The vast majority of offenders do not look, act, or speak in any way that would identify them as sex offenders. They rarely wear trench coats or masks. They’re hard to spot, but not because they’re in disguise. It’s because they look like you and me.
In fact, 90% of children who are victims of child sexual abuse know their abuser.1,2 It could be a friend, a family member, a teacher, or a pastor. It’s usually someone who has easy access to children, maybe though youth sports, schools, or other extra-curricular programs. We know what you’re thinking: “That’s not possible. At least not among my friends, colleagues, and family.” Unfortunately, abusers don’t just groom a child, they groom the family, organizations, and entire communities.
Grooming is a process by which offenders gradually draw victims into a sexual relationship and maintain that relationship in secrecy. At the same time, offenders may also fill roles within the victims’ families that make them trusted and valued family friends. One of the scariest things about grooming is that it is highly successful, allowing offenders to slowly overcome natural boundaries long before actual sexual abuse occurs.
Grooming begins with making the victim feel special, set apart, loved, and valued. This is not an exhaustive list of feelings someone who is being groomed will experience, but it gives you an idea of the kinds of feelings the offender is trying to create in the victim. Grooming continues, progressing through stages like gaining trust (of the victim, family, and community), relationship building, and isolating. The end goal? To have isolated one-on-one time with a child.
On the surface, grooming can look like a close relationship between the offending adult and the targeted child and their caregivers. Grooming can involve family outings, sharing meals together, and including the child in the offender’s special family traditions, like tree trimming during the holidays. Special attention is often paid to all of the children in the family, not just to the targeted child. This process can be very misleading because the offender is often well known and highly regarded in the community. Who wouldn’t want them to mentor or spend time with their child?
It’s important to remember that adults who are sexually attracted to children can be powerful manipulators and highly motivated. Even savvy adults can be caught off guard. We must always be vigilant.
The following behaviors may be exhibited by an adult who is grooming a child:
- Seeking relationships with children, more than usual for the average adult.
- Gradually disarming and desensitizing the child, family, and institutions, building trust and breaking down protective barriers.
- Utilizing tactics like gift giving, trips, flattery, providing transportation to help the child/family, babysitting, gifting money, or anything the child/family may need at the time.
- Gradually showing extra physical affection toward the child in a way that “almost” crosses a line, but not quite. Full frontal hugs that last too long, lap sitting and then moving on to “accidental” touches in private areas.
- Seeking alone time with the child. Usually activities that cannot be observed or interrupted like day trips, camping trips, fishing, or sleep overs.
- Pressuring the child to keep secrets from family. Reinforcing isolation by saying things like, “We’ll keep this just between the two of us.”
- Move toward increasing access and continued manipulation of the child with the end goal of maintaining the “secret” relationship. Threats are often used at this stage.
Thankfully, our bodies are equipped with a natural alarm system. It’s often referred to as a “gut feeling” or the “uh oh feeling.” It’s difficult to put into words, but it’s a visceral reaction to an individual or a situation. You may not be able to put your finger on it, but it’s there and it doesn’t go away easily. If you ignore it long enough your blind trust or denial can override the body’s built in alarm system, but you’ll always look back and remember that “gut feeling.” It’s there for a reason. Listen to it. Respond appropriately. Don’t feel compelled to justify it to anyone.
So what do you do if you detect one of these behaviors? It’s important to be an active bystander and intervene when we see grooming tactics and boundary violations. By intervening you are letting the adult who crossed the boundary know you are vigilant. When you intervene describe the inappropriate behavior to the adult who crosses it, set a limit on the person who has crossed the boundary, and move on by refraining from making a dramatic scene. Just state the limit in a calm, direct manner. When intervening, it’s not important that you know the intentions of the person who has crossed the boundary. What is important is that you reinforce the boundary and that the person who violated the boundary is willing to follow the limit you set. It’s also okay if your intervention happens in front of others.
If there is a pattern of boundary violations, or if you’ve intervened and boundary violations continue, you now have reasonable suspicion – make a report.
Want to learn more? Take Darkness to Light’s Bystanders Protecting Children from Boundary Violations & Sexual Abuse training. In just 30 minutes, learn what it means to be an active bystander, what actions you can take as an active bystander, and how to make spontaneous and planned interventions.
1. Finkelhor, D. (2012), Characteristics of crimes against juveniles. Durham, NH: Crimes against Children Research Center.
2. Julia Whealin, Ph. D. (2007-05-22). “Child Sexual Abuse.” National Center for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder US Department of Veterans Affairs.
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