Childhood sexual abuse (CSA) is a serious global problem that impacts one in four girls and one in thirteen boys. The consequences of CSA are long-lasting and impact not only the individual who experiences the abuse, but also their family and even society at large.
In order to prevent CSA it is important to understand how it is perpetrated (i.e., the behaviors and tactics employed by the perpetrator).
Recent research on CSA has found that up to 99 percent of all incidents of CSA involve elements of child sexual grooming. While there is increased recognition of the term "sexual grooming" by the general public, it still remains a relatively poorly understood construct.
Broadly, sexual grooming involves the deceitful behaviors employed by a perpetrator that happen before the CSA occurs, in order to facilitate the abuse and prevent disclosure and detection. People are still not good at identifying sexual grooming behaviors. Furthermore, there is research suggesting that sexual grooming is often subject to the Hindsight Bias, in that people are better able to identify sexual grooming behaviors after they know that CSA has occurred. Thus, in order to prevent CSA, it is imperative that parents, those who work with children, and children themselves understand what it means.
There have been several proposed definitions of sexual grooming over time, each with its own shortcomings. To bring cohesion to the field and advance the research on sexual grooming, a universal definition of child sexual grooming has been developed. Having a universal definition enables researchers to more accurately assess sexual grooming behaviors and tactics and thus provide those who protect children with the information they need to identify sexual grooming behaviors before the abuse occurs.
Child sexual grooming has been defined as:
The deceptive process used by sexual abusers to facilitate sexual contact with a minor while simultaneously avoiding detection. Prior to the commission of the sexual abuse, the would-be sexual abuser may select a victim, gain access to and isolate the minor, develop trust with the minor and often their guardians, community, and youth-serving institutions, and desensitize the minor to sexual content and physical contact. Post-abuse, the offender may use maintenance strategies on the victim to facilitate future sexual abuse and/or to prevent disclosure.
Based on this definition, researchers were able to identify stages and behaviors in the sexual grooming process. The identification of these pre-offense behaviors is critical to prevention efforts, as many of these behaviors, in particular those that involve increasing sexualized content and contact, can be identified and a child can be removed from harm’s way.
While the onus of sexual abuse prevention should fall to adults, parents cannot always supervise their children, and in some cases, it is the individual supervising the children that perpetrates the CSA. Thus, it is also important to discuss sexual grooming behaviors with children, and what to do if they should experience them. In fact, recent state-based legislation, such as Erin’s Law and Jenna’s Law, requires children, schools, and parents to obtain education on child abuse prevention, with some states incorporating training on the detection of child sexual grooming.
It has long been speculated that it is sexual grooming that has enabled perpetrators to engage in CSA undetected, and, thus, the more we know about it and how to identify sexual grooming behaviors, the more successful we will be at preventing CSA and keeping our children safe.
Winters, G.M., & Jeglic, E.L. (2022). Sexual Grooming: Integrating Research, Practice, Prevention, and Policy. Springer
Winters, G. M., Kaylor, L. E., & Jeglic, E. L. (2022). Toward a universal definition of child sexual grooming. Deviant Behavior, 43(8), 926-938.