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‘Grooming’ has become a ‘catch all’ term within public and even policy debates on sexual offending concerning children where it is indelibly linked to the behaviour of ‘predatory paedophiles.’  It is somewhat of a throw away phrase, however, which belies its complexity and ambiguity. In particular, because much of what may be deemed ‘grooming’ is synonymous with ‘befriending’, it is often difficult to identify a harmful motivation on the part of the ‘perpetrator’ prior to actual harm.

The term is generally taken to refer to the process whereby would-be abusers will befriend particular children or families with the ultimate purpose of obtaining access andsetting up’ opportunities to abuse. This is the first main purpose of grooming.

While the term most clearly applies in cases of extra-familial abuse where the offender has to work to establish ‘trust’ with those they wish to abuse, it also has resonance in intra-familial contexts. On one level, here the abuser does not need to work to obtain access as they will be already proximate to the child.  In such instances, however, the abuser still needs to maintain the child in the abusive situation and prevent disclosure. This is the second main purpose of ‘grooming.’

I have previously coined the phrase ‘institutional grooming’ to describe the process whereby abusers make use of the unique features of the organisational environment in order to abuse – e.g. the opportunity, anonymity, and the power and authority offered by their position of trust. Certainly, many of the public inquiries into institutional child abuse which have occurred worldwide, including most recently the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, have identified grooming as a pertinent factor in the onset of institutional child abuse.

The most common popular usage of the term, however, relates to two main contexts: The first is ‘on-line grooming’ where there has been a range of legislation in various jurisdictions, including the United Kingdom, aimed at capturing capture the on-line grooming of a child resulting in an off-line meeting. The second is ‘street’ or ‘localised grooming’ within the context of organised child sexual exploitation as typified by high profile cases in England such as those in Rochdale and Rotherham.

My 2012 monograph, Grooming and the Sexual Abuse of Children (OUP, 2012) based on extensive empirical research, put forward a new definition, designed to address some of these complexities and nuances:

(1) the use of a variety of manipulative and controlling techniques (2) with a vulnerable subject (3) in a range of inter-personal and social settings (4) in order to establish trust or normalise sexually harmful behaviour (5) with the overall aim of facilitating exploitation and/or prohibiting exposure (McAlinden, 2012: 11).

Distilling this broad definition further, ‘grooming’ at its most basic is about power and control; victim vulnerability; exploitation of a range of personal and social settings; trust and normalising harmful sexual behaviour; and, ultimately, normalisation of the harm to the extent that the victim may not even realise that they have been groomed or abused until long after the abuse has ended. It is this element of grooming and abuse which inhibits victim disclosure for many months or years after the abuse, and even indefinitely.

In this respect, ‘grooming’ and the inherent betrayal of trust emerge as ‘emotional harm’ which has a long-lasting impact on victims, beyond the actual abuse.  This is something, therefore, that is key to therapeutic work with victims and their recovery process.

My current and ongoing research on peer-to-peer forms of grooming and abuse has found that among children and young people who display harmful sexual or exploitative behaviour, ‘grooming’ is perhaps even more complex and challenging.  Harmful sexual behaviour among children and young people accounts for between one-third and one-half of all cases of child sexual abuse.  On one level, in common with adult-child forms of intra-familial abuse, peers may have no need to ‘groom’ for access purposes as they are already proximate to potential victims within their peer group. 

In terms of normalising ‘risky’ sexual behaviours, the premature sexualisation of children within contemporary popular culture may also negate the need for ‘peer-to-peer grooming.’ This culture, and within it the use of smart phones and practices such as ‘sexting’, has resulted in the blurring of the boundaries between coercion and consent.  This is evidenced most clearly in the ‘party culture’ where complaints of sexual offences among peers arise within the context of a drugs and alcohol-based scene.

In brief, while the definition of ‘grooming’ as set out above applies in much the same way between peers, there are important differences in relation to the first two elements – power differentials; and vulnerability.  That is, power disparities may arise principally not from age differences but from those related to intellectual ability or social status among peers.  In addition, many perpetrators of peer-to-peer abuse may also be termed ‘vulnerable’ due to a range of social, environmental and personal factors within their background.

The pejorative use of the word ‘grooming’ without being mindful of the context, can serve to mask some of these complexities which underlie the onset of sexual offending concerning children.  At a broader societal level, there is a need for a proactive public, health approach via the development of age-appropriate education programmes. This would engage children, parents and professionals around safe and healthy behaviours, rather than simply generate more legislation and policies designed to capture future and unknown risks.

Anne-Marie McAlinden is the author of ‘“Setting ‘Em Up: Personal, Familial and Institutional Grooming in the Sexual Abuse of Children’ (2006) 15(3) Social & Legal Studies 339-362; Grooming and the Sexual Abuse of Children: Institutional, Internet and Familial Dimensions (Oxford University Press, 2012); and the forthcoming, Children as “Risk”: Sexual Exploitation and Abuse by Children and Young People (Cambridge University Press, 2018).