Here’s what “grooming” really looks like (hint: it’s not sex ed classes)

By Ellen Friedrichs

I was in the 8th grade the first time I encountered porn. I had gone to my new friend Ashley’s place, and her neighbor, a man in his twenties, invited us to his basement apartment to watch a movie. That movie turned out to be of the triple XXX variety, and the neighbor’s running commentary about the sex acts and the bodies on screen was far more than I had bargained for.When the movie was over, the neighbor put his arm around Ashley and invited her back the next day. “You should come, too,” he said to me. Desperate to get out of there, I mumbled something like, “Sure, maybe,” before we went back upstairs. 

I thought about this upsetting experience, and what might have ultimately happened to Ashley, for the first time in years after encountering yet another spate of “grooming” accusations by conservative politicians. 

According to the sexual abuse prevention organization Darkness to Light, “grooming” refers to a specific type of sexual abuse that typically starts with an abuser targeting a vulnerable or accessible child or teen (in real life or online), gaining their trust, and then creating situations to facilitate sexual abuse. 

But today’s accusations aren’t about men like the one I encountered at thirteen; someone who might have actually been trying to set up children for sex in the future. Nor are they about giving parents real information on child sexual abuse, or sharing any strategies to help support kids who have been harmed. Rather, “grooming” is now being used to describe anyone opposed to “Don’t Say Gay” bills or who writes a book that offends a very selective set of sensibilities.

And it is being used against people like me, a health teacher who covers sex education. Indeed, around the country, in areas both traditionally conservative and liberal, sex education is under attack. School board debates over sex education in states as diverse as California, Texas, Florida and New Jersey have become a regular occurrence. And while it always pays to listen to concerned parents, many of the concerns are being fueled by fear-mongering like that found in a film recently shown in educational settings across Nebraska. In it a narrator ominously asks, “What if I told you that your child was being not only sexually harassed, but shown pornography in an effort to groom them for sexual activity? What if they were being groomed for homosexual activity? What if they were being groomed for sex with pedophiles…Now here’s the big question: What if I told you all these things were happening to your child in their school classroom?”

But talking about sexuality or supporting kids’ identities sure isn’t “grooming.” In fact, study after study has determined that comprehensive sex education offers protection against sexual abuse by providing crucial information about things like boundaries, consent and red flags, and by giving students both the language and the permission needed to discuss sexual violence. Plus, comprehensive sex education that is inclusive of young people’s identities can boost self-esteem and has been found to help improve the mental health of LGBTQ+ youth. That’s something which can also play a role in sexual abuse prevention since low self esteem or feeling alone and isolated makes youth more vulnerable to the manipulations of predatory adults.

It’s not surprising that some parents are falling for the lies about comprehensive sex education. As we were reminded during the coverage of a 10-year-old Ohio rape victim’s need for abortion care, the sexual abuse of children is distressingly common, and it can happen in places where kids are supposed to be safe, including religious environments, youth groups, summer camps, and, yes, even in schools.  It is certainly something I worry about for my own three kids.

But if the folks who are currently so up in arms about “grooming” really wanted to prevent harm to children, they would embrace the structures that can help keep our kids safe instead of either spreading, or falling for, alarmist disinformation and then calling to tear those structures down.

Ellen Friedrichs is a contributing writer for Motherwell. She is a health educator and mom of three based in New York. Find her at

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