As the programme sparks global conversations on grooming, Olivia Petter speaks to those who helped create it in addition to psychologists on why we need to know more about this important issue
*Please note that this article contains spoilers for season one of Cruel Summer*
There are many scenes in the TV show Cruel Summer that are hard to forget, but there’s one that stands out. Kate Wallis (played by Olivia Holt) has been staying at the home of her high school’s vice principal Martin Harris (Blake Lee) for two days when he receives a phone call from the local detective. “That’s terrible news,” he says before thanking him and hanging up.
Staring out of the window of his plush home, Martin closes the curtains in one forceful tug, in sync with a chilling crescendo on the soundtrack. He turns back to face Kate and informs her: “You’re officially a missing person; the police are looking for you.” The music deepens. And in that singular moment, everything between them changes. The viewer realises that Kate is trapped – and that Martin doesn’t want to let her go.
Grooming is a technique used by abusive adults to engage a vulnerable person in sexual abuse. To an informed outsider, it might seem easy to identify. To a victim, however, it is usually much less obvious, particularly when the abusive relationship is framed as romantic, as it is in Cruel Summer.
Created by Bert V. Royal, Cruel Summer follows the lives of two teenage girls in Texas in the 1990s. Tracking the same day over the course of three years – 1993, 1994, and 1995 – the series follows the disappearance of Kate, a popular high school student whose life is seemingly taken over by outcast Jeanette Turner (Chiara Aurelia) while she is missing. When Kate is later found alive, she accuses Jeanette of knowing about her abduction and failing to report it.
Over the course of the show’s 10 episodes, we learn that Kate was being groomed by Martin, whose house she ultimately fled to following an argument with her mother. After she’s reported as missing, she starts living with Martin and soon enters into what appears to be a romantic relationship with him. But after two months, things take a darker turn and when Kate attempts to leave one evening, Martin locks her in his basement: an inevitable fate the viewer knows is coming from the start, but one where the motives are never entirely clear, which is just one of the ways the show highlights the complexities surrounding grooming.
“The brilliant thing about Cruel Summer is that you’re seeing nuanced details of these moments between Martin and Kate throughout, but it isn’t until we’re really living with them in the house that we’re seeing the manipulation at play, and the degree of control he has over her,” says Alexis Ostrander, who directed episodes seven and nine – which is when we discover what really happened between Kate and Martin in his home, learning that she wasn’t always locked in the basement, as the show had previously implied. It’s a crucial episode in the plot, one that highlights exactly how Martin was able to position himself as Kate’s saviour to the degree where she didn’t want to leave, at least not at first.
The show illustrates this by cleverly interrupting moments of the narrative with scenes between Kate and her therapist, two years later, who spells out Martin’s tactics. For example, after entering Martin’s home for the first time, she tells her how lonely she feels, asking him how it happened. “You’re not alone, I’m here, I’m listening,” he replies. Flashing forward to 1995, the therapist breaks down how grooming works. “A groomer isolates their victim,” she says, referring to that specific exchange. “He saw your unfulfilled need to confide in someone, and positioned himself as the singular person to fulfil that need.”
The second evening that Kate spends Martin concludes with the two of them playing a game of “Never Have I Ever”. Watching the characters drinking and talking, it’s easy to forget what’s happened and think you’re watching two adults flirting. At least, it is until Martin asks Kate if she has ever kissed someone “significantly older” than her. The next shot flashes forward by 20 days. Kate is hiding in the closet; we then learn that her and Martin are playing a game of hide and seek. When Martin finds her, they embrace and kiss, as if for the third time that day.
Not showing their first kiss was crucial when it came to how the team behind Cruel Summer wanted to present the relationship between Martin and Kate i.e. in a way that prevented viewers from rooting for them as a couple. Similarly, we are never shown them having sex or engaging in any other physical intimacy.
“We didn’t want it to feel like a love story and to romanticise this relationship,” says Ostrander. “We wanted to get these glimpses of their lives in that house to show how he was isolating her through love bombing so she felt like her two choices were either staying with Martin, where she felt loved, or going home where she felt completely unsupported. It’s a very unique feeling of entrapment. Ultimately, we wanted the audience to feel uncomfortable watching them together.” In this, the show succeeds with aplomb, constantly reminding the viewer in tacit ways that this is not the romantic relationship Kate seems to think that it is.
For example, we are constantly reminded of the fact that Kate, as a 17-year-old girl, is a child. There’s the moment when Martin asks how she slept after her first night there, and she replies, “Like a baby”. Then, there’s the scene where, before leaving for work, Martin suggests that Kate spend the day reading through travel brochures and choosing a place for them to go on holiday together when she turns 18. “It’ll be your homework,” he says, winking at her as she grins.
Another chilling moment comes on Halloween, when the two are snuggled underneath a makeshift tent watching scary films. That was Ostrander’s idea. “I threw out this idea to our showrunner, Tia Napolitano, thinking it could illustrate how, because he’s keeping her in his house, he has to constantly find new ways to entertain her or keep her engaged. Doing that with childlike activities, such as Hide & Seek from earlier, drives home the point that what we’re seeing play out here is the sexual grooming of a minor.”
Napolitano agrees, emphasising how this was also a way of illustrating the power dynamic between Martin and Kate. “We tried to avoid them looking like they were ever on equal footing,” she says. “We didn’t want viewers to start thinking, ‘oh, well if it wasn’t for their age difference they’d be together’ because that’s not what’s happening.”
The Cruel Summer team worked closely with grooming consultant, Dr Sheila Modir, on the show. “We would give her the scripts to look at and she really helped us be responsible with our storytelling,” says Napolitano, who, like Ostrander, didn’t know a huge amount about grooming before working on Cruel Summer. “We really wanted to invite the audience to think about a subject that isn’t talked about very much and can be difficult to understand, so Sheila’s input in that sense was hugely helpful,” Napolitano adds.
Indeed, grooming isn’t talked about a huge amount, at least not to the same extent that other forms of abuse are. The NSPCC states that a child is unlikely to know they’re being groomed, hence why raising awareness is so important. “Abusers use a range of tactics, including online platforms, to establish trust and an emotional connection with a young person,” say Sarah Ward, safeguarding manager at the NSPCC. “The risk of this happening can be increased when the adult involved holds a position of trust due to the amount of power, authority and influence they have over the young person.”
This is what happened to Chloe-May Cuthill. The now-32-year-old was nine years old when she started getting taxis to and from school – her family lived far away and weren’t able to take her due to work commitments. The same male driver took her every time. “He was very friendly towards me and made me feel grown-up because he would tell me adult things, which felt exciting, such as jokes with swear words.” Soon, the driver started telling Cuthill about his relationship and eventually spoke about his sex life with his partner.
“I remember the first time he abused me,” she recalls. “He got a camcorder out of the boot and he told me a customer had left it in the car. It was a big old one and you had to put your eye to the view-finder to see the tape. He told me to watch the film, so I did and it was pornography. That’s when the abuse started and it escalated from there.”
Like Kate, Cuthill remembers feeling like she was in a relationship with her abuser. “His attention made me feel mature and I loved it,” she says. “He was careful in his abuse too, he wasn’t aggressive and he didn’t hurt me. I grew to like what was happening so didn’t want it to stop. It’s taken a long time for me to say that and it’s only through the court process and counselling that I’m able to admit that.”
Cuthill had learning disabilities and was particularly short for her age; she believes her abuser took advantage of both of these factors. “I think that combined with my physical size meant he targeted me because I was more vulnerable than other children. He exploited the fact that we spent time alone and was able to groom me over a long period of time.”
The grooming continued for three years, stopping only when Cuthill’s mother started taking her to school. Cuthill didn’t talk to anyone about what happened until, at 15, she confided in her sister. Then, at 18, she told a friend. “They both told me to go to the police but I didn’t want to. I asked them to not tell anyone, and they didn’t.”
In 2017, aged 28, Cuthill watched a TV programme about sexual abuse that triggered her memories of what had happened. She rang the NSPCC Helpline and reported it had happened to her when she was a child. “I called the police as soon as I hung up and two officers came around to take my statement,” she remembers. The driver was convicted in 2019. “Now I want to speak out to reduce the stigma and shame surrounding the topic of abuse,” says Cuthill. “I want people to be able to talk about it and not hide it.”
Talking more about grooming and understanding more about how it works could not only prevent it from happening, say campaigners, but also protect children and others from the sexual coercion that often results from it. “Abusers may normalise the sexual abuse, and create a pseudo-relationship, where the victim is manipulated in order to feel like they are special, and genuinely believes they are in a relationship,” explains Jayne Butler, CEO of Rape Crisis. “If the general public understand the signs and effects of grooming, they will be able to better identify perpetrators, can help to recognise those who may be at risk of being abused, and ultimately help those who have been subjected to grooming and exploitation.”
It could also help those who have been exposed to other types of sexual violence, says Elizabeth Jeglic, clinical psychologist and researcher in sexual violence prevention at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “We know that the majority of sex crimes are perpetrated by someone known to the victim such as a family member, friend or acquaintance,” she adds. “Relatively few sex crimes meet the stereotypical prototype of the violent rape by a stranger in a dark alley and most sexual violence does not result in visible physical injuries to the victims as they do not involve physical violence but rather psychological manipulation.”
Recognising when you are being manipulated is key, says Jeglic, and fundamentally, sexual grooming can be thought of as a “skillful manipulation of the victim” to the degree that sexual abuse can be committed more easily without their understanding. “By understanding that the large majority of sexual violence is perpetrated by someone we know using these manipulative strategies to prevent detection, it can help us better spot abusive behaviors thereby preventing abuse before it occurs.”
That said, of course the onus when it comes to ending violence against women and girls of any kind is never, nor should it ever be, on the victim. Cruel Summer makes this crystal clear. In fact, Napolitano says that’s the one message she hopes viewers, particularly young women, take from the programme. “We wanted this show to give a microphone to the young women by telling it through their eyes. Kate’s journey through the show is realising that she was a victim. She was not at fault at all for what happened to her; no victim of grooming – or any other form of sexual abuse – ever is.”
If you’ve been affected by this article or are concerned about a child, you can call the NSPCC on 0808 800 5000, or visit their website for more information here.