A child sexual predator knows that in order to sexually abuse a child without fear of discovery, he/she must be able to condition the child not to tell another adult. The predator must also persuade other adults of his/her trustworthiness with children. This process is known as “grooming.” Many predators will gain access to children by grooming the parent(s). For example, an abuser may pretend to be interested in dating the mother, but is really interested in her children. Likewise, an abuser may offer to babysit for free or do other favors for a family in order to gain access to a child. A predator will “groom" his victim over a period of months or even years to break down a child's defenses and increase the child's acceptance of physical touch. The first contact between predator and victim is often nonsexual touching; for example, an "accidental" touch, an arm around a shoulder, or playful tickling. Nonsexual touching desensitizes the child. It breaks down inhibitions and defenses and leads to more sexualized touch when the child does not resist. A predator will also use manipulation and secrecy. A predator will introduce an element of secrecy at some point during the grooming process to begin to build trust and distance the children his his/her parent(s). The predator may allow the child do something the parent(s) would not approve of -- eating candy before a meal or trying alcohol and drugs; or do something that parents would ordinarily forbid -- staying up late, looking at pornography. Later on, the manipulation continues in the form of threats and guilt to maintain secrecy: "If you tell your mother what happened, she'll hate you.” “If you tell anyone, I’ll hurt someone in your family.” The best way to recognize grooming behaviors is to pay attention to your child and the people in your child's life. Do not blindly surrender responsibility for them to others without question. Parents should know their child's teachers, coaches, day care providers, youth group leaders, and other significant adults in their lives. Make unannounced visits. Ask questions. Stay involved. It is all very important to keep the lines of communication open with your child. Teach him/her to tell you about any physical contact initiated by an adult and to trust you with problems and emotions. Let he/she know that they can talk to you about problems and concerns without you reacting and getting angry. An interview* with child sexual offenders reveals what they were looking for in a child they targeted for grooming:
- “The warm and friendly child or the vulnerable child. Friendly, showed me their panties.”
- “The way the child would look at me, trustingly.”
- “The child who was teasing me, smiling at me, asking me to do favors.”
- “Someone who had been a victim before [sexual abuse or spankings], quiet, withdrawn, compliant. Someone, who had not been a victim would be more non-accepting of the sexual language or stepping over the boundaries of modesty.”
- “Quieter, easier to manipulate, less likely to object or put up a fight…goes along with things.”
The child sexual offenders also shared what they did to engage the child in sexual contact:
- “Talking, spending time with them, being around them at bedtime, being around them in my underwear, sitting down on the bed with them. Constantly evaluating the child’s reaction… A lot of touching, hugging, kissing, snuggling.”
- “Playing, talking, giving special attention, trying to get the child to initiate contact with me… Get the child to feel safe to talk with me… From here I would initiate different kinds of contact, such as touching the child’s back, head… Testing the child to see how much she would take before she would pull away.”
- “Isolate them from other people. Once alone, I would make a game of it (red light, green light with touching up their leg until they said stop). Making it fun.”
- “Most of the time I would start by giving them a rub down. When I got them aroused, I would take the chance and place my hand on their penis to masturbate them. If they would not object, I would take this to mean it was okay… I would isolate them. I might spend the night with them. Physical isolation, closeness, contact are more important than verbal seduction.”
*Jon Conte, Steven Wolf and Tim Smith, ‘What Sexual Offenders Tell Us About Prevention Strategies’ (1989) 13 Child Abuse and Neglect 293 Some other examples of grooming activities include:
- Playing pool tag—when the child is tagged playfully pulling the child’s swimsuit down.
- Pulling a girl’s panties down without permission.
- Male holding a child on his lap while he has an erection.
- Kissing the child in a way that is sexual for the giver and inappropriate for the child.
- Seemingly harmless touching, caressing, wrestling, tickling or playing, which has sexual overtones or meaning for the other person.
- Treating a child as an equal/peer or like a spouse.
What is the HERO Project?
HERO, a project of the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape, is a community-based, media-driven, child sexual abuse prevention program designed to educate and motivate adult community members to call the 24-hour HERO Hotline if they suspect child sexual abuse.