Helping young adolescents to combat sexual grooming

From the way that it is often described, as a slow, methodical, and intentional process, the sexual grooming of children often sounds like some kind of black magic. By following a methodically planned and systematic ritual of trust building, the groomer is able to transform a child who is naturally resistant to sexual advances into a state of docile compliance in which they can be abused.

But this oversimplifies a more complex reality. The above characterization of grooming roughly describes the process by which an apparently attentive and generous “friend” can bewitch a young child, because such a child has little understanding of sex, and is accustomed to obeying authority figures. The person grooming a young child knows what they are doing, and that it is wrong.

However, the majority of sexual offending against minors is committed against somewhat older children, peaking at around the ages of puberty. Once a child reaches puberty, two things happen. First, the child may observe that adults are beginning to take a sexual interest in them. Some of those adults may go on to behave inappropriately towards the child. But they are less likely to follow the same premeditated script as those who target younger children, because it is easier for them to rationalize their behavior as “flirting” rather than “grooming,” and the subject of their interest as a “teen” rather than a “child.”

Second—and often more disturbingly for parents—the abuser might not need to go to great lengths to groom a young adolescent in order to get what they want. As the fog of pubescent hormones hits, some young adolescents become more likely to acquiesce to an adult’s inappropriate sexual advances, despite lacking the legal or emotional capacity to do so. As such, the assumption that someone bent on grooming a child for sex must spend a great deal of time overcoming their target’s inhibitions doesn’t hold as true when young adolescents are the age group predominantly being targeted.

The upshot of this is that child sexual grooming is not a single pattern of behavior, but a variety of behaviors targeted against developmentally quite different children, by quite differently motivated perpetrators. Several different and complementary interventions are therefore required to fully address this problem. Because the most common victim of child sexual abuse is the young adolescent, this article takes a closer look at how the abuser’s approach towards such a child differs from the pattern of sexual grooming of a younger child, and what this means for the preventative strategies that we should adopt in that case.

Adolescents as Victims of Grooming

It hopefully goes without saying that sex between adults and children is both harmful for the child, and abusive on the part of the adult. It is harmful for the child because her brain is still not well enough developed to be able to make an informed decision about whether to consent to sex: she is likely to be more impulsive, more easily influenced by peer pressure, and less able to weigh up future consequences than an adult. It is abusive on the part of the adult because he does not suffer under these same cognitive cognitive and emotional limitations as his victim. It is the likelihood of harm to the child, combined with the power imbalance between her and the adult, that justifies the imposition of age of consent laws to protect children from such inherently abusive sexual contact.

All of this remains true by the time a child enters puberty. But adding pubertal hormones into the mix only increases the child’s vulnerability to sexual abuse. These hormones awaken new sexual feelings in adolescents, which most adolescents explore in age appropriate ways. But some adolescents also seem to respond positively to inappropriate sexual attention from adults, or even seek it out. We don’t fully understand why this is, although for some adolescents low self-esteem, an unhappy or unstable family life, and the influence of peers are contributing factors.

Our society’s discomfort at acknowledging that children have sexual feelings of any kind, least of all for adults, makes it difficult for many people to accept that a child would ever submit to an act of child sexual abuse unless they were coerced or lied to. Accordingly, a recent report by the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) about the prevalence and provenance of videos of children of around pubescent age that were shared on Internet streaming services states:

The author of our report worked with over 2000 cases where children had been (we believe) either groomed or coerced into live-streaming video of themselves, via their webcam, mobile or tablet. … Critically, no adult appeared to be present in the images we saw. Therefore, it’s our belief that these children were being “directed” to abuse themselves and live-stream the sexual abuse. [Emphasis in original]

Although this is undoubtedly true in some cases, the evidence that we have suggests that it may again be an oversimplification. Trust and safety experts working for Internet platforms report other cases in which children knowingly live stream sexual acts to an anonymous audience of abusers, apparently of their own immature volition. Similarly, mainstream Internet platforms such as Tumblr, that allow users of 13 years or older, fight a constant battle to take down naked selfies uploaded by their young users. Although grooming is a real problem for adolescents as it is for younger children, professionals do acknowledge that adolescents are also quite capable of making impulsive and ill-judged decisions about what they post online even without grooming or coercion by an adult, as an autonomous expression of their own emerging sexual identities.

Solutions

Here are just a few of the steps that we can take to empower young adolescents to resist the unique forms of sexual grooming that they may encounter, while also addressing the less well-recognized problem that some adolescents may also attempt to solicit sexual interest from adults.

The first and perhaps most important prevention initiative that we can take, which also honors rather than restricting our childrens’ autonomy, is to ensure that by the time kids reach middle school, they are receiving comprehensive sex education, that includes teaching on boundaries and consent. California was the first state to introduce such a requirement in 2015, but there is much more progress to be made. Children may fail to put up any resistance to an adult’s advances simply because they don’t realize they have a choice. Since an adult who engages in grooming is, almost by definition, someone who wants to procure the child’s “consent” to a sexual encounter, the simple word “no” can be extremely powerful.

Second, although adolescents may engage in impulsive behaviors that expose themselves to the attention of abusers, we must never blame, shame, criminalize, or otherwise hold children responsible for their own abuse. Equally (and again, this hopefully goes without saying), those who commit child sexual abuse—including every adult who creates an audience for a child’s livestream—is to be held fully accountable for abusing that child, regardless of whether they thought that the child “wanted it” or had “led them on.”

Third, although Internet technologies can be used by those who commit the sexual grooming and abuse of children, the same technologies can also be used to fight back against abuse. Although adolescents are drawn to share videos and images of themselves with those who can provide them with positive feedback about their bodies, parents and teachers can and should caution them against doing so, and provide them with the tools and safety tips that they need to avoid those who interact with them inappropriately. If an adolescent recklessly shares such videos or images nevertheless, the Internet platform or service used to share the images can be alerted and asked to block any further sharing of the files by adults—which is itself an act of child sexual abuse.

Finally, we must spread broad community awareness that regardless of how sexually mature they may appear, an adolescent child does not have the legal or cognitive capacity to consent to sex with an adult, and that grooming behaviors are wrong. Even if a young teen makes a sexual advance to an adult, without the adult having engaged in grooming behavior, the adult’s responsibility is to do one thing and one thing only—to say no.

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