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What Is Sexual Grooming?

Medically Reviewed by Neha Pathak, MD on October 03, 2022

What Is Sexual Grooming?

It's when a sexual predator builds a relationship with a child or adult to abuse and exploit them. They build trust but use it to control, isolate, and abuse their victims emotionally, physically, and sexually. 

A groomer often comes across as charming, helpful, and kind at first. It can be easy to trust them and lower your guard. But they often use threats, violence, or other coercion to force you into sexual activity you don't want.

They target underage children, or vulnerable teenagers or adults. Here are some ways to spot sexual grooming.

Where Does Sexual Grooming Happen? 

 It can happen anywhere and in many situations. Some examples include: 

  • In person
  • Virtually on the internet
  • Within organizations like schools or the workplace.
  • Over social media

Groomers might be strangers, but they can also be someone you know such as family members, friends, classmates, co-workers, or prominent members of your community. 

What Are the Stages of Sexual Grooming?

While grooming can happen in different ways, most sexual predators use certain grooming patterns. 

But grooming doesn’t happen overnight, and there are red flags along the way. Stages of grooming often look like:

Step 1: Victim selection. A groomer scopes out their victim first by observing them for a period of time. They choose someone based on how easy it is to get in touch with them, or how vulnerable they seem. For example, a groomer might target a child who doesn't have an adult around.  

Step 2: Gain access to the victim and build trust. They may try to become your friend by striking up a casual conversation. They'll  seem charming and friendly to lower your guard, in hopes you'll become less alert around them. 

Step 3: Build trust. Once they have access to you, they'll shower you with praises and want to spend one-on-one time with you. They may give you gifts and attention, and share secrets with you to make you feel special.

Step 4: Isolate. As they gain your trust, they'll start to pull you away from your family and friends. This isolation tactic gives them the chance to become your one true friend or go-to person. 

Step 5: Normalize abusive behavior and desensitize sexual touch. At this point, once they’ve cut off your support system and circle of friends, they may start to touch you sexually. This might include hugs, wrestling, or playful tickling. They'll likely introduce you to alcohol or drugs, or show you porn. They may also ask you to take sexual photos or videos and share them.

Step 6: Maintain control and power. By this last stage, the groomer uses their closeness to you to manipulate you. They might demand, or blackmail you for, sexual favors. They may use physical violence to get what they want. 

How Does a Sexual Groomer Target Children?

Groomers who target children usually start with low-key behaviors that don't seem inappropriate to others. Some of their common behaviors are: 

  • They come across as very “fond of” or interested in a certain child.
  • They often look for opportunities to be alone with the child.
  • They get involved in normal daily routines and pitch in to help, such as giving rides to school or tutoring them.
  • They become friendly with a family, but show special interest in only bonding with your child rather than with adults. 
  • They play favorites with one child in the family.
  • They buy the child gifts or treats.
  • They gain the trust of the family, so that the child stays in contact with them. 
  • They may have a pattern of age and gender preference when they pick out victims. 

Signs of Sexual Grooming in Children

Telltale signs of grooming may include:

  • Purposely walking in on a child changing clothes.
  • Walking in on a child when they’re in the bathroom.
  • Asking a child to watch them in the bathroom bathing or when they’re on the toilet.
  • Bathing a child.
  • Accidently touching genitals or tickling in those areas.
  • Engaging in activities where the child needs to remove their clothes, like swimming.
  • Wrestling or playing around in just underwear or with very little clothing. 
  • Telling the child sexual jokes.
  • Showing the child porn or sexual images.
  • Talking about sexual topics as part of “education.”
  • Taking photos when the child is nude or has very little clothing on. 

What Does Sexual Grooming Look Like for Adults?

It might start with what seems like a harmless friendship. Groomers use this to build trust and gain access to you and your daily personal or professional life. They might use flattering words, promises, and actions to win you over. 

While their behaviors are similar to when they target children, a big difference is that they usually have your consent to become involved in a relationship. 

But adults are often tricked into these relationships. For example, the groomer might make up lies about who they are and fake their entire persona – details like where they work and who their friends and family members are might be all made up. They do this to gain your trust, access, and interest before they isolate and manipulate you. 

Over time, they follow the different stages of grooming to establish control and maintain power over you to get what they want. 

Grooming and Human Trafficking: What’s the Link?

Grooming is the way traffickers recruit their victims.

Trafficking is a form of modern-day slavery, where force, fraud, and coercion are used to force victims into sex acts. It happens all over the world. 

Those victims may be forced to engage in:

  • Prostitution (sex trafficking)
  • Forced labor. This is also known as involuntary servitude, where you’re forced to work even if you don’t give consent. 
  • Debt bondage, which happens when your body is used to pay off someone’s debts

Signs that someone is being groomed for trafficking include:

  • They suddenly have new expensive gifts or cash to spend.
  • You see changes in their behavior and attitude.
  • They begin to hang out with new friends or social circles, and they cut off older friendships.
  • They start to become detached from their family members or usual circle of friends. They become disengaged from their usual hobbies.  

If you notice these signs in someone, you might reach out to see if they'll confide in you. Or, alert their close family, teachers, friends, or the local police. You can also call the free National Human Trafficking Hotline at 888-373-7888 or text 233733 anytime, day or night. 

Show Sources

SOURCES:

San Francisco Human Rights Commission: “What is Human Trafficking?”

Polaris: “Love and Trafficking: How Traffickers Groom & Control Their Victims.”

CAAGe: “Consent and Adult Grooming.”

RAINN: “Grooming: Know the Warning Signs.”

3rd Millennium Classrooms: “4 Signs Someone is Being Groomed for Trafficking.”

American Bar Association: “Understanding Sexual Grooming in Child Abuse Cases.”

Skills Platforms: “6 Stages of Grooming Adults and Teens: Spotting The Red Flags.”

National Human Trafficking Hotline.

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