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The 5 Stages of Predatory Sexual Grooming

2. Gaining access and then, isolation.

Key points

  • Groomers seek out victims for emotional or psychological characteristics—being low on self-esteem, neglected, or trusting.
  • Offenders can gain access to victims through youth-service organizations and by manipulating the family.
  • The offender may also make the child feel loved, use bribes, exploit vulnerabilities, or befriend the child.

At some point in their lives, a reported 12-27 percent of girls and 4-5 percent of boys in the United States and Canada will experience sexual abuse. What’s more, an estimated 30-45 percent of victims are groomed by their abusers.

Generally speaking, grooming is a process by which an abuser skillfully manipulates a victim into situations where they can more easily commit the offense, and then keep it secret. But, what are the signs and stages of sexual grooming? This question was the focus of a study led by psychologist Georgia Winters of Farleigh Dickinson University. Since grooming behaviors can resemble normal adult interactions, Winters and her collaborators contend that the signs of grooming can be confusing. Moreover, there is not as yet a “universally accepted” model of grooming.

In response to this lack of clarity and gap in the research, the investigators extended previous work to establish a five-stage model of grooming. Their model, which was validated by experts in child sexual abuse, is outlined below.

Stage 1: Selecting the Victim. This involves identifying a vulnerable child. Offenders may engage victims on the basis of physical appearance, such as small size or young age. They may also seek out a victim for emotional or psychological characteristics, such as being low on self-esteem, neglected, or trusting. Moreover, an offender might also consider the family’s situation when selecting a victim, with parental discord, parental mental illness, and lack of parental supervision making it easier to groom a victim.

Stage 2: Gaining Access and Isolation. Offenders use multiple strategies to gain access to a victim, including being involved in youth-service organizations, going to public places where there are children, and manipulating the family. Once an offender has successfully gained access, they often try to isolate the child physically and emotionally from both family and peers, often creating situations in which they are alone with victims, and with no other adults present. This includes activities like overnight sleepovers, babysitting, or giving the child a ride home.

Stage 3: The Development of Trust. Offenders often get the cooperation and trust of the child and family by being affable and charming, thus achieving “insider status” and a positive reputation. The offender may also make the child feel loved, use bribes, exploit vulnerabilities, befriend the child, and engage in youth-oriented activities. The use of drugs and alcohol is more common in older children.

Stage 4: Desensitizing the Child to Sexual Content and Physical Contact. In this stage, offenders introduce sexual conversation and touch, with the goal of desensitizing children to it. Offenders might discuss sexualized topics, such as telling inappropriate jokes or providing sexual education, or having sexual conversations. Invasions of privacy, like spying, or “accidental” touching may also occur. Desensitization to touch may begin with physical contact, such as hugging and tickling, that then shifts to wrestling or massages.

Stage 5: Post-Abuse Maintenance. Once the abuse has been initiated, the offender engages in maintenance behaviors, that allow it to continue and be undisclosed. They include encouraging the child to keep secrets, persuading the child that the abuse is normal, or making the child feel responsible for the abuse. The offender might also try telling the child that they love them, offer the child bribes or rewards, or impose punishment.

On a concluding note, Winters and her co-authors emphasize that having a clear and shared understanding of the grooming process can help all of us do a better job of keeping children safe.

Facebook image: Roman Chazov/Shutterstock


Georgia M. Winters , Elizabeth L. Jeglic & Leah E. Kaylor (2020) Validation of the Sexual Grooming Model of Child Sexual Abusers, Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, 29:7, 855-875, DOI: 10.1080/10538712.2020.1801935