‘Grooming’ and Child Sexual Abuse and Exploitation

Anne-Marie McAlinden

Professor of Law and Criminal Justice, School of Law, Queen’s University Belfast


The word “grooming” has become synonymous with sexual offending against children.  It is often used to describe situations of extra-familial abuse where would be abusers will befriend children or their families who were previously unknown to them.  My earlier (2006) research coined the term ‘institutional grooming’ to denote that organisational environments, as well as those who reside or work within them, may be manipulated by those in positions of trust and power.  As this piece also acknowledged, the term is one that is beset with uncertainty in terms of pinpointing exactly when the process begins and ends.  Its popular association with ‘predatory paedophiles’, particularly relating to on-line contexts, has added to this ambiguity.  This construction has in turn been reinforced in legislative frameworks within the United Kingdom and internationally designed to capture the on-line grooming of a child resulting in an off-line meeting.

My subsequent work on ‘grooming’ set out to further explore some of these complexities surrounding ‘grooming’ and its role in child sexual abuse in a range of contexts.  My 2012 monograph (‘Grooming and the Sexual Abuse of Children: Institutional, Internet and Familial Dimensions’, Oxford University Press, Clarendon Studies in Criminology) expounded a new definition of the term, based on extensive reading of the literature and original primary research in the form of over 50 interviews with professionals in the fields of sex offender assessment, treatment and management and victim support across the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland:

(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).

This wider definition better captures the complexity of grooming and its myriad forms – between children and young people (‘peer-to-peer grooming’); of protective adults or communities (‘familial’ or ‘societal grooming’); on the internet (‘on-line grooming’); within the context of organised child sexual exploitation (CSE) (‘on street’ or ‘localised grooming’); and within institutions or between offenders and professionals (‘institutional grooming’).

Further, noteworthy themes emerged: First, the term ‘grooming’ may be more apt to describe ‘preferential’ or predatory sex offenders who deliberately target children rather than ‘opportunistic’ or ‘situational offenders’ who offend in certain circumstances.  Grooming may also fit with subsequent, rather than first-time, offending since for many offenders, the conscious act of setting up an opportunity to abuse may not arise before the first offence.  Second, grooming may also extend to professionals as a variation of ‘institutional grooming’ particularly where offenders had been through treatment and have learnt ‘the language of change.’ Third, ‘grooming’ and the inherent betrayal of trust, emerge as ‘emotional harm’ which has a long-lasting impact on victims, beyond the actual abuse.  Grooming, at is heart, is about normalisation to the extent that the victim may not even realise that they have been victimised until long after the abuse has ended.

My current and ongoing research on peer-to-peer forms of grooming and abuse (‘Children as “Risk”: Sexual Exploitation and Abuse by Children and Young People’, to be published as a monograph by Cambridge University Press in 2017), has found that among peers, ‘grooming’ is perhaps even more complex and challenging.  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.  The significance of the concept among peers, however, relates more to the last part of the definition above – that of maintaining secrecy and control and entrapping the victim in an abusive situation.

Further emergent findings include the fact that while the definition of ‘grooming’ as set out above applies in much the same way between peers, as opposed to between adults and children, there are important differences in relation to the first two elements – power differentials; and vulnerability.  That is, power disparities may not arise principally from age differences but from differences in intellectual or cognitive ability or social status among peers.  Further, 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.

While child victims have sometimes been ‘groomed’ by adult sex offenders to ‘recruit’ other victims, instances of peer-based harm have also manifested as forms of CSE via, for example, ‘sexting’ and ‘cyberbullying.’  These are augmented and made more challenging for practitioners by the ubiquitous use of the internet and smart phones as well as a highly sexualised popular culture which normalises the premature sexualisation of children.  Normalisation may result in ‘learned’ harmful sexual behaviour wherein ‘victims’ can become ‘offenders’ as part of what I have termed the ‘victim-offender continuum.’ This can also make the work of criminal justice or support agencies extremely difficult in engaging victims in justice or therapeutic processes particularly in the case of CSE.

In sum, the issues surrounding ‘grooming’ as originally conceived and presented in my 2006 paper, appear no less relevant today.  In particular, within popular discourses, the use of the term tends to add to the levels of suspicion and mistrust concerning sexual offending against children (see for example, ‘Dinner Lady’s Child Grooming Warning Over Biscuit’, The Belfast Telegraph, 8th October 2010).  Indeed, the unmitigated use of the word ‘grooming’ without being mindful of the context, can serve to mask the complexities which underlie the onset of sexual offending concerning children.  Challenges also remain in terms of capturing ‘risk’ and potentially harmful sexual behaviour against children and young people within legislative and policy frameworks and on a proactive basis and before actual harm occurs.

The prevalence of harmful sexual behaviour among children and young people themselves, which accounts for between one-third and one-half of all cases of child sexual abuse, points to the ever pressing need to conceive of more constructive ways of addressing pro-abusive behaviours at a collective, societal level.  As I originally argued within the 2006 article, this points to the need for more concerted efforts at age-appropriate education programmes to engage children, parents and professionals around safe and healthy behaviours, rather than the generation of 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.  Anne-Marie is Professor of Law and Criminal Justice at the School of Law, Queen’s University Belfast, United Kingdom, and has research interests in sex offender risk management and reintegration, restorative justice, and state and non-state responses to institutional child abuse.


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