Why grooming is so hard to spot: The truth

Why grooming is so hard to spot: The truth

Dr Jessica Taylor

30 June 2020

Disclaimer: I give permission for this article to be used in training courses and education, as long as my name is clearly referenced as the author. This article contains important information that can be used to influence practice, so please do use it where you can.

Content Warning: Contains discussion of grooming techniques and tactics

Over the past 10 years or so, there has been increasing interest in teaching children and women to ‘spot the signs’ of grooming. This article will explain why this approach doesn’t work, and why grooming should be reframed as a common, normal human behaviour that we all engage in.

I know, sounds horrible doesn’t it?

But if you take the time to read this article, you will see grooming in a completely different way, not only in your own life but in the lives of others you care about or work with.

My key points will be:

1. We have defined ‘grooming’ to be too narrow

2. Grooming happens constantly, to all of us, and by all of us

3. Professionals are expert groomers

4. Victims of abuse need to know that grooming is common and constant

5. Grooming is hard to ‘spot’ because we are all socialised to accept grooming in everyday life – it is unfair to expect women and children to be able to do this

Okay. Let’s get into this.

1. We have defined ‘grooming’ to be too narrow

When I say ‘grooming’, I know what image that conjures up for most people. They think, sexual abuse. They think CSE. They think gangs of men abusing girls. They think of kids being groomed online. They think of women being manipulated into abuse.

When I say ‘grooming’, they think of a slow, careful, manipulative process in which a sex offender learns more and more about their victim, builds a relationship with them, asks them questions and then sexually abuses or attacks them.

The Oxford Dictionary defines grooming as ‘the action by a paedophile of preparing a child for a meeting, especially via an Internet chat room, with the intention of committing a sexual offence.’

The NSPCC defines it as, ‘when someone builds a relationship, trust and emotional connection with a child or young person so they can manipulate, exploit and abuse them. Children and young people who are groomed can be sexually abused, exploited or trafficked.’

The truth is, these narrow stereotypes of grooming are blinding us all from seeing the reality of how broad grooming really is.

Grooming is not specific to sexual offences at all. It’s not even specific to crime.

You can be groomed into a cult.

You can be groomed into terrorism.

You can be groomed into political ideology.

You can be groomed into domestic abuse.

You can be groomed into bullying culture.

You can be groomed into taking drugs or drinking.

You can be groomed into religion.

You can be groomed into changing your worldview or believing conspiracy theories.

You can be groomed into thinking you are mentally ill.

You can be groomed into eating disorders and body dysmorphia.

You can be groomed into hating yourself.

You can be groomed to be racist, homophobic, misogynistic or xenophobic.

As you can see, the process of grooming is about the manipulation, persuasion and control of humans. It is not specific to sexual offences at all.

By narrowly defining it, we have put our own blinkers on. We ignore the way grooming is utilised all around us. We then start to believe that grooming only happens to the most vulnerable, and that we can teach them how to spot the signs and how to stop it happening to them. But it rarely works.

2. Grooming happens constantly, to all of us, and by all of us

Some of you may be surprised to learn that you have been groomed. Statistically, many of us have been abused, so we will have been groomed by an abuser. However, the rest of us have been groomed in other ways that we have not noticed or understood.

Further, most of us have groomed another person into doing something we wanted them to do.

To understand why grooming is so hard to spot, you have to take a huge step back and look at grooming in society on a daily basis. As I go through this section, try to reframe your definition of grooming using my definition:

‘Something that someone does to someone else to convince, persuade, manipulate or control them into doing something that they want them to do (either positively or negatively).’

Grooming has been used to manipulate you every single day since you were born. You were groomed into behaving and thinking the way you do. Your social norms, beliefs, attitudes and world views were all given to you by adults with an agenda. Your parents, carers and families taught you their beliefs and behaviours. They taught you they were normal. Even if they weren’t.

Then you went to nursery or school, where the staff team groomed you into some very strange human behaviours such as going into a building where all children are dressed exactly the same way as you, sitting on the floor in silence, sitting with your legs crossed for no reason, putting your finger on your lips to show you are quiet, putting your hand up before speaking, responding to bells and buzzers to move or eat or take a break.

None of these are normal, natural human behaviours. We did not evolve to respond to bells or buzzers. We did not evolve to sit cross legged with 29 other kids dressed in the same clothes, with fingers on our lips, listening to one person explain punctuation marks. We do not actually have to raise our hand before we can physically speak. You don’t actually have to ask for permission to go to the toilet, you could have just stood up and walked out when they refused you permission to go to pee or change your sanitary pad. But you didn’t, did you?

None of these ‘rules’ are real.

They are norms, beliefs and behaviours that we are groomed to accept and take part in, using positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement.

You were groomed for your entire childhood, by everyone around you. No one escaped this process.

You are groomed into buying things you don’t even need by marketing, advertisements and product placement. You are groomed into wanting to look a certain way by fashion and pop culture. You are groomed into dieting at certain times of the year. You are groomed into buying certain stereotypical products at certain times of the year or for certain special days. You are groomed into believing that you can become rich and successful if you just ‘work harder’. You are groomed to believe that governments, authorities and big companies care about you and your family. You are groomed into upgrading your mobile phone when there is absolutely nothing wrong with it.

There is constant pressure to groom you in society – to market, to profit, to manipulate, to control, to silence, to persuade, to abuse you.

This is why you can’t spot the signs of grooming. Because it is happening to you 24/7. Because society is built on grooming and groomers.

Even you have groomed someone, at some point. If you have kids, you’ve definitely done a lot of grooming. If you are religious and encourage others to believe in your faith, you’ve groomed people. If you ever persuaded someone to do something you wanted them to do (positive or negative), you groomed them. If you have sold products to people that they didn’t really need, you groomed them. If you ever convinced someone to join a club, go to do something, change something about themselves or engage in something new, you groomed them to do so.

Grooming is a common human behaviour. It is not only sex offenders who can build a rapport, persuade, manipulate and coerce someone into doing something. Most of us are capable of it. Most of us do it every day.

If you’re in a long term relationship (or have been), consider what you did or what your partner did to ‘groom’ you.

Did they buy you gifts? Flatter you? Pay attention to you? Ask you questions about yourself? Tell you that you are special? Tell you that they would never want anyone else? Did they listen to you and centre you? Did they sacrifice things for you? Did they help you or were they there for you at times of trouble? Did they tell you they would never hurt you?

Yes, they did.

Did you do any of these things as part of your relationship building?

Yes. Of course you did.

You both successfully convinced another human that you are their best option as a partner, and that you are trustworthy, safe, loving and that the relationship is worth investing in, exclusively.

3. Professionals are expert groomers

It’s not just us who are capable of grooming and need to acknowledge what we do and why it’s so difficult to spot.

Professionals are expert groomers.

(Note: Whenever I say this in a speech or in training, professionals look with absolute horror and disgust at me. A couple have walked out. Some people sit with their arms crossed, glaring at me. This concept makes everyone uncomfortable. I’m aware of that. Keep reading.)

Social workers, police officers, counsellors, psychologists, care staff, teachers etc.

We are all expert groomers. We literally go to work to groom humans into doing things we want them to do. The social worker grooms families into doing something. The police officer grooms victims into doing something. The counsellor grooms their client into trusting them to disclose their worries. The care staff groom the child or adult into letting them bathe them, care for them and live with them.

Professionals are skilled manipulators. We call it ‘building rapport’. All professionals who I know, call it by that name.

They say ‘Well, we firstly focus on ‘building rapport because none of this works if you don’t have good rapport with the person.’

And I say, ‘How do you do that?’

They reply, ‘We build their trust in us. We ask them questions about themselves, find out about them. We tell them we are here to help them. We remind them that we care about them. We tell them they can trust us. We offer them help when they need it most. We build their self esteem by paying them compliments and using positive reinforcement. We take them places they like to go. We treat the kids to Macdonald’s…’

And at that point I say, ‘So, you groom them, then?’

To which I usually get either a nervous laugh or a look of utter horror.

I spend significant amounts of my time showing professionals and leaders that their ‘rapport building’ process is the same process that a perpetrator uses to abuse and groom victims. All of those things that professionals tell me they do to ‘build rapport’ are used to ‘groom’ victims into abuse, rape, trafficking, exploitation, extremism, bullying, racism, cults, belief systems. It’s all the same shit.

I’ve spoken to professionals who also accept that they manipulate families into doing things that they don’t want to do (for example, pressuring victims to engage in a criminal prosecution process or threatening action if a mum doesn’t report her husband for domestic abuse).

These are all forms of grooming.

Why is it important for professionals to acknowledge what they are doing?

Because we trigger our clients. We mirror the perps. We make our clients feel unsafe. We cause them to back away from us.

And then we flip it on them, and say ‘they are too hard to work with’ or ‘they won’t engage’ or ‘they won’t trust any of us’.

Sound familiar, fellow professionals?

Of course it does, this is par for the course. Professionals moaning that their ‘rapport building’ didn’t work, or that they have spent months ‘building rapport’ with a child or family and they still won’t disclose or report.

Like that’s a bad thing.

The truth is, lots of victims of grooming and abuse begin to feel unsafe when professionals use similar tactics to ‘build rapport’ with them. They trigger, they disengage, but they don’t know why.

They might say things like, ‘What’s in it for you? Why are you being so nice to me? Why do you keep pretending you care about us? What do you get out of this?’

This is actually massive progress for that person. They can feel you grooming them. They don’t like it. They are questioning your motives and agenda. They are wondering why you are putting so much effort into building rapport with them.

I teach professionals that you should start to see this as positive. This is a person beginning to process what grooming feels like – and beginning to critically analyse grooming behaviours. They don’t trust you, because you mirror the abuser. They haven’t figured that out yet, because grooming is so socially embedded and normalised, that they will rarely pinpoint exactly what is making them uncomfortable. But that’s what is happening there. The brain remembers the feeling. Remembers the betrayal and the manipulation.

Which brings me to my next point.

4. Victims of abuse need to know that grooming is common and constant

No matter who they are, or what age they are, people who have been subjected to any form of abuse or oppression – need to know what I’ve just taught you about grooming in society.

They need to know that they are subjected to grooming at all levels of society, at all times, by all people. They need to understand that grooming makes the world go round.

Why?

I have one main reason for arguing this point:

Because it reduces self-blame.

You see, we have created a disgusting narrative that victims of abuse ‘should have seen the signs’. We create national campaigns and we issue guidance about ‘how to spot the signs of grooming’. We do this, even to 5 year old kids.

We create ‘programmes of work’ with children, adolescents and adult victims about ‘keeping themselves safe by learning to spot the signs of grooming and exiting the abuse’.

What a load of shit.

How is this possible in a world in which grooming is a 24/7 experience?

It causes feelings of self blame, because in effect, we are blaming victims for not spotting the signs of grooming and not ‘protecting themselves’ from it.

Many victims of abuse question themselves and ask, ‘How didn’t I spot it? Why didn’t I know? How could I be so stupid?’

You’re not stupid, you’re normal.

Not even professionals can spot groomers. Not even the police. None of us can. We miss millions of them every year, even when the evidence is staring us in the face.

Professionals are no better at spotting the signs of grooming than the general public are, hence why professionals are just as likely to be in abusive relationships as anyone else. They are literally going to work, telling victims to ‘spot the signs’ and then going home to an abusive partner who subjects them to abuse every day and they can’t see it themselves. That’s normal.

We have professionals within our own teams who are abusing clients – and can we see it? Nope. When it comes out we all say, ‘Oh my word! What a shock. We would never have suspected them!’

Uhuh, so we can’t spot it, but we think 10 year old Kacy can, if she just does this worksheet and watches this video. Got it.

Further, even if you can see that you are being groomed, that doesn’t mean you have the power to escape, does it?

We have to have this conversation with everyone, because people need to know that it was never their fault that they couldn’t ‘spot the signs’ of grooming. No one can. It’s a myth.

5. Grooming is hard to ‘spot’ because we are all socialised to accept grooming in everyday life – it is unfair to expect children and women to be able to do this

My final point is about the huge injustice in expecting people (mainly women and children) to be able to spot the signs of grooming and then exit that process as if there is no power dynamic.

As this article has shown, grooming is embedded into the fabric of society. It’s not just common, it’s integral to several systems of control, marketing and authority.

We are all groomed to do things (things we might want, and things we might not want). We are groomed to do things that are not in our best interests. We are groomed to spend our money on things we don’t need. We are groomed into relationships. We are groomed into power structures. We are groomed into belief systems and world views. We are groomed into behaviours and norms that make no sense or have no purpose.

It is wholly unfair to expect anyone to be able to spot grooming for abuse, when it simply mirrors every other grooming process in the world.

We are placing standards on to people that we can’t even live up to. I can’t spot the signs of abusers in my life and I’ve been doing this for 11 years. Anyone who claims to be able to ‘spot an offender’ is a liar, and has a dangerous level of self-confidence.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve have feelings about some perps and I turned out to be right, but there is no way it was anything more than chance. Statistically, we are all surrounded by abusers. We probably each know 10-20 abusers. You’ll probably never know who most of them are.

Every time I’ve got one right, I’ve probably missed others. That why I try to educate as many people as possible about the realities of grooming, and the myth that we can spot the signs.

And if we can’t spot the signs, why are we going into schools telling children to spot the signs? Why are we telling women and girls to spot the signs of a rapist or abuser? Why are we ‘teaching’ kids that that should have spotted the signs?

We should never expect victims of abuse and grooming to know what is happening to them, or expect them to be able to escape.

I believe that what I am saying about grooming should be taught and shared everywhere. We need to change the conversation about grooming – and look at it as a huge social behaviour that is exploited and used by many types of abusers and manipulators. Narrowly defining it as grooming kids online for sexual abuse is missing the point by a country mile. We can’t tackle something if we can’t even see the scale of it.

If you have any questions about this article, give me a shout.

Written by Dr Jessica Taylor

Tweet: @DrJessTaylor

Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/JessicaForenPsych

Buy my books: victimfocus-resources.com

Visit my website: victimfocus.org.uk

Email: jessica@victimfocus.org.uk

Disclaimer: I give permission for this article to be used in training courses and education, as long as my name is clearly referenced as the author. This article contains important information that can be used to influence practice, so please do use it where you can.

To my radical feminist sisters

To my radical feminist sisters around the world,

I am writing this open letter to all of you to uplift you and to remind you of your strength. Our strength.

Dale Spender wrote in 1986 that with every wave of feminism, comes a backlash of misogyny. The first wave feminists who were killed, tortured, abused, humiliated, force fed and beaten, changed the world for women, forever. As their power grew, the backlash grew.

As women found each other, loved each other and stood together, men in the patriarchy created disgusting, ugly public caricatures of them as witches, barren, old, haggard and hated. The point of this strategy was two-fold: to break their spirits and to hold them up as an example to the other women – of what would happen to them if they dared to join the suffragettes. Women pushed on. They fought for us. They gained our voting rights and property rights. They did this at huge personal cost, and at the time, they were hated viscerally and openly.

In the second wave of radical feminism in the 1960s onwards, women joined arms once again. The second wavers, many of which are still here with us (love and respect to you all, we owe you incredible amounts), progressed and achieved more than we realise. Our second wave sisters gave us rape support centres, domestic violence refuges, women’s shelters, single sex spaces, equality law, changes in divorce and custody law, feminist consciousness raising, feminist groups and contraception. Women in the second wave threw light on the way women were being discriminated against in every aspect of their personal and public lives. They continued the work of the first wave, by publicly and intelligently criticising and challenging the male establishment. They did this despite constant portrayals as man-hating, controlling, abusive, ugly, childless lesbians.

As you can probably see, there is a pattern forming here.

Our current feminism is not much different. The old stereotypes of us are still raging on from 100 years ago. Men still mock us for being feminists and concerned with women’s rights. The memes look exactly like the old suffragette postcards. Shit has not changed one fuckin bit.

We have again made massive strides, although we are more divided these days. As radical feminists, our purpose is to remain dedicated to the liberation of all women and girls from oppression around the world. This means rejecting white, upper class feminism which confines feminism to big words and protected bookshelves of academics and philosophers. It means debating with and often disagreeing with, liberal feminism. It means calling out misogyny within feminism, and misogyny that parades as feminism. Over time, uneducated onlookers have become annoyed and confused. Women are expected to club together and be homogenous. The fact that our feminism differs so much is the source of much amusement to men who don’t understand a jot of feminism. Of course, women are all so simple, that we must all agree.

This also means that we need to stand our ground as the next wave of misogyny hits us and attempts to push us back. Feminism is taking a real battering at the moment. Women who comply with the abuse and ridicule of feminists are rewarded with temporary protection from misogyny. People who publicly attack women are congratulated and awarded.

With every wave of feminism, there is a wave of woman-hate. We are more powerful than we have ever been, we are more connected than we have ever been, more educated than we have ever been and better resourced than ever.

The backlash and the upsurge of misogyny is heavy because we are making such collective progress. Women have platforms. We are talking about rape, domestic abuse, child sexual exploitation, trafficking, femicide, FGM, harassment, pay gaps, rights, and gender role stereotypes. Society is listening. Society is watching. 

Every time we speak out, write a blog, make a video or sit on a panel, we influence another woman or girl to realise the strength she really has. The power she really has. Don’t ever underestimate the power of your influence as a strong female role model. Whatever position you take up as a radical feminist role model, you will change so many lives.

The misogyny will continue to hit us because we continue to push forward. We have bigger platforms than we have ever had. This means thousands of men have access to us, and can abuse us with ease. It is clear from the violence and abuse we are subjected to online, that the crimes committed against all of us every single day; are being ignored. Many of us are told that the abuse we are subjected to is simply a consequence of being ‘in the public eye’ or ‘having radical feminist views’.

It’s frankly amazing how people have conceptualised radical feminism over the years. We’ve been branded as the crazies. Likened to genocidal dictators, murderers and serial paedophiles. The character assassination continues. We scare them because we stand firm and because we are not ashamed of our commitment to women and girls’ rights.

It paints a bleak picture. Or does it?

Are you not surrounded by radical feminists? Are you not able to read this blog? Are you not able to meet with your sisters online?

Do you see the activism around you? The lobbying and arguing and campaigning and world-changing?

Every woman has the power to make a change, whether that is small or huge. We must continue to talk to girls about radical feminism, and the incredible progress we have made since our first wave sisters stuck their necks out. Don’t allow radical feminism to become a dirty phrase again. Don’t succumb to pressure. 

Do not throw women under the bus because it protects you for a little longer. Do not stay silent whilst your sisters around the world are oppressed and murdered. Do not laugh along as men abuse and oppress women, thinking, ‘That will never be me.’

Use your strength. Use your resources. Platform women and girls. Protect them, support them, influence them and inspire them. Be the woman you needed to look up to as a girl.

Radical feminists are hated for two reasons:

  1. We unapologetically centre women and girls in our feminism, and we have no interest in bending to the pressure of patriarchal values or norms
  2. We are women

That’s pretty much it. People will come up with many different bullshit reasons why we are such disgusting women, but every one of them smacks of the same shit thrown at our first wave and second wave sisters. Stop feeding into it. See it for what it is. It’s recycled misogyny from 100 years ago because they can’t think of anything else to say or do to us.

This is about collectively and individually reframing us as the old, haggard, witches, bitches, mad, hysterical, evil, childless lesbians who hate men and want them all to die. They have nothing else left. They personally attack us because they have nothing else.

This is what happens when women attempt to do something for each other – men are so entitled and so accustomed to being centred, that they cannot handle being sidelined for a bit whilst we focus on the oppression of women and girls. See it as nothing more than a tantrum. Whataboutery in all its pathetic beige, beardy, boring, repetitive ‘glory’.

Women can hate us too. I see them. I see them often. The ‘egalitarians’ who hate feminism. The ‘feminists’ who tell us to go kill ourselves, die in a fire or call for our resignations. The women who internalise misogyny, use it against themselves whilst attacking other women for the oppression they are subjected to. The women who rush to the aid of the NAMALT crew. It really is incredulous that those women would use all of the rights, powers, voices and platforms that they have because radical feminists gave it to them over the last 100 years – to bully and abuse radical feminists. Irony doesn’t even touch the sides of that one.

The deeper irony being, that we will all keep fighting for their rights, even if they hate us. Even if those women say they don’t need feminism. Even if they say they hate feminism. Even if they say they don’t want those rights. Even if we disagree with them. We have been protecting women and girls (even the ones we don’t like) for decades.

I know how hard it is right now. I see so many of you struggling, giving up, getting tired and being abused. I see you trying to thicken your skin to face another day talking about the most basic shit, because you know you will have another day of abuse and threats. I see society get more and more misogynistic every day. I watch as some of the world’s biggest abusers and misogynists run our countries, royalty and governments.

My sisters, you are the force that the world needs right now. Every time you take a stand, you do something brilliant. You are a raging fire.

Women’s anger is pathologised because it is so powerful. We do not use our power to commit millions of murders and rapes each year. We do not use our power for worldwide warfare and genocide. We do not use it to dick-measure with our nuclear weapons. We do not use it to exploit developing countries. We use it to change the world. We use it to challenge the system. We use it to support other women. We use it to relentlessly defend our human rights. We use it to write essays and blogs that start debates and conversations. We set up conferences and groups. We create charities and grassroots projects.

We are the powerhouse that the world ignores but always expects us to be there to look after the kids and clean up after the men.

I want to remind you that the shit being thrown at us is disgusting, violent and abusive because it has a purpose: to silence and intimidate the most powerful female voices we have.

What people seem to forget is that within our radical feminism, we are made up of some of the strongest women in the world. We are refugees and asylum seekers, we are single mothers, we are trafficking survivors, we are women fighting cancer, we are women who have been beaten, raped, abused, strangled, tortured, imprisoned and discriminated against. We are ex-sex workers and women who have escaped prostitution. We are lesbians. We are activists, we are lawyers, we are academics, we are police officers, we are social workers, we are politicians, we are writers and performers, we are business owners and consumers. We are politically and economically active. We are voters. We have all lived through shit that people cannot even begin to imagine. We are living, breathing and dying in this feminism.

They cannot extinguish the fire we have set alight. The only reason they seek to weaken us, is because they recognise our power.

Now, you need to recognise your power, too.

Get back up, focus on your feminism and your love of women and girls, and get back to work. There is so much to do. Do not allow the accusations of hatred and abuse blur your vision. We know we don’t hate minority groups. We know we do not engage in transphobia. We know we don’t abuse and hate those who are different to us. We know we do not align with or support right wing, racist, homophobic groups who proclaim to be feminists and radical thinkers. These accusations are set ups. Deliberate conflations to encourage the hatred of feminists.

Radical feminism is the liberation of women and girls from the global oppression that is the patriarchy. Gender role stereotypes have oppressed and harmed us for so long. We have been minimised, ignored, gaslit, abused, attacked and silenced for so long. Yet, we are still here running the rape centres, the shelters, the helplines, the support groups, the women’s services, the households, the families, the communities and the female-led companies.

But we will keep going.

Millions of women and girls rely upon the work we do, whether we do it silently, covertly or publicly and loudly.

In sisterhood,

Dr Jessica Taylor

Psychologist

VictimFocus 

Email: Jessica@victimfocus.org.uk

Website: www.victimfocus.org.uk

Tweet: @DrJessTaylor

Fbook: www.facebook.com/JessicaForenPsych

To all the women in relationships with men, wondering if they are lesbians

I’ve never been one to shy away from a topic, or to hide a part of myself. Or so I told myself.

I feel strongly that to be a leader of any kind, we must be transparent and authentic. That means talking about when you are successful – and when you fail. It means talking about when you are certain – and when you are uncertain.

It means being brave and being vulnerable. It means telling your truth so that others can find their truth.

It’s in this spirit that I write this blog about coming out as lesbian later on in life, and how many women have written to me since I came out. Women have asked me hundreds of questions about their own sexuality, and it seems that my choice to be with a woman has sparked something in themselves.

It’s left some women questioning themselves, their own sexuality and their marriages. This appears to be extremely common, with a Cosmo poll finding that 92% of women have questioned their sexuality.

I wanted to create this blog to answer some common questions – but they are answered from my own opinion and experiences. I do not position myself as an expert in sexuality or in lesbianism here. There are much better and more experienced advocates and voices on this than me.

I have however, tried to use my expertise in psychology, women’s oppression, trauma and relationships to answer some of these questions.

My experience

Last year, I left my marriage to a man because I was very unhappy and because I had slowly realised I was lesbian. I had realised I was attracted to girls when I was 11 years old and had messed around with girls for most of my teen years, however, I was also living in abuse and trauma for most of those years, and never got the chance to explore how I felt about those girls. The girls I did see or spent time with sort of felt like illicit secrets that I could never tell anyone about. Whereas everyone normalised the male abuse and ‘relationships’ with older boys and men. Over time, I think I just normalised the abuse, the attention from men and whilst I longed for girls, I never told anyone. I had never met a lesbian, I had no female role models who were bisexual or lesbian. It was way before social media. I never even thought to google it. I was too busy surviving every day, taking drugs and drinking.

Fast forward 17 years, I was 28, I had two children, married to a man who hated me, I was miserable, I was ill, I was stressed and I couldn’t ever feel true happiness. I threw myself into work and studying, I still didn’t know why I never felt fulfilled. It didn’t matter what I achieved in life, I never felt whole. I was still aware that I was attracted to women, but I had never processed it. That was, until I realised I had fallen in love with my best friend, and she had spontaneously told me she had fallen in love with me. We then went through what I can only describe as hell on earth to redefine our own lives, leave male partners, explore what we were supposed to do, talk for hours on end about what we wanted to do and how to find who we were.

We had to reframe so much of what we thought we knew about ourselves, and that’s an ongoing process. Thankfully, we were very close friends who had spoken in depth about many different topics for years, so it’s been fairly easy to navigate these complex feelings and experiences together. We’ve had the benefit of leaning on lesbians around us who have guided us and supported us when we’ve struggled.

We never really did the whole ‘coming out as gay’ thing. We just decided to be open about being in our relationship. I think some people thought we were joking at first, because we were friends. People realised fairly quickly that we weren’t joking.

We moved in together, something we longed to do and had often ‘joked’ about. In January this year we proposed to each other having commissioned rings for each other without the other one knowing.

Generally, people have been supportive. We’ve been subjected to a lot of online abuse and there have been some people around us who have outed themselves as homophobes but overall, we both think this is the best decision we ever made.

However, since then, many women have contacted me privately to tell me that they are lesbian too, and stuck in a heterosexual marriage or relationship. I am writing this blog for them. I want to answer some of the most common questions women have asked me in the last year.

Aren’t we supposed to be born gay or lesbian?

This is contested. There is no scientific consensus around this – and thousands of people realise they are gay, lesbian or bisexual later on in life. A recent large scale study reported in the Scientific American found that there was no single cause or gene for sexual orientation.

Sexuality is better viewed as individual and personal to you, rather than being down to a gene, or a part of your brain, or the way you were born, or purely socially constructed. It’s probably like many human issues – a mixture of genes, experience, socialisation and individual difference.

If you are a woman wondering why your sexuality might have changed over time, please don’t worry or feel scared. You also don’t have to be sure about your sexuality at any point in your life. There are no rules you have to follow. You might not ever want to label who you are. Realising that you are lesbian might really help to process your thoughts, experiences and feelings.

However, if you have noticed that you are now much more attracted to women than men, and you are starting to feel trapped in heterosexuality, you need to explore those feelings and listen to yourself.

What if I just don’t fancy men anymore because I was raped/abused and I need to find the right guy?

We’ve been asked this one a lot. At the end of the day, sexuality is about who you are attracted to. No matter what you think the reason might be, you don’t need to justify your sexual orientation.

Plenty of women are abused by men and their sexuality doesn’t change. However, some women are abused by men and then decide either that they never want sexual contact with men again, or that they find they are more attracted to women over time.

This again, is a contentious issue – mainly because people worry that if we acknowledge this change in sexuality can exist, abusers and oppressors will use it to claim we can change the sexuality of gay and lesbian people with conversion therapy.

This is a real danger, and I can see why people therefore deny that you can become gay or lesbian later on in life, but by denying it, we only invalidate thousands of real people and their real experiences.

The reality here, however hard it is to swallow, is that lots of women who have been abused, raped, trafficked, sold, harmed and oppressed will be more attracted to other women than they ever will be to men.

However, there are also many lesbians who have been lesbian for as long as they can remember (whether they have ever been abused by a man or not) and have never been attracted to men. It doesn’t appear to me that being raped or abused by men is a causal factor in sexuality.

Your trauma is important, but it’s not necessarily central to your sexuality. If it was, over a third of all women would be lesbian – because over a third of all women have been abused by a man.

I know in my case, I was attracted to girls by 11 years old, but my life took a very different journey and I was never able to explore that safely, so I didn’t. I repressed it (badly) for 17 years before I allowed myself the safe space to process how I really felt. Which leads to the next question that women have been asking me…

Why have I always fancied women but not connected the dots til now?

I think this one is about sexualisation and objectification of women, compulsory heterosexuality and misogyny.

Lots of women are sexually attracted to other women, but we also live in a society that deliberately objectifies and sexualises women and girls – so it’s easy to think that rather than being lesbian, you’re actually just ‘admiring her’ or ‘want to be like her’.

It’s also common for women to objectify and dehumanise sexualised women in porn and media – the impact is not limited to men and boys.

Because of this constant stream of sexualised images and portrayals of women, it might be harder for women to realise that they are actually sexually attracted to women because they are lesbian, rather than just ‘liking’ the images they see.

You might ask yourself, ‘Am I truly sexually attracted to women, or do I just objectify them?’

This level of critical thinking is extremely important and reflective, but it’s a bit harsh on yourself. This is a standard not applied to men, who are encouraged and allowed to objectify and sexualise women. If you’re attracted to women, you’re attracted to women. Straight people are not attracted to people of the same sex, no matter what. If you’re a woman who is sexually attracted to other women, you are not straight.

The same society that sexualises women also maintains thats heterosexuality is the norm, and that women and girls are supposed to want attention from men. We are all socialised this way, and women are often mocked, humiliated, abused for, and even measured by, their attractiveness to men and whether men want to sleep with them.

The world expects women to want men, expects girls to want boys – and socialisation is a very strong norm. It’s amazing how much young lesbians go through to be themselves and to be attracted to other girls whilst ignoring the noise of the world telling them that they are supposed to like boys.

This is even more prominent for young butch lesbians who are not only not conforming to heterosexuality but also rejecting femininity which is forced on to girls from birth.

There are a great many reasons why you might have fancied women and girls all your life but never realised that you’re lesbian (or bisexual). Because of the homophobia and misogyny in our society, it’s common for women who fancy women to repress their feelings or minimise them. Like me, you might have never been in a safe enough space (mentally or physically) to process your real sexual orientation, and repressing it might have been the only thing your brain could do for you.

Add in the amount of performative lesbian snogs that celebrities do and how lesbianism is repeatedly sold as a male porn fantasy and you can see how confusing it might be for some women to realise they are lesbian and that their sexual attraction to women is real and nothing to be scared or ashamed of.

Why do I feel jealous of lesbian couples?

If this is you, pay attention to this feeling. I’ve spoken to several women who are in relationships with men who feel this way and are starting to question why they get this pang of jealousy or longing when they see lesbian couples.

There is a real difference between looking at a lesbian couple and thinking, ‘Ah, they look lovely together and so happy’ and thinking ‘Why can’t I have that? I want that with a woman.’

If you feel jealousy, longing, upset or trapped when you look at lesbian couples, you might want to consider why that is.

Do lesbian couples represent something you feel is missing from your own life?

Do you feel trapped in your own relationship with a man?

Do you wish you were them?

Do you wish you had the opportunity to be with a woman?

Do you see yourself with a woman when you picture your ideal life?

Pay attention to those feelings, they are very important. Talk to someone you can trust about this.

Should I leave my marriage to a man and come out as lesbian this late in life?

This is a very personal decision and something you need to spend time considering. Mainly because to make this decision, you have to accept a degree of ‘selfishness’. Of course, you are not actually selfish when you realise you are lesbian and married to man whom you might love and respect but you are not interested in at all – but it will feel like selfishness.

This is because women and girls are socialised to put everything and everyone above their own needs and desires. I have spoken to lesbians who left male partners and who had children, who felt that they were turning everyone else’s lives upside down ‘just so they could be lesbian’.

That’s society talking. That’s feminine socialisation talking.

It is okay for you to want more from your life. If you have realised that you are lesbian, you can’t live a lie for the rest of your life just to please others and keep them comfortable.

Whilst it might mean you live out the rest of your days with a comfortable family life, you will live a half-life where you continue to lie to yourself and to everyone around you.

Long term, that’s not healthy for you and it’s not fair on you as a human, to have to live in such a state of denial for such a long time.

The other side of this is that if you respect and love your partner, and you have realised you are lesbian, he might deserve to know this. If he’s a decent guy who has loved and supported you (never hurt, abused, controlled, oppressed, cheated on you) then he deserves to know that you’re not attracted to him, that you are lesbian and that you don’t want to be with him anymore.

It means that he can pursue a relationship with someone who makes him happy and so can you.

If however, he’s an abusive arsehole, I couldn’t give a shit about him. All I would care about is you being away from abuse, being happy, being safe and being able to live as a lesbian.

Whatever you do, don’t ignore your feelings hoping that they will go away, or that you can pretend they don’t happen.

Lord knows I ended up so ill doing this to myself for years. Almost all of my health problems have disappeared since being able to live as a lesbian, and I can’t believe how much damage I was doing to myself by repressing who I was.

I love the man I’m with, but I don’t fancy him at all. I love him like a best friend or brother. I fancy women. What do I do?

The issue here is that some women will be in loving, caring, safe relationships with men they trust and respect – but they don’t fancy them at all. And they aren’t ‘in love’ with them like they would be with a woman.

If this is you, you might be feeling really conflicted – and this is understandable.

However, there is something really important to say here: it’s not healthy to keep forcing yourself to be intimate with a man when you know you are lesbian.

I’ve recently spoken to a lot of women who are in relationships with men, have realised they are lesbian and are either avoiding intimate contact all together, or they are having sexual contact with their boyfriend or husband that they really don’t want.

If you don’t fancy men at all, and you’re attracted to women, you might be realising that you’ve had a lot of sex over the years that you really didn’t want or enjoy.

If you think of other things, try to distract yourself, try to get it over with as quickly as possible, or sex with your male partner makes you feel uncomfortable or even disgusted, you might want to take some time to consider how much harm you are doing to yourself by forcing or expecting yourself to ‘perform’ heterosexuality when you aren’t sexually attracted to him.

This is another example of where you need to put yourself no matter how it feels. It’s not good for any lesbian woman to keep pretending she’s straight. However, this is much easier said than done for thousands of lesbian women in cultures, communities and religions that would ostracise, harm or even kill them for leaving a marriage to a man to come out as lesbian.

But what about coming out as lesbian after I’ve had children with a man?

This one is an interesting question and is largely related to everything else I have said. It is not uncommon for women to realise they are lesbian in their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s and even later on in life. On that basis, lots of us will have already had pregnancies or had babies. Some of us might have toddlers or small children. Some of us might even have adult children by then.

This doesn’t make you less of a lesbian. It doesn’t mean you can’t be lesbian because you have had children and have had sex with men (consensual or abusive).

If your sexuality is now that you are solely attracted to other women, and you are no longer attracted to men at all, then you are lesbian.

From speaking to plenty of women, there are also those who got pregnant with abusive or coercive men, or had babies very young, and had never had the chance to process their own sexuality in a safe way. This means that lots of women who have had children eventually realise they are not even attracted to men, have been attracted to women for years, but have already had children.

This is more common than you think, so please don’t feel alone if this is you.

Final thoughts

I am already accused of trying to ‘turn straight women lesbian’ every day on the internet so I am well aware of the abuse I will probably get for writing this. However, I know I searched for information like this in my mid twenties and found very little. I know that other women are writing to me, DMing me and asking me these questions every week.

I know that me coming out and being so much happier with a woman has sparked something in many women who follow me.

I want you to know that life is so much healthier and happier now that I am able to be who I have always been. I won’t pretend this has been easy, and the abuse for being lesbian is horrible.

I’m still getting used to the weird ways men treat lesbians – somewhere between sexual objectification and outright hatred.

However, I am the calmest, healthiest, happiest and clearest I’ve ever been. I feel whole, which is something I have never felt before. I often say to people that I’ve felt like I’ve been running on a treadmill for years, and suddenly, the running has stopped and I can breathe again.

What I will say is that if you are searching for this kind of information because you find yourself attracted to women, there is a part of you that already knows you are probably lesbian.

This isn’t anything to be scared of. Being a lesbian is the best thing that’s ever happened to me and thousands of other women who find so much happiness living with, and loving other women.

Take some time to explore how you feel and use this handy checklist if you are still questioning yourself:

1. Do you notice women before you notice men?

2. When you watch a film, are you more attracted to the female character than the male character?

3. Do you prefer to see or watch sexual materials with women than men?

4. Have you been attracted to or had a crush on a girl or woman you know?

5. Have you been having sex with men in which you just ‘bare it’ or ‘wait til he’s done’?

6. Have you thought about women when you have masturbated or had sex?

7. Have you sought out materials about being lesbian or bisexual?

8. Can you picture yourself having sex with or having a relationship with another woman? How does it feel?

9. How would you feel if a beautiful woman told you she was attracted to you?

10. Do you want to have sex with women?

Whatever your answers, if you have found this blog because you are questioning whether you are lesbian, consider talking to someone you really trust. Talking it through with someone you trust, or even talking it through with other lesbians might help you process your own feelings.

Dr Jessica Taylor

Tweet: @DrJessTaylor

Facebook: Facebook.com/JessicaForenPsych

Email: jessica@victimfocus.org.uk