Symbolism in speech: Grooming

April 8, 2022

The use of the word “grooming” has been on the rise on Twitter in the past couple of weeks.

While words have strict dictionary definitions, they often take on additional symbolic meanings in everyday use, specific to certain contexts or cultures. When one of these symbolically-charged words becomes central to political discourse, the conversation becomes ripe for “talking past” each other.

Understanding why the other side interprets a word so differently is critical if we want to understand their perspective. That’s not to say it’s easy — to truly understand someone else’s point of view, we need to constantly remind ourselves what they mean when they use the word, and temporarily set aside our own interpretation while we listen. It also means remembering what the word means to them, and taking this into consideration when expressing our own point of view. 

It takes effort, but it can be done. To help, here’s a breakdown of why each side is using the word “grooming” so differently.

Key dividing questions

Keep in mind that the two views presented below are examples, not the only two ways to see the topic.

How is "grooming" defined?

It’s rare for people to define words as they use them, so we’re often left guessing or relying on our own definitions to infer meaning. So to demonstrate how a specific word can be used and interpreted in different ways, here are a few working definitions of the term “grooming” (in no particular order).

  • From RAINN, a prominent anti-sexual violence organization: “Manipulative behaviors that the abuser uses to gain access to a potential victim, coerce them to agree to the abuse, and reduce the risk of being caught.”
  • From conservative activist James Lindsay: “The deliberate act of bringing a child into a sexual, political, or racial ideology, practice, cult, or lifestyle without the knowledge or consent of his or her parents for the aim of isolating them from their family so the external party and abuse and manipulate them.”
  • From “To tend carefully as to person and dress; make neat or tidy,” “To clean, brush, and otherwise tend (a horse, dog, etc.),” or “To prepare for a position, election, etc.”


These distinct definitions (of which there are many more) illustrate how the word “grooming” is used in many different ways, often metaphorically. Its meaning is heavily dependent on the context and intention of the user.

In other words, there’s not much use in “fact-checking” any definition of the word grooming if you want to better understand someone’s position — it’s more useful to try to understand what people mean when they use it. 

Why are we talking about "grooming" now?

At the end of March, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed a bill into law which bans discussions of “sexual orientation and gender identity” in grades K-3 in Florida public schools.

To those who do not believe there is grooming in schools, the right is claiming that the left is “grooming” children in schools, when in reality teachers are just teaching children how to be good, tolerant citizens.

We don’t want teachers “grooming” children, we want children to feel free to express their identity as they see fit while rejecting hatred and bigotry.

To others who are concerned about grooming in schools, the left is attempting to usurp parents’ rights and teach children topics that are too complicated for their age. 

In doing so, they are influencing and changing how children see themselves, often creating more problems than they solve. They are hurting children’s development, sense of identity, and mental health.

If you’re struggling to understand how people see the Florida bill differently, check out our breakdown.

Given each side's understanding of "grooming," do their concerns make more sense?

When the left hears “grooming,” they assume it’s referring to the idea of manipulating children into participating in explicit sexual activity of any sort.


So, when they hear the right calling them groomers for… 

  • Teaching about gender identity or non-heterosexual love (the left’s framing of what’s banned in the Parental Rights in Education bill in Florida which prompted much of this conversation), or 
  • Other ideas about tolerance…

They are thinking of that narrow definition of grooming, and take offense.

When the right says “grooming,” they are referring to both…

  • The idea of indoctrinating young children with a certain ideology so they are more easily manipulated into believing that ideology as they grow up, 

  • And explicit sexual grooming by introducing sexual topics too early.


So when they refer to the left as groomers, many are using the term to emphasize the fact that… 

  • The left is taking advantage of the impressionability of young children, and 
  • It’s manipulative to take advantage of this for the left’s political gain against the will of the children’s parents.


The connotation or feelings we associate with a word are often just as important for understanding meaning as the word’s dictionary definition.

Critical race theory is a perfect example of another term that invokes distinct reactions and interpretations from people with different worldviews. Similarly, the conflict around what counts as racist — and anti-racist — is rooted in conflict around what these words “really” mean. Shifts in the cultural definition of specific words are often a way to reframe an issue and bring more serious attention to it — very few people are happy being called racist, and very few people are happy being called a groomer. 

Given that the same words can invoke different feelings in different people, arguing over the strict definition of a word is often unhelpful. After all, cultural or working definitions of words are more often the reference point we use in our minds. If you’re genuinely interested in understanding another person, it’s critical to understand what connotation the word has to them and try to understand their argument from that perspective.

Further reading: The conversation

We create these analyses by looking at the most retweeted tweets mentioning the topic. Here are the tweets we referenced in putting this analysis together:

What do you think? Do you agree with one side, or do you fall somewhere in between? Give us feedback on TwitterInstagram, and Facebook, or by emailing