Dangers of Grooming

April 9, 2024 Criminal Defense, Sex Crimes

Unfortunately, the ways in which minors can be exploited online have continued to increase with technology. One specific form of child abuse is “grooming,” which is an act or pattern of acts to deliberately establish an emotional, romantic, or sexual connection with a minor.

In the most recent Florida Legislative Session, a new bill was introduced to prevent the prevalence of online grooming. This page will provide information into the dangers of grooming, the strategies offenders use to “groom” a child, as well as the statute language and penalty for the newly proposed grooming law.

What is Grooming?

Online grooming is considered the process in which an adult builds an online relationship of influence and trust with a minor to obtain form of sexual interaction, either online or offline.

According to a 2021 study on the cyber sexual abuse of minors, grooming is characterized by one or more of the following characteristics:

  1. The minor has not reached the age of sexual consent;
  2. It is a pattern that occurs through coercion or threats, either subtly or overtly; and
  3. It takes place from a position of trust, superiority, or authority of an adult over a minor.

The study further explains that grooming is a complex process, especially when conducted online. It can take a matter of days up to years of building trust and continuous communication. Common grooming strategies may include any of the following:

  • Deception– Adults may attempt to appear younger online, lie about their age or personal interests, or build an entirely fictitious identity to deceive a minor into communicating with them and building a trustworthy “grooming” relationship.
  • Monetary goods or gifts – Adults attempting to groom a minor may use money or gifts to build a relationship or achieve a sexual exchange. The study highlights how “the principle of interpersonal influence based on reciprocity suggests that people develop a feeling of duty to return what is received from others.”
  • Taking interest in personal problems – An adult may take interest or attempt to discuss the minor’s problems in their personal life to build a trusting relationship. The study found that “showing interest in the child’s life can facilitate her/his emotional involvement with the adult, promoting less awareness of the inappropriateness of the relationship, and thereby facilitating sexual requests and abuse of the minor.”
  • Compliments and praise – Another grooming strategy used by adults is by progressively introducing topics of sexualization after first using compliments and praise to develop a level of intimacy with the minor.
  • Aggression or threats – While more often related to the later stages of grooming, an adult may use subtle or explicit aggression to make a minor comply with the grooming requests. Offenders have been found to use harassment, intimidation, and coercion to maintain a grooming relationship. Alternatively, aggression may be used as revenge if a minor tries to stop communication or does not comply with the groomer’s requests.

There is various research on online grooming being related to negative outcomes for minors’ mental health. A minor who is a victim of online grooming may experience negative effects like depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, substance abuse, excessive online behavior, and self-harm. In some of the worst cases, grooming can lead to other sex crimes such as sexual battery.

Florida’s New Anti-Grooming Bill

New legislation regarding grooming has been introduced to Florida legislators. Republicans Taylor Yarkosky and Douglas Bankson introduced HB 1135 titled “Lewd or Lascivious Grooming” to provide definitions and penalties for the new criminal offense of grooming.

Codified under newly created Florida Statute Section 800.045, the following terms are defined:

  • Inappropriate communication or conduct” means any verbal, written, or electronic communication or any conduct where a person describes, depicts, or demonstrates sexual conduct or sexual excitement;
  • Sexual activity” means the oral, anal, or female genital penetration by, or union with, the sexual organ of another for the penetration of another by any other object;
  • Sexual conduct and “sexual excitement” mean the actual or simulated sexual intercourse, masturbation, lewd exhibition of the genitals, or actual physical contact with a person’s clothed or unclothed genitals, pubic area, buttocks, or female breast for the purpose of gaining a state of sexual stimulation or arousal.
  • Sexual performance” means any performance or part thereof which includes sexual conduct by a child.

Any person 18 or older who engages in a pattern of communication or conduct directed towards a person younger than 16-years-old for the purpose of preparing, encouraging, or enticing such person to engage in unlawful sexual activity, sexual conduct, or sexual performance is guilty of the offense lewd or lascivious grooming. This crime requires the element of lewd or lascivious intent.

An exception to HB 1135 is if there is any act of medical diagnosis, treatment, or educational conversation by a parent, caregiver, counselor, or educator that is intended for the purpose of sexual education and not intended to elicit sexual excitement.

Penalties for Grooming a Minor in Florida

Under HB 1135, the crime of lewd or lascivious grooming is considered a third-degree felony. A conviction for a third-degree felony would carry the following penalties:

  • Up to a $5,000 fine;
  • Up to five (5) years in prison; and
  • Up to five years of probation.

Important: Given that this is an offense involving minors that includes a sexual nature, a person convicted of lewd or lascivious grooming will likely be required to register as a sexual offender. This is a penalty that will continue to follow you, as the designation as a sexual offender remains for life. Find out more about the differences between a sexual offender and sexual predator here.

Responses to Proposed Grooming Bill

Although HB 1135’s advocates claim their proposed legislation will target predators employing grooming tactics and protect minors from potential harm, there has been resulting criticism of the bill’s language.

Some critics, including LGBTQ+ activists, have addressed their concern over the bill text’s vague language. They are concerned that its passing could limit essential sexual education information for LGBTQ+ students. Additionally, members of Equality Florida, the local advocacy group, vocalized their fear of HB 1135 extending beyond the existing lewd and lascivious exposure laws.

Florida State University (FSU) student Savanna Ford gave the following statement regarding her apprehension of HB 1135. “Florida education already has awful sex education in regard to queer issues, and just sex ed in general,” said Ford. “This bill is just going to further limit what can and cannot be said in schools. This is clearly virtue signaling.”

Spokesperson Brandon Wolf with the Human Rights Campaign told FSU News, “Florida has, for years, been an innovator of new assaults on freedom and equality, and this year’s slate of bills is no different.”

Contact Pumphrey Law Firm

With new criminal justice bills passing through the 2024 Florida Legislative Session, it is important to understand the new crimes that a person may be apprehended for. Once HB 1135 is signed into law, it will go into effect in October 2024. If you or someone you know is accused of grooming minors, it is very important that you consider hiring legal representation.

The defense attorneys with Pumphrey Law Firm have decades of experience defending those accused of sex crimes in Florida’s Panhandle. We can review the facts surrounding your case during a free consultation and formulate a defense strategy. Contact our office today at (850) 681-7777 or fill out an online form.

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