A Commentary by
Chris Newlin, MS LPC
National Children’s Advocacy Center
Why do we use the word “grooming” to describe offender behavior? This article is not about semantics, it is about the importance of the language we use in the everyday investigation and prosecution of child abuse. It is also about how we communicate the information we know to those who don’t work in the child abuse field (jurors, family members, the community, etc.).
Language is important in how we talk about all types of things. Many years ago, we identified intellectually disabled individuals as retarded. We used to describe young sex trafficking victims as child prostitutes, and images of child sexual abuse as child pornography. There has also been some move to redefine non-offending caregivers as involved caregivers because we don’t always know if a caregiver is an offender or not, but we do know they are involved.
Let me focus on grooming versus manipulation. If you look at the definitions from the Merriam Webster Dictionary, grooming is defined as:
- To clean and maintain the appearance of (as the coat of a horse or dog),
- To make neat or attractive (an impeccably groomed woman),
- To get into readiness for a specific objective – prepare (was being groomed as a presidential candidate).
Do any of these really describe what we know to be grooming in child sexual abuse incidents? You could make the argument that 3. somewhat describes what we know to be true, but let’s look at the definition for manipulation:
- To treat or operate with or as if with the hands or by mechanical means especially in a skillful manner,
- To manage or utilize skillfully or to control or play upon by artful, unfair, or insidious means especially to one’s own advantage,
- To change by artful or unfair means so as to serve one’s purpose.
When I think about “grooming” in child sexual abuse incidents, definitions 2. and 3. of “manipulation” seem to more accurately describe what offenders do on a regular basis. In all other settings, grooming is used to describe pro-social behavior, but I surely don’t think child sexual abuse is pro-social behavior. To me, this behavior is decidedly anti-social, so why are we using a pro-social word to describe anti-social behavior?
The NCAC updated the Manipulation bibliography a couple of weeks ago to include all relevant articles published since 1990. Out of 57 articles included in the bibliography there is still only one article that mentions manipulation in the title (Katz & Barnetz, 2016). While many recently published articles include some use of the term “manipulation” in the text, the term has not gained widespread support. In a 2018 special edition of the Journal of Interpersonal Violence on Grooming, there was significant discussion of the words grooming, seduction, and coercion in the numerous manuscripts. Burgess & Hartman (2018) ask an important question in their article, “Is there a better term to describe this process?” I believe there is.
Would you rather be groomed or manipulated? There is a more negative connotation associated with manipulation, and most people feel taken advantage of when they are manipulated. I think we should change our language to better describe the behavior of offenders. We should call these behaviors manipulation. Additionally, this new term will help jurors and others better understand what has actually happened in these cases.
Finally, we must also recognize that manipulation is not just focused on children in child sexual abuse cases. Offenders also manipulate their broader community and involved caregivers/significant others so they can gain access to children while being thought of as a “good guy”. This behavior is insidious and artful, but it is not OK – it is Manipulation!
Burgess, A. W., & Hartman, C. R. (2018). On the origin of grooming. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 33(1), 17-23.
Katz, C., & Barnetz, Z. (2016). Children’s narratives of alleged child sexual abuse offender behaviors and the manipulation process. Psychology of Violence, 6(2), 223-232.
National Children’s Advocacy Center (2018). The Manipulation (Grooming) of Victims of Child Sexual Abuse: A bibliography. Huntsville, AL: Author.