Simply put, grooming is a manipulation tactic that abusers use to gain emotional attachment from prospective victims, explains Melissa Hoppmeyer, co-host of the No Grey Zone podcast and a prosecutor specialising in child abuse, sexual assault, and cases of domestic violence.
According to data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 7.7% of adults in Australia have experienced childhood sexual abuse. Grooming is often a part of this abuse, but despite being tragically common, the term is still not well understood. That's a problem, because misconceptions about what this tactic is and what it looks like can make it more difficult to spot.
Abusers using this tactic target children, typically minors around the ages of 6 and older, into a person's teens, Hoppmeyer says. "[The abuser] will say nice things about them. They will buy them presents. They will, you know, connect with them in ways that some of these victims are not used to, the way that they may not get from a family member or from anybody at home," Hoppmeyer tells Refinery29. "So it's really just a tool that is used to prepare, usually a child, for sexual exploitation."
Grooming is so insidious because targets of this type of abuse tend to believe that they are involved in a loving relationship with the perpetrator, who might start by creating an emotionally exploitative bond with a minor before later pressuring a young person into sending photographs or a sexually abusive relationship. Often, the targets of the abuse don't realize that the relationship is a violation.
"Understanding that someone you believed loved you didn't actually love you is really traumatic," Hoppmeyer tells Refinery29. "We as a society don't realise it, but the crime scene is the victim's body and they have to walk around in that body for the rest of their lives."
Grooming can happen in person, but has become more prevalent online, especially in the age of COVID. That said, one of the most common misconceptions regarding grooming is that it's perpetrated by the "creepy old man in the basement," Hoppmeyer notes. While a minor can be groomed by a stranger, most child victims know their abuser, who often is a family member, a teacher, a coach — "people held in high regard who we knowingly have associated with minors," says No Grey Zone co-host and fellow special victims prosecutor Kathryn Marsh.
Abusers are often charismatic and friendly adults who are in the child's circle of trust and who may have gained the trust of the child's parents as well. This is why people were shocked to learn about, for example, the widespread abuse of children by priests in the Catholic Church. It's also one of the many reasons why abuse is often underreported, until one person comes forward, leading to a public reckoning.
Another big misconception about this tactic is that grooming behaviour is obvious, easy to spot and therefore avoid. "Some erroneously think that they could never fall victim to it, or that they're 'too smart' or 'too emotionally strong' to be manipulated in this way," Dr. Jill McDevitt, a sexologist, sexuality educator, and sexual wellness coach, tells Refinery29. But anyone can become a target.
People also often mistakenly believe that grooming itself must be sexual, but that's not the case. "I think sometimes grooming has a connotation that it has to be sexual in nature, and when grooming is looked at that way, it misses how truly manipulative the perpetrator is and how much premeditation goes into child sexual abuse," Marsh says. During grooming, an abuser is trying to create an emotional bond that they can later exploit. And even in cases where the grooming doesn't lead to overt sexual abuse, it can be harmful, as targets experience manipulation and a false sense of safety with an adult in their life.
Jenna Quinn, a speaker, author, and visionary behind the U.S. sexual abuse prevention requirement, Jenna's Law, describes seven different stages of grooming to Refinery29, the first of which involves an abuser identifying a target who might be emotional, vulnerable, or who has little social support. From there, an abuser will gain trust and access to their victim, in order to play a prominent role in the person's life.
The next stage involves isolating the person, then creating a secret relationship with them, and the following stage is one where an abuser will initiate sexual control over the person, and later control over the relationship by demanding secrecy, Quinn says.
"Perpetrators often rely on secrecy and threaten many things to ensure the person will not disclose the abuse," she says. This can lead to feelings of "guilt and shame, which can cause delayed reporting," she adds. Another reason targets of grooming might fail to report the incidents is because they "feel love is being expressed, or they feel they can't report because they'll get someone in trouble, or get in trouble themselves."
Understanding what grooming is, and using that information to educate kids on red flags in an age-appropriate way, is essential to keeping children safe. One thing to explain to young people is that "relationships are not meant to be secret. If they are, there's probably something inappropriate happening," Hoppmeyer says. And both Hoppmeyer and Marsh note that the most important thing for children to know is that if something feels inappropriate, most likely, it is.
"We really need to be better about educating kids about the dangers of exploitation early on," says Hoppmeyer. "We need to take it upon ourselves as a society to teach kids that this isn't what love is." Educating parents and children about what grooming looks like can help protect children from it.
Marsh adds: "I always tell young people, 'Trust your gut.' Kids are very smart and intuitive but second-guess themselves. If something doesn't feel right it probably isn't."
Anyone who needs help or counselling when leaving an abusive situation should call 000 if they're worried about their safety or a child's safety, or contact the National Sexual Assault and Domestic Family Violence Counselling Service at 1800-RESPECT or 1800 737 732, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.