One definition of "groom" is action intended "to prepare or train someone for a particular purpose or activity" (New Oxford American Dictionary). We understand child grooming as that subtle, gradual but escalating process that a perpetrator uses to exploit a child for sexual purposes. The process consists of identifiable steps or stages:
Stages of Grooming:
- Targeting and befriending the victim; sizing up vulnerabilities and areas to exploit.
- Gaining the victim's trust; collecting information about the victim.
- Filling a need the victim or her family may have; testing boundaries.
- Isolating the victim; lowering the victim's inhibitions.
- Sexualizing the relationship.
- Maintaining control over victim; includes making the victim feel responsible for the abuse as well as using threats and coercion to maintain the secrecy.
But the grooming process is not confined to child predators only. Inmates target, befriend and test correctional officers and staff (termed "ducks" by the prison population). Downing a Duck describes the inmates' grooming process with correctional staff.
And Dr. Phil describes the process in his Life Code book. He identifies toxic people who are intent on exploiting us in romantic relationships, friendships and even in the workplace and houses of worship. His list of the exploiter's playbook, called The Nefarious 15 is amazingly similar to the stages of grooming listed above. Women who have been in violent romantic relationships may also recognize a pattern in the wooing process they experienced with their violent partner.
But as the former partner of a pedophile, I am realizing that my groom groomed me before I said "I do." As I look at these lists and think back to the days just prior and just after we started dating, I see the pattern and it is startling. Questions I am asking myself include:
- What vulnerability did he see in me?
- How did he use that vulnerability to gain my trust?
- What information did he learn about me and then use to make himself more attractive to me?
- What boundaries did he push?
- How did he test my willingness to tolerate boundary violation or rule-breaking?
- What tools did he use to lower my inhibitions?
- How was it that I bought into his "truth" and believed his lies?
- How can I change, grow and heal so that my vulnerabilities are decreased?