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Models and Theories of Exploitation


The exploitation of children is seen in varied forms, these are often described using models of exploitation. These models are devised through research and can therefore expand and contract. Also, these models do not work in isolation and various models can operate concurrently. The models below are a collection of models identified by Barnardos, The Children’s Society and Safe and Sound.



Children and young people are subject to many risks when they are accessing online 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 online by sexual perpetrators and manipulated and coerced to meet up secretly, or images can be screenshot and saved to blackmail young people, which can be frightening and intimidating.



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 webcams 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.


Child on child

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.  Child on child model can sometimes be related to gangs and group activity.  Child on child sexual exploitation can include the abuse happening in public, by one or more perpetrators, and/or be filmed and distributed.  In all cases of child on child 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.


Older Boyfriend/Girlfriend

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.


Inappropriate Relationship

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.



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 be exploited and trafficked in the movement or sale of drugs for the gang (criminal exploitation and county lines) 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 abusive and humiliating.  Young people can themselves be exploited into recruiting other young people into gangs, exposing others to risks of gang violence and sexual exploitation. 


County Lines

Organised groups or gangs using mobile phone lines to extend their drug dealing business into new locations, young people exploited to carry and sell drugs from borough to borough, and across county boundaries.


Child on child  

Child on child abuse is any form of physical, sexual, emotional and financial abuse, and coercive control, exercised between children and within children's relationships (both intimate and non-intimate).

Child on child abuse can take various forms, including: serious bullying (including cyber-bullying), relationship abuse, domestic violence, child sexual exploitation, youth and serious youth violence, harmful sexual behaviour, and/or gender-based violence.

Some children can experience significant harm beyond their families with harmful relationships online, with peers and in their neighbourhoods and community.  Extra-familial abuse can undermine parent-child relationships and a parent’s capacity to protect their child. Assessing harm of children should recognise children are vulnerable to abuse in a range of social contexts.


Definition of Peer on Peer abuse - film by University of Bedfordshire 


Practitioner Briefing #1: What is peer on peer abuse?, by Carlene Firmin & George Curtis, MsUnderstood Partnership (2015)


Trauma Model and Child Exploitation

Usually children do not realise they are being exploited and become caught in the trap of exploitation. Parents/carers and professionals may not understand why the child does not walk away, alert them to the abuse and why they go back to the perpetrator.  Grooming and Trauma Bonds helps us to understand the complexities of the victim-perpetrator relationship. 


Grooming process

Grooming refers to actions carried out to target, befriend or establish an emotional connection with a child to lower their inhibitions in preparation for exploiting them and establish control over the child. This can take place over a short or long period of time, online or in person.  The perpetrator can be known to the child or a stranger. It often includes breaking down a child’s protective factors to isolate them, such as a positive relationship with family and friends who would usually be able to be alerted to concerns and safeguard the child. Family and friends of the child can also be groomed as part of this process.


Trauma Bonds

Many children and young people who are exploited form a ‘trauma bond’ with their abuser, whom they can feel a deep sense of loyalty towards. Trauma bonds occur when a person feels threatened and receives harsh treatment together with small acts of kindness, they also feel isolated and believe there is no escape. This occurs in exploitative relationships, so the child or young person may show support for their abuser, feel negative towards those trying to rescue them and have an inability to engage in ways to detach themselves from abusers. It is understood that children and young people enter into survival mode so are not able to logically exercise choice because they are confronted with a dangerous situation. Fear activates immediate survival mode and the response can be to freeze as an automatic response and endure the abuse rather than take flight. Survival mode then drives the child and young person to create an attachment with their abuser and the relationship becomes complex whereby the abuser hurts the child or young person but they continue to seek comfort from their abuser. Any contact by the abuser re-bonds them to the child or young person and they have an overwhelming drive to return to them. Breaking the trauma bond is very difficult but can be achieved through consistent support from alternative healthy relationships and a place of safety away from the abuser so the child or young person is not solely dependent on the abuser.


The trauma of abuse can cause a child to deploy coping strategies to manage the pain of the experience. One common defence is disassociation. A child may disassociate from safe adults and struggle to develop positive self-worth and an ability to plan ahead through learned experiences. Children who have been exploited may use alcohol or drugs to assist them in disassociating psychologically and physically from traumatic experiences too.




theories diagrams

Image ref: The Grooming Line from ‘Barnardo’s Be Wise 2 Exploitation.