What is Sexual Grooming?

We are hearing more about sexual grooming in the media these days. But what is sexual grooming? Broadly, sexual grooming refers to the behaviors that a child molester employs in preparation for committing sexual abuse against a child. It is estimated that about of half of those who abuse children use grooming behaviors. Therefore, it is important for parents to be able to understand the grooming process and identify potentially predatory behaviors.

While there is no scientifically established model of sexual grooming, experts generally agree that grooming typically follows a series of stages such as those delineated below before the abuse actually takes place.

Victim selection. The first stage of sexual grooming often involves selecting a victim. Studies have found that victims are often selected due to their perceived physical attractiveness, ease of access, or perceived vulnerability. Children who may have less parental supervision are at particular risk. Further, child molesters may also target children who have low self-esteem, low confidence, or who may be unduly trusting or naïve.

Gaining Access. During the second stage of the grooming process the offender seeks to gain access to the child by separating them emotionally and physically from their guardians. In cases where the child molester is a family member, they have easier access to the child. In fact, in almost half of family abuse cases the abuse takes place in the child’s bedroom after everyone is asleep. When the abuser is not a family member, the access stage becomes more complicated. Thus, these predators often take positions in the community where they can be in contact with minors without suspicion such as volunteer work or employment with children. They may also befriend single parents and offer to pickup or care for the child to help the parent out.

Trust Development. In the third stage of sexual grooming, the abuser works to gain the trust of the victim, their guardian(s) and the community so that they can engage in the abuse without detection. During this stage the offender works to gain the trust of the intended victim by giving them small gifts, special attention, or sharing secrets. This makes the child feel special and gives them the belief that they have a caring relationship with the perpetrator. These types of behaviors will change depending upon the age of the child. For younger children it may involve playing games, going on outings or getting presents while for adolescents it may involve the discussion of their personal lives, access to cigarettes, drugs or alcohol, and sharing “secrets” that they don’t tell their guardians. During this period the perpetrator may also work to groom the guardian not to believe the child by telling the guardian that the child is acting out or telling lies.

Desensitization to Touch. This is generally the last stage of the grooming process before the actual abuse begins. During this stage of grooming, the abuser increases the non sexual touching that will prepare the child for the abuse. For instance, this may including hugs, snuggles, wrestling and tickling. Other tactics include taking a bath/shower together, swimming in the nude, drying a child off with a towel, giving massages or showing the child pornography. At this stage the perpetrator may also start discussing sexual behaviors and content with the child/adolescent so that they feel more comfortable with this type of material.

Ultimately the goal of sexual grooming is to provide the perpetrator the opportunity to offend against the child without detection. Research has shown that it is hard to identify these behaviors before the abuse is reported - however as a parent you need to know who is around your child and if you see the adult in these types of behaviors speak to your child and be more vigilant.

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© 2018 by Elizabeth Jeglic and Cynthia Calkins