The grooming process
Studies of sexual offenders have found that deliberate tactics are often used to select victims and engage them in sexual abuse. This is described as the grooming process. Sexual offenders have often claimed to identify vulnerable children – for example, those who are less able to tell about the abuse, or who are unhappy or needy.
There are a number of specific techniques that offenders use to mask their behaviour prior to the assault, as well as during and after the assault. Many deliberately establish themselves as the kind of person you wouldn’t suspect to be a sex offender because they are “too nice” or an upstanding person in the community who helps a lot of people out. This is a powerful tactic as it allows offenders to become embedded in a community and be involved in a number of socially responsible activities such as youth groups, churches and schools, which can give the offender access to a number of potential victims without ever being suspected. This double life causes parents and others to drop their guards and to allow access to their children without suspecting anything. It is important to also note, that the majority of offenders are known to the family, and too often are family members.
The second tactic is the ability to charm, to be likeable, to radiate sincerity and truthfulness. This is crucial in gaining access to children, and the power of this tactic should not be underestimated. Some offenders will attempt to establish peer relationships with people much younger than themselves, as they prefer the company of children to adults, rather than looking for age-appropriate relationships.
How they start
Sexual offenders recruit children by establishing a trusting relationship, for example spending time with them and listening to them. They may treat the child as ‘special’; giving them presents and compliments. Offenders also use gifts and trickery to manipulate and silence the child into keeping the sexual assault a secret. This treatment can isolate the child from siblings, friends or parents. The offender may also establish a trusting relationship with the family and friends of a child, in order to have access to the child alone. When they have obtained the truth of the child and family it makes it much easier for the offender to sexually abuse the child. It is also important to remember that the offender often grooms the family in similar ways by buying gifts or helping out around the house as a way to gain trust from the family.
Sexual offenders typically plan their sexual abuse of children with care. They may gradually desensitise the child and violate their boundaries. For example, they may spend a lot of time with the child when he or she is bathing, dressing, or going to bed. They may kiss and hug the child a lot. There may be ‘accidental’ sexual touching, or sexual touching as a game. There may be talk about sex and sexual jokes as well as tickling, wrestling, or being rough towards the child as a sign of affection. If the abuse isn’t stopped, the behaviour progresses to increasingly intimate acts.
Keeping the abuse secret
The child is taught – by threats, manipulation, blackmail, bribes and punishments – to keep the abuse a secret. The offender assures the child that what is happening I ‘right’, and convinces them that if they tell about the sexual abuse, something terrible will happen – for example, the family will fall apart, threaten to hurt the child’s family or pets, tell the child that their parents won’t believe them, or that the offender may go to prison. At the same time, the offender gives the child the impression that they have consented and that they are in a ‘relationship’ with the offender, or even that they initiated the relationship. In this way offenders shift the blame from themselves and onto the child. The child may then feel responsible for the abuse, and feel too ashamed or scared to tell anyone.
If you think a potential offender is grooming your child
Trust your gut instinct and then act on it. Sometimes parents can be afraid of how their children will react if they prohibit their child seeing a person they like, but it is important if you have concerns about a person’s relationship with a child, be willing to stop all contact immediately between your child and the potential offender. It is also important to listen for statements or questions from your child that would support your suspicions, and to encourage your child to tell you more about the time he or she spends with the person.
It may also be important for you to give your child some prevention tools to help identify inappropriate behaviour such as talking regularly about ways they can say no or protect themselves if anyone makes them feel uncomfortable.
It is also important to note that these tactics that have been put in place by the offenders are so strong that children are unaware that the sexual abuse is not happening to all children. Many children can go years before understanding that what is/has been happening, is NOT okay. Disclosures may not happen until a child learns about sexual behaviours in health education classes at school, watching television shows or movies that show someone’s experience of sexual assault, or if a friend or relative discloses.
When you discover that your child has been sexually assaulted, there may be an array of emotions that you could experience. These emotions range from shock, outrage, guilt, frustration, shame, fear, and grief. There are some questions that may go round and round in your mind after you find out about the abuse, and looking back it might be easy to see what was really going on, but sexual abuse is the last thing that most people would expect to find in their family.
It is not your fault that you were not aware of it sooner.
It is not your fault that the sexual assault happened.
Mother blaming tactics
The myths around child sexual abuse often describe the reasons the offender sexually abused the child as being the mother’s fault. Some of these reasons could be that the mother was sick, worked long hours, or was frightened of the perpetrator. As a mother, you are not to blame for the sexual abuse. The sexual abuse of children is just one part of a system of trickery and abuse created to maintain secrecy, isolation and the offender’s absolute power over the child and all others in the child’s life. The offender sets up a web-like structure of traps, lies and distortions to isolate the victim and recreate the child as problematic in the eyes of siblings, the mother, friends, family and neighbours. In particular, offenders admit that their prime target is to destroy the child’s relationship of trust with the mother (Morris, 2003).
The relationship problems between mother and child that are commonly seen after the abuse is disclosed are more likely to be the result of a campaign of disinformation orchestrated by the offender. The offender’s actions create a context in which the mother and child are blind to his role in creating the difficulties in their relationship (Laing and Kamsler, 1990). In fact, one of the most common tactics by the offender is creating a division between the mother and child. The mother blaming shifts the focus from the offender to the mother, in search for someone to blame.
Research shows that the vast majority of mothers do not know that sexual abuse was occurring, and this is part of the offender’s campaign to keep the abuse secret. Offenders work hard to be seen as the idea father, uncle, grandfather, brother or a trusted family friend who is wonderful with children.
Survivors of childhood sexual abuse or incest
If you were sexually abused in childhood, you may have been affected in many ways. Despite this, survivors have many strengths and resources to help them overcome these effects. Child sexual abuse affects different people in different ways, and to varying degrees. You may experience long-term effects such as nightmares, night terrors or flashbacks of disturbing images from childhood. For some people, alcohol and other drug dependency, eating disorders, mental health problems, phobias or obsession may be related to earlier abuse.
- Sexual assault is always the offender’s fault, never the victim’s
- It is against the law for anyone to force another person to have sex, or to participate in any sexual act, regardless of age, gender, cultural and religious beliefs.
- Sexual assault is not uncommon. It is a crime experienced by women, children and men. You are not alone.
- Every child has the right to be safe.
- Every adult has the responsibility to protect children.
Where to find help
If you are a survivor, partner or family member affected by an experience of sexual assault, or a parent concerned about your children, you can access information and support from Laurel House. Laurel House provides free and confidential counselling and information for all people impacted by sexual violence in Northern Tasmania. We also have a number of information packages and books that may assist you. If you would like to make an appointment to speak with a counsellor at Laurel House, please call 6334 2740 between 8.30 a.m. and 5 p.m. weekdays.
For further information and support please contact Laurel House (North) on 6334 2740, Laurel House North West on 6431 9711, or email firstname.lastname@example.org