"It's so pervasive": "Groomed" filmmaker on confronting the sickening commonalities of sexual abuse

According to documentarian Gwen van de Pas, an estimated 80% of sexual abuse cases involve the grooming of victims

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor

Published March 18, 2021 7:00AM (EDT)

Gwen van de Pas in "Groomed" (Yellow Dot Films/ discovery+)
Gwen van de Pas in "Groomed" (Yellow Dot Films/ discovery+)

Over the past several years, there have been numerous documentaries about high-profile men who allegedly groomed their victims of sexual abuse: "Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich," "Surviving R. Kelly," "Leaving Neverland" and "Allen v. Farrow.

According to documentarian Gwen van de Pas, those films are important in that they encouraged a broader understanding of how sexual assault and abuse takes place — especially when it involves men in positions of power or authority and minors. But her documentary "Groomed," which debuts on Discovery+ on Thursday, March 18 tells a story that is unfortunately more common. 

"People seeing those documentaries may assume that there's always an element of celebrity, and it feels a little bit far away," van de Pas told Salon in an interview. "What we wanted to do was — and it's also how we selected the survivors that we ended up working with — highlight the more common stories that people that you might know have gone through." 

According to van de Pas 80% of sexual abuse cases involve grooming, which is the process of befriending and manipulating a potential victim, often children, with the intent to be sexually abusive. This can involve giving them gifts, spending quality time with them and their family, doing them favors so the intended victim feels indebted to them and otherwise treating them like an "adult." The majority of these cases involve a family member, a family friend or a trusted authority figure. 

That was the case for van de Pas. "Groomed" chronicles her decision to return to her hometown in Holland — where she was abused — to grapple with the trauma and determine if there's a way for her to receive both healing and justice. 

Van de Pas was 11 years old when her assistant swim coach began grooming her, telling her he viewed her as 18-year-old based on her maturity level. He would send her letters about how he wanted to wake up next to her in a single bed on Sunday mornings. He would go on to molest her twice a week — after their biweekly swim practices — for several years. 

At the time, van de Pas said, she enjoyed the attention and didn't understand that she was being abused; it wasn't until a few years later that she began having night terrors and vivid, terrifying dreams about her abuser. After visiting several therapists, she eventually learned about grooming, a term and concept that was new to her but matched her experience perfectly. 

"When I heard it the first time, I was shocked because I thought, 'Holy moly, how can we not know about this? It's so pervasive,'" she said. "And I think it would have really helped me because for the longest time. I thought my case didn't count. I thought, 'You know, it's another gray zone,' or 'It isn't really abuse because I never said 'no.'" 

Throughout the filming of the documentary, van de Pas spoke with hundreds of survivors of sexual abuse who were groomed. She said that there are a number of striking commonalities across their stories. 

"It was scary to see how common some of these patterns were, both in terms of the type of victim that was picked," she said. "So somebody who went through something difficult or was insecure, or for some reason had a gap for attention or love to be filled." 

Additionally, she said, cars played an unexpected role in grooming; it was a relatively private, though socially acceptable place for an abuser to spend time with their victims and it also denoted maturity.

"I think at least in half [of the stories I heard] the concept of a car would come up," she said. "Because every 11- or 12-year-old girl or guy looks at people with a car and looks up to them, right? That's such a symbol of adulthood. And if they say, 'Oh, you can drive my car,' or 'I can take you to matches without your parents in my car,' that's a big thing." 

Van de Pas also said that age-inappropriate gifts were also a common part of grooming. 

"Very feminine gifts for the girl," she said. "So makeup or perfume, things that also signal, 'I don't look at you as a child, I'm not giving you a toy, but I look at you as an adult.' Almost like a rite of passage symbol." 

But in filming "Groomed," van de Pas realized that in order to tell the whole story, she would also need to speak with someone who had been the one doing the grooming. She ended up speaking with a convicted sex offender as a kind of proxy for her abuser. That, she said, was one of the most nerve-wracking parts of putting together the documentary. 

"I had two big concerns about doing that interview," she said. "The first one was, 'Do I really want to give somebody like that a voice?' I found that a really tricky one. But also, he's an expert groomer. Was I going fall victim to that? Not that I thought he would abuse me, but am I gonna be tricked again? Tricked into liking him or into believing him? I was really afraid of that." 

Through the documentary, van de Pas said, she made the difficult decision to appeal a court's decision to close a case against her abuser. She is still waiting for updates. 

"I talk in the film about how the healing process and the legal process can and should be different or separate, which I feel very strongly about," she said. "And so I think at some point, I felt as healed as I might become. I don't believe in 100% closure, but I think I'm doing much better."

And she wondered if she really wanted to reopen some of those wounds again and go through what could be a yearslong legal process. 

"Then when my daughter was born, she's now six months old, that really gave me the last push I needed because I thought, 'Gosh, I want to be an example for her and I want to protect girls of her generation,' van de Pas said. 

She continued: "But also I want to be the woman that she looks at and thinks, 'She persevered — and she did it even though it was difficult.'" 

"Groomed" begins streaming on Discovery+ on March 18. 

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

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