbled alley, Phil lent over and kissed me on the lips. He tasted of beer.
My vacation eventually came to an end and I returned to Ireland, but Phil stayed in touch — writing me letters and calling me on the phone. Phil spoke about coming to visit me — planning to get a hotel room — and I remember how I panicked. I was 16, a virgin, and I wasn’t ready to have sex. He was almost 33, and the first kernel of doubt crept into my mind. Was our friendship as innocent as it had seemed? I thought we were friends — that he cared about me — but I couldn’t help but worry that he had an ulterior motive. The fact that he did became clear when I told him I was a virgin, and he promised to be “gentle with me.” Deep down I knew something was wrong, but I was reluctant to lose his attention, his letters, the “romance” of it all.
The following year I turned 17 and fell in love with a 19-year-old boy. In a bid to be open, I told my boyfriend all about Phil, and he was the first person to say that it wasn’t right — for a man of his age to be calling and writing to a (then) 16-year-old girl. I’m ashamed to say I misinterpreted this and accused my boyfriend of being jealous.
That summer, when I went back to the town on vacation, Phil was cold with me. He asked a lot of questions about my boyfriend and how intimate our relationship was. He made some cutting comments, which looking back, I now see are probably because he had wanted me for himself. I had matured, and I wasn’t as in awe of him. We only spoke a couple of times, and as I left, I saw a French girl much younger than me, wearing exactly what I was — 501 jeans and a white t-shirt — popping by to see him. He looked at her the same way he once looked at me.
A few months ago, I found all of his letters when my mum was cleaning out her house, and I was astounded that behind my parents’ backs I had conducted such a relationship with a man twice my age. Had I not lived so far away from him, I am certain something far more sinister could have happened. Phil definitely was interested in me sexually; he made that clear, despite me admitting I wasn’t ready for that. I wasn’t attracted to him in that way, but he groomed me to be. I think I was vulnerable — a girl with divorced parents, no siblings, my mum often out so I could spend ages talking to him on the phone — and he knew it. I cannot believe I was so foolish. It stuns me to think I was.
I had forgotten all about him until my friend sent me the article. The sexual offenses he’s accused of occurred in 2014 when the girl was 14 and Phil was 57. It made me realize that even the smartest of us, the most world weary, can still fall prey to people wanting to groom us.
So how can I protect my own daughter from such a thing happening, especially now when so much grooming occurs online?
Firstly, keep an eye out if your children start withholding information or spending a lot of time online or on the phone talking to friends you have never heard of before. Changes in behavior or personality are another sign; I tried to act far more mature and I remember being more fixated on makeup around that time. Watch for your children going to new places or lying about what they are doing. Another sign is if your children start to get gifts — expensive ones — from unknown friends.
It’s natural for teenagers to want to confide in their friends rather than their parents and to crave some independence, but you should always encourage openness without judgment so they feel comfortable being honest with you.
It terrifies me to think that I was so naïve, and at the time I felt so grown up and in control. I am certain that the amount of distance between Phil and I was partly why I kept in touch with him, but nowadays people who claim online to live miles away could actually live on your very street. I’m determined to educate myself as much as possible so I am much more present and aware in my children’s lives than my parents were in mine.
I can’t go back and rewrite history; can’t change what once was. All I can do is thank my lucky stars that my brief visits to that town meant that Phil wasn’t able to groom me any further. I can be grateful that I fell in love with a boy my age, and didn’t want or encourage Phil’s friendship any more. I can also forgive my naïve 16-year-old self for being too trusting. Sadly, the 14-year-old who reported Phil to the police, is not so lucky.
*Name changed for privacy.