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Sexual Abuse

How Coercive Abusers Engage in Sexual Grooming

Understanding the link between adult sexual grooming and coercive control.

Key points

  • Coercive control is a pattern of controlling behaviors that create an unequal power dynamic in a relationship.
  • Coercive control is emotional abuse that can cause psychological trauma and may evolve into physical abuse.
  • From anecdotal reports, adult grooming appears to follow many of the same behavior patterns as child sexual grooming.
NDAB Creativity/Shutterstock
Source: NDAB Creativity/Shutterstock

The term sexual grooming has primarily been applied to child sexual abuse and is defined as the deceptive process by which a would-be abuser, before the commission of sexual abuse, selects a victim, gains access to and isolates the minor, develops trust with the minor, and often other adults in the minor’s life, and desensitizes the minor to sexual content and physical contact.

Post-abuse, the offender may engage in maintenance strategies to facilitate future sexual abuse and/or prevent disclosure. While researchers have acknowledged that sexual grooming can also occur with adolescents, there has been a recent reference in the media and popular culture that adults can be sexually groomed.

For example, the actress Rachel Evan Wood alleged that her former husband, Brian Warner, known to most by his stage name Marilyn Manson groomed her and sexually abused her for years. Also, Zoey 101 star Alexa Nicholas alleged that her ex-husband Michael Milosh sexually groomed her for years.

The last decade has seen an increase in societal awareness of child sexual grooming tactics and behaviors and their role in perpetuating child sexual abuse. However, there is no research on adult sexual grooming, and consequently, it is not well understood. In popular media, the term is often used in conjunction with coercive control as it applies to abusive relationships. Coercive control has been defined as:

A pattern of controlling behaviors that create an unequal power dynamic in a relationship. These behaviors give the perpetrator power over their partner, making it difficult for them to leave. Sometimes, coercive control can escalate into physical abuse. However, even when it does not escalate, coercive control is emotional abuse that can cause psychological trauma.

From anecdotal reports, adult grooming appears to follow many of the same behavior patterns as child sexual grooming. We recently validated the Sexual Grooming Model (SGM) of child sexual abuse. We developed a shared understanding of grooming strategies and identified tangible tactics and behaviors that groomers engage in that may be recognized before the abuse occurs. The SGM describes 5 Stages that can also be observed in some of the alleged cases of adult sexual grooming as described below:

  1. Victim selection. In this first stage of the grooming process, the offender identifies a potential victim by selecting someone vulnerable. In reports of those who allege adult sexual grooming, this often involves selecting psychologically vulnerable individuals. The victims are often young–just barely above the age of consent (and sometimes underage when the grooming begins), whereas the perpetrator is often much older and more experienced.
  2. Gaining access and isolating the victim. The next stage involves gaining access to the victim. Once they have access to the victim, the perpetrator often tries to separate them from peers, family, and other outside relationships so that they can begin the grooming process in private. As was the case with Rachel Evan Wood and Alexa Nicholas, their ex-husbands married them at a very young age to have constant access to them. Women also describe the perpetrator working to distance them from family and friends and even preventing them from working or socializing outside of the home.
  3. Developing trust. In this stage, the perpetrator works to gain the trust and compliance of the victims and others in their lives. Many of those accused of adult grooming often come across to others as charming, charismatic, and successful within their professions/social circles, so that once the abuse begins, no one will believe that they would be capable of what the victim is accusing them of. They may provide the victim with material goods or a lifestyle that is glamorous or above their means. They may make the victim feel special and tell them that they are in love with them. This may be especially appealing to younger, more vulnerable individuals.
  4. Desensitization to touch and sexual content. This stage usually happens right before the abusive behavior starts. As reported in cases of adult grooming, during this stage, the perpetrator will start engaging the victim in consensual sexual activity. Often encouraging them to engage in acts and behaviors outside their comfort zones, such as encounters with multiple partners and BDSM behaviors.
  5. Post Abuse Maintenance. Once the abuse starts, the perpetrator uses maintenance behaviors to continue the abuse and avoid detection. In adult grooming cases, it is has been reported that the perpetrators use coercion, threats, and other forms of control (such as limiting access to finances, outside social supports, telephone, making the person experiencing the abuse feel guilt and shame) so that the person experiencing the abuse will not report it, will not be believed, or may be unable to leave the situation. This post-abuse maintenance phase appears to be synonymous with the coercive control strategies described in the domestic violence literature.

While adult sexual grooming needs to be studied empirically, it is clear from reports and allegations that some adults may be subject to sexual grooming behaviors and tactics that follow many of the same patterns described in the SGM and used to perpetrate child sexual abuse. While it is currently unknown, elements of adult sexual grooming may be involved in many domestic violence cases. They may be a much more common phenomenon than we are aware of.

Facebook image: NDAB Creativity/Shutterstock

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