But They Went Willingly

Understanding the sexual grooming of teens.

Posted Feb 05, 2020

Photo by NEOSiAM 2020 from Pexels
Source: Photo by NEOSiAM 2020 from Pexels

In the summer of 2019, the world was exposed to the underage sex trafficking network of multimillionaire financier Jeffrey Epstein. While the investigation is ongoing and victims continue to come forward, many questioned why these girls would stay with Epstein after they were abused. Further, others sought to understand why these young women would not report the abuse or why they would recruit other young women to be part of the network. The behavior of these young women and many teens who are sexually abused by adults can be understood in the context of sexual grooming—the techniques and strategies many abusers use to commit abuse without getting caught.

In recent years more people have heard the term sexual grooming, as it has been used to describe the predatory behaviors of Jerry Sandusky, Michael Jackson, priests in the Catholic church, and others who have been accused or convicted of child sexual abuse. It generally refers to behaviors that child molesters use to get access to children and prepare them for abuse without being detected. It is estimated that as much as 50% of all child abuse involves sexual grooming. While research on the sexual grooming of children has been increasing there is still a lack of understanding and research of how grooming may also come into play in the sexual abuse of teenagers. To many, teenagers are perceived as more capable and independent than children and thus it is hard for some to understand how teens can be abused. However, the sexual grooming of teenagers follows many of the same patterns of abuse as those younger children, although the strategies and behaviors may look a little different.

While experts have yet to agree upon a model to explain grooming behaviors, most models involve similar stages and behaviors. One such model – the Five Stage Model of Sexual Grooming – was developed based upon research examining the behavior of child molesters, but can also be applied to understanding the grooming behaviors of those that offend against adolescents. The Five Stage Model encompasses 1) victim selection, 2) gaining access and isolating a child, 3) trust development, 4) desensitization to sexual content and physical contact, and 5) maintenance following the abuse as described below:

  1. Victim Selection. In this first stage of the sexual grooming process, the perpetrator selects a victim. The research shows that victim choice is often based upon physical attractiveness, ease of access, and perceived vulnerability. For those who abuse teens, this could mean selecting teens who are distanced or estranged from their parents, have low levels of parental supervision, or come from chaotic or abusive households. In terms of vulnerability, perpetrators could select adolescents who have low self-esteem and low confidence, substance use problems, those who have a history of being abused, or even teens who may be unduly trusting or naïve. For example, many of Epstein’s victims came from disadvantaged or abusive homes or foster care, and consequently were more vulnerable to the allure of the jet-setting lifestyle. Epstein was also said to have a specific “type” and selected teens who had a certain appearance.
  2. Gaining Access/Isolation. In this second stage, the abuser seeks to get access to the victim by separating them emotionally and physically from their guardians. For perpetrators who target teens this stage may be easier than for those that target children, as teens are more independent and can go places alone with significantly less parental oversight. Epstein was able to take many of his victims to his isolated residences, on his private jet, or to his private island without even meeting their parents/guardians. Also, bringing these teens to isolated locales physically isolated them from family, friends, and authorities so it was difficult for them to get away or reach out for help. 
  3. Trust development. This third stage involves gaining the trust of the victim, their guardian(s), and the community so that the abuse can occur without detection. In this stage, the abuser works to gain the trust of the intended victim by giving them gifts and special attention and sharing secrets. Epstein would offer many of his victims access to a luxury lifestyle that they could not otherwise experience. He also targeted other potential victims by showing interest in their talents such as painting or music and offered to be their patron. This can make a neglected or insecure teen feel special and indebted to the individual. Some abusers will also engage in illicit activities with the teens, such as providing alcohol and drugs or breaking rules/having secrets from parents, which then sets the stage for them not to report the eventual abuse. In addition, Epstein was able to groom the community through his friendships with important dignitaries and celebrities, as well as his charitable donations to institutions such as MIT and Stanford and his patronages of the arts. Consequently, he became well-known and respected in powerful and elite social circles, enhancing his credibility within the community.
  4. Desensitization to Touch. The fourth stage involves desensitizing the intended victim to non-sexual physical touch which is often the final stage before abuse occurs. With younger children, this may involve tickling, hugging, taking a bath/shower together and roughhousing. With adolescents, this can involve hugging, skinny dipping, touching them unnecessarily (like putting a hand on their leg when sitting side by side) and watching pornography. Epstein asked many of the teens he abused to give him or his friends massages, for which he paid them a great deal of money. These tactics serve to desensitize the intended victims to sexual content or touching. Using relatively innocuous requests such as massage can also work as part of the foot in the door strategy, in which someone is more likely to consent to a bigger request once they have already said yes to a smaller request. For example, once the teens gave Epstein a massage, he would then ask them to come back for more massages and then he would ask them to disrobe or touch him while he masturbated.
  5. Maintenance. In the final stage, the abuse has already occurred, and the abuser is using various strategies to enable the abuse to continue without detection. While this stage can involve explicit threats to the victim or their families if the abuse is disclosed, the abuser often plays on the guilt and shame experienced by those who have been abused. Because they were groomed, children and teens who were abused often feel that they were in some way responsible for the abuse. This is especially true for teens who feel that they went into the situation willingly and thus in some way it was their fault. This shame and guilt then prevents them from reporting, as they fear that no one will believe them. In fact, many teens who have been groomed are confused as to whether what happened to them actually constituted abuse as it didn’t follow the stereotypical pattern of a violent rape. In many cases this confusion can prevent or delay reporting for many years. In fact, many of the women who were abused by Epstein reported that they felt guilt and shame for many years following the abuse and didn’t disclose what happened to them. Others felt that Epstein was too powerful and that no one would believe them.

While currently there is little research examining the grooming of adolescents, it is clear that the same patterns of behavior that abusers use to be able to molest children without being detected are also being applied to teenagers. Understanding the signs and behaviors involved in adolescent grooming is vital to preventing the sexual abuse of teenagers. This involves educating teens, parents, and community members about the stages of grooming and what these behaviors may look like when applied to adolescents. Further, given that abusers often target vulnerable teens who lack parental oversight, having educators, coaches, and those who may be involved with at-risk teens aware of the risk factors and grooming behaviors may help protect teens from predators like Epstein.

References

For more information, see: Jeglic, E.J., & Calkins, C.A. (2018). Protecting you child from sexual abuse: What you need to know to keep your kids safe. New York: Skyhorse Publishing.  

Winters, G., & Jeglic, E.L.  (2016). I knew it all along: The sexual grooming behaviors of child molesters and the hindsight bias. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, 25(1). 20-36. doi: 10.1080/10538712.2015.1108945

Winters, G., & Jeglic, E.L (2016). Stages of sexual grooming: Recognizing potentially predatory behaviors of child molesters. Deviant Behavior, 1-10. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/01639625.2016.1197656