People are becoming increasingly familiar with the term sexual grooming. While researchers have studied it for at least 20 years, it was not until 2011, when Jerry Sandusky, an assistant football coach at Penn State University, was convicted of the sexual abuse of boys participating in his charitable foundation, that the term was introduced into the public lexicon. Subsequently, we have become aware that many instances of non-familial child abuse, such as the abuse within the Catholic Church and the Boy Scouts of America, involved elements of sexual grooming. It is estimated that about half of all cases of child sexual abuse involve sexual grooming.
So, what is sexual grooming? According to researchers, it is the deceptive process by which a would-be abuser, prior to 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 in order to facilitate future sexual abuse and/or prevent disclosure. While most of the sexual grooming literature refers to the sexual abuse perpetrated against children, there is some evidence that those who sexually abuse teenagers and young adults also utilize sexual grooming strategies.
One of the difficulties in detecting sexual grooming is that many of the behaviors that perpetrators engage in often mimic normative caring adult-child interactions. In fact, there is research suggesting that detection of grooming may be subject to a hindsight bias, also known as the “I knew it all along" phenomenon, wherein, once the abuse is revealed, the perpetrator’s grooming behaviors are much more easily identified than before the abuse occurred. This means that we are much more likely to think that we can identify sexual grooming behaviors before they happen than we actually are. However, one study has found that behaviors that involve touch such as having a child sitting on an adult’s lap and taking a child to the bathroom were more easily identified as grooming behaviors compared to other strategies such as selecting vulnerable victims or being overly kind and friendly with children. It is also possible that since sexual grooming is a phenomenon that is relatively new to the public, most people just do not know enough about it to identify which behaviors are indicative of it.
In an effort to overcome some of the limitations of previous research on sexual grooming, our research group developed the first validated model of sexual grooming: the Sexual Grooming Model (SGM). The goal was to develop a shared understanding of grooming strategies and identify tangible tactics and behaviors that groomers engage in that may be recognized before the abuse occurs. Based upon ratings from 18 experts in the field, the SGM includes five overarching stages:
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.
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.
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 in 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.
Desensitizing the Child 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 non-sexual touch.
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.
One key takeaway from the 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
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.
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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:
Clusters of the above behaviors (i.e. multiple behaviors from various stages).
Frequent use of some of the behaviors (i.e. always says/texts “I love you” or hugs/tickles the child a lot).
The most severe behaviors are observed (i.e. the ones involving sexual content or touch).
While significantly more research is needed to develop screening tools that can help better identify individuals who are engaging in sexual grooming, having a list of observable traits and behaviors involved in the grooming process is an important step in the detection and prevention of sexual abuse. Further, the characteristics and traits of the victim listed in Stage 1 reveal which children and teens may be most vulnerable, and thus parents, caregivers, and community members should be especially vigilant on behalf of these minors and put protections in place when possible (such as providing after school supervision, day camps in the summer, and access to mental healthcare). Finally, these behaviors can be used as teaching tools so that parents can talk to children about the grooming tactics used by perpetrators so that children can alert their parents if any adult behaves toward them in this way.