The Psychology of Adult Sexual Grooming (review)

A review of: The Psychology of Adult Sexual Grooming: Sinnamon’s Seven-Stage Model of Adult Sexual Grooming, by Grant Sinnamon, Bond University, Gold Coast, QLD, Australia. Victim and Offender Perspectives, 2017, Pages 459-487

What is grooming?

For the author of this paper, Sinnamon, to groom or the process of grooming, refers to an act of “preparing or training (someone) for a particular purpose or activity”, synonymous with terms like “priming, making ready, conditioning, tailoring, coaching, training, instructing, tutoring, drilling, teaching, educating, and schooling.”

‘Sexual grooming’ is the process of deliberately establishing a connection in order to prepare a person for sexual exploitation and/or abuse

He recognises adult sexual grooming as analogous to child sexual grooming – “any situation in which an adult is primed to permit themselves to be abused and/or exploited for sexual gratification of another”.

Identifiable behaviour patterns

Sinnamon has identified recognisable themes: profiling, establishing trust, and a slow, gradual change in behaviours and interactions: “creating a psychologically, socially, emotionally, and often physically reinforcing experience as an integral component to these processes are all a part of the systematic preparation of a victim”.

The early stages of grooming offer the victim strong elements of reward.

For the eventual victim, the initial stages of grooming typically involve substantial emotionally and/or physically rewarding experiences at the hands of the perpetrator. Later in the process, as the manipulation increases and the exploitation commences, a predator’s behavior may or may not cross the line between exploitation and abuse. While both are deviant, reprehensible, unconscionable, and never acceptable, the ability to distinguish between them is, in reality, extremely difficult

About the victims

The predator is adept at identifying potential victims (targets) who have needs or wants. These make targets vulnerable to anyone who can exploit them.

The author suggests that an adult who is targeted by a sexual predator may have psycho-emotional, physical, or financial needs or wants that make them vulnerable to exploitation.

I have to take issue with this. I have met many strong, successful women whose only ‘weakness’ is wanting a life partner/to be loved. They do something about it and increase the odds by joining dating sites, for example. They are wise to scams. They simply fail to imagine that the highly credible individual, whose story appears to check out, could be a groomer.

By contrast, the stats that the author has used are highly important: only 4–8% of adults who are abused or exploited as a result of sexual grooming behaviours come forward and report their abuse (estimate). Sexual grooming of adults is often under reported because the abuse itself was often initially experienced by the victim as a positive experience, followed by confusion, guilt, fear, or threats, notes Sinnamon.

Whilst I agree with this notion wholeheartedly, the presentation of victims as having “psychoemotional, physical, or financial needs” or being particularly vulnerable to exploitation, is objectionable. It perpetuates an uncomfortable myth, feeding strongly into the notion of the ‘perfect victim’* . This myth is a strong motivator for staying quiet. Women in particular do not deserve victim status if they are strong, or wealthy, or successful. They are undeserving of our sympathy if they enjoy sex, even less if they have strayed from ‘missionary’ paths. Men are less ‘manly’ if they have been taken advantage of (other than, of course, by the avenging ex wife).

I rather suspect that a large portion of the 92-96% who don’t report fail to do so for just those societal perceptions. It’s another insidious form of the ‘victim blaming’ so prevalent in our society.

Groomer’s traits

Sinnamon identifies traits in groomers that anyone who has been groomed will recognise – that the groomer creates an external persona of a trustworthy, dependable, upstanding person in the community. They present as carers – teachers, coaches, ministers, counselors, spiritual advisors, school governors, charity workers. ‘Good’ people.

(This, for the victim, is a hurdle in my experience, and adds considerably to the under-reporting identified above.)

Groomers present as sincere, open, truthful, and are usually apparently likeable, allowing them to break down barriers without arousing suspicion with the target or their family and social network. This is as true of those who groom online as those who groom offline. Again, I relate this totally to the things I’ve noted as this campaign progresses – the disbelief of those around them is a further reason that targets remain silent.

Interestingly, the authors also note two primary personality types as predatory sexual groomers: their primary traits are endemic in narcissistic and ‘antisocial’ personality types.

Narcissists exaggerate their own power, success, attractiveness, value to others, personal achievement, and talent.

They seek praise and admiration, placing themselves where these rewards are available to them. They need, and thrive on, the accolades, acceptance, and adoration of victims to artificially restore their self-esteem.

These factors are the reward for the narcissist. Their superiority and prowess are often fed by attempting to genuinely provide mutual sexual gratification to the victim. But there will be a sting in the tail, with the narcissist later persuading a trusting victim to engage in something they might consider humiliating – for example a solo sex act or allowing dominance.

The antisocial personality thrives on the pretense and deception, which allow them a sense of domination, a chance to exercise their “devious superiority”, and to clearly exhibit that others are no more than playthings.

The author examines the things often that help the perpetrators groom: celebrity, charisma, charm, and personal standing. These have been carefully developed.

Sinnamon’s Seven Stages Model

Sinnamon’s ‘seven stages’ model is brilliant. It visually highlights the sheer calculated callousness of grooming, noting that preparing someone for grooming can run anything from months to years. By the time the victim is engaged, the groomer is already half way through their cycle.

I read into this that the victims are already on their way to being discarded or towards long term abuse before the groomer engages. The groomer has studied their victim, they know all about them. Faced with this level of preparation, their target is barely going to stand a chance (and may not even know, until years later, what happened.)

These seven stages are: (1) victim selection; (2) research; (3) creating personal connection (trust); (4) meeting needs, establishing credentials; (5) priming the target; (6) instigating sexual contact; and (7) controlling the victim.

Of course, this sometimes breaks down. The perpetrator then usually moves on to a new victim, or goes back to earlier stages of the plan to re-establish trust (stages 3-5). (The paper doesn’t address multiple victims, a trait I’ve noted.)

Conclusion

With the exception of the victim profiles, which I believe extend far wider than the author imagines, this is a paper that made me want to weep with relief. Finally, someone truly acknowledges that adult grooming really is a ‘thing’. A grossly understudied, unacknowledged and under-reported thing.

For someone to describe the process, to acknowledge that this happens, in an academic context, offers victims hope. Hope that the cold, calculating
process of subverting another human being to a predator’s own end, may eventually the recognition and support mechanisms that it deserves. This is the paper, for the most part, that I would have liked to have written myself!

*The earliest reference I can find to the perfect victim concept is “Ideal Victim” (From From Crime Policy to Victim Policy, P 17-30, 1986, Ezzat A Fattah, ed. )

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