Recognizing the Stages of Grooming
by Michelle Peterson
Executive Director of Fight to End Exploitation
“I’ve been in the life since I was 14,” she said. “I’m 34 now, I just got out of jail, but that was my life for 20 years. You know, as a mixed race child, my very nice white family made sure I knew I wasn’t one of them. But, when I was like maybe 14, I figured out how to get my way with some of them, so I used that, you know? I figured out with my looks and my body I could make them happy and I could get what I wanted.”
What strikes me this evening as I listen to yet another survivor of human trafficking stand up and share a slice of her story in this warm safe space is that this young woman is fresh. I mean, she has lived a longer life than many other women her age, but she is fresh out of jail and fresh out of the grips of her most recent trafficker. This is why she doesn’t use the word “trafficked” or ever say the words “human trafficking” though that is exactly what she has survived. Most victims of human trafficking, especially those that were lured at a young age like this woman, go through years of mentoring and therapy before they can begin to comprehend how they were never truly given the tools to be in control of their own lives.
I hear her say, “I knew how to get what I wanted,” but what I know is that she was carefully groomed by people she knew and whose affection she craved. Grooming is a common and useful tool among traffickers. But, at 14, this love-starved girl likely saw this affection and special treatment not as the grooming methods of a trafficker but as the kindness of her uncle when nobody else seemed to care for her.
What is grooming?
Grooming is the precursor phase. Sexual grooming, or just “grooming”, is a preparatory process in which a predator gradually gains a person’s trust with the intent to exploit them. The victim is usually a child, teen, or vulnerable adult. The purpose of grooming is to manipulate the person into becoming a co-operating participant in their own abuse or exploitation, which reduces the likelihood of a disclosure and increases the likelihood that the victim will become attached and repeatedly return to the perpetrator.
Can grooming be stopped?
It can! But, because traffickers choose their victims based on some level of vulnerability which can be overtly identified, the victims themselves are less likely to be the ones to notice the grooming behavior or be willing to disconnect from the person grooming them. The groomer works hard to build trust with their victim while simultaneously discrediting the trustworthiness of those closest to the victim. However, understanding the basic stages of grooming can make you and those around you less vulnerable.
6 Stages of Grooming
Targeting a victim
Traffickers target victims who have some noticeable vulnerability: emotional neediness, low self-esteem, or economic stress.
Social media and apps with private messaging features make it easier and faster for traffickers to identify their victims.
Gaining trust and information
Gathering information about the victim is key. This can be done through casual conversations with the victim or with parents or friends. Many victims are first groomed and exploited by a family member. Traffickers skilled at grooming often mix well with other adults, gaining a trusted position as an honorary “family member” if they aren’t already a member of the victim’s family.
Filling a need
The information gained allows the trafficker to fill a need in the victim’s life, making the victim dependant on them in some way: buying gifts, being a friend, beginning a love relationship, or buying soft drugs and alcohol. This is why many times a trafficker may look like a “boyfriend” to unsuspecting friends and family.
The trafficker creates times to be alone with the victim. The trafficker will also begin to have a major role in the victim’s life and attempt to distance the victim from friends and family. In isolation, the trafficker has more control over the messages the victim hears and is better able to manipulate them.
The trafficker begins claiming that a service must be repaid whether money spent on cigarettes or drugs, car rides or mobile phones. It may even begin with requests for illicit images (sexting) that are then used to threaten the victim. In most cases, the trafficker demands sex as payment for such services.
In many cases, the trafficker maintains control of the victim through threats, violence, fear, or blackmail. Many victims show loyalty to their traffickers even after they’ve been recovered because of the insidious nature of the manipulation and the trauma bonds that are formed.
Why are teens targeted?
Grooming tactics work most successfully when the victim is between the ages of 11 and 16, when a normal human brain is still developing. According the the National Institutes of Health, a teen’s brain is highly sensitive to pleasure and reward as the nucleus accumbens is nearly fully developed. But, the prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain that helps us make major decisions and foresee consequences – is not fully developed in most humans until their mid-twenties.
All of this means that teens are more vulnerable to flattery, attention, affection, and gifts as means of coercion, especially if there is not a strong safe attachment at home. All human trafficking involves the use of force, fraud, or coercion. Fight to End Exploitation is on a mission to equip teens and parents themselves to spot the signs of trafficking and get out or get help as soon as possible.
If you’ve learned something from this article, we hope you will share it with others. Education and awareness continue to be our best weapon in the fight against human trafficking and you can use your voice and social media for good by sharing what you know. Thank you for joining the fight.
You can also donate to support the advocacy, training, and education we provide at no cost to participants, and we thank you for taking this fight seriously by investing in it.
From the Statute: Wisconsin Stat. 948.075 Use of a computer to facilitate a child sex crime. (1) Whoever uses a computerized communication system to communicate with an individual who the actor believes or has reason to believe has not attained the age of 16 years with intent to have sexual contact or sexual intercourse with the individual in violation of s.948.02(1) or (2) is guilty of a Class C felony.