The phenomenon of child sexual grooming is difficult to put into context because it has only within the last decade been recognised, academically, socially and legally, as a distinct stage of the process of child sexual abuse. The associated harms of grooming as a preparatory behaviour, have been high enough to warrant the creation of a specific criminal offence relating to the phenomenon under s. 15(1) Sexual Offences Act 2003 (hereafter s.15 offence). This analysis will first consider how the offence related to grooming as an inchoate offence, allows for proactive policing of sexual grooming to target and apprehend perpetrators before any significant (physical) harm is caused to the child. Whilst concern about the dangers Online Communication Technology (OCT) pose to children has increased, the grooming of children in not restricted to online behaviour. OCT has increased the risk of harm to children; however the anonymity provided by such technology has provided a welcomed tool to effectively and appropriately apprehend ‘online’ sexual groomers. Covert operations provide protection without risk of ‘real’ harm to children, whilst also increasing understanding about the behaviours adopted online during the process of grooming.
However, the complexity and fluid nature of the grooming phenomenon will ultimately result in inherent difficulties within the use of proactive policing techniques to effectively target other and indeed more prevalent forms of grooming. Thus, the second focus of this article is to highlight particular evidential limitations of such operations. Whilst OCT provides advantages to the policing of criminal activity, the development of rapid communication and ever progressing technological advancements could mean that such operations are ineffective in detecting grooming within the earlier stages, allowing groomers to develop their techniques and a result, increase the risk of harm posed to children. Such limitations, which are ultimately an integral aspect of the complex phenomenon, could render such police attempts ineffective with regards to providing sufficient protection to children from sexual harm and wider exploitation.