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Detecting Sexual Grooming Behaviors

My colleagues and I recently published a paper validating our Sexual Grooming Model. One of the key take-aways from this study was the development of a list of observable traits and behaviors for each stage that the experts agreed were part of the grooming process as shown below. Stage 1 represents the traits and characteristics of the victim while Stages 2-5 represent the traits and behaviors of the perpetrator.


Stage 1: Victim Selection 

  • 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

  • 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

  • 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, e-mails).

  • Engages in childlike activities (e.g., stories, games, sports, music).

  • Gives minor rewards/privileges (e.g., gifts, toys, treats, money, trips).

  • Provides minor with drugs and/or alcohol.


Stage 4: Desensitization to Sexual Content and Physical Contact

  • 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/non-sexual contact (i.e. tickling/hugging/sitting on lap).

  • Desensitizes minor to touch/increasing sexual touching.


Stage 5: Post-Abuse Maintenance Behaviors

  • 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.

  • Persuade the minor the sexual abuse was acceptable/normal behavior.

  • Provide the minor with misstated moral standards regarding touch.

  • Make the minor feel responsible for the abuse.

  • Threaten the minor with abandonment/rejection/family breaking up if they tell.


While many of these behaviors in and of themselves may not be indicative of sexual grooming, parents and caregivers should start to become suspicious of potential grooming if they observe the following in an adult spending time with minors:

  1. Clusters of the above behaviors (i.e. multiple behaviors from various stages).

  2. Frequent use of some of the behaviors (i.e. always says/texts “I love you” or hugs/tickles the child a lot).

  3. The most severe behaviors are observed (i.e. the ones involving sexual content or touch).

Our current research focused on using these behaviors to develop a Sexual Grooming Questionnaire

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