This Guide to Sexual Grooming Can Protect You and Your Friends from Online Abusers

What does sexual grooming look like in online spaces, and how can you protect yourself an your friends from it?

Grooming means to train or prepare a person for a specific purpose.

In sexual grooming, abusive people build a relationship with someone through manipulation with the intent to sexually abuse them. Sexual abuse can be physical sexual contact but also can be other things like someone exposing their genitals to you, showing you explicit photos or videos, or asking for or taking intimate images of you. Both grooming and abuse can happen in person, online or both.

Learning about the stages and warning signs of grooming are important for two reasons: to prevent sexual abuse and to help people heal from past abuse and other kinds of exploitation. Abuse can damage a person’s life and mental wellbeing, but trauma is not a life sentence. By understanding grooming, it may be possible to avoid the pain of abuse. For example, if you’re messaging someone you met online and the conversation turns inappropriate, you can recognize the danger, be empowered to seek help, and remove yourself from the situation or help another person who is at risk like this. That being said, abusers can be very clever and crafty. If they succeed or have succeeded, please know that it was or is not your fault.

For survivors, learning about grooming can clear confusion around your own experience. Many survivors have feelings of self-doubt, guilt, confusion, and struggle with trust. Each of these emotions can be explained through grooming. If you have survived this kind of abuse, you may read the manipulation tactics below and recognize parts of your own story. It is still painful to realize you have been tricked by someone you trusted, but this clarity and understanding can combat your feelings of guilt and blame. As you seek to understand what happened to you, understanding grooming may provide some answers.

The Steps of Grooming 

Any person of any age, gender, sexual identity or ethnicity can groom someone for the purpose of abuse. That person may be someone you know or someone you don’t know. Children and teens are not the only victims of grooming, but this guide focuses on young people.

Grooming was first recognized in abuse cases where the abuser knew their victim in person, like Ariana Kukors, a US Olympic swimmer who was abused by her coach. Kukors has spoken publicly about the role grooming played in her story, and how the manipulation kept her under the control of her abusive coach for years. In addition to in person grooming, online grooming has become equally dangerous, prevalent and damaging. More and more of our lives are lived online, which is why we need to think more and more about our safety online.

1. Targeting a victim

Unfortunately, any young person is at risk of online grooming. Abusers typically look for someone who is more vulnerable or in a vulnerable situation, like someone living in foster care or someone with a disability. Online, abusive people look for teens who are lonely or expressing sexual curiosity. Sometimes online abusers pretend to be teenagers themselves, but more often they are adults trying to play the role of an older boyfriend or a mentor who can “teach” the victim about love or sex.

2. Gaining access

Sexual abuse is most often committed by someone that you already know, and this is because the abuser usually needs to be in your circle of acquaintances to get access to you. They want to be nearby and to have opportunities to be alone.

This is often not the case with online abuse, because the internet provides that access. Instead of being in the same city or neighborhood, abusers can meet potential victims on social media, in games, chatrooms, or anywhere that users correspond. Online platforms also allow anonymity, which works in the abuser’s favor. It can be difficult to determine who a person is and their intentions.

3. Building trust

A key part of grooming for sexual abuse is building trust with the victim. In person or online, abusers try to fill a need. You may be lonely, feel unpopular, isolated or bored, and the abuser will pretend to become a friend you can confide in and who can listen. They may act sympathetic, always take your side, and portray themselves as the only person who understands your problems. Their goal is to become your main emotional support. They may also try to make you feel special by treating you like an adult and commenting on your maturity. They may quickly look for a favor they can do for you to make you feel indebted and more likely to do something for them return. This stage is particularly damaging because it closely mimics a positive relationship.

4. Isolation and risk assessment

When an abuser thinks they have established trust, they test that bond. They may try to isolate you from family or friends, sometimes to the point of you becoming very emotionally or otherwise dependent on them. With online grooming, they may ask if your parents check your phone or if you are home alone. They may also start asking you to keep secrets, either about conversations or gifts they send. This is one way the abuser assesses whether they can move to the next step and you will stay silent.

5. Sexualization of the relationship

The final step occurs when the abuser believes they have built sufficient trust that you will do what they request and keep everything secret. They may commit sexual assault in or request sexual images or videos, often increasingly explicit in nature.

While in person and online grooming both follow these steps, abusers work at different rates. For example, Ariana Kukors swim coach began grooming her when she was 13 years old and the physical sexual abuse began when she was 15. Online abuse can occur faster, sometimes in even less than one hour.

Red Flags and Warning Signs

It is not reasonable to say that you should avoid the internet if you don’t want to be abused. The responsibility and blame always lies with an abuser, not someone they victimize who is simply engaging in modern life online. We believe it is possible for you to still have fun online, meet new friends, and stay safe. The key is awareness. It may be difficult to identify a step in the grooming process in real time, but there are red flags and warning signs that you can recognize, especially if they start to accumulate. They can help you protect yourself when sexual requests slide into your DMs.

Flattery

It can feel nice to be noticed. Lots of likes and comments on your social media can feel good, but excessive compliments from a stranger can be a warning sign, particularly sexualized comments about your appearance. Flattery is one way online abusers gain access to their victims and begin building a relationship. “Wow, you should be a model,” may seem harmless, but it often isn’t. You have the power. Just because someone gives you a compliment does not mean you have to continue the conversation.

Gifts

Online groomers might send video game currency, cash, electronic devices, or other gifts to you to ingratiate themselves. This is a clear red flag. There is no reason why an adult should be sending gifts to a minor they met online, nor is it typical teen behavior to send gifts if the abuser is posing as a younger person. In actuality, gifts are one way abusers assess risk. They may ask you to not tell your parents about the gift to test how much you trust them and if you will stay silent after sexual abuse.

Asking for personal information

It is safest to avoid sharing personal and identifying information about yourself online or with those you don’t know. If you are playing video games, chatting, or sharing photos for fun, there is no need for personal questions about where you live or go to school. Do your parents read your messages? What is a secret no one knows about you? Abusers want to know as much as they can about their victims so they can better manipulate them.

Secret conversations

Secrets work in the abuser’s favor in two different ways. To build trust, they may confide in you by telling real or made up secrets to try to make you feel special. Abusers also use secrets to test that trust before escalating to sexual abuse. If someone asks you to keep a conversation secret, ask yourself why? Is the conversation inappropriate, or is it dangerous?

Sending sexually explicit photos

In the online dating world, it is almost assumed you will receive sexual photos whether you asked for them or not. Sexting is considered normal, but still has risks and consequences, particularly if you are under 18. Unfortunately, abusers rely on the normalization of sexting. They expect you to dismiss or think nothing of an explicit image, but in reality, abusers send explicit imagery to try and desensitize their victim to future abuse. It is a priming tactic. Keep in mind, that in many countries it is illegal for an adult to send an underage person pornographic material,nor is it lawful to send nude photos as a minor to another person. In any online exchange, it is not okay for anyone to send unsolicited explicit photos. This is poor etiquette and ultimately a nonconsensual act and red flag no matter what.

Requesting sexual photos

Online abusers sexualize the relationship by sending and requesting explicit photos and videos, explicit letters or phone calls, or asking detailed questions about your sexual history or experience. They may begin with a seemingly harmless request, like a photo of you fully clothed, before asking for increasingly sexual images. Others brazenly ask for explicit material straight away and even demand live webcam performances. Remember that after you send an image, you no longer have control over what a person does with that image. Ask yourself how well you know the receiver. Did you meet in person or online? Do you know their real identity and their intentions? How does the request make you feel? Many young people enjoy the attention that comes from the potential of a new relationship, but requests to send nudes can still feel like unwanted pressure.

Threats

After the abuser receives one or multiple sexual images, they may try to blackmail you into sending more images of increasing exploitative nature. They may send threats that they will release the images online or send them to your family or school. This is a kind of extortion, or rather sextortion, and is another form of sexual abuse. You do not need to respond or give in, despite how terrifying the threats may seem. An abuser does not want to put themselves at risk by exposing the relationship, so the threats may be a bluff. Seek immediate help.

Next Steps 

If you feel uncomfortable about an online conversation, the next thing you should do may be the hardest. Reach out for help and support. Telling a parent, guardian, teacher or someone else can be daunting because you can’t know for sure how they will react, but confiding in someone with some power who you can trust and who won’t blame you for the abuse is key to moving forward. Alternatively, you can call a helpline which allows you to remain anonymous and get accurate advice about your situation.

An online conversation with someone abusive can spiral out of control quickly. You may feel ashamed or embarrassed, but if there is anything you should take away from this guide, it is this: it is never your fault. The blame is not yours to bear.

For more information or help:

  • Scarleteen – Direct support services including message boards, online chat, and SMS helpline, USA
  • Childline – Helpline for 18 and under, UK
  • NSPCC – Understanding grooming, UK

Some reporting options:

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