How to spot sexual grooming and protect children from sexual predators

The idea of sexual grooming – which is often a lead-up to sexual abuse – can sound a bit complicated in a culture like Nigeria where sex and sexuality are shrouded in so much hush hush mystery and wrapped in shame that Sex Education remains widely rejected by parents and guardians.

Yet the consequence of this wide rejection of sex education and framing of sex and sexuality as taboo topics that must be avoided until what most Nigerian adults pretend is the only time sex happens – in the confines of marriage or committed adult relationships – is felt in the epidemic of sexual violence.

There is a correlation between children’s lack of sex and sexuality education facilitated by their parent’s unhealthy relationship with the subject matter that is fueled by puritanical religiousity and the ease with predatory adults get away with grooming and harming young Nigerians.

There is also a correlation between the easy adamance with which adult Nigerians – particularly males – are able to dismiss any attempts to be educated on what constitutes sexual violence in their behaviours as ‘woke’ propaganda.

At a glance, it can come off as a deliberate attempt on these adults’ part to maintain the status quo of rampant sexual violence and rape culture that trivializes this violence and let perpetrators get away with little if any punishment perhaps because it benefits them. It is that, yes, for some.

Yet it is also that these adults – once children raised to see sex as something one must never discuss or engage in – grew up to discover the natural pleasure of sex while harbouring deeply unhealthy attitudes towards it. These half-formed adults – like untamed beasts – then prowl the miasma of confusion around sex and sexuality that they know too well from their own childhood and take advantage of naïve children and younger adults who are just unravelling the mysteries their own parents gifted them about sex.

It is a vicious circle of sex education deprivation creating adults with an unhealthy relationship with sex some of whom then double down on their sexual ill-health by harming younger adults and children in a sick attempt to satisfy their sexual needs.

What is grooming anyway and how do we identify grooming tendencies and protect children?

Grooming – in a sexual context – is a tactic sexual predators use where they befriend and establish an emotional connection with a child, and sometimes the family, to lower the child’s inhibitions with the objective of sexual abuse.

Some of the general aspects of sexual grooming include:

  • Targeting the victim, 
  • Securing access to and isolating the victim, 
  • Gaining the victim’s trust, and 
  • Controlling and concealing the relationship. 

There is a strategy that although not unique to Nigeria is the most common here. Predators will establish a good relationship with a child and the child’s family. They gain the child’s or parents’ trust by befriending them, with the goal of easy access to the child. It is what is claimed to have happened in the case of Yoruba actor, Baba Ijesa, which is still in court.

A trusting relationship with the family means the child’s parents are less likely to believe potential accusations from the child or even from other adults who develop suspicions.

A sad reality of an increasingly individualistic modern living is that we find ourselves more and more in a deteriorating sense of community. Yet, we remain social beings who need it, which means we would still feel warm and fuzzy when the neighbouring bachelor, Uncle Adeseun, is fond of our child/ward. It is yet another sad reality that to protect children we may have to view every fond relationship – whether from a non-relative or a relative – through the prism of potential danger until we are absolutely certain of their good intentions, something that may be impossible to confirm.

Parents can look out for these as red flags that may point to potential grooming tendencies in the adults around their children:

  • The adult seems overly interested in a child.
  • They frequently initiate or creates opportunities to be alone with a child (or multiple children.)
  • They become fixated on a child.
  • They give special privileges to a child (e.g., rides to and from school, etc.).
  • They befriend a family and show more interest in building a relationship with the child than with the adults in the family.
  • They display favoritism towards one child within a family.
  • They find opportunities to buy a child gifts. 
  • They cater to the interests of the child, so a child or the parent may initiate contact with the offender.
  • They display age and gender preferences in dating that leans dangerously close to paedophilia territory – working here with an age of consent of 18.

There is a potential point of resistance in a lot of the aforementioned from Nigerians. “These are things we grew up with the neighbourhood Uncles and Aunts and they are not sexual.”

Except they are and perhaps you are the lucky child who wasn’t touched by or made to touch those predatory nice neighbourhood Uncles and Aunties.

Other behaviours predators may use during the grooming process are activities that can be sexually arousing to adults who have a sexual interest in children. These include: 

  • Offering to shower a child.
  • Repeatedly walking in on a child changing.
  • Deliberately walking in on a child using the toilet.
  • Asking the child to watch them using the toilet.
  • Tickling and ‘mistakenly’ touching the child’s genitalia.
  • Wrestling in underwear. 
  • Constantly drawing the child into activities that involve removing clothes (massage, swimming).
  • Playing games that include touching genitalia (e.g. playing a doctor to ‘examine them.’)
  • Telling a child sexual jokes.
  • Teasing a child about budding breasts and genital development.
  • Discussing sexually explicit information under the guise of education.
  • Showing the child sexually explicit images.
  • Taking pictures of children in underwear, bathing suits, dance wear, etc.

These things are more common than we care to admit in Nigeria and it shows in the data on sexual violence against children.

They happen with house helps. They happen with uncles and aunts. Older cousins and nieces and nephews. Neighbourhood imams and pastors, teachers and seniors in schools, even parents and/or their partners who may not be the biological parent of the child.

While the taboo handling of sex and sexuality may be helping hide the enormity of the scourge of sexual violence, it remains in the way of children being able to know what feels wrong, having the language to describe something wrong that is happening, or even know that anything wrong is happening.

It is a long road to sanity in Nigeria, but the starting line is at tearing away the wrap of taboo on the topic of sex and sexuality to allow for education on the m=subject matter, even if that education is only given by parents to their children. Something always is better than nothing.

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