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Misuse and Abuse of the Term Grooming Hurts Victims

The exploitation of the term "grooming" has risks.

Key points

  • There is wide variance in how to identify, define, and measure grooming behaviors by sexual offenders.
  • Grooming is best defined as antecedent behaviors that are inappropriate and increase likelihood of sexual abuse.
  • Current claims that sex education or children's movies are a form of grooming are not consistent with science or clinical frameworks.
Image by Alexas Fotos via Pixabay
Source: Image by Alexas Fotos via Pixabay

It is well-known that Disney has been dragged into the debate over Florida sex education, and that their movies are being condemned as grooming, with bizarre arguments that teaching children about menstruation, or to love and befriend monsters are covert strategies to decrease children’s resistance to sexual abusers.

Among clinicians and researchers who work with sexual offenders and persons with pedophilia, there is little agreement on exactly what grooming is, or how to consistently and accurately identify and measure it. The term grooming is used to describe patterns of behavior in the actions of individuals who commit sexual offenses, as they prepare an individual to be more amenable, or susceptible, to the perpetrator’s influence. Grooming behaviors may also increase the likelihood that a victim will keep the interactions secret, protecting the perpetrator. Finally, grooming may also serve to prepare an environment, or a social network, to increase a perpetrator’s access to a potential victim, and decrease the likelihood of the perpetrator being exposed or confronted.

Research on the concept of grooming has found inconsistent support for it, particularly in the difficulty of distinguishing alleged grooming behaviors from normal adult-child social interactions. It is known that some perpetrators of child sexual abuse specifically identify vulnerable children, give them gifts, and engage in sexualized discussions to desensitize the children to future sexual assault (Seto, 2008). However, we clearly can’t condemn everyone who gives a child a gift as a potential sexual predator. Similarly, people who teach sexual education to marginalized, disabled children are closer to saints, than monsters.

A limitation of the concept of grooming is that it can only be identified retrospectively after the abuse has occurred, or an offender has confessed to attempting abuse. Laws in the US and the UK offer additional punishment in sentencing to offenders who showed children child sexual abuse material, under the idea that such acts are grooming efforts to increase susceptibility to sexual abuse. However, the act of showing a child such material is, in itself, a form of sexual abuse and a crime in and of itself.

“Grooming is generally regarded as prior activities intended to prepare the child for abuse, not actually illegal or abusive activities themselves,” according to Bennett and O’Donohue (2014). Legal efforts to prosecute grooming, separate from criminal sexual acts, often fail because courts, like all of us, are unable to know what was in the mind and intent of the defendant. The term grooming is best seen as a colloquial term, used by laypersons to describe complex phenomena and behavior patterns, where researchers and clinicians apply nuance and specificity to distinguish and identify behaviors of individuals involved in sexual offending.

When working with people who have committed sexual offenses, a significant challenge is that to decrease recidivism and improve outcomes, we want offenders to be connected to and supported by, a positive social network. We don’t want them isolated and we want them to have good relationships. However, as they work to develop positive relationships, it can be difficult to determine whether they are working to develop trust for healthy reasons, or for manipulative reasons.

There have been efforts to extend the concept of grooming to describe actions by adults who sexually offend or harass other adults, where there are similar patterns of identifying or creating isolation and vulnerability, as well as efforts to avoid detection or punishment. Unfortunately, these behaviors can parallel courtship and dating behaviors, making it even more difficult to identify them as predatory and inappropriate. Giving gifts, using touch to increase physical closeness and trust, and getting to know one’s family and friends are ways some offenders behave but are also ways that someone develops a consensual intimate relationship.

There is a large online community and “school” of strategies designed to seduce women and overcome psychological resistance, called the “pickup artist” or PUA. These approaches involve the application of various psychological strategies such as “neurolinguistics programming” and evolutionary mating principles with the intent of increasing the likelihood that a woman will consensually comply with a male’s sexual seduction efforts. While manipulative and icky, these behaviors are not criminal.

Due to these conceptual difficulties, a more precise definition of grooming is limited to “antecedent inappropriate behavior that functions to increase the likelihood of future sexual abuse,” with two additional limitations:

  • the behavior being evaluated must in and of itself be inappropriate and a case for this inappropriateness must be made
  • a sound argument must be presented that the behavior or behaviors increase the likelihood of future sexual abuse.
    (Bennett & O’Donohue, 2014)
Image by Kleiton Santos from Pixabay
Source: Image by Kleiton Santos from Pixabay

Unfortunately, there is still no validated, reliable, objective means to accurately and consistently identify grooming, and distinguish these behaviors from normal, prosocial patterns. Many criminal sexual acts occur impulsively, with little to no planning, enacted by offenders with lower intelligence who are often impaired by drugs or alcohol. The broad notion of grooming that is currently being portrayed in the media implies that sex offenders are Machiavellian geniuses, plotting in their basements and using sophisticated playbooks to achieve their evil desires. In fact, many offenders engage in manipulative behaviors unconsciously, instinctively, and may only recognize them in the course of individualized therapy (Wolf, Pruitt & Leet 2021).

The current claims that sex education, Disney movies, or library books with sexual content are grooming fail to meet the clinical and scientific framing of this concept. First, these claims allege a vast conspiracy of collaborating sexual offenders, collectively manipulating social interactions at a macro and micro level to facilitate sexual abuse. While offenders do sometimes act collectively, such a conspiracy is, frankly, ludicrous, and certainly not the “sound” argument required (Bennett & O’Donohue). Secondly, no actual sexual abuse has occurred, which can specifically be related to these behaviors. Finally, while people making these claims disagree with the actions of educators and movie-makers, there is no consistent recognition that these actions are inherently inappropriate.

The current misuse of the term grooming involves an extraordinary expansion and broadening of the concept, far beyond the actual, awful behaviors that sexual offenders engage in. These claims are intentionally misusing the concept of grooming to associate these issues with child sexual abuse. This has the very real risk of making it more difficult to detect and identify actual manipulative behaviors and prevent actual sexual offending. Calling everything one dislikes grooming is a base and callous exploitation and minimizes the very real experiences of child sexual abuse victims.

References

Bennett & O’Donohue (2014). The Construct of Grooming in Child Sexual Abuse: Conceptual and Measurement Issues, Journal of Child Sexual Abuse.

Seto, M. (2008). Pedophilia. In D.R. Laws & W. O’Donohue (Eds.), Sexual deviance: Theory, assessment, and treatment.

Wolf, Pruitt & Leet (2021). Lessons Learned: Creation and Testing of a New Instrument ( Sex Offenders Grooming Assessment) for Measuring Sex Offenders' Perceptions of Their Grooming Behaviors. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse.

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