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Sexual offenders often test boundaries and manipulate potential victims before committing outright sexual abuse. This process is called grooming. The perpetrator is judging how far they can push boundaries and exploit someone’s trust.
During the grooming process, the sexual abuser manipulates a victim’s trust by passing off inappropriate behaviors as normal or no big deal. The grooming process is usually very subtle and may extend over a long period of time.
However, there are red flags that indicate someone is grooming another individual for sexual abuse. These include:
- Asking to keep the relationship secret
- Making suggestive or sexual comments
- Asking someone about their sexual background
- Sending links to suggestive images, memes, or porn
- Only using certain apps for contact
- Chatting only at certain times or when others are not around
- Setting conditions on the relationships, such as demanding things (like photos)
- Sending unexpected gifts
Someone who engages in sexual abuse may target children, teens, or even adults. Studies by the Crimes Against Children Research Center show that 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 20 boys are victims of child sexual abuse.
What is grooming?
Grooming is a method used by offenders that involves building trust with a child, teen, or adult with the intent to gain alone time and create a relationship built on manipulation. Offenders often use grooming as a prelude to committing sexual assault or otherwise abusing an individual.
What's the purpose of grooming?
Sexual offenders groom potential victims to foster willing participation in the abusive relationship. This reduces the likelihood that the victim will disclose the relationship or stop the offender from continuing the abuse. Other reasons for grooming include to:
- Manipulate the perceptions of other people around the individual
- Gain trust and reduce the likelihood of the child being believed if they do disclose the relationship
- Reduce the chance that the abuse is discovered
Those who engage in grooming have long-term motives: to sexually abuse another individual and lessen the chance that their actions will be discovered.
Where does grooming happen?
Grooming can happen anywhere. Places where it is common include:
Grooming may occur at home between an adult and child, two adults, or teenagers. Those who engage in grooming commonly have a relatively close relationship to the individual who is being groomed or have regular access to them.
Educators are in a unique position to have consistent access to children. If they are predatory, they may begin the grooming process with an unsuspecting student. This can lead to severe mental health consequences for the child and potential sexual abuse.
There are many opportunities to form relationships with others online. Social media provides an easy platform for developing connections that can quickly lead to a high level of (unfounded) trust between two individuals.
Grooming can occur in any location where there is regular contact between a predator and an individual. This can be at a workplace, in your neighborhood, or any place that facilitates regular contact.
Grooming warning signs
There are a number of red flags that may indicate grooming is occurring. Some of the common grooming tactics used by child predators include:
The use of gifts to develop trust and facilitate a relationship, especially when the gifts are unwarranted or inappropriate, is an early warning sign of potential grooming.
Special Attention or Preference
If an adult or other individual seems to develop a special preference for a child or teen and spends a lot of time with them, it could indicate potential grooming.
The use of casual touching to establish and deepen relationships, particularly between adults and children, can be a sign of grooming.
Sympathetic Listening by the Perpetrator
This is one of the most common and insidious red flags of grooming. It occurs when an individual takes the time to create a relationship established on communication by providing a listening ear to the person’s problems.
The groomer creates an emotional connection with the victim and then later takes advantage of their trust to abuse them.
Alone time can allow the groomer to take advantage of the situation and further develop a relationship with the victim away from other people.
Messages from the Perpetrator
The abuser may send messages to the individual at odd times, such as late at night. The person who receives the messages may not want to share what they and the other individual talk about.
Stages of grooming
There are a number of stages that occur during the grooming process. These stages outline a general pattern, but not all of the steps may occur in a real situation. Each one can be very subtle. It’s important to listen to your gut when something doesn’t feel right.
A perpetrator may target and exploit perceived vulnerabilities, including emotional neediness, isolation, neglect, a chaotic home life, or a lack of oversight by parents or guardians.
It may appear like the offender is paying special attention to another individual. But the attention may be excessive and involve sending lots of messages to the victim, spending lots of time with them, or being especially attuned to their needs.
During the grooming process, there is a need to gain the trust of people around the individual to lower suspicion and gain access to the person. They may seek to create a level of trust by getting to know the person’s needs and seeking to fulfill those needs by providing warm or calculated support.
One may attempt to gain a victim’s trust by pretending to have very similar interests. They may be interested in everything that the victim likes or have very similar tastes.
Filling a Need
The purpose of grooming is to gain the trust of the individual. By filling an individual’s need, the perpetrator will try to make the victim dependent on them. Filling a need can occur through the use of increased attention and affection.
For example, the abuser may purchase something the individual likes with the aim of meeting their needs.
Isolation tactics are used to reinforce the relationship with the child by creating situations where they are alone together. Perpetrators use this time to strengthen the relationship and develop a deeper bond.
Isolation is used to ensure that the individual develops a reliance on the abuser. This can occur through the use of statements like, “You can trust me because no one understands you the way I do.”
Sexualizing the Relationship
Once there is an established relationship that involves emotional dependence and trust, the abuser may begin sexualizing the relationship. This can occur through talking, pictures, or creating situations that require both to be naked or semi-clothed.
As an example, the perpetrator may attempt physical contact through kissing or other activities that are designed to further cement an emotional bond.
Once abuse is occurring, there will often be secrecy, blame, and threats to ensure that the individual remains complicit and quiet. To maintain control, an abuser uses emotional manipulation to make the victim feel that they are the only one who can meet their needs.
There may be veiled threats, such as, “If you tell anyone, something bad could happen to your family.”
What grooming looks like
Grooming can occur anywhere. Examples of grooming by an adult who is sexually interested in a child include:
- Bathing a child or walking in on a child bathing
- Walking in on a child changing
- Playing games or tickling and accidentally touching genitalia
- Wrestling with limited clothes or with inappropriate touching
- Activities where clothes are removed, such as during swimming or massage
- Discussion of sexual topics, including telling dirty jokes
- Exposing a child to adult pornography
These types of activities can signal that an adult may have sexually abusive intentions towards a child. If you notice these signs, it’s important to take immediate action to remove the child from the situation.
Grooming children, teens, and adults
Individuals who groom others for sexual purposes may target children, teens, or adults. The pattern is generally the same and applies to people of all ages.
There is a period when the groomer seeks to learn more about their target and develop a relationship bond. This is manipulatively done to set the target up for future sexual exploitation or abuse.
Initially, the victim will generally have very positive feelings towards the perpetrator. They will appreciate the gifts, the listening ear, and the special experiences that the abuser provides. Once the groomer feels that the victim fully trusts them, they will take advantage of the target through sexual abuse or other types of abuse.
What to do If you suspect grooming
If you believe someone is being groomed, it’s important to take specific steps to stop the actions. These steps can reduce the chances of someone falling prey to a manipulative individual’s exploitation.
If you suspect someone is being abused or groomed for abuse, remember the following steps:
- First, trust your instincts, especially if it involves a child
- Focus on the behavior instead of the person
- Pay attention to the target: do they appear to be uncomfortable or afraid?
- If sexual abuse is suspected, contact local authorities and seek medical attention
- In the case of a child, take action to stop further contact between the individual and the child
When you recognize signs of grooming, it’s important to have a clear discussion with the potential victim to understand what is going on. If the relationship has developed into abuse, it should be reported to the police, and the abuser can be charged with a criminal offense.
Contact the National
at 800.656.HOPE (4673)
to talk to a trained professional for help.