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  • Jaela Paranilam

How to Catch a Predator: Critical Conversations After College Park’s Ex-Mayor’s Arrest

COLLEGE PARK, Md. – On March 2, 2023, Ex-Mayor of the City of College Park, Patrick Wojahn, was arrested for 56 counts of child pornography. Of these 56 counts, 40 of them were for possession of child exploitative material and 16 were for distribution of it. In response to the struggle for justice for these charges, the College Park community has been buzzing with conversation about sexual abuse and surrounding issues, a lot of this talk being spearheaded by students at the University of Maryland - College Park.

Before the age of 18, 10% of children will experience Child Sexual Abuse. Child Sexual Abuse involves all and any forms of sexual acts or behavior with a child, contact or non-contact. This is a statistic that many are unfamiliar with, but it is one that we should all be aware of. Sexual grooming is a term that is used a lot when discussing child sexual grooming, but grooming as a larger term can apply to young adults and other at-risk populations as well. Sexual grooming is the manipulation of a vulnerable person to then be able to sexually exploit and abuse them. Manipulation and exploitation can happen to anyone included in a at-risk population, and college students are an example of one vulnerable group.

While there is not a confirmed model of sexual grooming, the agreed-upon stages of sexual grooming are selecting the victim, gaining access to the victim, trust development, desensitization to sexual behaviors, and maintaining control. All of these steps contribute to the groomer’s ability to manipulate and exploit vulnerable people, whether that be children, young adults, disabled individuals, or other members belonging to vulnerable populations.

Abusers and groomers do not characteristically present as a threat to the potential victims. These are not people that most would immediately put into the “stranger danger” category. They are charming and often initially show a caring nature to the person they are trying to gain control of. In college populations, this can look like an older person coming to the student and offering to take care of them or help them in some way.

A couple of college students that have been groomed in college were interviewed on their experiences. One person, who wishes to remain anonymous, said, “[My abuser] was significantly older than me while I was freshly eighteen and made it seem like they loved and cared about me. Only after the relationship did I realize the abuse that was happening rooted in the power imbalance that existed between me and them”. One of the main ways to identify a groomer is the power imbalance that exists between the two individuals. If the person that could potentially be the groomer is significantly older than the other and is in an entirely different stage in life, this may indicate a power imbalance. From money to influence to access, there are many things that older people can provide to college students, and the ability to abuse this power is a main reason that abusers select college students as victims to groom.

As college students are both legal and of consenting age, there is less risk of criminal charges associated with abuse for the predator. This is one of the reasons that young adults are targeted by predators such as groomers: they can consent to sexual acts or behaviors but are still in an age range that would be less likely to perceive typical grooming behaviors as predatory.

Adult grooming is an issue that needs to be talked about more in and around college campuses. Many college students have been offered “opportunities” from older individuals in the forms of money, jobs, and help with coursework, in exchange for sexual favors or activities. While this may not seem like a frequent occurrence, there are many more things lurking in the shadows than you may be led to believe.

When Ex-Mayor, Patrick Wojahn, was arrested for crimes in possessing and distributing child exploitation material, many conversations started around exploitation and manipulation. This was a tragedy that shocked the College Park community and impacted a lot of the ways that the community looks at sexual grooming and related abuse. The University of Maryland community should be no different. Let this horrific event be a reminder to keep each other safe and talk about things. Talk to your friends if you think they are being taken advantage of by partners, keep the conversation about the grooming of college students going, take time to make decisions that are best for you, and ask for help from knowledgeable people if you feel like you are being taken advantage of.

With that being said, college students have the power to have the difficult conversations and catalyze change by talking about and bringing awareness to issues, grooming being one of these issues.

If you are in need of support regarding grooming or sexual abuse, the 24/7 National Sexual Assault Hotline can help, you can reach them at the following number: 1-800-656-4673

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