WHEN I heard that Neal Hovelmeier, a teacher at St John’s College, a boys’ high school in Harare, announced at assembly that he was gay, my heart skipped a beat. The first thing that came to my mind was: CHILD GROOMING! It fit the bill. A trusted member of the society TARGETING a school full of boys, perhaps some struggling with with their sexuality, offering to FILL THE NEED of comfort and belonging, opening room for children to go and talk to him in ISOLATION about their problems. It read and sounded like a classic case of grooming to me.

I then read his letter explaining his motive – he was trying to pre-empt a newspaper story that was going to “out him”. The headmaster at the school vouched for him. Zimbabweans are extremely homophobic. I am sure there are many kids in the closet wishing they had someone they could tell. The teacher’s move can be considered noble and having been necessary. But for the very same reasons it is noble, the move is suspect. He may be genuine, but I am 100 percent sure there are paedophiles out there, who have used exactly the same tactics to groom some poor child to have sex with them under the guise of offering them a safe space to express their sexuality.

There is a thin line between exposing a child to the subject of sex so as to assist them to come to terms with a situation they are going through and doing it to desensitize them.

There is a lady I know who I suspect was raped as a child. She says she had a teacher in primary school who used to like her. She is an orphan and says he used to give her food and wouldn’t chase her from school for unpaid fees. In return she would do household chores for him. One day, he gave her a pornographic magazine and told her to go through it and see the “evil” things she was to avoid doing in her life.

She was shocked but curious, so she took it and feasted her curious little eyes on pictures of naked men and women in various sexual positions. He then asked her to describe what she had seen. He told her not to be shy and they devoured page upon page together apparently discussing the wrongs of what the models were doing. She says this became their secret daily game and at some point, she started to enjoy it.

One afternoon, he called her to his bedroom only for her to find him stark naked on the bed with his penis fully erect. He told her not to be afraid and made her touch him claiming he wanted to teach her the things she shouldn’t let men do to her. I asked her what happened next and she claimed they would just play the touching games.

Another lady told me her parents left her and her three sisters with the herd boy to attend a funeral overnight. As they were playing, the man whipped out his penis for them to see. They marveled at the thing and he told them they could touch it. He showed them exactly how to play with it and all four took turns to “play with it” until he ejaculated much to their shock and fascination. She says they thoroughly enjoyed the game and were disappointed when they tried again but nothing happened, he promised he would let them play with it again if they promised not to tell anyone. And keep the promise they did.

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A friend of mine who lived with her grandparents was raped by her father’s brother from about Grade 1 to Grade 3 and says it all started as a game. It started with touching games and escalated to rape. He used to buy her things, was trusted with babysitting her and she says aside from the pain, she thought it was just a normal game. She says he was extremely loving to her and would nurse her afterwards to ease the pain.

I cannot think about this and not break down. He would rape her causing her excruciating pain and then be the one to soak her in the tub, rub her privates to ease the pain. How sordid is that? She said she never knew it was rape until about Grade 5 when they were taught about it in school, but she still didn’t think it was a particularly bad thing at the time. She only told me when we were adults and had apparently never told anyone.

The situations above have one thing in common: GROOMING. The perpetrators manipulated their victims and their victims’ guardians into trusting them. “Child grooming is befriending and establishing an emotional connection with a child, and sometimes the family, to lower the child’s inhibitions (shyness/self-consciousness/modesty) with the aim of sexual abuse.”

Grooming helps child abusers to gain access to a child and what makes it easier is that most abusers are people known to the child and family. Like in the cases above, these are usually acquaintances of parents, respectable members of communities, teachers and family members. Grooming when done “right” puts a child in a situation where they become a “willing” participant in their sexual abuse and keep the abuse a secret.

On average, there are six stages of grooming:

Targeting the victim

Gaining the victim’s (and sometimes guardian’s) trust

Filling a need

Isolating the child

Sexualizing the relationship

Maintaining control

Paedophiles target mostly vulnerable children and especially children with minimal parental affection and/or “attention”. Children struggling with homosexuality, rape victims, bullied children and those struggling with self-esteem are easy targets. Children with no known vulnerabilities have been targeted too, so any child can be a victim.

Someone grooming a child for abuse has to get either the guardians or the child to trust him/her. They do this by studying their target in a bid to know their needs. They befriend guardians and prowl parks to play with or help unattended kids. These are usually non-suspicious, charming and seemingly trustworthy individuals. Oprah.com says “they are like a spy on the prowl and just as cautious”.

Abusers try and fill a need. For example, with a child struggling with homosexuality the perpetrator can confide with the child about his own homosexuality making the child feel they can trust them with their own issues. Giving special attention to a child who feels neglected, being indispensable to busy parents, offering to babysit, to tutor or coach in sports and giving gifts are some of the ways perpetrators fill a need.

Isolating the child is easy once the abuser has gained trust and is fulfilling needs. The University of Missouri Columbia on April 21, 2008, published a paper on child grooming. They explain how victims isolate the child by offering to babysit, giving the child a ride home and taking advantage of any fragile family and friend relationships. Isolation causes the victim to become extremely dependent on the perpetrator.

Grooming sets the stage for abuse by getting a child used to or making them less sensitive to sexual touch or contact. This is known as desensitising. “Small” things like sitting in the room and watching while the child takes a bath or dresses up, touching them “accidentally”, showing them pornographic images and sex play are some of the methods.

Abusers sexualise the relationship by suggestions to play sex games as in the story of the herd boy who asked the girls to play with his penis. Explicit discussions about sexual issues, giving a child a “rubdown”, bathing or undressing a child, instigating wrestling and other games as a means to escalate physical contact are also some of the methods used by abusers. The child comes into contact with their sexuality and the abuser is able to manipulate the child’s preferences and actually get them excited about performing sexual acts with them. The abuse then escalates to full blown rape or whatever else the offender wants it to be.

Maintaining control is all about keeping the child participating as well as enforcing secrecy. Sexual acts may cause children to not want to “play” anymore because of pain, guilt and boredom among other things. The victim then uses methods such as threatening to withdraw attention, something the child may feel they cannot do without. They can also threaten to reveal their “games” and blame everything on the child or even threaten to harm them.

Control is gained mostly through a mixture of threats, gifts and manipulation. Victims usually feel sorry for their abusers and cannot imagine them having to face the consequences. Sometimes victims bear the burden of thinking by telling, they will break up families or hurt others.