Warning: Explicit and distressing content
By now, you've probably seen, and created an opinion, on Leaving Neverland, the new four-hour documentary which tells the stories of two men who allege years of sexual abuse by superstar Michael Jackson when they were children.
I'm not here to tell you, one way or the other, what I think of the claims that Jackson abused these men when they were boys.
I want to try to get you to push aside the celebrity here, take away the public scandal and the outrage, and see Leaving Neverland for what it is: an intensive and detailed overview of how grooming child sex abuse works.
"Grooming" is the term used to describe the seductive process of gaining trust in a child in order to sexually abuse them.
In the cases detailed in Leaving Neverland, the grooming allegedly started months and years before any inappropriate touching may have occurred.
You can think of grooming in a similar vein as the way dating works when you're falling head-over-heels for somebody new.
They tell you things nobody else knows. They laugh, they cry, they share. There are gestures and gifts. They make you feel special. Not just special – they make you feel like the only important thing in their entire world.
Between two consenting adults, this is the most exciting time. So here's where it gets sordid. Imagine this exact same process of courting and seduction being a weapon of a manipulative adult with paedophilic tenancies, used against a child who doesn't have the emotional or physical capability to know what's going on.
Grooming a child only works when the perpetrator is somebody a child can have respect for. This is why most child sex abuse cases include someone the child knows. They are often family members or people in the community (e.g. in churches and sports teams) with power in that community. They are trusted by all. They are well-known, they are even heroes to children. They might even be somebody a child already loves and lives with.
The alleged Michael Jackson cases take all of the above and multiply them by a thousand. Jackson wasn't just a respected person or a local hero. He was the biggest celebrity in the world; unlike anyone who exists anymore because there is no comparison. He was universally regarded as the most talented and famous person on the planet. He was a god.
You wouldn't even have to be a child to be seduced by that – as Leaving Neverland shows, Jackson allegedly groomed the boys' parents into trusting him over years and years, too.
The word "sexual abuse" is confusing for people like me who have never experienced it. All connotations attached to it are violent and forceful. After watching Leaving Neverland I can finally understand that when the abuser is an expert at what they're doing, none of the sexual interactions will feel like abuse to the child. They will feel like expressions of love to them.
While grooming for future sexual abuse, touch is introduced very gradually after trust has been gained. We, the general public, have assumptions that child sex offenders go in and rape a child from day one, but that's not generally the case.
The abuser may spend months and years, quite literally, manipulating a child to fall in love with them using the very limited cerebral capacity that child has about human connection.
Touch will often begin with "horsing around" physical playing, like children would generally do together. Seemingly harmless, something like playing games of tag is that very first introduction to physical contact.
Later, it might lead to a hug. Then a hand touching a child's leg. Then, after forms of undressing, the contact becomes more overtly sexual as it moves towards physical abuse.
By now you probably feel about as sick as I do. This is a completely normal reaction, but one I think we all need to acknowledge and – hear me out – move past, in order to really understand how child sex abuse works.
In reality, it's not really about the sex acts themselves. Because the abuser has built up so much love and trust with a child, that child probably won't even know the abuse is happening. What grooming for sex abuse is really all about is filling a child with shame, secrets, and guilt.
It's this emotional abuse that is far more damaging long-term than actual physical sexual assault. The overarching goal, here, is making sure that the child never says anything about it. Given the reputation the abuser should have built up for themselves in their community, their secondary objective is making sure nobody would believe that child, if they did say something.
Only much later in life, when the victims of child sex abuse begin to understand that what happened to them was wrong, may they be able to comprehend their interactions with their abuser.
Grooming is the theft of a young person's childhood. During their most influential years, they will develop misunderstandings about trust, love, affection, and physical and emotional normalcy. This will follow them into adulthood and it's something they will have to deal with for the rest of their lives.
If you can watch Leaving Neverland and put aside your thoughts about Michael Jackson as an icon, I hope this is what you take from this very important documentary. Grooming is a plague on our society. It's happening in our communities right now. It's time we all wake up to the "how".