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How Sex Offenders Groom Their Victims

Sexual offenders are scary and savvy, but red flags can be detected.

Key points

  • Sex offenders will introduce an expectation of secrecy into their process, to make a victim beholden to them.
  • Grooming techniques are common, deliberate, and designed to desensitize victims and win their trust.
  • Offenders may inquire about the victim's knowledge of sex and/or introduce them to pornography.
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Most people recognize that boys and men are victims of sexual abuse. But since you don’t know many of these victims yourself, you may be wondering where those crimes are being committed. To understand male sex abuse, it's helpful to understand the common grooming techniques offenders use.

Grooming techniques are the deliberate, carefully orchestrated acts and gestures offenders engage in. The acts are all legal and not harmful in themselves, but later recognized as offenders' preparation process, designed to win the affection, trust, and loyalty of potential victim and their parents. They are designed to seduce and prepare potential victims for sexual relations,[1] and then leave those victims confused about what happened.

The process begins when the predator goes in search of a target. They will visit the places children go: schools, malls, sporting events, and parks, etc., and study the latest cultural trends and media sites to learn about their victims' likely interests so they can create access points. Perpetrators may become very attentive, not only to the child’s needs, but also to the parents’ needs. in order to gain their trust.[2] They often befriend the parents and are deceivingly transparent about their intentions to befriend their children, hoping to mislead the parent into feeling at ease.

Many offenders go to extreme measures, including establishing a career or hobby within an educational institution or volunteer organization. Others befriend or even marry a single parent to gain access to unguarded children. Offenders may remain non-sexual with targets for long periods of time while waiting for them to mature to their age of preference.

Offenders are thought to have a radar for children in disadvantaged situations.[3] Vulnerable children include those who haven’t yet learned that some people can’t be trusted, those with low self-esteem, and those in need of friends. Rebellious teens and those isolated by their peers, or those having problems with their parent(s), may be easy targets for offenders. Offenders will win a target’s affection by using false self-disclosures and false empathy. They may lie and tell them they too went through the same things when they were young.[4] Offenders often fake a common background or interest and pay special attention to their potential victim, preying on weakness and vulnerability the same way predators do in the wild.[5] They watch for a weak individual, separate them from the group, then attack. Offenders often work to separate a child by taking that target away from their home on educational or recreational outings.[6]

In males, sexual abuse often begins with the gradual introduction of touch. They may first tickle or poke younger children. In older children, first physical contact is often through the use of a trusted friend. Offenders will encourage the two friends to play fight, teach them how to subdue others, engage in rough play, and encourage them to remove their shirts. Offenders may or may not join in once they are fully engaged. First physical contact between predator and victim is often non-sexual, designed to desensitize the victim by getting them used to being touched[7].

Offenders will introduce an expectation of secrecy into their process, often by introducing them to other masculine principles, such as the use of coarse language, which, when the boy is rewarded for using. This secrecy binds the victim to his predator (and may be accompanied by threats if the offender fears being exposed). They may offer candy to young children, allow older children and teens to play prohibited video games, or to use alcohol, tobacco, or other illicit drugs. Offenders will tell them not to tell their parents and indicate that they will get them both in trouble if they do. These acts help the offender to establish the risk of being reported on, reasoning that it is better to be found out for offering a child alcohol than for engaging in sexual acts.

Progressively, offenders often work toward a situation in which their target has to change his clothes, spend the night, or both[8]. Here they may be allowed to engage in further mature activities (like driving) or make adult decisions.

Offenders may inquire about their target's present knowledge of sex and/or introduce them to pornography, often leaving it around for easy detection.[9] The pornography may depict other children engaged in sexual acts and is designed to establish interest and provoke arousal, [10] while lessening resistance toward engaging in such acts themselves. In time, the touch progresses into more overt sexual touching — the predator’s ultimate goal. They may offer to teach victims to masturbate, verbalizing that they are old enough, and tell them it’s what all grown men do. The offender may offer to assist them to ‘masturbate properly’ or offer to perform oral sex on them. By the time the victim realizes they have been sexually assaulted, they are confused, since they previously liked their offender. Many victims fear reporting lest they get in trouble or be blamed for their own participation.

Although offenders often target disadvantaged children, the reality is that any child may be abused.[11] Predators target children in healthy families, too. Offenders will work hard to find and fill any voids, often moving mountains to gain access to their victims. Any child who feels lonely, unloved, or unpopular will naturally gravitate toward someone who gives them attention, affection, and praise.[12]

Facebook image: CreativeAngela/Shutterstock


[1] Kenneth Lanning, Child Molesters: A Behavioral Analysis for Professionals Investigating the Sexual Exploitation of Children (Alexandria, VA: National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, 2010); Matt Logan, “Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing: Most Child Molesters Blend into their Background,” HALO Forensic Behavioural Specialists (blog), February 22, 2010,….

[2] Lanning, Child Molesters.

[3] Lanning, Child Molesters.

[4] Logan, “Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing.”

[5] Logan, “Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing.”

[6] Sullivan and Beech, “A Comparative Study of Demographic Data.”

[7] Logan, “Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing.”

[8] Lanning, Child Molesters

[9] Lanning, Child Molesters; Sullivan and Beech, “Professional Perpetrators.”

[10] Lanning, Child Molesters; Logan, “Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing.”

[11] Logan, “Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing.”

[12] Logan, “Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing.”