Grooming – the act of cultivating behavior to exploit a child. While the term has only recently entered the public lexicon, it has been an undercurrent of many criminal cases over the years. However, is grooming a crime?
Grooming or child grooming is the act of deliberately establishing a relationship with a child to prepare them for abuse. As an action in and of itself, grooming does not have criminal penalties, but facilitation of a criminal sexual act is considered a crime.
Conspiracy and facilitation are the first steps in the criminal process and are therefore crimes. The difference between grooming and the facilitation of a sex crime is the fact that one is behavioral training while the other is the lead in to a crime. Behavioral conditioning does not always result in abuse, so it remains a gray area legally.
Grooming is like sprinkles on an ice cream cone; it enhances the dessert, but it is still an ice cream cone without the sprinkles. In general, grooming is a tactic used to entice and trap children to make them engage in sexual acts. Rarely is grooming used in a criminal context outside of sexual assault, trafficking, or the production of child pornography.
The Grooming Process
Grooming can occur anywhere: in person, online, or in an institutional setting. The process may progress in different ways, but generally, it happens accordingly:
The adult becomes overly interested in the child and creates opportunities to be alone. The fixation develops, and the adult gives the child special allowances or privileges like trips to the movies or treats. Naturally, the child becomes fond of the adult, and an opportunity to meet the child's family may arise. The adult shows extreme favoritism and may shower the child with gifts. Eventually, a bond of trust and affection is created, and the adult gains influence over the child.
Favoritism isn't exclusive to grooming, but it is a hallmark grooming behavior. The escalation of bias into the extreme is cause for alarm and may involve exchanges of rewards for favors – sexual and nonsexual.
Certain behaviors from groomers are inherently predatory. If the predator frequently baths the child, walks in on them changing clothes, or deliberately walks in on the child using the bathroom, the behavior is predatory. These behaviors can escalate to asking the child to watch the adult use the restroom or tickling or wrestling to touch private areas.
A general rule of thumb to determine whether a behavior is grooming: if the communication and contact are overtly sexual and the adult makes the mundane explicit more frequently over time, it could be grooming.
An important note: potty training and caring for a young child as a parent is not grooming behavior. It is the sexualization of care that separates parents from predators.
Once the grooming process evolves into sexual contact, showing explicit images, or observing sexual acts, it becomes a crime. At that point, the adult has escalated their relationship to a sexual level and made the child believe that these acts are every day and that they should not tell their parents or guardians.
The penalties for child abuse, exploitation, trafficking, and pornography are severe. At the most, an offender could spend decades behind bars. At the very least, the court may order the offender to be put on the sex offender registry and serve a few years in prison.
One of the harshest penalties for child sex abuse is not handed down by the court. Historically, prisoners known as child rapists and abusers are targeted by fellow inmates. Famous serial killers like Jeffrey Dahmer were ostracized and killed in prison for their crimes.
While child sex abuse is a despicable crime, in some cases where a person is wrongly accused of exploitation, whether their accuser used the accusations as a punishment or to take away parental rights, falsely accusing another person of sexual exploitation is unethical. These crimes are to be taken seriously, and making false accusations diminishes the testimonies of abuse survivors.
Grooming is not necessarily a crime, but it is a legal gray. Once grooming becomes sexual conduct, it becomes a crime punishable by law. Grooming behaviors may manifest differently but generally follow a pattern to commit a criminal act later. Some grooming behaviors are only considered "grooming" in specific contexts – if a parent bathes their toddler, it is not grooming. Still, if a teacher or nanny does so, it is predatory.
Overall, grooming is a horrific process that exploits the child's trust to take their innocence and sense of security. Wrongfully accusing someone of grooming to hurt them is crying wolf and saps resources from investigators. Because child sex crimes are so serious, it is important to make sure that those wrongly accused of child exploitation get the justice they need.
You may have a legal case if you have been wrongfully accused of sexual expoitation. Contact White Law, PLLC, for more information. Our team also helps victims of clergy abuse and campus sexual assault.