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How Female Sexual Abusers Groom Their Victims

Research on female sex offenders suggests that some do use sexual grooming.

Last July, Jeffrey Epstein’s associate Ghislaine Maxwell was arrested and charged with multiple crimes related to the trafficking and sexual abuse of minors. While Maxwell denies her involvement in Epstein’s sex trafficking operation, numerous women have accused her of recruiting and grooming them for the purposes of sexual exploitation while they were minors.

However, the question remains: Can women engage in sexual grooming?

Sexual grooming has been defined as the deceptive process used by sexual abusers to facilitate sexual contact with a minor while simultaneously avoiding detection.

Prior to the commission of the sexual abuse, the would-be abuser may select a victim, gain access to and isolate the minor, develop trust with the minor—and often their guardians, community, and minor-serving institutions—and desensitize the minor to sexual content and physical contact.

Post-abuse, the offender may use maintenance strategies on the victim to facilitate future sexual abuse and/or to prevent disclosure. While it is estimated that about half of all cases of child sexual abuse involve elements of sexual grooming, these estimates are based only upon males convicted of sex crimes.

Recently, a validated model of child sexual grooming was developed. The Sexual Grooming Model (SGM) is comprised of five overarching stages:

  1. Selecting a Victim. The offender identifies a potential victim by selecting a minor who is vulnerable, either because of psychological/emotional reasons or family circumstances such as a lack of supervision, discord, or living in a single-parent home.
  2. Gaining Access and Isolating the Minor. The next stage involves gaining access to the minor, either through working or volunteering in youth-serving organizations or by gaining the trust of the minor’s guardians. Once they have access to the minor, the perpetrator often tries to separate the minor from peers and caretaking adults so that they can begin the grooming process in private. This may involve driving them places alone, taking them on outings or overnight stays, and/or emotionally distancing them from family and friends.
  3. Developing Trust With the Minor and Other Adults in the Minor’s Life (e.g., caretakers, community members). In this stage, the perpetrator works to gain the trust and compliance of the minor and significant adults in their lives. It should be noted that in this part of the process the perpetrator is often also grooming the minor’s family, the organizations through which they may be accessing the child, and their community, in order to gain their trust so they can have easy access to the minor without suspicion.
  4. Desensitizing the Child to Sexual Content and Physical Contact. This stage usually happens right before abuse occurs, as the perpetrator prepares the minor by desensitizing them to sexual content (such as showing them pornography and nudity) and increasing non-sexual touch.
  5. Maintenance Behaviors Following the Commission of the Abuse. This last and final stage occurs once the abuse has already happened. The purpose of these maintenance behaviors is for the perpetrator to be able to continue the abuse and avoid detection, often by manipulating the minor into feeling guilty or responsible for the abuse or causing them to fear the consequences of disclosure.

What we do know is that cases of sexual abuse perpetrated by women are underreported. While official estimates of female-perpetrated sexual abuse range around 2.2% of cases, victim-reported rates of sexual abuse perpetrated by a woman range around 12%, and 40% of male victims of sexual abuse report that they were abused by a woman.

So why are rates of reporting so low? Reporting rates for sexual abuse are low in general, and it is estimated that only about a third (37%) of individuals who were abused report the perpetrator. In addition to the numerous barriers to reporting already faced by those who experience abuse, those who report that they were abused by a woman may face additional barriers such as negative responses, blame, disbelief, or the trivialization of the incident.

To better understand female-perpetrated sexual abuse, researchers have developed various typologies or categories of women who abuse children based upon their characteristics. Of these typologies, two correspond to women who may engage in sexual grooming – the teacher/lover and the sex trafficker.

The teacher/lover generally abuses teenage males through her position of power. The recent television series A Teacher portrays one such case, but it is almost weekly that a new case of a female adult (generally an educator) abusing a teenage male is reported in the media.

It is estimated that between 5-10% of cases of female-perpetrated sexual abuse involve a female teacher and male student. Examined through the lens of the SGM, females select males who are vulnerable, either because they have difficult situations at home and/or may be troublemakers and not believed, or they target shy and withdrawn students who would be less likely to report.

Due to the nature of the teacher-student relationship, it is easy to gain access to the student and they can spend time together without suspicion. Parents may even encourage spending more time with the teachers, as they are perceived as trustworthy and as helping children with their schoolwork. Teens may relish the positive attention and praise from the teacher, especially if they are not getting it elsewhere.

With texting and social media, communications can easily become flirty and then sexual in nature. There is a strong theme in movies and pop culture about how every teenage boy’s fantasy is to have a sexual relationship with their teacher — and in these cases of teacher-perpetrated abuse, the victim often views the behavior as consensual. It is often not until years later that the victim understands that the relationship was abuse.

Research has found that those who have been sexually abused by women may have the same or even greater negative consequences as individuals abused by males. The abuse is rarely revealed by the victim, as they believe that they are in a relationship with the adult and fear losing it; however, if the woman fears detection, she can threaten academic consequences or the loss of the relationship.

The other type of female who commits sexual abuse that may employ grooming is what we term the sex trafficker. These women are motivated by economic gain or underlying antisocial traits and target young female victims and force them into sex work.

Maxwell could fall into this category. While it is commonly believed that women involved in sex trafficking are coerced, this is not the case for all women. Some women who engage in trafficking do so voluntarily, in the context of a partnership with a male trafficker, and are often responsible for the recruitment of new victims, using grooming behaviors to lure them into the sex trade.

These women will select teens and young women who are vulnerable. Many come from abusive or neglectful homes and have either run away, been thrown out, or been in foster care, and are often struggling to meet basic needs and/or have low self-esteem. Given the lack of parental supervision, these young women are easily accessed by the trafficker through existing connections, social media, or at local malls or homeless shelters.

Female traffickers are perceived as more caring and trustworthy and once approached, young victims go with the trafficker after hearing promises of a better and more stable life, housing, new clothes, food, and money. Acting as a sister/mother figure, the female trafficker befriends the victim and gains her trust, giving her gifts and special attention.

It is at this point that sexual contact is introduced and may be facilitated with the use of drugs or alcohol. The female sex trafficker may then use psychological manipulation or the threat of being arrested or put back on the street to avoid detection from authorities.

While much still remains unknown about the sexual grooming behaviors and tactics used by females, there is enough overlap with the strategies and behaviors used by the teacher/lover and sex traffickers and what we know about tactics used by males to suggest that some female sex offenders do engage in sexual grooming. This has implications for the prevention of sexual abuse:

  1. Parents need to be aware that women can also use sexual grooming strategies, and when discussing sexual violence prevention with their children, they should discuss how these behaviors may manifest when engaged in by women.
  2. Educational institutions should be aware of the teacher/lover typology of female abusers and how this may manifest within educational settings. Strict guidelines for teacher/student contact must be in place and yearly training must address sexual grooming and how it may present itself when engaged in by women.
  3. Vulnerable teens need to be protected, especially from sex traffickers. There is evidence that many recruiters are women who befriend teens and young women with the promise of a better life. Those working with at-risk teens should be aware of these strategies and inform them of these tactics.
  4. Grooming by females seems to be used primarily with teens, and because of societal stereotypes of women as caring and nurturing, these offending behaviors are more likely to go undetected.
  5. Teens who have been abused by females using grooming tactics may feel that their relationships are consensual or that they have made the choice to engage in trafficking in exchange for money and a better life. In this way, the victim believes they are making a consensual choice. This is part of a strategy to avoid detection, especially with teens. However, we have to remember that the targets are minors and that this type of sexual abuse is likely to have long-term negative consequences. Thus, no relationship between an adult woman and teen is consensual.

Facebook image: Dikushin Dmitry/Shutterstock


For more information, see: Jeglic, E.L., & Calkins, C.A. (2018). Protecting Your Child from Sexual Abuse: What you Need to Know to Keep your Kids Safe. New York: Skyhorse Publishing.

More from Elizabeth L. Jeglic Ph.D.
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