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How Sexual Abusers Try to Groom Children

99 percent of child sexual abuse involves grooming.

Key points

  • Nearly all childhood sexual abuse involves at least some elements of sexual grooming. 
  • Efforts to stop sexual abuse must focus on prevention and identifying sexual grooming behaviors before the abuse occurs,
  • Only 5 percent of all those who perpetrate child sexual abuse are already on the sex offender registry.
Alex Linch/Shutterstock
Source: Alex Linch/Shutterstock

There has been debate in the media recently as to the definition of grooming. In the research literature, sexual grooming has been defined as the deceptive process by which a would-be abuser, prior to the commission of the child 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. Postabuse, the offender may use maintenance strategies on the victim following the sexual contact to facilitate future sexual abuse and/or to prevent disclosure.

It is important to understand what sexual grooming means, as it is essential to the prevention and detection of sexual abuse. We recently found that 99 percent of all childhood sexual abuse involved at least some elements of sexual grooming. Given that child sexual abuse is a serious global problem impacting one in four girls and one in 13 boys, it is integral that we understand the methods and tactics that offenders use to perpetrate the abuse.

Historically, many cases of child sexual abuse went undetected for decades because the perpetrators used grooming tactics to avoid disclosure and detection. Since the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State University in 2011, the public has become increasingly aware of sexual grooming. Prevention efforts have focused on teaching parents, children, and those affiliated with youth-serving organizations about what constitutes sexual grooming.

Our research team made significant strides in describing sexual grooming with the development of the content-validated sexual grooming model and the identification of 42 sexual grooming behaviors. We proposed that sexual grooming is composed of five stages with identified tactics and behaviors noted below each stage:

Stage 1: Selecting a Victim

In this first stage of the grooming process, the offender identifies a potential victim by selecting a minor who is vulnerable, either because of psychological/emotional reasons or because of family circumstances such as a lack of supervision, family discord, or living in a single-parent home:

  • Minor is compliant/trusting of adults.
  • Minor lacks confidence/has low self-esteem.
  • Minor is lonely/isolated.
  • Minor is troubled.
  • Minor is needy.
  • Minor feels unwanted/unloved.
  • Minor is not close to parents/parents are not resources for them.
  • Minor lives with a single mother/needs "father figure."
  • Minor has a lack of supervision.

Stage 2: Gaining Access and Isolation

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:

  • Is involved in youth-serving organizations (i.e., school, youth groups, scouts, sports).
  • Manipulates the family to gain access to minor.
  • Engages in activities alone with minor; excludes adults.
  • Takes minor for overnight stays/outings.
  • Separates minor from peers and family.

Stage 3: Trust Development

In this stage, the perpetrator works to gain the trust and compliance of the minor and significant adults in their lives (e.g., caretakers, community members). It should be noted that in this part of the process the perpetrator is often also grooming the minor’s family, the organizations in which they may be accessing the child, and their community to gain their trust so they can have easy access to the minor without suspicion:

  • Appears charming/nice/likable.
  • Has insider status/good reputation/"pillar of the community."
  • Is affectionate/loving with minor.
  • Gives the minor attention.
  • Exhibits favoritism/"special relationship" with minor.
  • Gives minor compliments.
  • Spends time with minor/communicating often (texting, phone calls, emails).
  • Engages in childlike activities (e.g., stories, games, sports, music).
  • Gives minor rewards/privileges (e.g., gifts, toys, treats, money, trips).
  • Provides the minor with drugs and/or alcohol.

Stage 4: Desensitization to Sexual Content and Physical Contact

This stage usually happens right before abuse occurs. During this fourth stage, the perpetrator prepares the minor for abuse by desensitizing them to sexual content (such as showing them pornography and nudity) and increasing nonsexual touch:

  • Asks questions about minor's sexual experience/relationships.
  • Talks about sexual things they themselves have done.
  • Uses inappropriate sexual language/dirty jokes.
  • Teaches minor sexual education.
  • Use of accidental touching/distraction while touching.
  • Watches the minor undressing.
  • Exposes their own naked body to the minor (i.e., changing/showering).
  • Shows the minor pornography magazines/videos/images.
  • Seemingly innocent/nonsexual contact (i.e., tickling/hugging/sitting on lap).
  • Desensitizes minor to touch/increasing sexual touching.

Stage 5: Postabuse Maintenance Behaviors

This last 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:

  • Tells minor not to tell anyone what happened.
  • Encourages secrets and secret-keeping.
  • Tells the minor “I love you”; “You're special.”
  • Gives the minor rewards or bribes not to tell/says by not telling they will avoid punishment.
  • Persuades the minor the sexual abuse was acceptable/normal behavior.
  • Provides the minor with misstated moral standards regarding touch.
  • Makes the minor feel responsible for the abuse.
  • Threatens the minor with abandonment/rejection/family breaking up if they tell.

Given that only 5 percent of all those who perpetrate child sexual abuse are already on the sex offender registry at the time of the abuse, this means that 95 percent of all perpetrators are not known to the criminal justice system. As such, our efforts to stop sexual abuse must focus on prevention and identifying sexual grooming behaviors before the abuse occurs, as it may be one of the best ways to stop the abuse before it occurs.

While significant strides have been made in educating the public about what constitutes child sexual grooming, there is still much work to be done. Diluting the meaning of "sexual grooming" or using it to describe behaviors and practices that are not related to child sexual abuse can negatively impact these education and prevention efforts. Therefore, the term "grooming" should only be used in reference to sexual grooming so that we can continue to protect vulnerable children from being sexually abused.

Facebook image: Roman Chazov/Shutterstock

References

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.

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