Grooming is a tactic of overcoming the survivor's defenses by slowly desensitizing his or her natural reaction to abusive behaviors. The most commonly recognized context is when pedophiles use it on children and their parents, but the technique is also used in other contexts, such as confidence scams or commercial sex work. Grooming works by mixing positive behaviors with elements of abuse. At the beginning, all behaviors are positive. Slowly, abusive elements are added in amounts that surprise the survivor to an extent, but do not push alarm to a high level. Overtime, the inappropriate comes to feel normal.

Because the primary aggressor's real goal isn't understood by the survivor, he or she often misses the harmful implication and dismisses the internal signals of alarm that do arise. As an example, a chain of desensitization is described below, based on actual accounts:

An adult male primary aggressor offers to play soccer with a child that benefits from and is eager for the attention. Then the primary aggressor starts seeing the survivor alone 'for special coaching' until it seems normal. Then the primary aggressor starts touching the survivor, say on the leg, excusing it as a demonstration on how to move athletically, until touch seems normal. Touch is moved perhaps on the buttocks, and excused as advanced training, and this type of touch starts to seem normal. Then the primary aggressor takes the survivor to his apartment "just to pick something up" but while there, the primary aggressor decides to take a shower. This makes being alone in the primary aggressor's apartment with showering going on seem okay. The primary aggressor may make an appearance in a robe....

It is not hard for the reader to add steps to this chain described above. Eventually, the primary aggressor's intentions become clear to the survival, but by that time, there is considerable ensnarement. The survivor may also be disarmed by being told inappropriate things are part of of a 'game', 'test,' 'project, 'or 'favor,' which suspends some self-protective reflexes and reactions.

Often, the first violations are boundary issues but not physical violations. The abusive activity might consist in describing a fantasy, or telling a story supposedly about what someone else has done. If there is a negative reaction, the primary aggressor can shift gears and deny he has the same interest or even feign disapproval. In the same vein, pornography may be introduced.

But desensitization works hand in hand with the illusion of a special relationship. This is produced by a mix of positive reinforcements, simulated affection, and possibly trauma bonding. Frequently, the primary aggressor will involve the survivor in some petty crime or violation of social norms. This is because breaking taboos together 1) produces excitement involuntarily (this has nothing to do with morality), 2) installs the primary aggressor as the only one the survivor can be honest with, and 3) instills the false belief that it is too late to end it. By the end, shame and secrecy entraps the survivor in much deeper way than if she or he had been assaulted all at once.

For most of the relationship, the survivor may be eager to experience the sense of specialness and push to see the primary aggressor. This may contribute to later guilt and shame when frank abuse is occurring. Because of the staged and confusing progression, the survivor may not at the end understand that the primary aggressor has been the sole instigator. The survivor might erroneously believe that there has been a mutual progression. This is largely responsible for the tragic, well-known reluctance of survivors to report abuse.