Child sexual abuse (CSA) is a serious global problem, and it is estimated that one in four girls and one in 13 boys will experience CSA by the time they reach adulthood. However, the prevention of CSA can be challenging as children frequently do not report CSA, and even if they do, it may be many years after it happened. While there are many barriers to reporting sexual abuse, one of the reasons that children may not disclose the abuse they experience is because the perpetrator is using sexual grooming behaviors. As the onus of protecting children lies with parents, guardians, and child serving institutions, new research on the identification of red flag sexual grooming behaviors can help adults identify high risk behaviors directed toward children in order to prevent CSA before it occurs.
What is Child Sexual Grooming?
Sexual grooming broadly refers to the behaviors and tactics that perpetrators use to manipulate children, their guardians and their surroundings to facilitate the abuse while decreasing the likelihood of disclosure or detection. It is estimated that up to 99% of all cases of CSA involve some elements of sexual grooming. We further broke the process down into five stages described in the content validated Sexual Grooming Model (SGM) including:
Gaining Access and Isolation.
Desensitizing the Child to Sexual Content and Physical Contact
Post Abuse Maintenance Behaviors
A comprehensive description of the stages and list of identified sexual grooming behaviors as delineated in the Sexual Grooming Model can be found here.
Why is it Hard to Recognize Sexual Grooming?
While there is increasing public awareness of what sexual grooming means, several studies have found that it is often hard to detect sexual grooming behaviors before the abuse happens. This is because on the surface many sexual grooming behaviors look like normal adult/child interactions and it is only their intent that is deviant. For example, spending time one on one with a child and giving them a lot of attention can be vital to developing their self-esteem and psychological wellbeing. However, someone who wants to abuse a child may use those same strategies so that the child will not report them once the abuse occurs. Guardians can also be groomed such that they will overlook warning signs and fail to detect abuse because the perpetrator has become a trusted individual who appears to care for their child.
We have also done research that shows that people may overestimate their ability to detect sexual grooming once they already know that the abuse has occurred. This is known as the Hindsight Bias – or the “I knew it all along” phenomenon. While there is some evidence that it may be easier to identify sexual grooming that involve touch, overall recognition rates of sexual grooming behaviors were low.
Red Flag Sexual Grooming Behaviors
To identify which specific grooming behaviors differentiate normal adult/child interactions from those that are indicative of sexual abuse – also known as “red flag” sexual grooming behaviors - a new study published by our team compared established sexual grooming behaviors reported in cases of CSA that differentiate them from non-abusive adult/child interactions. Specifically, we had 411 adults who had experienced CSA complete our self-measure of sexual grooming behaviors and then had a sample of 502 adults who did not report a history of CSA were then randomly assigned to one of three conditions and asked to complete a modified version of the self-report measure about an adult male with whom they had the most interpersonal contact that was either a:
1. Immediate Family member (parent, sibling, stepparent, step-sibling, grandparent, uncle)
2. Non-family member (romantic partner, ex-partner, friend, friend of a friend, acquaintance)
3. Community Member (coach, teacher, religious leader, other)
Overall, the results were clear. Individuals who had experienced CSA reported more than twice as many sexual grooming behaviors compared to those who did not experience CSA and there were significant differences between those who experience CSA and those who did not on 38 out of a possible 42 sexual grooming behaviors. Further there were significant differences between groups for all five stages of the sexual grooming model with those who experienced CSA reporting significantly more sexual grooming behaviors at each stage than those who did not experience CSA.
There were few differences between groups based upon the identity of the adult male (family member, non-family member or community member), however overnight stays, being affectionate and loving and giving rewards and privileges were not significantly for family members but were for non-family and community members.
The sexual grooming behaviors that differentiated between the two groups are listed below and can be viewed here. High-risk behaviors represent large effect sizes, moderate risk behaviors represent moderate effect sizes and enhanced risk behaviors represent small effect sizes.
High Risk Behaviors – These behaviors are 8 times or more likely to be reported in cases of CSA. The number in parentheses represents how many times more likely these behaviors were reported in cases of CSA compared to non-CSA
The person increases sexualized touching of the child over time. (34 times)
The person engines in seemingly innocent non-sexual touching of the child (8 times).
The person uses accidental touching or distraction while touching the child (21 times).
The person exposes their naked body to the child (26 times).
The person watches the child undressing or while naked (11 times).
The person shows the child pornography magazine, images or videos (8 times).
The person tells the child about their past sexual experiences (9 times).
The person separates or isolates the child from their peers and family (19 times).
Moderate Risk Behaviors – these behaviors are between 3.5-6.4 times more likely to be reported in cases of CSA. The number in parentheses represents how many times more likely these behaviors were reported in cases of CSA compared to non-CSA
The person asks the child questions about the child’s sexual experiences and relationships (6.4 times).
The person uses inappropriate sexual language or tells dirty jokes around the child (5.7 times).
The person teaches the child sexual education (4 times).
The person provides the child with drugs and/or alcohol (4.6 times).
The person gets close to the child’s family to gain access to the child (3.8 times).
The child lacks adult supervision (5.5 times).
The child is not close to their parents, or their parents are not a resource for them (3.8 times).
The person gives the child rewards or privileges (community member only) (4.8 times).
Enhanced Risk Behaviors – these behaviors are 1.8 to 3.4 times more likely to be reported in cases of CSA. The number in parentheses represents how many times more likely these behaviors were reported in cases of CSA compared to non-CSA
The person does activities alone with the child that exclude other adults (3.4 times).
The person gives the child a lot of attention (3.2 times).
The person spends a lot of time with the child or communicates with the child often (1.8 times).
The person shows the child love and affection (1.9 times).
The person tells the child they love them or that they are special (3 times).
The person shows the child favoritism or tells the child they have a “special relationship” (2.6 times)
The child lack confidence or has low self-esteem (3.1 times).
The child feels unwanted or unloved by others (3.4 times).
The child feels lonely or isolated from others (2.3 times).
The child has psychological or behavioral troubles (2.6 times).
The child feels needy (2 times).
The person gives the child compliments (family member only) (2 times)
The person seems charming, nice, or likable (family member only) (1.8 times).
The person takes the child on overnight stays or outings (non-family member and community member only) (2.7 times).
The person gives the child rewards and privileges (non-family member only) (1.8 times).
The person engages in childlike activities with the child (community member only) (2.7 times).
What Does this Mean for the Prevention and Detection of CSA?
The findings of this study represent a big step forward in the identification of red flag sexual grooming behaviors and have several implications for the prevention and detection of CSA as listed below.
We now know that there are specific behaviors that are red flags that indicate high, moderate and enhanced risk for CSA and that cases of CSA have a higher number of sexual grooming behaviors. Therefore, caution should be taken when red flag sexual grooming behaviors or multiple sexual grooming behaviors are observed.
The identification of red flag sexual grooming behaviors has implications for education. Using this infographic, parents, guardians, and those working with youth serving organizations can be educated on how to identify these red flag sexual grooming behaviors and how to respond if they are observed.
These red flag sexual grooming behaviors can be used for the detection of CSA. If an adult is observed engaging in one or more of these red flag sexual grooming behaviors with a minor action should be taken immediately. The action will depend upon the numerous factors including the nature, type and frequency of the behavior as well as the situation and context in which the behavior(s) occurred. Based upon the evaluation of these factors action can involve contacting authorities, preventing contact between the adult and the child, monitoring a situation more closely, providing an oral/written warning and feedback or conducting an internal investigation. It should be noted that if the child is deemed to be vulnerable due to psychological or environmental circumstances than interventions can include increased supervision of the child, psychological counseling and/or family intervention.
These red flag sexual grooming behaviors can be used by law enforcement or social services when they are investigating allegations of CSA. We are currently working on adapting our self-report measure to be used as a non-suggestive interview for use with children.
Knowledge of red flag sexual grooming behaviors can also be helpful in the prosecution of CSA. Since a lot of CSA is done in private, the determination of whether CSA happened or not can come down to the credibility of the child’s report. Having documented or reported evidence that aligns with known sexual grooming behaviors can help prosecutors make a stronger case.