Grooming: What Is It & How to Identify Its Stages

Written By: The Women’s Center staff

January 12, 2024

If you have never been targeted by a trafficker or been in an abusive relationship, you may think that nothing and no one could ever coerce you into doing something you didn’t want to. The reality is that most of us would be surprised by what we could be manipulated into doing, especially when other external factors are at play.  

Traffickers are experts at finding people in moments of vulnerability, leveraging their fears against them, and manipulating their reality. This process, known as grooming, is the most common way adults and children end up in sex trafficking situations. Trafficking cases rarely involve violent abductions by strangers. It usually begins with someone the victim knows, loves, and trusts.

In human trafficking, the purpose of grooming is for a trafficker to establish complete control over their victims and manipulate them into cooperating in their exploitation. 

Grooming plays an essential role in how an abuser or trafficker manipulates their victims into believing they are in a loving relationship with the only person who could ever understand and provide for them. Myths and misconceptions about what grooming consists of can make it even harder for survivors to seek out support. Even if a victim “willingly entered” a relationship in which they end up being groomed, the abuse is never their fault.  

Grooming is a type of coercion and cannot be considered consent. 

To help identify the stages of grooming, our Advocates have compiled a guide on some of the steps an abuser or trafficker may take to make their victim compliant and dependent on them.  

1. Building Access & Trust 

Traffickers are highly adept at identifying vulnerable individuals in conditions most susceptible to grooming techniques. They target those who have emotional or physical needs that are not being met and position themselves as someone who can “help.” 

Grooming often begins with friendship but can also take on other roles, such as a romantic partner, mentor, caregiver, or authority figure. They learn their victim’s likes, dislikes, and habits and pretend to share common interests.  

2. Filling Needs  

Through the veil of flashy presents and whirlwind romance, abusers, and traffickers try to ensure that their victims are dependent on them in some capacity. This could be through financial support, consistent housing, or promises of a vacation, car, or lifestyle. A trafficker may target an individual with an existing substance use disorder and provide them with illicit drugs to create lasting dependence on the trafficker.  

Groomers may also use “love bombing” to make their victims feel special by giving them gifts and favors while reminding them to feel indebted for all the “help” they have received.  

3. Isolation & Secrecy 

Abusers isolate victims from the support of their friends and loved ones, who may see through the abuse and try to protect the victim. This strengthens a victim’s dependence on an abuser.  

“They just don’t understand us – you don’t need them!” 

Groomers implement an “us versus them” mentality in the victim’s life so that they are seen as the only ones who understand the victim. A familiar rhetoric is how everyone else is out to get them or that others lie about their intentions.  

4. Exploitation & Normalization

Trafficking is identified in situations where victims are exposed to both coercion and exploitation. Tools like “gaslighting” and “love bombing” are used to cause victims to misinterpret abusive behavior and start to believe that it is normal. The trafficker may ask victims to “help them out” or “just this once” to start slowly exploiting them and desensitizing them. Exploitation can be normalized over time, so the victim may believe they are making the decision independently.

By this stage, the victim has already been groomed with “gifts” of things like financial security, a new car or cell phone, safe housing, or even facilitated drug addiction. Now, however, the groomer expects to be paid back.

5. Maintaining Power & Control

Traffickers use rewards and punishments to create trauma bonds with their victims, making it that much harder for them to choose to leave. Trauma bonds refer to the feelings of attachment a person may have toward someone causing them trauma, leading them to feel sympathy, compassion, and love, but also confusion and powerlessness.

Traffickers may use physical blackmail like revenge porn or withhold essential documents to prevent their victims from leaving. Or they may use emotional blackmail to blame the victim, like threatening to end their relationship, telling their family and friends, threatening to harm their loved ones, or exposing images or material that make it appear that the victim willingly participated – effectively using their exploitation against them.

How We Can Help Grooming Victims

We often say that the path toward healing is not linear – and this can be especially true in grooming cases. Abuse relies on a system of power and control, and it is often hard to identify until an individual is out of the situation. In cases of abuse involving grooming, many survivors will not identify as victims and, therefore, won’t reach out for help.

When a trafficking survivor comes to The Women’s Center, we are prepared to provide them with long-term support and advocacy. We know the complexities of trafficking and, thus, the complex trauma it leaves for its victims to deal with. Our Program Directors are certified Clinical Trauma Specialists – Sex Trafficking and Exploitation (CCTS-S) to ensure that the unique needs of trafficking survivors are met with compassionate expertise.

While our Advocates safety plan with victims, we also provide emergency shelter for those who have escaped their abuser and help to secure transportation for them to reach a safe place. We will work with them to ensure they are protected and supported while dealing with law enforcement and the court systems and work with them to establish their goals once they are no longer in crisis. This may include helping them find housing or long-term mental health services.

Wherever a person may be on their journey to heal from abuse and trauma, The Women’s Center is here to provide lifesaving resources, compassionate advocacy, and wraparound services that support a survivor’s ability to recover and rebuild their lives after enduring life-changing trauma.

If you or someone you know needs help, please call our 24-hour Hotline at 262.542.3828 to speak with a trained Advocate now.