Sexual exploitation is a horrific form of sexual
abuse that affects thousands of children and young people every year in the UK,
when young people under 18 receive ‘something’ (food, accommodation, drugs,
alcohol, cigarettes, affection, gifts, money) in exchange for performing, and/or
others performing on them, sexual activities. It can happen to any young person
from any background and affects boys and young men as well as girls and young
CSE can occur through the use of technology without
the child’s immediate recognition, for example the persuasion to post sexual
images on the internet/mobile phones with no immediate payment or gain. In all
cases those exploiting the child/young person have power over them by virtue of
their age, gender, intellect, physical strength and /or economic or other
There are 3 important and recognisable elements of
child sexual exploitation:
Children are ‘groomed’ and there is
power and control held by the perpetrator/s
An ‘exchange’ (such as gift, food,
money, drugs etc.) is present, this could be to a third party and not always to
the child themselves.
Sexual acts or the exchange of sexual
images is present.
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Sexual exploitation can seriously affect a victim’s life into adulthood.
Victims may also suffer sexual and reproductive health problems as a result of
the exploitation they have suffered. Even when children or young people appear
to have recovered or overcome the psychological, physical and emotional effects
suffered from the sexual exploitation, they may still be unable to stay in the
area where they live if it has associations with the abuse against them.
The sexual exploitation of
children and young people can be seen in varied forms which can be described
through understanding models of CSE. It is important to recognise that
these models do not necessarily work in isolation and various models can be
operating concurrently. These models are an amalgamation of models
reported by Barnardo’s, Children’s
Society and Safe
This usually involves one
perpetrator who has inappropriate power or control over a young person, such as
being physically older, stronger or wealthier or in a position of power e.g.
teacher or community leader. This person will be having some form of a sexual
relationship with the young person. This can include familial abuse where
a family member is exploiting their child, sibling for some ‘gain’, including
third party gain. The abuser may also be vulnerable due to mental health
issues, drug and alcohol dependency or a previous, and/or current, experience
of exploitation themselves.
This model includes the sex
trafficking of children and young people across international borders as well
as across internal borders, it can include the moving of children and young
people between houses or hotels within the same town/district, for the purposes
of passing children and young people to and amongst one or more sexual
perpetrators. This includes larger networks of organised crime with the
purposes of ‘selling’ children and young people. Young people
themselves can be exploited into ‘recruitment’ of other children and young
people, including for the purposes of ‘sex parties’ arranged by the
perpetrators. Such parties offer substances and alcohol to young people,
and may involve web cams to record and stream sexual acts. Young people
may be manipulated and blackmailed through indecent images obtained or
allegations of a drug debt following the party, this can also be found in the
gangs and peer on peer models.
Sexual exploitation can
occur through gangs and groups; this can be through gang initiation rituals,
threats of violence and bullying, or as a punishment for crossing gang areas
for example. Females can be found to be exploited through ‘honey trapping’,
whereby a woman is tasked to infiltrate another gang through sexual
advances. Young males may be forced to have sex with older women or women
of similar ages in order to prove masculinity or with adult males as a form of
punishment. Both genders may drug run for the gang and this can involve
‘plugging’ where by substances are transported in their anus. It has been
found that the retrieval of substances can be sexually humiliating. Young
people can themselves be exploited into recruiting other young people into
gangs, exposing others to risks of gang violence and sexual exploitation.
Sexual exploitation can
happen amongst young people of a similar age, and is often referred to as
‘sexual bullying’ (Children’s Society, 2015). Some young people will
befriend other young people and make them believe they are in a loving
‘relationship’ or ‘friendship’, they are then coerced into having sex with
friends or associates. Peer on peer model can sometimes be related to
‘gangs and group activity’. Peer on peer sexual exploitation can include
the abuse happening in public, by one or more perpetrators, and/or be filmed
and distributed. In all cases of peer on peer exploitation, a power
imbalance will still inform the relationship, but this might not necessarily be
through an age gap between the abuser and the abused.
Often referred to as the
‘Boyfriend’ Model, this model involves the befriending and grooming of a child
or young person by an older adult. This grooming process often revolves
around the child and young person’s vulnerabilities and building the child or
young person to believe that they are in a loving relationship. The young
person may then be passed to other known adults to the ‘boyfriend’/
‘girlfriend’ merging into the gang or organised network models.
Children and young people are subject to many risks when
they are accessing on-line activities and this includes the risk of sexual
exploitation. This can include adults and peers deceiving and exploiting
children and young people into producing sexual images of themselves, engaging
in sexual chat online or sexual activity over a webcam. Children
and young people can be groomed on-line by sexual perpetrators and manipulated
and coerced to meet up secretly, or images can be screen-shot and saved to
blackmail young people, which can be frightening and intimidating.
The risk of boys
becoming victims of sexual exploitation by both male and female offenders is
underestimated and less well understood than those relating to girls and young
women. Boys and young men also face additional barriers to disclosing their
experience because they may be coerced into engaging in heterosexual and
homosexual sexual activity (even though they are heterosexual) as part of their
abuse and may be worried they will not be believed, or be perceived as being gay when they are not.
Any young person regardless of their age, gender, ethnicity and
sexuality can be at risk of being sexually exploited. However, there are a
number of factors that can increase a young person’s vulnerability.
These include children or young people who:
- Go missing, especially on regular occasions from home or care.
- Live in a chaotic or dysfunctional family.
- Have a history of domestic abuse within the family environment.
- Have a history of abuse (including child sexual abuse, risk of forced marriage, risk of honour-based violence, physical and emotional abuse and neglect).
- Have experienced or are experiencing problematic parenting.
- Have parents who take drugs and/or who are alcohol-dependent.
- Have parents with health problems.
- Are young carers within the family unit.
- Experience social exclusion as a result of poverty.
- Have experienced recent bereavement or loss.
- Have unsupervised use of social networking chat rooms/sites.
- Have mental ill health.
- Have social or learning difficulties.
- Have low self-esteem or self-confidence.
- Are unsure about their sexual orientation or are unable to confide in their family about their sexual orientation.
- Misuse alcohol and/or drugs.
- Have been or are excluded from mainstream education.
- Are involved in gang
- Attend school with other
young people who are sexually exploited.
- Are friends with
individuals who are sexually exploited.
- Do not have friends in
the same age group.
- Are being bullied.
- Live in care, foster
care, hostels and/or bed and breakfast accommodation – particularly when
living out of their home area.
- Are homeless.
- Have associations with
gangs through relatives, peers or intimate relationships.
- Live in a gang
- Children from loving and
secure homes can also be victims of sexual exploitation. The
characteristics common to all victims are not always their age, ethnicity,
disability or sexual orientation, but their powerlessness and
Children and young people who are victims of sexual
exploitation often do not recognise they are being exploited. However, there
are a number of signs that could indicate a child is being groomed.
and behavioural development
Changes in temperament or suffering from
depression, mood swings or changes in emotional wellbeing.
Association with other young people
involved in exploitation and having older boyfriends/girlfriends.
Getting involved in petty crime such as
shoplifting or stealing.
Being absent and truanting, lack of
interest and frequent poor behaviour.
Considerable change in performance.
Appearing with unexplained gifts or new
Change in appearance.
Family and social relationships
Children or young people who become
estranged from their family.
Sudden hostility towards family members.
Becoming physically aggressive towards
family and friends.
Going missing for periods of time or
regularly returning home late.
Involvement in exploitative
relationships or association with risky adults.
Young people being found in towns or
districts where they have no known connection.
Young people who have more than one
boyfriend or who share their boyfriend.
Children or young people seen entering
or leaving vehicles driven by unknown adults.
Becoming detached from age-related
activities and social groups.
Being sexually active.
Receiving phone calls and/or text
messages from unknown adults.
Children or young people who appear to
be recruiting others into exploitative situations.
Evidence of drug, alcohol and/or
substance use. Abusers may use drugs and alcohol to help control children and
Unexplained physical injuries; for
example, bruising suggestive of either physical or sexual assault.
Children or young people who are self-harming
and demonstrating suicidal thoughts and tendencies.
Pregnancy or seeking an abortion.
Displaying inappropriate sexual
behaviour, such as being overfamiliar with strangers or sending sexual images
via the internet or mobile phones.
someone feel cared for, giving someone affection, building an emotional
connection and trust with someone for the purpose of sexual exploitation. The
grooming process can be over a long period of time or can happen quickly.
Grooming techniques can also be used on those associated with a victim in order
to support access to that victim. Many victims do not recognise
manipulative techniques used by the perpetrator.
is clearly agreeing through:
communication - a discussion prior to the act or/and confirmation during the
cues that indicate consent to participation in the individual sexual act,
throughout the act.
should presume that consent has not been given in the absence of clear,
positive agreement. The absence of "no" should not be understood
to mean there is consent. Two important components when understanding
consent is 'freedom to choose' and 'capacity to choose'.
to choose: Someone is unable to consent if they are pressured, threatened,
fearful, forced are unable to get away.
to choose: Someone is unable to consent if they are under 13 years old, under
substances or unconscious, have profound learning disabilities or severe mental
exchange of sexually explicit images, this exchange can be done through mobile
picture messages, or webcams over the internet. Information from
to parents on sexting and how to talk to your child about sexting, what to do
if your child has been affected by sexting.