I don’t remember anyone speaking to me at school about online safety. The focus was on stranger danger, not about the guy on the internet. I was around nine when I first went on an online chatroom. You were supposed to be over 13 to join but I didn’t have to give ID to prove my age. Men would message me and a lot would be very upfront, asking me to take my clothes off on camera. Every couple of weeks, I’d do what they asked if they were nice and I liked them. It’s easy to manipulate a child, and getting attention from men made me feel grown up and validated.
When I was 12, I met a guy online who was 18, and it became a boyfriend-girlfriend thing although we never saw each other face-to-face. At the beginning, he’d say positive things like “I love you. You’re my special girl. You don’t have to go on camera if you don’t want to.” But then things started to shift.
We’d talk for hours, and he kept me isolated by saying, “You don’t need friends; you have me.” He’d ask me to touch myself, send videos, email him pictures, webcam stuff, and would get angry if I didn’t. He tried to get me to send stuff every day, and there was standard emotional blackmail: “If you love me… nobody can find out, or we will get in trouble. Do you want me to be sent to prison?”
He’d tell me to stay up until 3 a.m., and I would force myself to stay awake because I’d worry I’d be in trouble. I didn’t know what manipulation was at the time, but I was uncomfortable and could see he was being mean and twisting my words, so after three months, I ended things.
When I was 14, my family moved to a new area, and I went online to meet new people in chatrooms. I met a 34 year-old on TeenChat, and within a week, he’d driven two hours from where he lived to see me. I knew it was grooming, but I was lonely and vulnerable. It felt like our relationship was consensual. We’d speak every day, do stuff over Skype and the phone, and see each other at least once a month.
It lasted until I was turning 16 when it became obvious I was getting too old for him, and he was getting bored. We lost contact, and then a couple of years later, I got a call from the police. I remember instantly breaking down, admitting we’d had underage sex, and I had screenshots. It turned out that there were other victims, and he’d been doing it for a long time. He ended up being sent to prison for 15 years.
These things have affected my mental health, but it’s got better since I was referred to a therapeutic counselling service by the NSPCC for children who have been sexually abused. I used to think guys accidentally went online and fell in love with me, that age is just a number, and it wasn’t their fault. Now, I know what they were going online to look for, and I understand consent. But no matter how much help you have, what has happened will always have an impact.
This story was shared as part of our 2021 report, Ending Online Sexual Exploitation and Abuse of Women and Girls: A Call for International Standards.