Understanding child sexual exploitation and the grooming process.

Jason Brien.

It’s not always easy to understand the how’s and why’s of a sex offenders mind. We might ask ourselves questions such as “Why do certain adults desire children sexually? or “How do sex offenders even get close to their child victims”? Most of us would probably think or assume that in order for a child to be sexually abused the child must have been forcibly taken against their will. That the child must have been kidnapped, drugged or in some other way incapacitated.

We may also struggle to understand why a child would ‘willingly’ associate with a sex offender. The term ‘willingly’ is used in the sense that the child is, at least in the very early stages of grooming and offending process, naive and impervious to the sex offenders true intentions and desires. This ability to get close enough to a child to be able to sexually abuse them without arousing suspicion or getting caught demonstrates the ‘power’ of sex offenders. 

A ‘good’ sex offender will have the child victim believing that the abuse is okay or normal due to the seeming complicity of the adults surrounding the child. Most children trust that the adults around them will warn them of dangerous people and so if the child victim is not receiving any warnings from their parents or other trusted adults, the sex offender basically has been given a green light (from the child’s perspective). 

A ‘good’ sex offender will also have their child victim believing that they are seducing and abusing the adult and not the other way around. So what is grooming and how can we adults recognise if it is occurring? Grooming is the process of ‘preparing’ a child for sexual abuse/exploitation at a later point. It is the gradual violation of the child’s personal boundaries and may start off with ‘innocent’ acts like tickling, hugging, petting, ‘accidental’ touches of genitalia, wrestling or massages. 

The more boundaries a sex offender is able to violate without the child resisting or complaining, the more the sex offender assumes that the child is willing and complicit. A ‘good’ sex offender will also begin to isolate their child victim from their support networks (families, friends, teachers, etc). The sex offender will often sow seeds of doubt in the child’s mind with the intention of turning the child against their true protectors. The sex offender will manipulate the child into believing that only they can support, love and protect the child. 

Some other clear signs that a sex offender may be grooming a child is when an adult wants to spend an inordinate amount of time with a child in isolation or they might even begin showering the child with money, gifts and other material displays of ‘affection’. A sex offender may ask to take photos of the child as they desire to ‘capture the child’s innocence’ or because they would ‘make a good swimwear model’. Most adults would perceive the interactions between a sex offender and a child victim as ‘odd’ or ‘strange’ but many adults will dismiss the interactions as “That’s just a senile/lonely old man” or “Their uncle/auntie has always been quirky around kids”.

It can be easy to believe that children who are exploited must come from abusive, dysfunctional and neglectful homes. Whilst these types of families/environments can make children vulnerable to exploitation, there are many other factors as well. For example, children are naturally curious and many children will find sexual activity ‘pleasurable’. Pleasurable in the sense that they may become aroused, orgasm or ejaculate. Sex offenders take advantage of the child’s natural, unconscious biological reactions and misinterpret these reactions as ‘complicity’ and ‘pleasure’.

Children that are impressionable are also particularly vulnerable. Children have a strong desire to connect and fit in with their peers. Sex offenders can exploit this vulnerability by offering to buy a child the material things they ‘need’ to ‘fit in better’ with their peers (clothing, concert tickets, etc). Children who suffer from low self-esteem or self-image may be vulnerable to sudden attention, praise and affection. Again, sex offenders will sniff out potential vulnerabilities and will attempt to take full advantage wherever possible with little regard for the impact their actions will have on the child.

Not all child sex offenders are creepy old men. It is most likely that the ‘creepy old men’ who are being caught are simply using outdated techniques which makes them more vulnerable to detection. With the modern day advances in technology, gaming and social media come ‘stealthier’ ways to groom vulnerable children. Sex offenders can remain anonymous online and ‘gift’ victims with in-game purchases. It is also easier for online sex offenders to pose as much younger than what they actually are. Whilst this article is not comprehensive in terms of grooming behaviours, it does provide a starting point for those who wish to learn more. As always, there are additional reading links at the bottom of the corresponding article located on my website.